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The Problem With Identity Politics

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.

Black Lives Matter protest

Black Lives Matter protest

What Are Identity Politics?

In his article "Against Identity Politics", historian Francis Fukayama states:

"Now, in many democracies, the left focuses less on creating broad economic equality and more on promoting the interests of a wide variety of marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees, women, and LGBT people. The right, meanwhile, has redefined its core mission as the patriotic protection of traditional national identity, which is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity, or religion."

I think that people of all political persuasions will, at least broadly, agree that Fukuyama is right. The question then is: Can we find some common ground or are we seeing a rift that will always divide us?

It is not just a feature of the political landscape in the United States, many countries are witnessing the same fracture of consensus. Populist movements are on the rise in many countries, as are identity groups. They are staring at each other across a fence with mutual incomprehension.

The Combahee River Collective

Identity politics has its origins back in the seventies when the Combahee River Collective found its voice. This was a group of women who were fighting to defend their rights.

However, this group represented a more specific group than simply women. Its members were feminists, yes, but also black and lesbian. They felt the need to form a splinter group that represented their identity as black, lesbian, feminists because they saw the prevailing feminist movement as white-dominated and the Civil Rights Movement as largely homophobic.

Both criticisms had considerable truth to them. The feminist movement of the time was dominated by well-educated, middle-class whites and the Civil Rights Movement had many influential members who had traditional, conservative views on social questions.

We can see here a move away from the fight for "broad economic equality" that Fukuyama mentions. The Combahee River Collective was moving the emphasis from a generalized fight against oppression towards a defense of a specific identity. This, they believed, would be a more effective strategy in combatting inequality.

The problem is that there is potentially no end to the divisions that you can make in society. If you go far enough you would reach the point where every single individual is her own pressure group, because no two individuals share exactly the same perceived needs.

A group that represents black, lesbian feminists has rejected the broader feminist movement because it is not black. Should a group of black feminists arise, this too would be rejected because it is not lesbian. Where do you stop? What if some of the group support the Democratic party and others the Republican? Does the group divide again?

Our next question will deal with whether or not groups based on specific identities truly represent their members.

Stop Asian Hate protest

Stop Asian Hate protest

Group Identity

An identity card distinguishes you as a recognizable individual. Depending on where you are, it may include a photo, fingerprint, registration number, sex, and nationality. But an identity card says nothing about you as a person. It won't tell anyone whether you prefer tea or coffee in the morning, it won't say what movies you like, or how you get on with your neighbors.

In short, identity is not personality. If we look again at the Combahee River Collective, we can see that a black waitress in Alabama might have completely different problems than a black lawyer in Washington. A feminist might be concerned with labor rights, or she might be more worried about domestic abuse. A lesbian might fight for civil recognition or the right to marry. Some of the Collective's members might be concerned about all of these things, but each will have different priorities. They are individuals.

No matter how we subdivide a group, we can't reach the individual personality. Not unless, as I have said, each individual has her own group of one.

There are games and psychological tests that ask you to describe yourself by a certain number of adjectives. It doesn't matter how many, it could be ten or it could be a hundred. In the end, the exercise will only say a certain amount about you. It can't capture the whole you. It can't even come close.


There is a risk with identity politics. Let me give an example that represents something that I have seen all too often. I am English but have lived in Spain for many years. I speak reasonable Spanish and am perfectly happy in a Spanish-speaking environment. However, many English-speaking residents here make no attempt to learn the language and operate in an entirely English world. They have structured a group that is setting limits on its experience. Members of this group have only one thing in common, otherwise, they are very different people.

The disturbing thing about this group, and, in my opinion, all groups that structure around an identity, is that it is exclusive. By definition, a person who only speaks Spanish is excluded. Thereby, a wealth of experience and knowledge is unavailable to members.

A member of an identity group may identify so completely with the group that aspects of her own individuality are subsumed. She might find that her group is dominated by people whose philosophy she doesn't completely share. But, at the same time, she has cut herself away from others who may have much to share that she can benefit from.


Think of all the people that you are. You are, of course, one unique individual. But you don't show the same person to everyone you meet in your daily life. As a parent, you are one person to your children. as a boss, you are a different person to your staff. Every facet of our lives calls for a different actor. This is one of the richest things about being human.

Identity politics seeks to represent the interests of a facet. Many of the goals that these groups have are worthwhile, but many of the wrongs that they seek to redress are real. However, division is not the way to solve society's problems.

What unites us is stronger than what divides us. We need to find common ground where everyone is treated with the respect and dignity that we deserve.