Identity politics

Identity politics is a political approach and analysis based on people prioritizing the concerns most relevant to their particular racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, social, cultural or other identity, and forming exclusive political alliances with others of this group, instead of engaging in more traditional, broad-based party politics.[1] Those who prioritize their particular type of identity politics may promote their group's interests without regard for the interests of larger, more diverse political groups that are based in shared theory.[2]

In academic usage, the term identity politics has been used to refer to a wide range of political activities and theoretical analysis rooted in experiences of injustice shared by different social groups. In this usage, identity politics typically aims to reclaim greater self-determination and political freedom for marginalized groups through understanding each interest group's distinctive nature and challenging externally imposed characterizations, instead of organizing solely around belief systems or party affiliations.[3] Identity is used "as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orient social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition."[4]

The term identity politics has been in use in various forms since the 1960s or 1970s, but has been applied with, at times, radically different meanings by different populations.[5][6] It has gained currency with the emergence of social movements such as the feminist movement, the civil rights movement in the U.S., the LGBTQ movement, as well as nationalist and postcolonial movements.[4]

Examples include identity politics based on age, religion, social class, profession, culture, language, disability, education, race or ethnicity, language, sex, gender identity, occupation, sexual orientation, urban or rural habitation, and veteran status.


The term identity politics has been used in political discourse since at least the 1970s.[5] One aim of identity politics has been for those feeling oppressed by and actively suffering under systemic social inequities to articulate their suffering and felt oppression in terms of their own experience by processes of consciousness-raising and collective action. One of the older written examples of it can be found in the April 1977 statement of the black feminist group, Combahee River Collective, which was reprinted in a number of anthologies,[7] and Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term.[8][9] For example, in their terminal statement, they said:[3]

[A]s children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated different—for example, when we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being 'ladylike' and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression....We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression.

— Zillah R. Eisenstein (1978), "The Combahee River Collective Statement"[10]

Identity politics, as a mode of categorizing, are closely connected to the ascription that some social groups are oppressed (such as women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities); that is, the claim that individuals belonging to those groups are, by virtue of their identity, more vulnerable to forms of oppression such as cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation of labour, marginalization, or powerlessness.[3] Therefore, these lines of social difference can be seen as ways to gain empowerment or avenues through which to work towards a more equal society.[11]

Some groups have combined identity politics with Marxist social class analysis and class consciousness—the most notable example being the Black Panther Party—but this is not necessarily characteristic of the form. Another example is the group MOVE, which mixed black nationalism with anarcho-primitivism (a radical form of green politics based on the idea that civilization is an instrument of oppression, advocating the return to a hunter gatherer society).[12][13] Identity politics can be left-wing or right-wing, with examples of the latter being Ulster Loyalism, Islamism and Christian Identity movements.

During the 1980s, the politics of identity became very prominent and it was linked to a new wave of social movement activism.[14]

The mid-2010s have seen a marked rise of identity politics, including white identity politics in the United States. This phenomenon is attributed to increased demographic diversity and the prospect of whites becoming a minority in America. Such shifts have driven many to affiliate with conservative causes including those not related to diversity.[15]

This includes the presidential election of Donald Trump, who was supported by prominent white supremacists such as David Duke and Richard B. Spencer (both of whom Trump disavowed).[16][17][18][19]

Debates and criticism

Nature of the movement

The term identity politics has been applied and misapplied retroactively to varying movements that long predate its coinage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. discussed identity politics extensively in his 1991 book The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger, a strong supporter of liberal conceptions of civil rights, argues that a liberal democracy requires a common basis for culture and society to function. Rather than seeing civil society as already fractured along lines of power and powerlessness (according to race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc), Schlesinger suggests that basing politics on group marginalization is itself what fractures the civil polity, and that identity politics therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending marginalization. Schlesinger believes that:

movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than … perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference.[20]

Similarly Brendan O'Neill has suggested that identity politics causes (rather than simply recognizing and acting on) political schisms along lines of social identity. Thus, he contrasts the politics of gay liberation and identity politics by saying:

[Peter] Tatchell also had, back in the day, … a commitment to the politics of liberation, which encouraged gays to come out and live and engage. Now, we have the politics of identity, which invites people to stay in, to look inward, to obsess over the body and the self, to surround themselves with a moral forcefield to protect their worldview—which has nothing to do with the world—from any questioning."[21]

In these and other ways, a political perspective oriented to one's own well being can be recast as causing the divisions that it insists upon making visible.

In this same vein, author Owen Jones argues that identity politics often marginalize the working class, saying that:

In the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing intellectuals who were both inspired and informed by a powerful labour movement wrote hundreds of books and articles on working-class issues. Such work would help shape the views of politicians at the very top of the Labour Party. Today, progressive intellectuals are far more interested in issues of identity. ... Of course, the struggles for the emancipation of women, gays, and ethnic minorities are exceptionally important causes. New Labour has co-opted them, passing genuinely progressive legislation on gay equality and women's rights, for example. But it is an agenda that has happily co-existed with the sidelining of the working class in politics, allowing New Labour to protect its radical flank while pressing ahead with Thatcherite policies.

