The Paradox of Identity Politics
Does Race Define Us?
Society seems to be a complicated struggle for both peace and power. In order to have a functional and fair society, I believe it’s necessary to understand how power dynamics differ between and within groups, but I also wonder how far we can take identity politics before inadvertently perpetuating racist ideas.
There’s growing resistance to the idea that we should strive to recognize and treat each other as individuals because our racial identity is thought to be integral to how we think and who we are as individuals. Through identity politics our society is normalizing the idea that people should be treated and understood based on what their skin colour represents but I worry that this way of thinking is carrying unintended consequences.
In my view, moving past racism involves understanding and accepting that regardless of our racial differences, we are all equal and unique and should strive to treat people as such. But sometimes I find popular discourse to be contrary to that goal.
There’s increasing weight on your racial identity as currency within socio-political discussions so that, for example, people’s opinions are often validated or invalidated solely on the basis of their racial identity but it becomes difficult to speak authentically about certain issues when everything is filtered through the lens of race.
The idea that your racial identity is the most important thing about you is widely accepted and considered essential to lots of progressive discourse on race. However, the idea that your racial identity is the most important thing about you is also widely accepted and considered essential to racist ideology. Sometimes I find the two bleeding into each other and if we’re not careful we can slip into unhelpful ideas that continue to reinforce the ways of thinking that we’re trying to dismantle.
This piece will explore this idea but should not be misunderstood as a denial of the existence of racism or the necessity of identity politics in the advancement of social justice.
An Important Note on Binary Thinking
Before continuing I want to introduce the idea that two things can be true at the same time and it’s also possible to hold empathy for two groups at the same time.
Some conversations can be extremely polarizing because they demand that you engage in binary thinking. You’re not “supposed to” listen to both sides. If you’ve found empathy for one group it’s considered a betrayal to demonstrate empathy for the other.
I think this way of thinking is a barrier for peace because it attempts to erase the possibility of mutual understanding by characterizing it as something immoral and unproductive.
But I think that mutual understanding is a non-negotiable precondition for peace, unity and order — so I’ll continue to advocate for it.
The Bright Side of Identity Politics
Despite there being issues with how we choose to engage in conversation, I do think that identity politics can help bridge the gap of understanding between people. We’re all living in our own unique versions of the world and it’s difficult to understand others without understanding how they experience life. Inevitably the identities that we hold, whether they be chosen or given, can sometimes affect our experiences. This is where I think identity politics are useful. If something’s not affecting me, I think it’s reasonable to expect that I’d be mostly unaware of it.
Identity politics is when a particular group rallies together to bring awareness to issues affecting the group. These politics aren’t limited to race, but some good examples are #BlackLivesMatter or #StopAsianHate. Identity politics makes it easier for people to advocate for themselves by allying themselves with other people affected by the same issue whether that be based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, cultural identity etc.
Because of its usefulness identity politics is a popular tactic used to garner political attention but I can’t help but notice something off about the way people have begun engaging in identity politics.
Last year I noticed that vilifying “whiteness” and manufacturing white guilt was collectively being propped up as the solution for racial injustice. This way of thinking has been endorsed by many people of all races. Society is shifting towards amplifying the opinions of racial minorities who haven’t always had a say in the way that society was shaped and because our imperfect society was largely shaped by white people — we’ve begun to demonize their efforts and them as a group.
With one group labeled victims and the other the oppressor, I’ve noticed that people have adopted this idea that those who embody “whiteness” are deserving of harm or should willingly endure things that would be considered abusive or racist in nearly any other context. Regardless of the intention I do believe there is always the potential for serious harm when we begin essentializing race, demonizing a particular racial group and then demanding that they atone themselves for simply existing.
There’s no denying that racist ideas of the past continue to linger today, and we need to contend with that to heal our society. What I’m saying shouldn’t be misinterpreted as ignorance or denial of the problem but instead a critique of the proposed solution. I think there’s a difference between critically discussing racial disparities and imbalances of power in society vs. normalizing the mistreatment and silencing of white people. The latter won’t push us any closer to dismantling racism, I’m not sure what we stand to gain from it at all.
