There is no such thing as a politics unaffected by identity. So what’s the fuss?
In many ways the term ‘identity politics’ is completely redundant. There is no such thing as a politics unaffected by identity. Everyone’s political views are undeniably shaped by their own experiences. Today, the term identity politics seems to only be used when referring to the political voice of traditionally marginalised groups, i.e. women, ethnic minorities, or people from the LGBTQ community.
I recently hosted a panel-led discussion at the Arnolfini titled ‘Has Identity Politics Gone Too Far?’ I chose this subject because many people feel that the identity politics of marginalised groups has been taken too far, and if I am completely honest, I agree to an extent. But, I also believe the identity of traditionally dominant groups have again come to the forefront of politics in recent years.
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It’s no myth that Donald Trump’s racist and sexist language strongly appeals to people of his own identity; straight white males. Similarly, in Britain, the rhetoric from nationalist groups like UKIP and the EDL is more likely to appeal to white Brits than to non-white Brits. Of course, the same concept can apply to the whole mainstream political system; people who identify as working-class or adopt a left-wing identity have tended to vote for Labour, whereas people who identify with wealthier classes or adopt a right-wing identity have tended to vote Conservative.
In essence, there is nothing wrong with allowing your identity to influence your political views. Problems occur when you disregard and discredit the identities of others in favour of your own.
The focus at the Arnolfini event was the identity politics of marginalised groups. This was largely because many right-leaning social commentators have fervently attacked this form of identity politics, while being apparently totally oblivious to the fact that they too are asserting their identity-led perspectives. Social media has become a war zone in which any sign of caring about others is attacked as Social Justice Warrior nonsense. Conversely, when people express pride in being English, for example, it is jumped on as a sign of racism. Any sense of nuance is lost in a flurry of clacking keyboards and emojis.
The social media storm created by the recent Gillette film was a great example of this. Within hours of being published, a film raising awareness to the negative aspects of male behaviour was barraged by a storm of dislikes and disgusted comments. The video sends a positive message that we all need to hear. But, generally I am very uncomfortable with the idea of a corporation riding on a social movement for profit, and doing very little else to support the cause. To others, the video undermined the identity of men and much upset was expressed in 140 characters. The video doesn’t generalise all men, but maybe the negative reaction was a response to a wider issue.
Throughout history and all over the world, people in dominant groups have perpetuated destructive generalisations against those in weaker positions. Racist and sexist tropes are well known. However, people in marginalised or minority groups can certainly make sweeping generalisations about others too. Given the current backlash against identity politics, it’s worth exploring this further.
Commentators from marginalised groups, such as the model Munroe Bergdorf and Labour MP Diane Abbott, are guilty of making lazy comments and leaving little space for nuance. In 2017 Bergdorf claimed that ‘all white people’ were guilty of racial violence. Not so long ago, Abbott tweeted that ‘white people love playing divide and rule.’ While I might agree with Bergdorf and Abbott about systemic racism, such sweeping generalisations do little but antagonise and isolate people that should instead be engaged with in a firm but thoughtful way.
Statements like these just feed the trolls, adding unnecessary fuel to the fire of right-wing extremism. Bergdorf and Abbot are examples of people who have taken identity politics too far in some cases. Nonetheless, I also feel much empathy for them. When you are part of a historically marginalised group, particularly as a black woman, it is not unusual to have strong feelings about social injustice. And sometimes that can be expressed with anger and frustration. That’s OK too. But I plea that as people of colour, we can find more space for nuance and allow for our passionate emotions to be used more constructively. If we are successfully able to do that, racism doesn’t stand a chance.
In Bristol, the debate around the slave trader Edward Colston’s legacy being plastered all over the city created a great stir. Many fear an ‘erasure of history’ if Colston’s name were to be removed from the streets of Bristol. If racist colonial men like Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill are so precious to some people’s identities, then I say keep them exactly where they are. As people who don’t subscribe to this version of history, can we consider an alternative avenue for change that doesn’t clash so strongly with another identity?
In any event, the colonial memorabilia provide a useful reminder that people in our nation are still proud of its history of empire, no matter what atrocities were committed. And that means we have work to do. There is no value in taking down a statue or renaming a music venue if these attitudes still permeate the culture. Our identity politics as people of colour should be directed towards the education system – where we can ensure that younger generations of white Brits understand why statues of slave-traders might be offensive to their darker-skinned friends, and to all people for that matter.
Of course, the changing of surface-level iconography and conversation alone isn’t enough to eradicate racism. While these things still have their value, real change will come when people organise and infiltrate or upend the very systems that perpetuate racism or inequality. The education system will not change without sustained collective action from the general public
This topic could be discussed for hours and there is undoubtedly much I have left out, including how my own identity affects my personal opinions. But there is one thing I hope readers can take away: No matter what race, class or gender you are, you are human first. Such identities can feel very real – sexism and hate crime can certainly have very tangible consequences – but we should understand identity as part of the story that we tell ourselves to help us navigate the world, and not the sole thing that defines us, or them.
By coming together and organising with one another, we can rewrite the story and create new identities that place diversity of thought at their very foundation.
Elias is the founder of MANDEM, a Bristol based platform offering a unique space for young men of colour. They have also launched a new platform, Ghostwriter, for people of all backgrounds to contribute.