Identity politics

Identity politics

Identity politics is political action to advance the interests of members of a group whose members are oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity (such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or neurological wiring). The term has been used principally in United States politics since the 1970s.


The early history of identity politics has yet to be formally addressed as a subject in its own right in full-length scholarly literature. It was first described briefly in an article by L. A. Kauffman [L. A. Kauffman, "The Anti-Politics of Identity," _Socialist Review_ (Oakland, Calif.) 20, no. 1 (January-March 1990), 67–80.] who traced its origins to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization of the civil-rights movement in the early and mid-1960s.

The origin of the term itself, however, is obscure; although SNCC invented many of the fundamental practices, and various Black-Power groups extended them, they apparently found no need to apply a term. Rather, the term emerged when others outside the black freedom movements—particularly, the race- and ethnic-specific women's liberation movements, such as Black feminism— began to adopt the practice in the late 1960s. Perhaps the oldest written example of it can be found in the Combahee River Collective Statement of April 1977, subsequently reprinted in a number of anthologies, [See, e.g., _Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism,_ ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978)] and Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term; which they defined as "a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women. [Harris, Duchess. "From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960-1980", in "Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement", eds: Bettye Collier-Thomas, V. P. Franklin, NYU Press, 2001, ISBN:0814716032, p300]

The best-known aim of identity politics in the United States has been to empower the oppressed to articulate their oppression in terms of their own experience—a process of consciousness-raising that distinguishes identity politics from the liberal conception of politics as driven by individual self-interest. Identity politics may thus focus on diverse forms of identity: race, ethnicity, sex, religion, caste, sexual orientation, physical disability or some other assigned or perceived trait (see below for a more complete, but still non-exhaustive, list). Some groups have combined identity politics and Marxian social class analysis and class consciousness—the most notable example being the Black Panther Party—but this is not necessarily characteristic of the form.

The practice of identity politics naturally entails some degree of separatism. Theorists of identity politics have argued passionately that oppression shapes the consciousness of the oppressed such that oppressed people usually internalize their oppression. Only in the atmosphere which obtains when members of the oppressor group are not present to enforce unjust definitions of equality, justice, and right, and the norms that derive from such definitions, can the oppressed begin the difficult work of consciousness-raising, the first step toward the organization of the oppressed to struggle for a liberation defined in their own terms. For the majority of groups embracing this perspective, separatism is only a means to an end. A minority of practitioners, however, define separation, both organizational and even territorial, as both means "and" end. This can lead to confusion, since advocates for a single, majoritarian national identity are also referred to as "nationalists." Bear in mind that while some practitioners of identity politics envision a separate nation-state to defend the human rights of those bearing their identity, this is not the only logical conclusion that can be reached from the perspective of identity politics.

Debates and criticism

Identity politics is a phenomenon that arose first at the radical margins of liberal democratic societies in which human rights are recognized, and the term is not usually used to refer to dissident movements within single-party or authoritarian states. Some discussion and criticism therefore is more properly concerned with the broader political system, or with the particular claims of human rights that are made. Some critics "see in human rights nothing but a rhetoric that makes the cage of globalizing liberalism more bearable." [Samuel Moyn, "On the Genealogy of Morals" (reviewing Lynn Hunt, "Inventing Human Rights: A History"), The Nation, April 16, 2007, p. 31 (attributing a view to certain "Marxists").]

The argument that state regulation of abortion violates the human rights of women, to take another example, is a lively legal and political question. See, for instance, the differing opinions in the United States Supreme Court decision in "Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey". [ [ Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992) ] ]

The term "identity politics" has been applied retroactively to varying movements that long predate its coinage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discussed identity politics extensively in his book "The Disuniting of America." Schlesinger, a strong supporter of liberal conceptions of civil rights, argues that a liberal democracy requires a common basis for culture and society to function.

In his view, basing politics on group marginalization fractures the civil polity, and therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending marginalization. Schlesinger believes that movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than, in his view, perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference.

Others counter that the intolerant homogeneity of mainstream culture is precisely the fact that makes full acceptance impossible, and that social justice movements should aim not toward integration but rather multicultural pluralism, without recourse to the types of oppressive homogeneity now at play. (See the work of Urvashi Vaid for a discussion of the perils of homogeneity.)