The flaws in our society are seen as “whiteness” at work and we enforce the idea that attitudes of superiority, hierarchy, oppression, and discrimination that create injustice in our society originate from or are unique to white people. But these are traits that can be found within all societies regardless of the types of people — perhaps it’s misguided to suggest that they’re a result of “whiteness”. Perhaps they’re simply issues that naturally arise as people in society struggle for both peace and power as they always have.
How do we even define “whiteness”? To me, it seems invariably tied to negative attitudes and stereotypes about white people — so then tackling “whiteness” becomes inseparable from punishing, shaming or disengaging from white people. Questioning this line of thinking is often regarded as racially insensitive and disrespectful but I think it’s reasonable to show concern for this growing narrative that harms white people and people of colour alike.
Short Case Studies:
In August 2020 a man in Georgia, USA walked into a store and stabbed a white man 7 times because after watching police brutality videos he felt he needed to find and kill a white man.
It was not widely covered by the media.
In May 2021 Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made the decision to refuse one-on-one interviews with white media representatives stating that to diversify the media she would only be speaking with people of colour to cover the story of her 2 years in mayoral office. But do we accept the idea that white people must be held back in order for others to succeed? I believe that creating lasting diversity should focus on establishing equal opportunities for all people as opposed to proposing rules designed to disadvantage one group for the benefit of another– though I’m aware that others disagree.
In January 2019 a CNN legal analyst named Areva Martin had David Webb, a host on SiriusXM Patriot, on the air. She couldn’t see him but as they spoke about his career accomplishments in the media he stated, “I never considered my colour the issue. I considered my qualifications the issue.” Which prompted Martin to discredit him by saying it was only through his white privilege that he was able to accomplish things that people of colour could never hope to do.
What she didn’t realize was that David Webb is black but it was convenient to discredit him by attempting to weaponize his identity — and so she did.
It’s becoming increasingly commonplace to dismiss someone’s opinion purely on the basis of their skin colour and what it represents instead of taking the time to meaningfully engage with uncomfortable ideas or unpack what someone is trying to say. I also wonder what it does to the spirit and psyche of black people to constantly be remanded to the role of victim and told that their dreams aren’t possible because of their skin colour.
In 2021 the Northern Territories of Australia passed a law that made it harder for repeat offenders to get bail. An Australian senator named Lidia Thorpe condemned the attorney-general for supporting the law by saying that as a white man, he had refused to listen to experts and instead was making decisions on the premise that, “white is right.”
However, the attorney-general of the Northern Territories is not a white man — she’s an Aboriginal woman. Again, someone in an influential position showing how anti-white racism is considered an acceptable avenue to silence or shame people who they disagree with.
Instead of contending with the issue or opinion presented, some people consider it acceptable to essentially say, “because you’re white I shouldn’t have to listen to you or take you seriously.”
I wonder what it does to the spirit of and psyche of people of colour to have their identities called into question just because people disagree with them. I also wonder what it does to white people to know that some people automatically devalue what they have to say simply because they’re white. When we validate people based on skin colour it almost necessitates that we invalidate them on the same basis.
I think for some it’s more convenient to disparage white people than to seriously engage with complex ideas or narratives they dislike. It’s troubling that there are people in government and media who think this way and spread these ideas.
The question for me isn’t whether these instances should be excused because they’re not as bad as slavery, the question is whether they’re morally correct — and I don’t believe they are.
In the past when I’ve brought this up or seen others do the same there’s the rebuttal that nothing we do to white people can or should be considered racist — and I disagree. In the past few years there’s been an attempt to rebrand systemic racism as the only true form of racism, but the classic definition (which accounts for interpersonal interactions) still stands. Even if it didn’t — if you must change the definition of racism so that your argument doesn’t sound racist that may be a sign that you’re headed in the wrong direction.
As I said, the culture is slowly building this idea that white people are deserving of harm and should tolerate certain levels of discrimination because of their ancestry — but haven’t we already seen proof across time that it’s dangerous to engage in that type of thinking? Isn’t racism wrong regardless of whether it’s interpersonal or systemic? Do we stand against racism as a matter of principle or only when it’s politically convenient?
“Blackness” is Not a Monolith
(unless we need it to be)
Earlier I introduced the idea that two things can be true at the same time and it’s also possible to hold empathy for two groups at the same time.
I can hold empathy for minority groups facing effects of historical and modern-day racism while also acknowledging the ways in which our society is beginning to normalize and downplay racism against white people.
