Identity Politics: Commonality or Common Enemy?

(Image: Patrick Record)

From the Trans Rights Movement to the rise of the ‘White Right’, identity has become a powerful force in modern politics.

The shift away from broad based party politics to a more tribal system divided along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation is generally described as the rise of Identity Politics.

Peter Franklin has also labeled the phenomenon as “Cultural Marxism” – a merger of Marxist economic theory with postmodernist philosophy. The former contests control over the means of production (i.e. industry, agriculture, etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of class;  while the latter contests control over the means of social construction (language, identity etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of privilege and power.

Cultural Marxists are those who believe that from the beginning of time, everything from language to morality has been constructed by and for, a tiny elite (white men). Society has internalised the structural misogyny and racism embedded in these historical institutions to the point that they see it as ‘normal.’

Given this inequality, many members of marginalised groups say that identity politics is not a choice. History has shoehorned women and minorities into an oppressive and violent social system which was designed to exclude and oppress them. The expansion of gender pronouns, fight for equal pay and emergence of identity based politics is about reclaiming and redistributing social power in a more equitable way.

Most people would accept that it is perfectly legitimate for groups to organise under one banner to fight imbalances of power. However Jonathan Haidt argues that it depends what type of identity politics is adopted. There are two main strands, the first is commonality identity politics. During the 1960’s, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King fought racial injustice by appealing to the common humanity of all people. ‘I have a dream’ was underpinned by the idea that humanity is one family and that Blacks were being excluded and denied equal dignity.

The second version is common enemy identity politics. This is the idea of uniting groups based on a belief that there is one group that is the root of all evil. Haidt suggests this is a dangerous strain of identity politics which has become more potent in recent years, as rather than using group identity to absorb marginalised groups into a common whole, it uses group identity to pit society’s groups against each other.

Opinions are divided as to whether identity politics today is causing more harm than good. What’s certain is that identity is not going away. And it would be a mistake to think the solution to easing social tensions lies in surgically removing identity from the heart of politics. Instead we should work to ensure groups can communicate with one another and air disagreements within a framework that cultivates a commitment to the common whole rather than a hostility to a common enemy. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The truth is there are no races”

 

“The truth is that there are no races” Kwame Anthony Appiah controversially wrote in 1985 launching him into fame and notoriety among his professional peers.

In this fascinating conversation between two of the most esteemed and provocative thinkers on racial identity, Appiah sits down with Professor Priya Gopal to unpack the philosophy of race, it’s historical development and why it’s not a ‘biological category.’

For both, race should be understood as a historical categorisation usually used to otherise people by physical characteristics or geographical location.

One of the most interesting talking points of the conversation is the question of “mixed-race” identity. Taking the example of Barack Obama, Gopal explains that despite having a white mother and black father Obama does not walk in the world as a white man. He is racialised as black and American society categorises him as if he had two black parents.

Similarly Gopal is racialised as “minority ethnic” in the West and as “upper caste” in India. The key point is that for both Obama and Gopal, historical categorisation not biology determines how they are racialised.

Appiah argues if we want to eradicate racism we must begin seeing race through this lens of constructed rather than fixed reality. Once we see that having different skin colour is as unremarkable as having different hair colour, we will undermine and immobilize those who wish to exploit imagined divisions between us. Is he right?

Further reading:

 

The Fight for Fairness

Author: Revels

Once upon a very British time, when the crown ruled quite a lot of the world, there lay in Asia, a country famous for its heat and spices – India, a majestic land with a thrilling history of battle, love and trade. At one time or another, the different groups that resided within or without it had ruled India, although usually partially, some factions had managed to make almost all of it a part of their little empire.

Now was the turn of the British Raj.

With their posh accents and fine manners they invaded, using the clever front of trade. Slowly but surely they gained stability, till they were able to officially state their hold. The Indians had new rulers after the 800 year rule of the Mughals, more outsiders – the British.

The British gave to the subcontinent some impressive things when they left; infrastructure, education systems, government and more. But they took something greater; they took with them the superiority, the contentment that the people had felt in being just themselves.

These white people had such dashing dresses, such delicate ways, such pretty skin! They had been proud and civilized, they had ruled in ways as to show the general population that they – the British – were better, they knew better and lived better.

That is when the inferiority complex began, that is when our people starting comparing themselves to their former rulers in hopes of somehow attaining their perfection.

Since then, our people have ingrained in themselves this thinking that somehow imitating the west is what would give them respect and a higher status. People who wear western clothing, people with lighter skin or anyone with a better English accent are considered more civilized or of the better class.

Of these three, the colour complex has been most widespread. This does not exclude our intellectuals, even they, the ‘educated’ and ‘enlightened’ part of our society, seem to strive to attain that lighter colour and scoff at the sight of dark skin. Knowing that this senseless discrimination only disturbs the female population – which is always in the search for things to make them prettier – has no effect; your skin is something you will be judged by.

In school, girls are made fun of for their dark skin, at times families point it out in the most horrible fashions, marriage proposals are rejected – there are countless examples of how darker skinned girls have to endure gross discrimination.

Some of our models and actresses have had to bear indecent remarks because they weren’t fair enough! In a country where the sun reigns, one would expect dark skin to be the norm and not the exception, and hence accepted. But this is not the case! We are obsessed with the fairer tones. Although we have had famous individuals speaking out against this irrational infatuation, we still have countless companies promoting their ‘fairness creams’ and ‘recipes to get lighter’ through TV, billboards and campaigning in different institutions. Our grandmothers will whip up organic pastes to somehow make that tan go away; they will try out new methods just to make sure the girls of the family are fair and so ‘pretty’.

So that sums it up: being fair means you’re prettier than the darker girl sitting next to you on the bus. Being fair means you’ll have lots of admirers and friends. Being fair means you’re blessed with beauty.

Revels is a Pakistani student, blogger and contributing writer at The Conversation Room 

You can visit her excellent blog here:

https://identity17.wordpress.com/