Identity politics is bad, or so it goes. Everybody should be treated as an individual, judged on their own merits, and without any consideration of group identity, history, present politics, representation etc.
In theory, that certainly sounds good. We are indeed all individuals. Whatever group we may belong to should also be our choice, and we should certainly not be dragged down by others. Our identity is uniquely individual – our DNA, our lived experiences, our thoughts, all of these point to the only tenable position: we are all individuals, different from everyone else, and should be treated as such.
And yet, this is too easy. Certainly, the goal should be to be recognized for your individuality. However, not everybody is granted that kind of recognition. There are always two kinds of identities:
- First, the identity of those seen as “normal.” Typically, the majority – not necessarily numerically, but in the sense of being able to get their political and social standards fulfilled on a regular and systemic level. This is what is called “whiteness.” A better word would be “seen as normal.”
- Second, the identity of those not seen as “normal.” This is not a homogeneous group. All of its representatives are somehow seen as different from those seen as normal. Typically, such identities are classified in ways such as – but not limited to – the following:
- Sex & Gender: social constructions built around biological differences with regards to sex, sexual attraction, gender roles, etc.
- Ethnicity: social constructions built around provenance, heritage, locality, language, etc.
- Race: the social constructions built around arbitrarily chosen physical parameters such as skin color, with no legitimate basis in biology; can function as a simplified version of ethnicity specifically constructed for colonialist purposes.
- Class: belonging to clearly defined social strata marked by a variety of categories such as income, wealth, profession, provenance, manners etc.
- Age: social constructions built around expectations around biological age, typically tied to conceptions of the normal course of life.
- Caste: a compound category mixing constructions of race/ethnicity and class, typically tied to religious ideas of karma, such as in – but not limited to – societies historically or presently shaped by Hinduism, Platonism, or sometimes Greek/Roman constructions of social strata, or medieval estates of the realm.
- Species: human vs non-human or infra-/sub-human. Sometimes, this distinction is contained within the idea of race: common humanity has been frequently denied to those enslaved or persecuted. Especially Africans have frequently been described as non-humans; Jews, Roma and Slaves were seen by the Nazis as subhuman.
- In the probably imminent future: artificial vs. biological life.
These categories can also intersect (alas, the concept of intersectionality).
What unites all these categories of difference is that it is very difficult if not impossible for any individual to change them. Ethnicity, Race, Caste and Species are completely out of our control. We have seen this especially with the category of Caste, which has “traveled” even to territories where it was not at home before. Age is also something that is outside of our control – we age whether we like it or not, we are young whether we like it or not. Surely, we seem to be getting older and stay fitter due to modern medicine and prosperity (at least in “developed” countries), but this is dependent on other factors. Roman Senators could get very old also – the privileged typically have more of a chance of a good old life, but there seems to be a ceiling to that, and in the end, you cannot (yet?) outsmart nature.
What about Sex and Gender though? Can’t we control our gender expression etc., can’t we now even transition our sex? Are trans people not proof of that? Well, we are seeing the societal backlash specifically when it comes to the acceptance of trans-sexuality or even “still” other categories of non-heteronormative gender roles.
Identity is not something you control on your own, even if you would like it. There is ALWAYS a societal component. You may think that you can transition into another role, another identity, but if society around you – and nowadays we are speaking of a global society – does not accept your choice, you will experience some form of discrimination. This is not just, this is not right, and it specifically underlines what unites all those categories.
Another caveat could be put forth with regards to the malleability of the category of class. Certainly you can change your socio-economic markers by getting rich? But class is not just how much money you, as the individual, may have, it is about intergenerational patterns. You may be able to transition to another class during your lifetime, but you will still carry the markers of your old identity, and so will your parents and others in your family. One of the few countries in which such a change used to be relatively easy are the United States, but the closer you look, the more you will find that it is more complicated and always has been, especially if your class intersects with race and ethnicity (which it all-too frequently does).
Some of this also holds true for such as body shape, weight, beauty, etc. – those can be more malleable, to a degree, but still carry stigma.
Even religion carries weight as a identifier – whether you are religious yourself or not. Your family religion, or the assumed religion of your ethnic background may override your own identity. If your ancestry hails from a country like Italy, Spain, Mexico or Poland, you are assumed to be catholic; if you are from what is called the Middle East, you are assumed to be Muslim, etc. If you are not, you are just assumed to hide your true identity. If your name sounds Jewish, you are assumed to be secretly rich or running the world.
All of this goes to show that identity is a social or cultural construction – meaning, people around you, and the general culture within which you are situated, determine your identity no matter your own ideas about yourself. You may try to reinvent yourself, try to define yourself, try to appeal to reason that you are an individual – if people around you do not agree, your protestations will come to nothing. Social and cultural patterns directly translate into politics.
Thus, as we can see, the identity of those not seen as normal is already always politicized, whereas the identity of those “seen as normal” is taken for granted. This is what “whiteness”: you are “white” if you fit in, without question, without doubt, without much second-guessing. You are either “one of us” or not. You may gain status and be accepted and tolerated as a “member of the club” eventually when the rules are changed, but this may take a long time and not apply to your relatives.
This is the standard form of identity politics: those “seen as normal” do not have to justify their normality, it is taken for granted, and advocating for their political positions is typically not seen as advocating for “special interests.”
Conversely, should those not “seen as normal” argue for better recognition of their political and social needs, is all-too frequently decried as asking for promoting “special interest” or playing “identity politics.”
What does that mean?
Identity is always political. Accusations that someone is playing “identity politics” are just revealing distractions. They mean the following: “The identity of those whose identity is typically not politicized, is now suddenly politicized as well.” Normality is questioned. “Whiteness” is questioned. But why?
The point of questioning normality is to grant normality to everyone, to widen the boundaries of the acceptable, to include, to grant the freedom to be who you are – and individual – to everyone.
The point of identity politics is thus not to create some “group identity”, but to eventually overcome the discriminating nature of ALL identity politics, so that we can, in fact, all be seen as the individuals we certainly are.