Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Writing by Tamzin Elliot. Illustration by Heather Baillie (@heatherscreativeplace).
Maybe you’ve been feeling the pressure to keep constantly up to date with the news and politics more than ever recently, but even if you’ve not been feeling up to more than just glancing at the headlines, you will probably have heard the term ‘identity politics’ floating around. Media outlets often throw terms around without explaining what they actually mean, so they are very often misused or misunderstood. Understanding the media that we interact with is important so that we can have open conversations and learn from each other, and no one should ever feel excluded from consuming media or engaging in political discussion. This is not an exhaustive guide, nor is it perfect, but accessibility is something that mainstream media is desperately lacking; the aim of this short, sweet introduction to identity politics is to hopefully make some aspects of contemporary political discussion more accessible for you.
This article uses the term ‘left’ and ‘left-wing’ politics. I use this because there’s a word count, and ‘politics which challenges oppression, elitism, capitalism and arbitrary racial, sexual and gender hierarchy with the aim of giving historically oppressed identities freedom and basic human rights’ is a bit of a mouthful to constantly repeat.
In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian organisation in the US, coined the term ‘identity politics’. They argued that people who placed their experiences at the centre of their struggles came up with the most radical politics. Also, they said that taking control of the conversations which determine our identities is part of the larger fight for equality – identity politics was part of the movement for social transformation.[i] So identity politics is a way of claiming back an identity that has been taken away, a way of gaining back some freedom by gaining independence over one’s own identity.
Why does the right use identity politics to attack the left? Because identity politics threatens the right-wing monopoly on the political system. The UK has been under Tory rule for a decade now, and it’s been a long tirade of attack on left-wing culture: from attacking Remainers and referring to them as ‘Remoaners’, to refusing BBC journalists the right to wear items of clothing showing support for Black Lives Matter. There’s a lot of talk from right-wing politicians talk about ‘keeping the left at bay’, which has been fuelled by a resurgence in social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter; movements which mirror the 1980s in their activism for greater sexual, racial and gender equality. The right-wing press and Margaret Thatcher were appalled at this threat to the status quo and decided to name anyone practicing identity politics as the ‘loony left’ – a political strategy which helped the Tories win a decade of elections by attacking the left.[ii]
Kimberlé Crenshaw, the founding scholar of critical race theory, lawyer and civil rights advocate, observes that 'when facts do not fit into our available frames, people have a difficult time incorporating new facts into their way of thinking.'[iii] The government wants to reduce the harsh reality of systemic racism to a ‘narrative’, which implies that the existence of racism is an opinion, rather than a real system of oppression. Government ministers decried the pulling down of statues during Black Lives Matter protests, claiming that it was an erasure of history, yet refuse to allow the teaching of critical race theory in UK schools - which erases the history of UK systemic racism. Critical race theory shows the contrast between legal rights granted to the Black community as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, and the difference in how law is practiced across racial groups.[iv] Many governments are keen to talk about promoting equality, but forget that they are governing populations whose identities are not considered to be equal to each other– and the government bears part of the blame.[v] Short of dismantling the system and starting again, if identities have not been placed on an equal footing with each other, then we need to apply policies of justice rather than equality. Arguing that identity politics victimises rather than empowers people with oppressed identities is a convenient way to avoid facing the realities of systemic oppression.
We need identity politics because the politics of our system doesn’t represent more than a select few identities, and these identities have become the ‘norm’ or ‘default’. Whoever is in charge of setting the agenda has a lot to do with what ends up on the agenda (what is debated, when and how). Identity politics threatens the narrative that they’ve upheld as truthful and superior, because this narrative gives them a monopoly on decision-making. It threatens the idea of ‘Britain’ that they have tried to create by curbing human rights. It threatens their positions of power. A growing awareness of how politics is influenced by the identities of those in charge and how they use politics to oppress other groups opens up the potential to remove them from office. Not only that, it opens up the possibility of dismantling the entire system – a system which they have tried to deny is oppressive, because it benefits them.
Recently, schools have been banned from using materials from anti-capitalist organisations, with the Department for Education dubbing anti-capitalism as an 'extreme political stance.'[vi] It is not hard to see that the right view anti-capitalism as an attack on their elite status – after all, who just voted to allow children to go hungry over Christmas, all while claiming expenses on their own food and drink?
Identity is not a binary. Identities emerge, grow and overlap. Identity is important and valid, whether that be gender, racial, religious or sexual identity. Unfortunately, how we live out our identities in this world is not always our choice – and that’s where identity politics comes in. Identity politics offers radical politics based on personal experiences, and a radical shift in UK politics has been a long time coming.
[iii] The urgency of intersectionality – Kimberlé Crenshaw