Breaking the borders of identity politics

Opinion by Lily Zheng
March 8, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Dead week at Stanford always seems to me to be a strange time of tension. Students fill the libraries with terse silence, stacks of dishes become semi-permanent fixtures in our rooms, hundreds of pages of reading that we’ve managed to put off suddenly return to haunt our nightmares. But more than anything else, dead week is a time of reflection. We reflect on our grades, on the quarter we’ve survived, on the sociopolitical chaos erupting throughout the world around us.

I’m reflecting, this week, on our activism – more specifically, on the identity politics that informs much of it.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines identity politics as “political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain racial groups…challeng[ing] dominant oppressive characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination.” Put simply, identity politics are political action that centers not on beliefs or ideologies but on identities – gender identities, racial identities, national identities and more. Identity politics might underlie the suggestion that, in a conversation about race and anti-blackness, only those who identify as Black can contribute meaningfully, or in a conversation about transmisogyny and gender, that only trans women should be listened to. “Trans-only,” “women-only,” “people of color-only” and other similar spaces and events are supported by the same principal: identity as foundation for structure.

Identity politics has, in the last few decades, been complicated further by the mainstreaming of intersectionality, the understanding that issues of race, gender, class, ability and nationality are interconnected and produce unique and varied experiences of oppression within these intersections. In particular, identity politics suggests a different angle from which to apply a critical analysis for every different arrangement of these identity categories. Thus, for any given sociocultural phenomena or idea, a cisgender, heterosexual, white, middle-class, able-bodied, neurotypical American man possesses a different experience than a transgender, queer, Latinx, working-class, able-bodied, neurodivergent Brazilian genderqueer person, and for that matter, any person with any different configuration of identities.

Why do we use identity politics? One reason might be because they give us a way of understanding ourselves and the world around us – I do X or believe Y because I hold identity Z; that person said A or believes B because they hold identity C. Using identity politics can be a cognitive shortcut we use to protect ourselves – if cisgender people consistently hurt me as a transgender person when they talk about trans issues, then for me, dismissing cis people’s opinions on trans issues isn’t just convenient; it’s self-care.

It is important to state here that calling identity politics a cognitive shortcut – a psychological heuristic, if you will – does not in any way diminish its significance. Regarding reparations for American slavery and indigenous land reclamation, as two examples, understanding that the issues are fundamentally Black and indigenous issues, respectively, is of key importance. What I want to argue here is that identity politics as praxis, especially the way I have seen it play out within academia and the ivory tower and within physical and online activist spaces, should not be the arbiter of our activism.

What do I mean by this? I mean that I’m tired of attempts at “intersectionality” at Stanford being used primarily, if not only, as social currency amongst activists, rather than as a tactic to inform social change and action. I’m tired of the tokenization of those with more intersecting identities of marginalization, who often feel forced to participate or lead events, activities or actions because of the identities they hold. I’m tired of harmful and abusive language or actions within our communities being excused because the marginalized identities we hold somehow make us immune to doing harm to others.

The problem here isn’t identity politics itself – it’s that in large part, we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.

The goal of our activism should be ending white supremacy, state violence, warfare, militarism and borders. We should be working towards active decolonization, dismantling systems of economic subjugation and corporate imperialism and aiming to create a world where all people possess the right of self-determination and self-defense, where all people have a basic level of physical, economic and social safety. For all the theoretical impressiveness in mapping intersecting oppressions, if we have no objective, we have missed the point. Identity politics for identity politics’ sake amounts to little more than drawing lines in the sand and dividing our communities into increasingly smaller boxes. What is the experience of women at Stanford? Chinese-American women? Queer, Chinese-American transgender women? (Incidentally, if there are more of y’all at Stanford please hit me up sometime. Identity politics can get awfully lonely.)

This isn’t to say that identity politics are useless –  quite the opposite. Take decolonization in the U.S., for example: It takes an understanding of identity politics to comprehend the myriad ways in which indigenous peoples here have been and continue to be marginalized by settler colonialism, to understand land reclamation as part of a radical and necessary process of reconciliation, to reject blood quantum and other colonial forms of subjugation. At the same time, it takes an understanding of identity politics to understand that while all non-indigenous people on this land are settlers, our identities and histories complicate just what that means – the white person descended from colonists is not the same settler as the Black person descended from slaves – and thus inform our varying tactics of decolonization.

Some part of me thinks that all of the above is just idealistic babble. How can we talk about “collective liberation” on a campus where some people don’t believe in structural racism or cisnormativity? How can we call for this kind of hopeful reimagining of identity politics when so many people don’t even believe in the basic arguments for its necessity? I think often about how we use identity politics for self-defense – against men who are too often misogynistic, cisgender people who are too often cisnormative and transphobic, white people who are too often fetishizing, stereotyping, prejudiced or otherwise racist. Naïvely hoping that abolishing identity politics is the right answer does more harm than good. So what then? Maybe my answers are always too similar – at the end of the day, we need people to work within their own communities towards a better world. We need to never stop being critical about who we are, why we fight, and the future we want to see, realizing that there is a bigger purpose to those psets and papers and exams we’re worried about this week.

Good luck on finals.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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