Seeing the forest, missing the trees: An honest look at identity politics

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Dec. 7, 2016, 8:53 a.m.

Well, we had to have this conversation eventually.

In the weeks since the election, it seems like just about everyone has an explanation for the outcome. Third party voters, a white working-class rebellion against a liberal elite, fake news, racist white women, Russia – the list goes on and on, and will probably continue to grow over the next few months. This article will not be about the election, but it will be about one ideology that has been hotly debated in the election’s aftermath: identity politics.

Identity politics are, simply put, an ideology that constructs a political framework around an individual’s identity or identities. It argues that characteristics like race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and class contribute to different life experiences and that these differences vary based on every combination of these characteristics (a related concept: intersectionality). Queer, transgender, South Asian working-class men, then, will have different experiences compared to straight, cisgender, White middle-class women, and so on and so forth. The politic part of identity politics typically involves evoking these identities in the context of campaigns, outreach, decision-making and any other situation in which power, prestige, status or the like are at stake. (This is to say, in most situations.)

So far, most online critiques I have read about identity politics have been unimpressive at best and incoherent at worst. Mark Lilla’s New York Times opinion piece buried a half-cogent exploration of identity politics under a tired “All Lives Matter”-esque rhetoric. John Judis’s Washington Post op-ed seemed to conflate the Clinton campaign’s strategic successes and failures with the successes and failures of a greater “identity politics,” which he never quite defines. In response to pieces like these, defenders of identity politics have published retaliatory op-eds saying, essentially: “the right uses them too!” This is usually the trend: Misinformed criticism of leftist activism or culture result in high-profile straw man arguments in popular media that activists take great glee in tearing down. (I’m quite guilty of this myself.) Real issues go unsolved, and both left and right further cement themselves into ironclad camps.

The reality of this debate is that identity politics – like most ideologies – are more complex than either the critics or the proponents want to admit. Take, for example, common statements like “all ‘X’ should have voted against ‘Y.’” We assume by making these statements that:

  1. All “X” share the same interest in voting against “Y.”
  2. All “X” think of themselves as “X,” or have that identity salient when voting.
  3. All “X” vote primarily to oppose “Y.”

Because we’ve made these assumptions, we are primed to interpret the results of the election accordingly. We might write op-eds titled “If You Are LGBTQ and You Vote for Trump, You are a Traitor to Your Community, Plain. Simple. Truth,” perhaps not understanding that by enforcing this myth of community purity, we are further isolating individuals and furthering the conditions under which people vote against their “identity interests,” or not at all.

This is the larger problem that we in progressive, Leftist and/or activist communities currently face: We see the forest and miss the trees. While we apply our analyses and academic knowledge to arrive at policies we think will “benefit all people of color” or “benefit the working class,” we apply the same homogenizing lens onto actual people in actual communities without taking the effort to see the people and not the theories we use to explain them. I don’t care if we’re “correct;” what good does that do if we’re too out of touch with our communities to make any positive change happen? This applies to identity politics as much as it applies to “political correctness” and the policing of language – it’s not about whether or not we’re right. It’s about the way we treat people who don’t talk or think like us, whether we choose to emphasize the purity of our movements or welcome the messy reality of the world outside them.

This is not to say that we should abandon identity politics; quite the opposite. If we see the vision of identity politics (all women and femmes working toward an end to patriarchy, all people of color working toward an end to white supremacy, etc.) as a goal for the future, we can work towards that reality. The danger lies when we believe this vision already exists, as the Clinton campaign did, or try and create it through ideological exclusion and movement policing, as activists do. Identity politics can be a path to actual equity and justice only so far as it centers the hard work of organizing, coalition-building, empathy and education.

I understand that holding fast to our ideologies is a natural response to crisis; identity politics are a second language to many of us. What we need to do, though, is find a more sustainable, empathetic and restorative approach to our organizing work that keeps us accountable to a better world and yet keeps us able to understand people who are in process. We need our identity politics to evolve – and if the argument isn’t convincing enough on its own, know that it came from a queer, transgender activist woman of color.


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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