The Myth Of Identity Politics

Date:         Thu, 13 Nov 1997 10:28:13 -0500
Reply-To:     Queer Studies List <QSTUDY-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU>
Sender:       Queer Studies List <QSTUDY-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU>
From:         Callan Williams <TheCallan@AOL.COM>
Subject:      The Myth Of Identity Politics

It seems to me that the great myth at the core of identity politics is that people in any defined group have more in common with each other than with anyone else.  Gay men have more in common with any other gay man, blacks have more in common with blacks, women have more in common with women, and so on.  That means that, from a political viewpoint, only another person in the group can effectively speak for and advocate the viewpoints of any given person in the group.

This leads to all sorts of political notions, like set asides, where for example, the composition of a board is matched to the composition of a group, or to the ideal composition of a group -- half women, over half people of color and so on.  It leads to the attempt to build voting blocks by exclusion, to cut up any electorate into groups who follow the rules -- and means that people who span groups are often left in the cold.

Identity politics can mean that focused groups tend to ignore issues unless they are directly relevant to their group.  As Riki Wilchins says, NOW is firmly against rape, but not strongly working against prisoner rape, because those are men who are being violated.

The problem with this is simple, though: humans don't fit neatly into groups.  The issues of black millionaire may be different than the issues of poor blacks, and a poor white may speak more effectively for them, but identity politics would deny that.  Justice Clarence Thomas is a good example of the conundrum of identity politics, a black man who many blacks don't feel speaks for them, and therefore is branded as a traitor.

Who speaks for gay men?  Does Larry Kramer and his pull for assimilation, or Edumond White and his fighting for sexual liberation?  Maybe Elizabeth Birch speaks more clearly for them than either of the men, or maybe Urvashi Vaid, or maybe even Madonna.  For some gay men, Ollie North or Hillary Clinton may be even be closer to who they are.  In the long run, people who only share the same sexual orientation don't have to share anything else, politically, class, regionally, family, work, you name it.

Now, if the only thing that we care about is human rights for gays (and maybe lesbians)  that might not be a bad thing, but I suspect that the truth is that every human is multi-dimensional with lots of parts of them they care about, lots of objects of desire past just an anonymous cock or a stylized vagina.

The political movements in this country tend to be identity politics based because it is easier to bring people together on focused issues, to create exclusive identities than to find cross connections.  Yet, democracy only works when we care more about what we have in common than what separates us.  Any government is inherently the system for joint ownership, shared resources, hopefully making our life easier and less costly by solving common problems.  Even helping the poor solves common problems, from being humanitarian to keeping a better quality of life by reducing crime that cannot be kept behind boundaries.  In the long run, engaging people in a positive system keeps car insurance rates down, for example, by keeping theft down, and having people more responsive to laws and courtesy.

To me, this notion of identity politics based on groupings versus the power of the individual to make many different connections across the community is the question of queer.  Queer says that boundaries and boxes are illusory, and that we all transgress them all the time, that we are all individuals with many truths, not easily essentialized.

This focus on the individual is great, but it is also hard, because it means that we have to find connection, coalition and caring on an individual basis, without the simplicity of identity props, the proper response to a sentry's "Halt! Who Goes There!  Tell Me The Password!"  Life with fewer fixed boundaries is life that demands individual involvement.

Riki Anne Wilchins facilitated a panel in DC over Halloween weekend about queer space, and her comment after was that while it's nice to see the academics talking about embracing queerness, the gays & lesbians she runs into are still deeply immersed in their identity politics and getting to normativity by exclusion.

This is the challenge that queers face.  If we say that the clear and fixed lines of identity politics are not useful, then what is?  How do gays, lesbians and other people who might identify as queer find a tool that works better than simply demanding of people to state an identity and ignoring or attacking them if that identity is not one they hold?  How do we move away from a push towards being a normal gay or normal lesbian to being a person who accepts the individual humanity in every person?

What are the political tools for queers?  Clearly they are tools of communication, to find connection, alliance and shared humanity across boundaries, but we still have trouble knowing how to make those tools easy to use.

Is the myth of identity politics, that separating people by groups means that people are better represented, true and valid?  Or do we need to move beyond that?


2 thoughts on “The Myth Of Identity Politics”

  1. From Carl Strock’s collumn “The View From Here”, The Sunday Gazette, Schenectady, June 16,1996

    I got myself up to Skidmore College the other day for the national women's studies conference there, and it was quite an experience.  I don't go to church very often, but in some ways this was similar, so I felt this made up for the lack.
    They were all believers at the conference, and they all shared a sacred vocabulary to express the great truths.
    Actually, since the conference consisted of academic feminism's leaders more that its followers, it would be more accurate to compare it to an ecclesiastical convention.  That is, it was a gathering of the clergy -- pyschology professors, womens' studies lecturers, lesbian journal editors, feminist authors -- not of the laity, if indeed there is a laity.
    They came from prestigous universities and from rinky-dink community colleges alike, all to bow to their great deity, which is tribalism.
    They call it "identity politics," but I think tribalism is more accurate.  It is the doctrine that is the most important thing in the world is group identity, down to the finest degree -- whether one is white, African-American (rarely "black" anymore), Latino, Jewish, "of color," Christian, lesbian, physically challenged, and so forth.
    It's absolutely the most important thing to them, as indeed it is to most academics, as far as I can tell.  At the level of the ordinary person this way of thinking gets called diversity or multiculturalism, but at the rarified academic level of women's studies, it's known as identity politics, and the soundness of it is no more questioned than the divinity of Christ is questioned in the Catholic Church.  It is Article I in the creed.
    I attended a session at which I listened tp five clergywomen hold forth, one after another, on such subjects as "the destabilizing of disabled people" and "sexual morality and women's bodies in Africa," and no one ever simply reffered to a woman or a man, and certainly never to an American, which I believe is a taboo word in this religion, but always to an African-American young women or a teacher of color.
    The topics were oriented the same.  The all consisted of the scrutiny of human affairs in strictly tribal terms -- what it means to be heterosexual and disabled, and so forth.
    One woman wasn't sure how to introduce herself.  She had been invited as a lesbian, but was also a Jewish activist, so she settled for "lesbian Jew" and marvelled at "the communities we span."  It was seen as an amazing thing, like one of the holy mysteries, that you can belong to more than one tribe at a time.
    From the lecturer on the desexualization of disabled people, who actually teaches "disability studies," I learned we need a "disability reading of scholarship."
    (I don'y understand this preoccupation with disabilities among our academics, but it's Article II of the creed: Disabled is Good.)
    From the preacher on women's problems in Africa I learned that western opposition to clitordectomies is seen in Africa as "a smoke screen for economic opression," so if we want to end genital mutilation of women we should get after multinatioal corporations to estabilish economic justice.
    From a psychology professor at City University Of New York, who is working on a book about "the social construction and pathology of whiteness," and who is of course white herself, I learned ... well I don't remember what I learned from her.  I go so distracted by all the constructing and deconstructing, I couldn't concentrate.
    It's part of the sacred language, and they all use the words ritually.  "Construct this," I was tempted to say, in a moment of weakness.
    Likewise with turning mass nouns into countable nouns.  That too is part of the sacred language.  Not behavior, behaviors.  Not knowledge, but knowledges.  Not sexuality, but "sexualities," which was the subject of the session I attended.
    If you are not a member of this church you feel like an agnostic walking in on a convention of medieval mumblers,  Holy smokes, is what I kept thinking.  How can people who are so intelligent be so stupid?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.