The term “identity politics” was first coined by Black feminist Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective in 1974. Identity politics originated from the need to reshape movements that had until then prioritized the monotony of sameness over the strategic value of difference. The aim of identity politics is to hold people accountable to ask more questions about for whom progress is being made. The significant gaps in wages for Black and Latinx women indicate that while some are making progress, others continue to lag behind.
Identity politics says that no longer should we be expected to fight against someone else’s oppression without fighting against our own, too. It offered social movements, like the women’s movement, the gift of uncovering what had been ignored or devalued. Black women who were poor and working-class wanted feminism as much as white middle-class women did. Identity politics not only showed Black women that they were worthy of feminism—worthy of being treated as human beings—but it also gave white middle-class women the gift of understanding that for feminism to succeed, feminism could not pretend that the world revolves around the struggle for parity between white women and white men.
Identity politics is a threat to those who hold and wield power because it destabilizes the control against which all else is compared. Identity politics is a threat to white power because it asserts that whiteness has shaped all of our lives in ways that do not benefit us—even those who possess that privilege. Far from being an edict of political correctness, identity politics asks us to see the world as it actually is, and more than that, it demands that we equalize the playing field. And yet despite all these benefits, it also has its fair share of disadvantages.
There are a number of arguments that are deployed against identity politics, and they are deployed for a number of reasons. One such argument declares that a fixation on diversity renders people incapable of seeing outside of their own experience, preventing them from being able to build relationships with those who do not share their experiences. And, in the political realm, they argue that a focus on differences, rather than what we share in common, is a strategic mistake in elections. It is worth noting that these arguments are primarily deployed towards those who are not white.
These arguments rest on the notion that identity politics, as they define them, leave people out—and yet they fail to acknowledge that the politics of identity are not responsible for the prevalence of those identities. Identity is only important when—through no fault of your own—you are assigned an identity that promises worse life outcomes than those who are not assigned an identity that is marginalized from power.
Following the logic of contrarians of identity politics, no one should pay attention to the fact that being assigned “Black” almost guarantees that your life chances will be worse than someone who is assigned a “white” identity because it could alienate a white person and leave them out of the conversation. Instead of addressing the fact that Black people are more likely to die in childbirth than white people, that Black people with disabilities are eight times more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts, that Black people on average are twice as likely to be poor or to be unemployed than white people, or that white household is 13 times as wealthy as Black households, critics of identity politics would prefer we not address these disparities, for fear of alienating people who are not experiencing them.
The real problem in America isn’t identity politics and making difference visible—it’s that those discrepancies exist in the first place. Critics of identity politics, intentionally or unintentionally, uphold a logic of whiteness that functions in similar ways to that of the edict presented in the movie The Wizard of Oz—they want you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. People will never stop thinking about themselves and their societies in identity terms. But people’s identities are neither fixed nor necessarily given by birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can also be used to unify. That, in the end, will be the remedy for the populist politics of the present.