• Identity affects everything, from the area you live in to your job to how much you get paid for it. (AAP)
Identity politics is coming under fire from conservatives who say it is promotes false grievances, and progressives who call it a distraction from class issues. Omar Sakr explains why he thinks those who argue against it, simply misunderstand it.
By
Omar Sakr

9 Mar 2017 - 3:40 PM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2017 - 3:40 PM

If I had to name one of the most urgent issues of our time, I would be hard-pressed to look past what is now dismissively termed “identity politics”—that is, the demand by marginalised groups for equality.

Notice I didn’t say “climate change”? That’s because even this relates to identity politics, since the people who will be disproportionately impacted by its worst affects are third world countries, island nations, and the poor.

Everything comes back to the framework established by Western imperialism, that original form of politicised identity, where white men endowed their own constructed sense of self with more value than all non-white, non-male, and non-straight bodies.

Notice I didn’t say “climate change”. That’s because even this relates to identity politics, since the people who will be disproportionately impacted by its worst affects are third world countries, island nations, and the poor.

Yet, when we think about the term “identity politics” now, what springs to mind are the efforts of culturally and linguistically diverse people to redress structural imbalances designed specifically to disadvantage them.

Even this, however, is fading in the face of an overwhelming pushback from right-wing conservatives and some left progressives, who characterise it as either a false sense of injury based on race, or regressive individualism that undermines the collective effort, respectively.

Neither is even remotely true.

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At the heart of both critiques is the notion that the identity in question is not tied to anything other than its own abstraction. This is ridiculous. Identity affects everything, from the area you live in to your job to how much you get paid for it. From whether you get the house you applied for to how you’re treated by authority figures and government services, and so on.

Although it can be mitigated, via class, it can never be completely overcome, as we’ve seen through the double standards applied to famous people of colour, be they athletes like Adam Goodes or politicians like Barack Obama.

Even within classes, a prejudicial hierarchy exists.

This is the central thesis of identity politics—it has always been about structural barriers and biases privileging white people, as opposed to an individualistic focus on race or sexuality. Whenever people make such claims, I think of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is often targeted as an example of “divisive” identity politics. What critics gloss over is that organisation’s extensive manifesto calling for, among other things, judicial and police reforms, tax and economic reforms, education reform, and universal healthcare, with specific outcomes listed within each section.

It’s not that Black Lives Matter cares about nothing other than race, so much as the incredibly racist commentary around it has reduced its complex platform to identity alone.

To say that people of colour rallying around their ethnic identity gives ammunition to white supremacists is to fundamentally misunderstand both history and the present: racists are and have been firing at non-Anglo bodies since the beginnings of colonialism.

This continued mischaracterisation has lead to today’s Nazis, headed by the likes of Richard Spencer, co-opting the language of “identity politics” to call for a white-ethno state. Indeed, socialist writer Shuja Haider uses this as the basis of his claim that we need to move beyond identity and into a more “universal” politics, such as that of class. If “white nationalists” were confronted by this universalism, Haider argues, “they would find themselves in the worst position of a nation at war: being unable to identify the enemy.”

Personally, I think they’d find it pretty easy, particularly if you’re black or Muslim, or both. To say that people of colour rallying around their ethnic identity gives ammunition to white supremacists is to fundamentally misunderstand both history and the present: racists are and have been firing at non-Anglo bodies since the beginnings of colonialism.

That said, the way Spencer frames whiteness is diametrically opposite to the politics of people of colour—it aims to erase all distinction except skin. It is, in fact, everything conservatives and other social commentators accuse the identity politics of CALD people to be, since it has no other social or political concern beyond its racial identity.

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Whereas the term “white” elevates only one racial identity, “People of Colour” aligns groups of many different backgrounds to stand together against the kind of collective erasure espoused by Spencer. It isn’t always perfect, and in fact is often messy (as all hard work is), but at the heart of it is an acknowledgment of what makes each group different unto themselves, and a love for and solidarity with each other regardless.

The issue with the universalism advocated by Haider is that we don’t all live in the same world, even when we share the same country, geographic space, or class. People who have trouble reconciling how ideals can work in theory but fail in practice, don’t seem to recognise this is because as soon as ideas are translated into reality, they are warped by the unequal structures of power at play.

Until then, maybe we can try loving our differences and embracing the hyphen in our identities, as we work toward equalling the imbalances in our society and making it a home for all of us.

Take, for example, those who say, “We are all Australian and that’s enough.” It’s a beautiful ideal, but one we’ve proven we’re not ready for. “Australian”, by itself, indicates an equality that simply doesn’t exist. Australians are not all treated the same by our government, and what’s more, it implies a false default to which all else is foreign and lesser. But there is no such thing as an Australian. There are Indigenous-Australians. Anglo-Australians. Arab-Australians. German-Australians. Samoan-Australians. Somali-Australians. And so on.

With the exception of First Nations people – who, in my opinion, alone can choose whether to hyphenate this identity or not – no one here has anymore of a right to the space we share, the nation we live in.

Too many people assume difference means division. But when my Samoan friend says to me “I’m Samoan”, I don’t respond, “Stop being divisive!”, I say, “And I love you”.  If we can get to a point where the sound of our name, or the colour of our skin, or who we love, or what our gender happens to be, doesn’t privilege or disadvantage our bodies, then we can revisit the beautiful ideal of universalism.

Until then, maybe we can try loving our differences and embracing the hyphen in our identities, as we work toward equalling the imbalances in our society and making it a home for all of us. 

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