Gods&Radicals—A Site of Beautiful Resistance.

The Identity Politics Glitch

“When neoliberals ask for “diversity”, or more opportunities for the disenfranchised to franchise themselves, what they want is to hand out “white masks” to people of colour as if it’s charity.”

“The colonial world is a world divided into compartments. It is probably unnecessary to recall the existence of native quarters and European quarters, of schools for natives and schools for Europeans; in the same way we need not recall apartheid in South Africa. Yet, if we examine closely this system of compartments, we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized.”

Frantz Fanon [1]

Identity Politics is the concept that puts “Black” in Black Panther, “Gay” in Gay Pride, “Gender” in Gender Performativity, “Jewish” in Jewish Diaspora, “Women” in Women’s Rights, and, dare I say it for the Marxists out there, “Working” in Working-Class. If there is hierarchy, there is hegemony; and those who are not identified as members of the leading social group are subject to harsh authoritarian treatment. For the oppressed, an identity is a constant imposition, not something someone puts on when they feel like it, or perform occasionally. Black people can’t detach from their skin, being inside or outside of the closet is a struggle, the gender dichotomy is omnipresent, we live the Christian calendar and traditions everyday, toxic masculinity creeps at every corner, and back-breaking work barely makes ends meet (if there is work).

Organising under a shared identity can be liberating. Not feeling alone in the struggle, knowing that the problem is not you being a freak, and that together we can really make a difference for everyone. Not to mention the self-esteem boost of shared cultural practices, physical and emotional self-expression.

Recognising a shared identity means also recognising differences with others. Recognising differences isn’t necessarily separatist, it’s a unifying practice because we bond based on shared experience (as opposed to being-the-same), and we support each other in the intersections between different struggles. According to Frantz Fanon, these different categories have been put in place by colonial forces. Carefully observing them, analysing why they were put in place, by whom, and in what ways these categories manifest themselves now is quite essential for building a decolonized world.

Sounds beautiful, but of course nothing is that perfect. Some interpret this organisational style as “tribalism”, which is something that can be used to weaken a wider movement of resistance against capitalism by inciting conflict between so-called “tribes”. Colonisers exploited already existing tribal disputes, and today’s hegemony has inherited this practice towards social justice movements. However, to argue that tribalism is the problem in this case is a perpetuation of the colonial attitude that imposes Western values on non-Western people. The problem is not how indigenous people were organising themselves, but instead how they were exploited.

Today, being “officially” recognised as Native American requires a DNA test that proves the opposite of the “one-drop-rule”. Meaning, instead of the claim that one drop of “black blood” makes you black, one drop of “non-indigenous blood” makes Native Americans not Native. This is a type of racial violence that distorts and restricts indigenous heritage and existence. Furthermore, it reduces the acknowledgment of identity to the extent to which it’s convenient to the Government to acknowledge it, rather than actually respecting what indigenous identity means to indigenous people. DNA is not all that matters, and it doesn’t even distinguish between different tribes. Much of Native identity is about participation in a particular tribe and practices. It should be up to that tribe to grant nationhood to a member [2].

Governmental restrictions of people’s affirmation and expression of identity is what leads to the extinction of tribes, and a complete erasure of heritage. This contemporary practice is very much related to the colonial practice of forced Christian conversions and marriages in Brazil. Fanon would call that white masks, but I’ll bring that up again later in the article. For now we can call it a bloodless genocide, where numerous peoples were forced into extinction through Western assimilation.

When it comes to bloody genocide there is no stronger voice than that of Africans in the diaspora. Black identity isn’t alienating in the way white identity is, so let’s be careful to not tell people of colour that they “misunderstand the nature of race”. The Identitarian movement [3], which is lead by an Austrian man who wants to preserve white identity and fortress Europe, is in no way comparable with the Pan-Africanist movement [4], which aims to restore nationhood to Africans in the continent and in the diaspora. There is nothing racist about Pan-Africanists saying they don’t want white people directly involved in their organisations, it’s a fair strategy to combat white supremacy that should be respected and supported.

None of these identity based political movements have to interfere with the wider movement of resistance against capitalism. Saying that organising under a shared identity distracts from organising against the capitalist ruling class is like saying beehives and honey-making distract from pollination. It doesn’t, they complement each other, especially if we have an intersectional approach. What interferes is white people feeling entitled to show up at other people’s “hives” and start telling them what they are doing wrong and what they should be doing instead.

