The term identity politics has been used in political and academic discourse in the United States since the 1970s. One aim of identity politics has been to empower the oppressed to articulate their oppression in terms of their own experience–a process of consciousness-raising that distinguishes identity politics from the liberal conception of politics as driven by individual self-interest.
Identity politics is a phenomenon that arose first at the radical margins of liberal democratic societies in which human rights are recognized, and the term is not usually used to refer to dissident movements within single-party or authoritarian states.
Identity politics were first described briefly in an article by L. A. Kauffman, who traced its origins to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization of the civil-rights movement in the early and mid-1960s. Although SNCC invented many of the fundamental practices, and various black power groups extended them, they apparently found no need to apply a term. Rather, the term emerged when others outside the black freedom movements–particularly, the race- and ethnic-specific women's liberation movements, such as Black feminism– began to adopt the practice in the late 1960s.
Perhaps the oldest written example of it can be found in the Combahee River Collective Statement of April 1977, subsequently reprinted in a number of anthologies, and Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term; which they defined as "a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women.
Some groups have combined identity politics and Marxist social class analysis and class consciousness–the most notable example being the Black Panther Party–but this is not necessarily characteristic of the form. Another example is MOVE, who mixed black nationalism with anarcho-primitivism (a radical form of green politics based on the idea that civilization is an instrument of oppression, advocating a return to hunter gatherer society) and the related idea neo-luddism.
The term identity politics has been applied retroactively to varying movements that long predate its coinage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discussed identity politics extensively in his book The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger, a strong supporter of liberal conceptions of civil rights, argues that a liberal democracy requires a common basis for culture and society to function.
In his view, basing politics on group marginalization fractures the civil polity, and therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending marginalization. Schlesinger believes that movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than, in his view, perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference.
Some LGBT rights activists, in particular, criticize the identity politics approach to gay rights, particularly the approach based around the terms and concepts of queer theory. Other theorists, drawing on the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, describe some forms of identity politics as strategic essentialism that works with hegemonic discourses to achieve collective goals.
Liberal-reformist gay and lesbian activists work for full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the institutions and culture of mainstream society, but queer activists instead make a point of declaring themselves outside of the mainstream and having no desire to be accepted by or join it. The former criticize the latter's approach as counterproductive and as perpetuating discrimination and societal attitudes against LGBT people, while the latter counter that the former seek to subsume LGBT identities in order to capitalize upon other forms of (racial, economic, geographical) privilege.
Others counter that the intolerant homogeneity of mainstream culture is precisely the fact that makes full acceptance impossible, and that social justice movements should aim not toward integration but rather multicultural pluralism, without recourse to the types of oppressive homogeneity now at play. (See the work of Urvashi Vaid for a discussion of the perils of homogeneity.)
Other critics of identity politics claim that it tends toward essentialism, arguing that some of its proponents assume or imply that gender, race, or other group characteristics are fixed or biologically determined traits (or, in the case of gay liberation, based on the Freudian idea that we're all driven by our sexuality), rather than social constructions. Such criticism is most common with regard to groups based on claims of gender or sexual orientation, where the nature of the defining trait is in dispute.
Still other critics have argued that groups based on shared identity, other than class (e.g.: religious identity or neurological wiring), can divert energy and attention from more fundamental issues, such as class conflict in capitalist societies. Even those who support gay rights, fat acceptance or freedom of religion, for instance, may consider these side issues at best.
Such arguments have been expressed by a number of writers, such as Eric Hobsbawm, Todd Gitlin, Michael Tomasky, Richard Rorty, Sean Wilentz, Robert W. McChesney, Bart Landry, and Jim Sleeper. Hobsbawm, in particular, has criticized nationalisms, and the principle of national self-determination adopted internationally after World War I, since national governments are often merely an expression of a ruling class or power, and their proliferation was a source of the wars of the twentieth century. Hence Hobsbawm argues that identity politics, such as the autism rights movement, queer nationalism, Islamism, Cornish nationalism or Ulster Loyalism are just other versions of bourgeois nationalism.
Post-structuralists argue that there are no identities, just superficial differences, although it is somewhat challenging to see how this proposition might make sense if one does not ascribe an identity to the category of post-structuralists.
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