Other critics of identity politics claim that it tends toward essentialism, arguing that some of its proponents assume or imply that gender, race, or other group characteristics are fixed or biologically determined traits, rather than social constructions. Such criticism is most common with regard to groups based on claims of gender or sexual orientation, where the nature of the defining trait is in dispute. Some LGBT rights activists, in particular, criticize the identity politics approach to gay rights, particularly the approach based around the terms and concepts of queer theory. Other theorists, drawing on the work of Spivak, describe some forms of identity politics as strategic essentialism that works with hegemonic discourses to achieve collective goals.

Liberal-reformist gay and lesbian activists work for full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the institutions and culture of mainstream society, but queer activists instead make a point of declaring themselves outside of the mainstream and having no desire to be accepted by or join it. The former criticize the latter's approach as counterproductive and as perpetuating discrimination and societal attitudes against LGBT people, while the latter counter that the former seek to subsume LGBT identities in order to capitalize upon other forms of (racial, economic, geographical) privilege. [ [ 27067] ] [ [ 27052] ]

Still other critics have argued that groups based on shared identity, other than class, can divert energy and attention from more fundamental issues, such as class conflict in capitalist societies. Such arguments have been expressed by a number of writers, such as Eric Hobsbawm, [ [ articles] ] Todd Gitlin, [ [ thinktank transcript235] ] Michael Tomasky, Richard Rorty, Sean Wilentz, Robert W. McChesney, and Jim Sleeper. [ [] ] Hobsbawm, in particular, has criticized nationalisms, and the principle of national self-determination adopted internationally after World War I, since national governments are often merely an expression of a ruling class or power, and their proliferation was a source of the wars of the twentieth century.

Forms of identity politics

Afrocentrism, Arab nationalism (Pan-Arabism), Black nationalism (pan-Africanism), Black Power, Irish nationalism, Latino nationalism, Quebec Nationalism, White nationalism, Chicano nationalism, Dalit Nationalism, Hindu Nationalism, Gender (LGBT, Gay community, Radical feminism), Disability-based identities (Disability rights, Autism rights, Deaf culture, Diabetes, Fat acceptance) Age-based identities: (Adultism, Jeunism)

Global Hip Hop resembles identity politics because it can be used to codify social groups, especially by race, but also by language, political standing, and class. Kurt Iveson says about the Australian scene: "hip hop provides a vehicle of political and self expression." ["Partying, Politics, and Getting Paid--hip hop and national identity in Australia." Overland, Issue no 47. Winter 1997.] Wayne Marshall writes: "by embracing hip-hop white-kids-who-love-hip-hop can often productively animate public discussions and cultural politics around race." [ [ "downunder underground."] ] .

ee also

* Diaspora politics
* Political Correctness
* Human rights
* Separatism
* White privilege
* Racial politics

References and external articles

Citations and notes

General information

* Carol Hanisch, "The Personal is Political," in Shulamit Firestone, "The Dialectic of Sex". New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003 (first pub. 1970). ISBN 13: 9780641711688.
* Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color," in Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, et al., editors, "Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement," New York: The New Press, 1995, p. 357.

Books and publications

* W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of Black Folk" (New York: Penguin Books, 1989, M.E. Elbert, ed., first published 1903).
* David Campbell, "Writing Security. United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity" (University of Minnesota Press, Revised Edition, 1998). ISBN 978-0816631445
* Walker Connor, "Ethnology and the Peace of South Asia," "World Politics", Vol. 22, No. 1 (October 1969), pp. 51–86.
* Gad Barzilai, "Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities." Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. ISBN 0-472-11315-1
* Eric Hobsbawm, "The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991."New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. ISBN 0-394-58575-5.
* Shulamit Firestone, "The Dialectic of Sex". New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003 (first pub. 1970). ISBN 9780641711688
* [ Yash Ghai, "Public Participation and Minorities"] , (London: Minority Rights Group International, 2003)
* Toni Morrison, "Home," in "The House that Race Built" (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997)p. 3; see also the other essays in this excellent collection.
* Tzvetan Todorov, "On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought" (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
* Monica Duffy Toft, "The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory" (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003). ISBN 0-691-12383-7.


* [ Initiative on Religion in International Affairs] at Harvard
* [ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on identity politics]
* [ Joan Mandel, "How Political is the Personal?: Identity Politics, Feminism and Social Change"]
* []
*Hasan Bülent Paksoy, [ IDENTITIES: How Governed, Who Pays?]

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