The Pros and Cons of Identity Politics

Continuing from my amazing experience daring to disagree with the intellectual brilliance that is Sam Harris and Bill Maher, I noted that many responses to my tweets and blog post blamed me for “resorting to identity politics”.

I remember first being accused of this when I excoriated three white men on Twitter for discussing the lives of Muslim women when they were neither Muslim nor women. “But I’ve lived in the Middle East,” said one. “Of course I can talk about Muslim women.”

“You’re resorting to identity politics,” said the other.

The third one just snickered and pretended I’d never spoken in the first place. They went back to discussing Muslim women’s rights and I sat there with my mouth open.

I was astonished by this conversation, and the subsequent critique, because it felt so untrue to me. How on earth could three white American men speak with the same authority as me about the lived experience of being a Muslim woman in a Muslim country? My knowledge is direct. Theirs can only ever be second-hand.

I did a lot of reading about identity politics, starting with its classical definition: “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.” I read what Marx, Schlesinger and other detractors had to say about identity politics: that it disunited people on the basis of certain physical/social characteristics rather than uniting them under the cultures and values broadly grouped under liberal democracy. This is seen as a weakening force for nation-states. People should be coming together under a shared identity instead of fragmenting off into ever diversifying interest groups.

This is intellectually palatable, and perhaps rings true for leftists of a certain era. But for a woman of the 21st century like me, I find it absurd that I shouldn’t take pride and strength from my multiple identities (and everyone has several, as I have written about before). I live in a country where identity – ethnic, religious, gender, social, economic – is as definitive to who you are as your name and your address. We have been balancing and juggling these identities for decades in Pakistan, and watching the push and pull between country unity and country division based on ethnicity and class. I have learned that nobody wants to be a Pakistani while forsaking being a Sindhi, a Jat, a Shia, or what have you.

Yet the accusations about identity politics continue, especially to counter the increasingly loud conversations about intersectionalism that feminists are having these days. In all honesty, it’s quite galling to be told (usually by some iteration of men) that you musn’t fall back on your identity when discussing any major political or sociological issues. My identity as a Muslim, a woman, a Pakistani, a woman with brown skin, gives me psychological strength, the feeling of belonging that is so important to society, and is an absolute necessity for how humans think about themselves. Yet conversations about identity politics treat it as a weakness, an intellectual failing.

I had a lengthy conversation with Professor Roger D. Long of Eastern Michigan University about America, about Trump, about the Democrats in the working class who felt betrayed by the destruction of labor unions and the gutting of their jobs because of computerization and globalisation. He observed that the American political scene has become more and more partisan since the days of Reagan, because governments were no longer reaching out to one another across party lines to get the business of governing done. When he used the phrase “identity politics”, my ears pricked up, and I asked him how to think about identity politics in a way that balances the pros and the cons.

He told me that it was actually capitalism that encourages identity politics because it allows for segmentation of markets. Previously, an African-American woman living in a very white area, say in Arizona, could not find products for her skin or her hair, even though it was different from white skin and white hair in texture and oiliness. Companies realized, though, that they could create a whole line of beauty products for the African-American woman. Suddenly, a whole new economy is created. The same with the Hispanic woman in Michigan who can now watch her Spanish soap operas on Telemundo when previously all she had access to was Days of Our Lives, and that means more advertising from more companies.

But he said that there is a very positive element to identity politics in America, and said exactly what I had always felt: that identity politics can be a great source of strength and unity to minority communities: they help them feel psychologically safe and secure especially when coping with life in the West. Language, culture and religion are the ways in which people also cope with the psychological stress of trauma or rapid change — refugees and migrants will band together in ethnic communities in new countries in order to stay connected to what they have lost or left behind.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a critical race theorist at UCLA and Columbia who was responsible for intersectional theory being recognized formally, has written a book called Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color. She examines the tendency in identity politics to “silence intra-group differences in both the anti-racist and the feminist movements, to the detriment of black women.” Her work deals with “the specificity of black women’s experiences of violence is ignored, overlooked, misrepresented, and/or silenced.”

Silencing is exactly what I feel is going on every time someone throws the accusation of identity politics at me. But I’m not fazed. I know that identities are powerful, magical, even spiritual. There’s a revival of Roots on BBC TV at the moment, and I remember the scene when the white slaveowners try to give Kunta Kinte a new name. He gets furious and says, “My name is Kunta Kinte.”  Who didn’t get a shiver down their spine in realizing the power in that moment of resistance, just through the rejection of a name?

I reject your accusations of playing identity politics. This is what people say, ultimately, when they are told the conversation isn’t about them.

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2 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Identity Politics

  1. Aaron Crush (@QueerCatharsis) says:

    Interesting post, thank you!

    I agree that identities are very powerful and those with lived experiences will absolutely have invaluable contributions to whichever topic is being discussed (be that Islam, women’s rights, queer rights etc). These voices should be listened to, and indeed given more weight in the relevant conversations.

    Of course, as you clearly have experienced, those with the personal insight and experience often do have that dismissed. This strikes me as appalling and unproductive, not least because it leads to incomplete conversations. I also understand that the increasing emphasis on identity politics is likely a reaction to this unfair disregard of certain groups’ insight and experience.

    My qualm with identity politics however, is when people outside of a particular group are also completely dismissed, or labelled as bigoted, for even daring to present a considered idea in the conversation (be that critical or otherwise). This is particularly true for topics which have wide-reaching relevance due to societal and political effects (religion for example, being one of these topics).

    Essentially, there can be value in ideas regardless of whether the person presenting them is part of the in-group being discussed. I fear that the increasing focus on identity politics sometimes overlooks that fact.

    Like

    1. binashah says:

      I totally get what you’re saying, Aaron. I think white straight cis men have problems accepting that they may not be the intellectual experts on every topic, that a black queer woman may be the drivers of a conversation, that Muslims have richer, deeper experience than they. They’re welcome to participate in the conversation, but I reject them as the experts, intellects, decision-makers, the gatekeepers, and king-makers of our own protest movements, reformation movements, policy directions.

      Liked by 1 person

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