Columns / Discourse / January 21, 2015

The problem of identity politics

With the turn of the century, and the aggrandized neoliberal mindset that it ushered in, the left took a distinctly sharp turn. The turn was characterized by a redefinition of the collective that would bring the fight to the profiteering of the capital owners. The collective of the 99 percent, to use the popular term, could now be mapped onto a multitude of narratives that were no longer linear.

It became clearer than ever that the oppressive nature of capitalism, the patriarchy and white supremacy did not exist without interaction amongst themselves. And so the intersectionality framework came into being: a tool to spatially locate the ways in which people are cut off from the modes of production and how these systems interact socially and culturally to deprive them of their well-being.

The problem with a framework such as intersectionality is that you always run the risk of devolving into identity politics. Intersectionality theory, if misinterpreted, stands to isolate and individualize the oppressed, making the formation of a collective that much more difficult. Everywhere different identity narratives will pop up: the narrative of the gay white man will be different from the gay black man, who is now left to juggle both his race and sexual orientation as socio-political identities. The issue gets more complex as all the instances of oppression are readily marked and labeled and identities spring up from them. What gets swept under the rug as we embrace these static identities of gay, white, black, trans is that they are socially constructed distinctions, distinctions that stand to individualize and alienate if viewed from a commodified mindset.

All too often the liberal mindset is to validate the existence of plural identities in a bid to earn social capital. In other words, in a bid to feel comfortable in narrative niches in a post-industrial society, the identities are claimed by the owners to both differentiate and dissociate them from other identities.

And so the political left becomes a mass of incoherent and scattershot narratives that end up vying for the most validation in a conceptualized hierarchy of oppression. For example, the apparent demarcation lines drawn between black women activists and white women activists.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an attempt to criticize intersectionality theory. I’m a self-designed class-gender intersectionality major and I firmly believe that intersectionality theory is currently the best method of both understanding the powers that be and to launch a sustained resistance against them. What I’m trying to get at is that the framework has very much been bastardized into an efficient tool of quantifying oppression: Does the black woman have it worse than the black man because of the oppression of both racism and the patriarchy? The answer to that is that it’s stupid to try and quantify how different systems interact. These narratives are all qualitatively different and intersectionality theory helps us map out exactly where individuals are placed in the social order. It is not, however, a tool to compare and contrast or to validate and gain one-uppance.

As soon as we are able to break out of the capitalist mindset of competition, we will realize that these identities should not be competing and that the competition is basically playing into the norms of the order that they are trying to resist, because this order thrives on dividing the collective into smaller and smaller groups until the differences are so great that no substantial opposition can ever be mounted.

Ask yourself today, how is identity politics playing a part in the activist scene here at Knox and how much of the ineffectualness of the movements are down to this pervasive division? How many voices are being lost due to the demarcation lines? On a side note, how many black males are actively part of social justice organizations at Knox? Has talk of ‘intersectionality’ successfully managed to alienate a fundamentally oppressed group? This framework is vital if used the right way because it is able to map so many narratives together. Not to distance them from each other but to help them understand their place in the collective that is strengthened by the diverse solidarity.

Tags:  capitalism identity politics individuality intersectionality leftism liberalism oppression

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