Another thing that interferes is awesome movements getting cooped by capitalist forces (like politicians and corporations). That’s why nowadays it’s apparently hard for people to separate Identity politics from Hilary Clinton, since she took this side of the debate against Bernie, who claimed the let’s-all-unite-against-capitalism argument [5]. But Hilary is no more representative of Identity Politics than Ivanka Trump is representative of Toni Morrison’s descriptions of female slave labor [6]. Just because one (mis)quotes the other doesn’t mean they are representative of each other, just as Urban Dictionary isn’t all there is to a term’s definition.

Identity politics doesn’t only mean practicing reverse social exclusion [7] and creating safe(er) spaces based on race, culture and gender [8], or a hypocritical reproduction of the discrimination we claim to be fighting against.

In a previous article [9] I discussed how colourblindness is not anti-racist, it’s in fact a careless exercise of (white) privilege, and how categorising others while remaining neutral is an essential strategy for the persistence of White Patriarchy. White people do what they want, when they want [10], and I object when white men tell people of colour and queers that their identity based communities makes them feel discriminated against. Masculinity and whiteness are also socially performed identities, but they are imposed on most of the world as an objective, neutral, and superior state of being. Listening to so-called-others helps one understand why these identity based communities are so important in facing such an incredibly hostile world.

Even Anzaldua [15], who rejected oppositional identity politics and idealized a post-racial world, acknowledged that she would “stop using labels. That’s what [she] want[s] to work towards. But until we come to that time, if you lay your body down and don’t declare certain facets of yourself, they get stepped on.”

That is not to say identity politics can’t be problematic. Some approach it superficially and end up throwing empty statements around that focus more on personal image than on genuine social change: when causes become trends. An example of this is how in the last 10 years, Zwarte Piet [11] has been more widely condemned in the Netherlands. While that in itself is positive, it can be a problem when Dutch people think that taking a stance against this tradition is an opportunity to earn a not-racist badge. It’s important to avoid interpreting certain things as the problem, but instead as symptoms of a much bigger problem. This way we ensure that Dutch Racism doesn’t manifest itself in other ways.

Another issue that rises from Identity Politics is the expectation of homogeneity. Kimberle Crenshaw thought us over 20 years ago [12] that when feminist circles attempt to homogenise womanhood and the experience of sexism, they erase the different forms of oppression women of colour experience, and consequently erasing black womanhood itself. Today we can say the same for TERF’s [13] and the erasure of the trans experience. This is why identity politics must be perceived as intrinsically connected to intersectionality.

Identity politics is not what brings those compartments Fanon speaks of into existence. We choose to look at them, take them, dismantle them, and from there we can build a new world. Non-Westerners mustn’t be the same as Westerners. In a white supremacist world, assimilation means whitification. The colonised has oppressor and oppressed within, a neurotic inferiority complex, and a survival instinct that leads to a horrible desire to adjust. This is fed and exploited. When neo-liberals ask for “diversity”, or more opportunities for the disenfranchised to franchise themselves, what they want is to hand out “white masks” [14] to people of colour as if it’s charity. What we should have is a world where we can exist without them.

So, what does this debate mean for the woke generation? A complete inability to get over ourselves and just get shit done.

  1. Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon (1965, p.36)

  2. Genetic “Markers”- Not a Valid Test of Native Identity. Blood quantum laws. And a video on the subject can be found here.

  3. The new-right hipsters.

  4. A Britannica definition of Pan-Africanism. Check also the Brazilian political organisation Reaja.

  5. Bernie Sanders still says class is more important than race. He is still wrong.

  6. Ivanka Criticised for quoting Toni Morrison.

  7. For instance calling people out, and banning public displays of cultural appropriation in specific spaces.

  8. For example organizing events, meetings and parties for Queers and PoC only.

  9. White Privilege in Dutch Anarchism.

  10. Joyce Galvão’s private commentary on Mallu Magalhães and cultural appropriation in Brazilian music.

  11. Zwarte Piet

  12. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, by Kimberle Crenshaw (Stanford Law Review, 1991).

  13. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.

  14. Black Skins White masks by Frantz Fanon.

  15. Gloria E. Anzaldúa was a scholar of Latina feminist phenomenology.

Mirna Wabi-Sabi

is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.