Let’s Get Real About Identity Politics

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The 2020 race is heating up, at least on the left, and I’m already annoyed by much of the same lazy and disingenuous commentary that annoyed the hell out of me in 2016. I realize this means the next 18 months are going to be challenging (already planning to deploy ample amounts of selfcare until the election is safely behind us), but getting something straight right now should assist with the management of what is likely to be an overflowing pool of my highly combustible frustration.

Identity politics, at least as we have come to understand the term, is complete and utter bad faith bullshit.

Whenever I hear some white male politician decry the use of identity politics, I roll my eyes and consider writing this exact blog post, which I would then shout from the rooftops. According to these men, we should be dealing with the so-called kitchen table issues — like buoying the economy, protecting public education, or tackling rising healthcare costs — that affect everyday Americans, not pandering to ‘fringe issues’ like racial justice or ensuring reproductive rights. Why must we always turn the conversation to race and gender, these politicians exclaim, standing well above the fray on soapboxes constructed of white male privilege as the rest of us watch from below. There are so many other more pressing issues! Focusing on gender, on race, derails us from dealing with the real challenges facing this country and how we can fix them.

Ugh.

What if I told you that there’s such a thing as white identity politics too? Even white male identity politics? But because of the way issues have been historically framed, we’ve just gotten into the habit of calling that politics. Meanwhile, the rest of us get pushed to the margins right along with the issues that most deeply impact our communities. If we find the audacity to bring up these issues, we face massive pushback for daring to upset the apple cart of the white male political agenda as it rolls right over our backs.

Still not picking up what I’m putting down? Well, let’s come at this issue from a different direction.

How do you separate your color from what matters to you?

How do you forget your gender?

Because that’s what we’re being asked to do — separate who we are from the political conversation, as though such a thing is even possible.

I’m a black woman. Therefore, everything that happens in my life, everything I see and experience, the very way I move through the world, comes through the lens of being black and female. I can’t separate my blackness or the fact that I’m a woman from how I think about the issues that matter to me. There are, in fact, policies that affect me more because I’m black and/or a woman. That’s just the hand I was dealt at birth. And when I approach an issue, I’m bringing my unique perspective right along with me.

Despite what the bulk of history might urge us to believe, the situation is no different for white men. They see the world through a lens that is unique to them too, but the kicker is that they have made their lens the one through which all business gets done in the political sphere. They set the agenda. They get to judge what issues are important, and which ones will remain on the political periphery. The rest of us are just along for the ride…at least, that’s how it used to be. Times, as the folk philosopher Bob Dylan famously crooned, they are a-changin.

When I hear a white man complaining about the rise of so-called identity politics, I know that’s really code for the triggering of his insecurity at seeing folks who don’t look like him sitting around a table that used to only welcome those who matched his race and his gender. The country is changing, and power is becoming more equally distributed. We aren’t where we need to be yet, but we’ve certainly come a long way. The knee jerk reaction of those who used to hold all of the power is, of course, to find a way to cleave to that power, to hoard it as they’ve done since before the founding of this country. The only way to combat this is to continue adding diversity to the process.

As always, representation matters.

I can’t say it enough. More women are involved in politics, more people of color. Naturally, we are hearing more about the ways these communities are affected by various policies. We are hearing more about ways to dismantle racism in our institutions, how to deal with inequity in pay and rampant sexual harassment, and the need for a complete overhaul of our criminal justice system. Before people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, and the disabled were allowed to be part of the process, their voices and diverse perspectives were silenced. They had no true representation because they were perpetually kept on the edges of the discussion.

But that has changed.

Our voices are starting to be heard now that the number of representatives in government who look like us has increased. But because power is never freely given — it must be wrenched away from those who stockpile it — we are forced to deal with the inevitable backlash, which is this bullshit uproar over identity politics. The way this conversation is always framed makes it impossible to have it in good faith. Because the conditions in which we’re expected to converse involve the tacit acceptance that white men don’t have a racial identity. That they don’t identify as men. We’re expected to act as though everything isn’t about white men being white men all the time from the beginning of American history until the present day. We’ve been drowning in white male politics, y’all, and yet we’re asked to pretend that this has not been the case.

What’s vital is that we don’t lose sight of what’s truly at stake. Because the real issue is that the dominant group is watching as their stranglehold on power and policy slips, and that makes them uncomfortable. No one is pushing them from their seat at the table. We’re just setting down our folding chairs and joining them without waiting for an invitation. And now that we’re at the table, it’s harder to keep our voices from being heard.

All politics is identity politics, because it always comes through the lens of whoever is speaking. White, black, brown, gay, straight, trans, male, female, or nonbinary. There is no objective realm of politics. Every issue is personal. Every fight is a matter of life and death for someone. We’re richer when more voices contribute to the narrative because we’re all only seeing things through our own lenses. No one has an inherent right to decide which issues are ‘important’. Let’s stop pretending only certain people can be objective while the rest of us only care about our skin color, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. We’re all locked inside our own perspectives, which is why we need more diverse involvement in the process. Anything less is unacceptable.

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