What we call Identity Politics, and particularly what is called Intersectionalism, is a response and a defense against the normalization of Heterosexual White Supremacist Patriachy. It has been a way to identify, band together, and speak out against in mass culture the ways in which White Supremacy and gender roles hurt, destroy and minimize non-White people, non-gender conforming people, non-heterosexuals. In other words, Identity Politics is a way for people who are minority in political and economic representation to mass organize and achieve political power. In many ways, it has worked to band together those from disparate backgrounds and 1) assure them that they are not alone and, even greater, 2) mobilize them to pressure the Powers That Be to change racist, sexist, gender-ist, and ableist policies and practices in order to create a more equitable, just and flourishing existence. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been one of the most notable and successful such campaigns.But we also see that Identity Politics can be a tool of Neoliberalism*, keeping intact and even empowering these very same racist, classist, sexist, ableist systems through a form of representation that serves the interest of the Elite while making cosmetic changes, leaving the structure not only unchanged, but less challenged than before. “See, we now have a Black Man as president! If you resist what he is doing, you are an agent of White Supremacy!”
Instead of fighting the works and machinations of White Supremacy and Heteropatriarchy, we fight against White, hetero men while supporting (sometimes unquestionably) representatives of the elite as long as they share the identity of (and some identifiable markers with) oppressed groups – whether or not they actually hurt, minimize, or even disempower these same groups. In some meaningful ways, this makes sense, of course. For President Obama, shortly after he got into power, racist Newt Gingrich led an all-out assault to ruin him and plunge his legislative ideas into a White Supremacist Congressional Black Hole – this despite Obama’s conciliatory tone. This battle was fueled by the most racist iconography we had seen in fifty years. Black Americans, who had voted for him in overwhelming numbers, rightly felt attacked and defensive of Obama and the First Family – who were also under vicious racist and sexist attacks. Just this week a lawmaker recited an assassination Psalm he wishes listeners would pray for Obama. This while Obama has faced assassination attempts since he was a nominee for the simple reason of being Black.
However, attacks from the racist, homicidal Right are not on par with critiques from the marginalized struggling to survive – including the fact that Obama had agreed to massive cuts in the social welfare system and, through the expanding drone wars, was responsible for the murder of thousands of Brown and Black children and women. Criticisms of Obama’s insurance reform being too weak and not protective of the middle and working class were also dismissed in the same breath as those calling for its overhaul for unspecified or ridiculous reasons (the unconstitutionality of universal healthcare is simply ludicrous). Criticism of Obama’s policies were themselves ignored or maligned. Those like Cornel West who dared continue to protest were considered traitorous fame-seekers even as their options for public engagement dwindled due to closing channels.
Likewise, intersectionality is understood to identify and protect those who have intersecting identities of marginalization and privilege, of oppressor (male, heterosexual, documented citizenship, able-bodied) and oppressed (Mexican American, working class, Autistic, high-school dropout). The concept’s originator, Kimberly Crenshaw, called it ‘mapping the margins.’ It can be used to analyze and understand how, for example, white cisgender women are treated differently from black cisgender males and black cisgender females, and then how they are treated different from black trans women. Moreover when you consider the United States’ standing as a global empire of violent domination, consider also that status as a US citizen as a form of privilege and citizen of the Global South as not one. Intersectionality is an analytical tool, largely, but like any other tool can be and is being used by neoliberalism to defend the status quo while looking hip, progressive, brave, and even helpful.
[Photo: Screengrab of tweet from @jesselehrich, rapid response communications for Hillary Clinton, about Hillary Clinton. Text:”I’m down with a woman who can give a badass national security speech one week & a badass intersectional feminism speech the next #ImWithHer”]
The use of Identity Politics has also manifested through this year’s primary electoral season. Of course we expect the GOP – and especially Donald Trump who had already singled out Obama with his racist Birther controversy – to expand and attack marginalized people based on their race, gender, and sexuality. Black and brown people, Muslims or Muslim-identified people, in addition to LGB people and especially now gender-nonconforming and trans people are all at heightened risk due to incendiary, fear-inducing, violent, and disempowering rhetoric thrown at them from Trump, Cruz, and the GOP-allied Religious Right. But both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns have also made the same mistake of Identity Politicking, though in more subtle ways.
Clinton and her surrogates continue to attack Sanders’ youthful base as being naive dupes, infantile, childish, and emotional; meanwhile, young women were joining Sanders rallies because they’re sex-crazed and want to go after the BernieBros, according to feminist icon Gloria Steinem at a Clinton event. Sanders’ campaign for its part minimized the entire Southern Black bloc that came out strong for Clinton. This after early Bernie supporters were flooding social media, infantilizing black and women voters by explaining simple things they understood, not accepting rebuttals or boundaries, and speaking over them and demanding that they (marginalized people) vote for their candidate – all within the realm of Identity Politics.
Democrats in general have been painting Trump supporters as not just racist (which they are), but in classist fashion as uneducated, poor whites (which is not necessarily true). These same supporters – and even Sanders and Clinton themselves- use ableist language, calling dangerous demigods and those who support them “crazy”, as if mental disability were the problem. These myths and language further the divide between those who should have common aims while promoting the notion that being poor, white, or having mental difficulties is a problem. This is Identity Politics at its most dangerous.
Being White is seen in and of itself as the problem – rather than the unimpeached system of Whiteness and White Supremacy. Straight people are often interrogated for who they are rather than heteronormativity. Should we interrogate sighted people rather than anti-blindness?
Instead, what of the fact that one percent of citizens holds the same amount of wealth as fifty percent of citizens? That is a problem. Debt and incarceration are problems. That the system favors injustice is a problem. Skin color is not the problem. Racism is.
Identity is not something to be weaponized, but wielded. Power does not come from identity, and identity does not threaten power.
Cheap electoral positioning for power will use Identity Politics to oppress marginalized groups and pit us against each other. But oppression and liberation from oppression are actions, not loci. Intersectional feminism would not allow droning of Muslim women and children, nor would it tacitly or covertly support corporate-backed military coups that murder indigenous women leaders and activists. Intersectional feminism does not tell asylum-seeking children who flocked thousands of miles through risky situations to go back home to the sam It would not try to send back . A campaign ostensibly for the poor would not swipe aside Southern Black voters simply due to inconvenience, nor would it ignore how free trade affects the global poor.
This is where solidarity comes into play. Solidarity recognizes and respects our distinctions, our differences, and doesn’t try to meld us all into one (white, heterosexual, cisgender) mode, but allows us to work together. It says we have common goals – for example, our liberation from White Supremacist Heteropatriachal Capitalism – yet mobilizes and organizes the people to fight together for these goals in ways that serve the objective and utilize our personal assets while respecting our personal property (work, community, home).
Solidarity with workers around the world allows us to not be fashioned against each other, complaining that jobs are being sent overseas when in reality, they are being shut down and replaced by an even worse form of exploitation. Under neoliberalism, Identity Politics has become Individualized Politics. We need to reframe it as Solidarity of Politics for People Power.
And people united cannot be divided. So we cannot afford to leave out disabled, Black, South Asian, LatinX, genderqueer. We are either seamless or we will be ripped. The elite economic and military powers are together; we must be as well.
And we will be forever yours, Occupying the Democrats for People Power.
* Adolph Reed argues that it is a tool of neoliberalism. I disagree, but can see his point. The difference lies in how neoliberalism uses anything – particularly crises – and refashions it for its own privatizing, crass consumption ends.