We live in an age marked by our identities. And this is not me arguing that these are deepening divisions through the discussions of inequalities.
Instead, I argue that the problem of identity politics today is the failure to operate in anti-racist actions. Identity politics is failing minorities and marginalised groups by, according to Asad Haider, contributing to ‘the neutralisation of these movements’.
Despite its recent co-option and its meaning becoming mired in right-wing reactionary politics, identity politics was coined by a 1970s collective of radical black feminists belonging to the Combahee River Collective (CRC). They aimed to make politics inclusive of intersections of identity and of people, as the role of identity affects all aspects of life, and should include politics as well.
As a black woman, I find the CRC statement apt in its consideration of black women needing to be their own leaders and speak truth to power in terms of the intersections of their conditions as a result of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
In the current neolbieral political atmosphere however, identity politics has been weaponised (by right and left wing alike) and now stands as an empty and premeditated practice of superficial gesturing. Most notedly is the selection of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s VP pick on the democratic ticket, and later, their successful campaign leading to her being the first woman of colour to reach the office of VP. A quick scroll on any search engine will find multitudes of articles dedicated to Harris’ achievement. It must be said, this is not an attack on Harris herself, or an attempt to downplay her historical achievement; instead, it is looking at the fact that her identity has been made to be an achievement in itself, when she has a record of rather illiberal and damaging policies towards marginalised communities.
What Harris’ win — and the reaction to it — shows is that the entire concept of identity politics has been ripped from its radical past and has been packaged and weakened to a point where selecting a woman of colour as the VP pick is an empty gesture to outwardly present progressive liberal ideology — while offering no actual progression or improvement for the very same groups they seem to reach out to. Kamala Harris’ reinvention as a ‘girlboss’, her policies disproportionately targeting working class communities of colour and her nickname as ‘top cop’ in her time as California’s Attorney General amidst an American epidemic of police brutality only shows that her politics is not based on seeking justice and equality for marginalised groups.
Again, it is undeniable that representation is a necessary step to equality, and that a commitment to fighting racism must be a cornerstone of all our political systems; nonetheless, it must be stressed that Kamala Harris is not a friend, or a person in solidarity, but an active participant in a system and in policies that have historically disadvantaged the same people she bases her political appeal on.
What is more undeniable is that when parties and the political system gets to a point where figures use an identity purely for political aims, something has gone wrong. When representation becomes a tick box exercise for gaining votes and not a pragmatic opening up and inclusion of the political atmosphere. More so, it gets to a point where identity politics becomes weaponized with pseudo-intellectuals like Candice Owens and Richard Spencer. The redefinition of identity politics works to dilute the initial meaning and goals of the concept itself, and ends up being a barrier to real change. Our role as participants within the political system is to criticise and problematise the system and the status quo that uses and abuses the identity of us as people from socially marginalised groups.