I can critique the way that we’re going about solving a problem while continuing to acknowledge that there is a problem that needs to be solved. Racism continues to exist in our society but I’m not supportive of some of the ways we’ve decided to attempt to remedy the issue.
Furthermore, I can be aware that as a black woman identity politics is responsible for many of my freedoms while also acknowledging the limits it places on my own expression.
One of the social justice slogans I picked up a few years ago is, “blackness is not a monolith,” which means that there is no right way to be black because skin colour is not an indication of who you are, how you think, where your interests lie etc. I’d always felt like I wasn’t quite represented in other people’s expectations of what it meant to be black (whether from the media or within the black community, or even among friends) so this idea was liberating because it gave me permission to step outside of “being black” to simply be myself.
Identity politics is complicated because while advocating for individual liberation through the group it must imply that a sort of group consciousness exists where the members of the community generally think the same way about the issues affecting them. This is necessary for the political play to be successful because you can’t move forward as a group unless there’s general consensus on the direction you should be headed.
The complication arises when ideas like, “blackness is not a monolith” meet phrases like, “listen to black people.” While the first suggests that there is no one way to be black, the second phrase is typically used in ways that reinforce the idea that black people are engaged in monolithic thought. These two ideas seem to be at odds with each other but reasonably, to form a strong group it means leaving some individuality behind.
This then begs the question of how power is negotiated not only between racial groups but within them.
Who Are the Black People We’re Listening To?
What does it mean to listen to or amplify the voices of black people? Who are the black people that we’re referring to?
Are we referring to Ava DuVernay who wrote, directed and produced the documentary 13th about America’s racist criminal justice system or are we referring to Amala Ekpunobi who works with PragerU and doesn’t believe policing is inherently racist.
When we say listen to black people are we referring to Alicia Garza, one of the founders of BLM or perhaps Candace Owens who publicly opposes the organization?
Do we mean Ta-Nehisi Coates or Coleman Hughes, two black men who spoke before Congress with one advocating for reparations and the other advocating against them.
Are black people represented by Carl James, a Canadian academic who’s work focuses on highlighting oppressive experiences of Black people or Aiyshat Akanbi who believes that constantly projecting victimhood onto black people is demoralizing and does us a disservice.
Do you listen to your black friend, telling you that all white people are racist or do you listen to me, telling you they’re not.
How do you answer that question? Who are the black people given license to speak and on what grounds? We’ve ushered in an age where people are expected to uncritically accept the opinions and lived experiences of black people as truth — but what happens when we disagree?
When we validate one person’s opinion because they’re black on what basis do invalidate the opinion of a black person who opposes them? Usually by attacking their racial identity and asserting that they must want to be white. They must have forgotten who they are — or rather who they’re supposed to be.
When we validate someone’s opinions based on their racial identity it almost necessitates that we invalidate others on the same basis. This is why I advocate for engaging with people’s ideas and not their skin.
There’s sometimes an assumption that if you’re black but aren’t following a certain narrative you must hate your race, you must have internalized racism, you’re a coon, you’re an Uncle Tom, you’re just trying to impress white people, you’re a race traitor — all because you think differently than other people of the same race. It’s always interesting seeing people fighting racism begin weaponizing race at their own convenience.
But why is it so difficult to accept that there are multiple ways to think about the same issue?
There were so many things that I accepted as true because I had never been given permission to consider a different perspective or explore alternate narratives because doing so was positioned as a betrayal to myself as a black person and to the black community at large — but today I reject that way of thinking and regret every moment that I refused to engage with a thought because of the person delivering it or because it felt counter to my already established worldview.
I stand against racial injustice whether it’s targeted towards someone black, white, asian or brown.
I stand against it whether it’s on a small scale or a large scale.
I know the pain of being denied recognition of your full humanity because someone can’t see past the colour of your skin. But I also know the pain of feeling like my experiences are being cheapened through comparison to another’s — at times it’s difficult for me to reconcile these feelings but I do my best.
I stand for human rights as a matter of principle, not politics, and I try to consciously disengage from transactional activism. I think people deserve empathy because they’re people — not because I feel indebted to them or stand to gain something from easing their suffering.
As a reminder, two things can be true at the same time and it’s also possible to hold empathy for two groups at the same time. It almost feels silly writing a paper just to say, “maybe we shouldn’t judge people according to their race,” but that’s what I have to say.