Are All Politics Identity Politics?

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Are All Politics Identity Politics?

By Chris Lowe

I have this argument with certain Hegelian fundamentalist Marxist friends who deprecate so called identity politics as incompatible with and alternative to class politics.

In some ways it’s even more maddening than the unselfconscious liberalism, because Marx explicitly identified (so to speak) the problem of workers identifying as a class and acting collectively on that basis, “class for itself” as opposed to “class in itself.”

That said, I think there are some distinct limits to current privilege discourses. One set of limits comes from a root and persisting concern in the problem how activists trying to work together in social movement settings behave toward one another in the context of organizing. It arises perennially these days around the conditions of being a good ally from relatively privileged positions.

In some situations I think that particular problem of personal interaction, in which linguistic expressions can really affect group dynamics, gets projected onto a much larger scale, where many other kinds of social relations and cultural-ideological processes are at work, and the linguistic element blown out of proportion.

Another practical problem is a question — to what extent do privilege discourses make white people the focus once again? The invisibility of whiteness about which Toni Morrison wrote with power and grace, and “whiteness studies” addresses often more clunkily, is real, and is a real problem. In particular it supports various forms of denial of persistent inequalities and oppressions.

But back in the 1960s, the civil rights and black liberation and power movements came to a point where they found that the problem of white consciousness, and white people’s focus, even obsession, and guilt and shame about their own consciousness, really didn’t cut it, didn’t get at the more structural forms of inequality and oppression and their concomitants in ideology and psychology. At what point does “I have privilege” become as empty through repetition as “we are all human”? At what point does the focus need to shift to actions?

If awareness of privilege exposes the structures of inequality, power and oppression, that’s all to the good. But the means by which we become aware of something may not be the means by which it can be changed.


Photo by Benji Bao Vuong

Chris Lowe is an ex-academic with a Ph.D. in African history and teaching in African American subjects too. He is politically active with Portland Jobs with Justice and Health Care for All Oregon.


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