Last week I watched a panel discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, hosted by the National Book Foundation and moderated by Franklin Leonard on “A New Black Politics?” In the course of their discussion (which you should watch in the link provided), Franklin Leonard and Ibram X. Kendi broached the topic of identity politics. I was struck by something said by Keenanga-Yamahtta Taylor starting around the 31 minute mark:
“Identity politics as a framework that was coined by the women of the Combahee River Collective in their 1977 statement was about politics. It wasn’t just about identity. The premise was that because the vast majority of black women were at the bottom of society, that they had a particular political viewpoint that made them empathic towards the struggles of other people on the bottom. They saw themselves in solidarity with colored women around the world. That was the basis of their politics. So, it wasn’t just identity unto itself. It was their identification as black women who were particularly oppressed, particularly exploited, that gave them a particular political insight. I think that that has obviously gotten lost, where people think that identity alone is enough to conjure a political connection.”Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “The New Black Politics?”
The line that I bolded and italicized struck me particularly hard, perhaps because this week I’ve also been reading deep dive articles on toxic masculinity over at Jezebel. This article, in particular, discusses how the language and beliefs of Men’s Rights Activists (those who feel that their identity as men is being infringed on by feminism) and the far right movement, which has now evolved past the Tea Party to things like Qanon, have steadily entered mainstream politics.
Keeanga’s discussion of identity politics and the articles at Jezebel made me think about power structures, and how over and over again we see those structures reinforced by exploiting our innate sense of identity–or the promise that you’ll be included in upper end of the social hierarchy by betraying your identity, thereby maintaining the status quo.
What I think we’ve seen recently (although this is hardly a new phenomenon–it’s just become less subtle over time) is the adoption of racist and sexist rhetoric by mainstream politicians in order to hold onto power. The dog whistles of Trump, the hiding behind “being a mother” for Amy Coney Barrett, or the questionable decision-making of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the Breonna Taylor case. In each of these cases, we see explicit or implicit racism and sexism (or both) as a way to gain or hold onto power.
We’re hard-wired to want power, as power essentially guarantees our safety. When we were hunter/gatherers living in small groups that was simple. In order to survive, we only had to prove ourselves more powerful than the other group that might be hunting and gathering on the same tract of land. Now, in a society where we’ve become so connected that we can’t realistically conceive of the number of other people we’re connected with, we seek to return to those small groups. Those who covet power exploit that need for their own gain.
And I think that’s what important to remember–the people using identity politics as part of their platform have no actual interest in those identities. To them, identity is a means to an end. We’re the ones that hold onto whatever our identities are so hard that they can become weapons. This means that we also have the power to change the narrative and no longer allow disingenuous politicians to use identity for their own gain.
As Keeanga notes, there are times when identify is important to the physical and spiritual survival of a group. That’s not a political issue–it’s a human one. For the benefit of everyone, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.