Let’s slay some myths about identity politics

You do not get to choose your social identities. Everyone has these. It is not like going to a supermarket and deciding: “Hmm … let me buy some identity politics for dinner! Yummy!” or “Identity politics makes me puke so let me walk right away from this food aisle!”

Identity does not work like that, no matter how much people with certain identities, who have an interest in shutting down awkward conversations about the privileges they have inherited because of them, demand that we should stop talking about the subject.

Identity politics really just refers to political practices or theoretical analysis rooted in the experiences of injustice of people based on traits like gender, class, race and other markers, some biological ones and some social constructions.

Everyone has an identity and everyone has identity politics, regardless of whether you acknowledge these: white men, black women, brown queer people, people with disabilities and so on. These categories, in turn, are also too broad because we need to account for how some identities intersect with a range of other identities that individuals have in the various groups they belong to.

Let’s take a simple example to illustrate this. Even if you think you are colour-blind as a white madam, when you enter a shopping mall, you are unlikely to be assumed to be a thief by anyone working in that store. Just because you are white you will enjoy this assumption of innocence. No one gives a damn that you reject the idea that your white skin defines you, because that subjective rejection of the racial identity does not stop you being treated with decency simply because of your skin colour.

There is this particularly illogical argument that makes the rounds online to the effect that one’s subjective discomfort with identity politics means that one can escape it. That’s like being a man and hating misogyny and thinking that your personal rejection of misogyny means that you, therefore, do not have gender politics. For as long as you are in a world that unfairly confers certain privileges on you because you are a man, you are implicated in a social reality within which gender politics operates.

Racial identity politics is experienced even by people who are libertarian or people who think that only class analysis — and not racialised identities — matters these days.

You are not free to reject the ongoing reality that in our world there are advantages that you have but did not earn — because of your skin colour.

You are, in other words, implicated in identity politics regardless of your private sense of the horror that racial identity plays this kind of role in the world. It does. Pretending it doesn’t is simply burying your privileged head in the sand or tweeting denial into a Twitter echo chamber.

Similarly, even a black person who is gatvol with race doesn’t get to escape identity politics. I have socialist black friends who do not like the liberalism of some white politicians but who agree with these race denialists that identity politics is bad for our society. Some of these black friends self-identify as Marxists. They are not blind to racism’s reach into the present but think that the tools of analysis most useful for dissecting the material injustices of the present are to be found in a toolkit labelled “class analysis”. They are also mistaken.

A black member of the South African Communist Party doesn’t escape the cluster of assumptions made about them when they walk into the same store as the white madam. It will often be assumed, even by a black staff member in that store, that your black skin is indicative of potential criminal intent. There is no presumption of law-abidingness granted to you.

Your penchant for class analysis doesn’t mean you are free to escape the horror of identity politics in which all our lives are implicated. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise just because you want to make a case, and a good one at that, for class analysis.

The answer doesn’t lie in rejecting the reality of identity politics but using other tools of analysis, which, in combination, give us the most complete description of our social and political realities.

I don’t take people seriously who think it is fun to constantly draw attention to a range of social identities and markers including gender, sexuality and race.

I have yet to meet an activist who gets a kick out of the emotional and political labour of fighting for a more just society in which the unfair advantages that attach to certain identities have been eliminated.

Critics of identity politics are not only misguided in effectively imagining it to be something one takes off the shelf, they are also sorely mistaken in wilfully attributing the weirdest and worst motives to writers, social justice sector workers, and other activists, who rightly continue to focus on how a myriad identities structure our lives.

Why do critics of identity politics get so pissed off when they find any discussion about race, gender or sexuality happening? A few things must be honestly lifted to the surface about what lies beneath the sneering.

One is a refusal to give up privileges. When young activists push back against racism and sexism the pushback is experienced as an assault on the accumulation of social, economic and political capital enjoyed, uncritically, by whites and men throughout history.

The anger we see from critics, who imagine without any sense of irony that only those who “peddle identity politics” get angry, is anger that is sparked by a refusal to give up privileges. It really is that simple. Which is why, instead of backing off, we should continue to write and mobilise against injustice, and dissect with clinical resolve the poor arguments, and buffet of fallacies, that beneficiaries of hegemony trade in even as they imagine themselves to have a monopoly on clarity of thought.

The second and related motivation for denying the reality that we all have identity politics is the myth of meritocracy. In Run, Racist, RunI wrote a chapter titled “The Myth of Meritocracy” in which I examined what it is that some people (mis)hear when you speak to them about the role that luck had played in the story of their successes. The noise from those who do not want to examine the role of luck in their lives is also motivated by a deeply held belief that everything which men own and which white people own can be attributed to sheer hard work and self-created excellence and earned achievement.

Those are demonstrable lies and so a critical discussion about identity politics is painful for white people and men especially because it threatens to ruin the myth that our dominance is simply a reflection of our work ethic.

This is why identity politics must be laughed off by hegemony’s beneficiaries because the alternative is to come to grips with the lies about their life story.

Last, but a distant third in the explanation for the fear of identity politics, is the sheer laziness to learn a language you may not be familiar with. We are all comfortable intellectually and politically with the tools of the subjects we studied and excelled at in school or university.

If someone messes with our favourite academic frameworks, that requires us to take seriously disciplines we are not experts in. That, in turn, requires reading, listening to others, forgetting the prejudices of your favourite lecturers who told you to never take seriously other disciplines and authors not taught in your own faculty or department. In other words, time and mental labour will be necessary for you to learn about the methods of people who disagree with you.

We are not very good, when we are settled in our ways, with learning new languages. I sometimes get the sense that a small segment of the critics of identity politics are simply too lazy to ask the people they disagree with for a reading list. Which is also ironic because these critics often imagine they have a deeper commitment to evidence-informed reasoning than their interlocutors. That is sheer balderdash.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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