Updated: May 1, 2021
Jessica L. & Lamisa H.
When we see the words “identity politics” pop up in comment sections or news articles, many of us begin to sink into a weird place where our identity confusion morphs into something more defensive. For me, I start thinking of the ways in which I am a Woman, Asian, able-bodied, educated, middle-class, POC and WOC. Eventually it becomes a neverending list of classifications that I’ve adopted over my years of being a human. I have learned to use these identities as a form of navigation, like a compass pointing me in the direction of spaces where I am accepted, legitimised or simply allowed to exist.
However my various identifiers were not things that I passionately cared about on a day-to-day basis. Only when I felt my experiences devalued and invalidated did these identities take on a certain undeniable authority and power. The moments when I do use my identities to speak about my experiences, I can be easily dismissed as a snowflake, trying to make everything and anything about “Identity politics” as if I were having a childish tantrum. The concept as a result turns into a “gotcha” catchphrase that is meant to leave me silently dumbfounded and abruptly halts any further discussion.
In the case of “Identity Politics'' the term itself is often loosely thrown around. Right- wing proponents use it against left-leaning parties to aggressively suggest that they are focusing on “feelings” rather than facts. On the other hand, the way it is spoken of and pushed for by the left can also be very frustrating in it’s oversimplification of the term, robbing it of its usefulness. The concept itself has evolved with the changing times, making its original intention so diluted that it is actually hindering us from utilising it properly across political and social discourse.
The History Of Identity Politics
Where did the term actually come from? Identity politics is a black feminist term. It originated in 1977, from a collective of Black lesbian feminists, named ‘Combahee River’. These women formed their collective as a way of addressing their needs as Black women, that were not being met in either the feminist movement or the civil rights movement of the times. They’re also responsible for introducing the little concept of interlocking systems of oppression, a key component of intersectional activism. They saw identity politics as an analysis that introduced the opportunity for Black women to be actively involved in politics, while simultaneously acting as a tool to authenticate Black women's personal experiences. This makes so much sense now.
Knowing this history, it’s alarming to see how much our understanding of the term has been actively polluted and distracted from. Almost everyone thinks of identity politics as the politics of division-- a politics that clouds intersectional discourse. When you search definitions on Google, you are met with ones such as Merriam Webster’s. You’re not ready for this one.
Definition of identity politics from Merriam Webster: "politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group."
This definition erases the very intended function of identity politics, and suggests that it does not coincide with solidarity. It suggests unnecessary division. Identity politics has obviously been weaponised and ridiculed by right-leaning interests, but it has also completely been stripped of useful meaning and context by major left-leaning political parties, like the US’s Democratic party, and has come to mean nothing more than a distraction tactic.
But like intersectionality (also a Black feminist concept), identity politics is an analytic framework that helps us make political decisions that keep in mind that the needs of all are not the same, helping us to assess how power operates and how we should respond to its operations.
The Kamala Harris Conundrum
By now, you would have seen the articles circulating that celebrate and criticise the significance of Kamala Harris becoming the first madam vice-president of the USA. Reading through, you'll find in-depth, well-researched arguments that address Harris’ political record, especially during her time as Attorney General of California, a period of her career where she supported the incarceration of many African-American men on minor charges and Israel’s occupation of Palestine amongst other damaging positions. Her track record is of actively voting against and disenfranchising minority communities, including the ones that she belongs to, to gain power.
Simultaneously you will find pieces that take on a completely contrasting tone of praise, to counterbalance the criticism. On the flipside of this coin she is heralded as “The First” of many things. The First Woman vice president, The First WOC or The First Asian-American, a portrayal that makes her fitting to be a modern generation’s role model. But it is a victory in nothing more than visual representation.
While we are happy that she is not another white man in a position of power, we have to wonder if the bar is set that low when it comes to wanting “representation”. It is also a concern of what happens to our political environment when we look for visual representation in the politician’s identity without examining the impact of their actions. It’s not right to dismiss the ways this politician has benefitted from the systematic oppression of African-Amercian people and yet knows that voters were willing to blindly compromise for the sake of getting ethnic identities into more positions of power. Her election to one of the most powerful seats in the country holds little promise of progress for black women’s collective betterment, and this is exactly the opposite of the outcome identity politics is meant to achieve. The sanitisation of the concept is both lauded and the reason it is so hated.
Does #Auspol really need identity politics?
How embarrassing is it, that in modern-day Australia, almost every senior political role is held by a middle-aged white man, people who have proven time and time again that they are completely unattuned to the needs of multicultural Australia, and not fit or willing to move towards inclusivity in their decision-making. What’s interesting is that though identity politics is lauded as a minority issue, white identity has always been represented and catered to across the political space- it’s just called politics.
The problem with Australian Politics is that the government is not reflective of all of its constituents. Even though we do have prominent WOC Senators such as Mehreen Faruqi or Penny Wong, they alone are not enough to shift the predominantly “white” presence of our political environment. Currently there is the suggestion that “diversity quotas” should be introduced in parliament to address this problem. This aims to promote a more diverse government body by setting a percentage of people from “diverse” backgrounds to be included in Australia’s government parties. This method of setting quotas has been used in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to ensure there will be an equal ratio of male and female politicians.
While on the one hand it has shown results in regards to evening out the (binary) gender disparity, the question of whether the effect will translate on the basis of race remains to be seen. One can’t help but wonder: will such quotas end up leading to more avenues for tokenism and stifling real change or are they genuinely capable of facilitating authentic and holistic representation of diverse identities. It is only the most minor of wins for future politicians to enter government spaces on the basis of the identity they present as, rather than their activism and efforts towards the betterment of their communities.
Just recently, Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai-Kurnai and Gunditjmara woman, was sworn in as a Senator for Victoria, working up her political standing through grassroots activism to secure her position as the First Indigenous Woman to become Senator for Victoria. She shook up the majority white-representing senate as she raised her fist in the air, in solidarity with her Aboriginal community and with the families who have lost loved ones under police custody. Lidia uses her identity and background to blatantly address the shortcomings of the Australian politics that have detrimentally affected her own community. What we see from Senator Thorpe is how her identity as a First-Nations Woman is used in an authentic manner reflective of the original intentions of identity politics. An identity that is not treated as a box to be ticked off upon entry but truly impactful across the political and social space.
What should we do? What is the takeaway?
Identity politics needs to be brought back to its original meaning, one created by a group of Black feminists who saw that their needs were not being met by either of the major movements of the time that purported to have their backs. It is not about distraction tactics, or putting too much focus on “feelings”, but a genuine and necessary tool in navigating our political discourse and moving it towards true inclusivity. To truly understand identity politics, we need to understand fully that all politics involves some unavoidable element of identity, and that the need to ensure that not only one identity is constantly overrepresented in our political environment has never been stronger. So instead of dismissing it, we must seek to understand it. Identity politics cannot be a standalone tool in understanding any one issue, but it also cannot be disregarded or removed from our discourse. Doing any of these will always result in incomplete answers.
Edited by Palwasha A.
Illing, S., 2019. White Identity Politics Is About More Than Racism. [online] Vox. Available at: <https://www.vox.com/2019/4/26/18306125/white-identity-politics-trump-racism-ashley-jardina> [Accessed 24 November 2020].