OPINION: Identity politics is a cruel hoax foisted upon minorities
Words by Fahad Ali
I became engaged in politics in my first year of university. The noxious call-out culture of the contemporary Left meant that I had to tread carefully. Check your privilege. Watch your words. Don’t anger the beast. And all this, while I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I believed.
For those of us who didn’t consume the Communist Manifesto in utero, this was like wandering blind through a minefield.
With time, and with little thanks to the campus thought police, I would eventually learn about the history of popular struggle both here and across the world, and the urgency of political change. We live on a dying planet, in a society marred by prejudice and greed, with one half of the world condemned to abject poverty.
But there was an embarrassing intermission between stepping into campus “activism” and coming into political maturity. For a long time, I was brainwashed by identity politics.
Identity politics is an approach to organising that has come to define modern progressive movements. People who subscribe to this approach tend to believe that racism, sexism, and so on, can be reduced to a question of attitudes, and so can be assuaged by asking people to recognise their relative privilege. It allows its adherents to leverage their place in one or many identity groups to gain power and demand attention.
It’s an alluring poison to be told that your thoughts and opinions are sacrosanct by virtue of your lot in life. No one can argue with you; you alone are the arbiter of truth. It commodifies misfortune, such that one must be oppressed along multiple axes in order to have any locutionary validity. The logical terminus of this thinking is what has been called the “oppression Olympics,” wherein rational dialogue has been supplanted by stubborn insistence on whatever is believed to be true by whomever is oppressed to the nth degree. Consequently, campus activists tend to hoard their perceived oppressions in order to weaponise them in debate. This leads to some very silly scenarios, with people within activist groups censuring one another for being prejudiced, rather than mobilising against retrograde attitudes within the broader community.
Identity politics is purposeless. It has no way to account for, or respond to, the existence of structural disadvantage, only band-aid responses to superficial expressions of prejudice. Why do racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, exist? Who knows. Identity politics is uninterested in these questions, or even in dismantling the superstructure of oppression. Instead, it calls upon those who are “privileged” to acknowledge themselves as such. And that’s where it stops. The entirety of political organising is reduced to identifying relatively minor slights (like asking a person of colour “where they’re from”) and making an incommensurate amount of noise about it.
It’s not hard to imagine what must follow. When you tell a white person, for example, that they are privileged, and that they must self-flagellate for every breath they breathe, you have just given them unlimited license to virtue signal. Often this is more aggravating than garden-variety racism. Oh, the endless droning about white guilt. Stop it. Please stop. I don’t care what your ancestors did. I care about what you’re doing now. If you want to subscribe to the doctrine of original sin, there’s plenty of organised religions for you to choose from.
For those who are genuinely disoriented by progressive politics, to ask for any direction is a crime. Say you are a newcomer to the movement, and you want to know more about something in particular. Let’s take something banal, like whether it’s okay for someone who is not from a Desi background to wear a sari. The sensible answer is yes, but the identity politics answer is no, and the common retort from that crowd is “why don’t you just Google it!”
I’ve seen this extend to more serious questions, like asking for recommendations on anti-racist literature. Sure, not everyone has the time to answer every question asked of them, nor should they be expected to. But if that’s not your thing, why call yourself an activist? Activism is a transformative project; and it requires, as a condition, that you make certain sacrifices of your time and energy. It’s not a trip to Disneyland.
The absurdities that arise from identity politics are endless, like students at private universities complaining that their cafeteria food is racist. But this isn’t even the worst of it. Identity politics has a lot to answer for in how it disempowers minorities such as people of colour.
Real empowerment comes through identification of the self despite injustice, rather than through injustice. In Frantz Fanon’s conclusion to Black Skin, White Masks, he rejects that he, a man of colour, should have any right to demand either guilt or reparations from the white man. He questions the notion of identity as essential and inescapable, insisting that “The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.”
Fanon asks, “Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?” Am I gay, a person of colour, a second-generation migrant? Yes, and much else besides. But if I were to define myself by these qualities alone, then I surrender my ability to identify with a common humanity.
This is profoundly disempowering. Identity politics perpetuates this alienation, robbing us of our collective strength and consigning us to perpetual stagnation.
Socialists, real socialists, believe in a world without division. Our political vision is to unite all of humanity under a common banner, where division based on colour, sex, and sexuality no longer has potency, where wealth is not a birthright, and where any child can truly aspire to any goal, unencumbered by economic disadvantage. Ours are politics of unity.
Identity politics only offers separation. And for minorities, like myself, it condemns us to narcissism.