Within political discussions the phrase ‘identity politics’ is thrown around frequently. Rarely, however, is it ever defined by either adherents or critics of it. Instead the phrase seems to operate as a catch all buzz word for whatever features one likes or dislikes about contemporary and historic social movements focusing on the liberation of particular oppressed groups, such as women, queers and people of colour.
As I’ll be speaking about identity politics a lot in the future, I thought it would be helpful to start by defining the phrase itself. What we’ve come to call identity politics was initially developed within the feminist, gay liberation, and anti-racism social movements of the 1960s and 1970s new left. These social movements developed out of a reaction to sexism, homophobia, and racism within both the left itself and society at large. They organised along lines of identity, such as being a ‘women’, ‘gay’, or ‘black’, and sought to conceptualise and combat the particular kinds of oppression suffered by these groups. The many different versions of the politics of identity these social movements developed had in common three core beliefs. These beliefs in a simplified form are,
1. Structures of oppression produce shared experiences and identities among the oppressed. For example, white supremacy has produced a social group known as ‘black people’. Members of this social group are united by being positioned within society as ‘black’ and as a result of this societal positioning thinking of themselves as ‘black’ and experiencing anti-black racism throughout their lives.
2. The shared experiences and identities of an oppressed social group can be used as a basis for building a social movement aimed at the liberation of said social group. This usually takes two forms.
First, developing political consciousness by showing how experiences of oppression at the level of the individual are not isolated apolitical incidents, but are rather components of a society wide structure of oppression. A concrete historical example of this is feminist consciousness raising groups. In these groups women would meet and discuss every day experiences of patriarchy. As Carol Hanisch put it famously in 1969,
One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. . .I went, and I continue to go to these meetings because I have gotten a political understanding which all my reading, all my “political discussions,” all my “political action,” all my four-odd years in the movement never gave me. I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles. (Hanisch 1969)
Second, producing positive group identities in order to help people unlearn the negative self-conceptions which oppressive social structures instil in them. For example, transphobia teaches trans people to hate and be ashamed of themselves. A positive notion of trans identity can help combat this. Other examples of this are notions like ‘sisterhood is powerful’, ‘black is beautiful’, or ‘#blackgirlmagic’. These positive group identities are important not just because they improve people’s mental health but also because they contribute to the development of the confidence, self-worth, and agency that oppressed people need to abolish their oppression.
3. The liberation of an oppressed social group must be achieved by the oppressed group themselves.
This isn’t to deny that people outside these oppressed groups can and should play a positive role in struggle. Rather, it is to affirm the importance of self-emancipation and the central role oppressed groups should have in struggling against their oppression.
My understanding of what identity politics is comes from how the term was used within the Combahee River Collective Statement, which was written in 1974 and published in 1977. The Combahee River Collective were an influential black feminist group in Boston, which also contained numerous black lesbians. In the statement the collective outlines their particular version of black feminism, which sought to fight white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and homophobia simultaneously. This was grounded in the idea that “the major systems of oppression are interlocking”, such that, “[t]he synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” As a result, they sought to “combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face”, rather than only fighting on a single front, such as racism. Since the 1970s these ideas have been developed into what is now called intersectionality.
Of particular importance to the collective was the manner in which personal experiences of structures of oppression contribute to the development of political consciousness. For them,
There is also undeniably a personal genesis for Black Feminism, that is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual Black women’s lives. Black feminists and many more Black women who do not define themselves as feminists have all experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day existence. As children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated differently. For example, we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being “ladylike” and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. As we grew older we became aware of the threat of physical and sexual abuse by men.
Initially these experiences made them have “feelings of craziness”. This was changed through consciousness raising groups in which they learnt to understand and analyse their experiences within a feminist framework. They write,
In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression. (Quoted in Heyes 2016).
The collective also placed importance of their identities as black women. They write, “focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity”. The core of their politics was thus the view that, “[b]lack women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.”
Later in an interview, co-author Barbara Smith said on the term ‘identity politics’,
I think we came up with the term. . . I never really saw it anywhere else and I would suggest that people if they really want to find the origin of the term that they try to find it any place earlier than in the Combahee River Collective statement. I don’t remember seeing it anywhere else. (Quoted in Breines, 2007, 129)
I cannot confirm Smith’s remark that they were the first to use the term “identity politics”. What I can say, however, is that when I use the term “identity politics” I am doing so in the manner that they did.
Breines, Winifred. 2007. The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. Oxford University Press.
Hanisch, Carol. 1969. The Personal is Political.
Heyes, Cressida. 2016. “Identity Politics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The Combahee River Collective. 1977. The Combahee River Collective Statement.