LGBT issues

The gay liberation movement of the late 1960s through the mid-1980s urged lesbians and gay men to engage in radical direct action, and to counter societal shame with gay pride.[23] In the feminist spirit of the personal being political, the most basic form of activism was an emphasis on coming out to family, friends and colleagues, and living life as an openly lesbian or gay person.[23] While the 1970s were the peak of "gay liberation" in New York City and other urban areas in the United States, "gay liberation" was the term still used instead of "gay pride" in more oppressive areas into the mid-1980s, with some organizations opting for the more inclusive, "lesbian and gay liberation".[23][24] While women and transgender activists had lobbied for more inclusive names from the beginning of the movement, the initialism LGBT, or "Queer" as a counterculture shorthand for LGBT, did not gain much acceptance as an umbrella term until much later in the 1980s, and in some areas not until the '90s or even '00s.[23][24][25] During this period in the United States, identity politics were largely seen in these communities in the definitions espoused by writers such as self-identified, "black, dyke, feminist, poet, mother" Audre Lorde's view, that lived experience matters, defines us, and is the only thing that grants authority to speak; that, "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive."[26][27][28]

By the 2000s, in some areas of postmodern queer studies, notably those around gender, the idea of "identity politics" began to shift away from that of naming and claiming lived experience, and authority arising from lived experience, to one emphasizing choice and performance.[29] Some who draw on the work of authors like Judith Butler, stress the importance of not assuming an already existing identity, but of remaking and unmaking identities through "performance".[30] Writers in the field of Queer theory have at times taken this to the extent as to now argue that "queer", despite generations of specific use, no longer needs to refer to any specific sexual orientation at all; that it is now only about disrupting the mainstream, with author David M. Halperin arguing that straight people may now also self-identify as "queer,"[31] which some believe, is a form of cultural appropriation which robs gays and lesbians of their identity and makes invisible and irrelevant the actual, lived experience that causes them to be marginalized in the first place. "It desexualizes identity, when the issue is precisely about a sexual identity."[32][29] See Queer heterosexuality.

Some supporters of identity politics take stances based on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work (namely, "Can the Subaltern Speak?") and have described some forms of identity politics as strategic essentialism, a form which has sought to work with hegemonic discourses to reform the understanding of "universal" goals.[33][34][35]

Critiques of identity politics

Critics argue that groups based on a particular shared identity (e.g. race, or gender identity) can divert energy and attention from more fundamental issues, similar to the history of divide and rule strategies. Chris Hedges has criticized identity politics as one of the factors making up a form of "corporate capitalism" that only masquerades as a political platform, and which he believes "will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance."[36] Sociologist Charles Derber asserts that the American left is "largely an identity-politics party" and that it "offers no broad critique of the political economy of capitalism. It focuses on reforms for blacks and women and so forth. But it doesn’t offer a contextual analysis within capitalism." Both he and David North of the Socialist Equality Party posit that these fragmented and isolated identity movements which permeate the left have allowed for a far-right resurgence.[36]

Critiques of identity politics have also been expressed on other grounds by writers such as Eric Hobsbawm,[37] Todd Gitlin,[38] Michael Tomasky, Richard Rorty, Sean Wilentz, Robert W. McChesney,[citation needed] and Jim Sleeper.[39][clarification needed] Hobsbawm criticized nationalisms and the principle of national self-determination adopted in many countries after World War I, since national governments are often merely an expression of a ruling class or power, and their proliferation was a source of the wars of the 20th century. Hence, Hobsbawm argues that identity politics, such as queer nationalism, Islamism, Cornish nationalism or Ulster loyalism are just other versions of bourgeois nationalism.[citation needed] The view that identity politics (rooted in challenging racism, sexism, and the like) obscures class inequality is widespread in the United States and other Western nations. This framing ignores how class-based politics are identity politics themselves, according to Jeff Sparrow.[40]

Intersectional critiques

In her journal article Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color, Kimberle Crenshaw treats identity politics as a process that brings people together based on a shared aspect of their identity. Crenshaw applauds identity politics for bringing African Americans (and other non-white people), gays and lesbians, and other oppressed groups together in community and progress.[11] But she critiques it because "it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences."[11] Crenshaw argues that for black women, at least two aspects of their identity are the subject of oppression: their race and their sex.[41] Thus, although identity politics are useful, we must be aware of the role intersectionality. Nira Yuval-Davis supports Crenshaw's critiques in Intersectionality and Feminist Politics and explains that "Identities are individual and collective narratives that answer the question 'who am/are I/we?" [42]

In Mapping the Margins, Crenshaw illustrates her point using the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy. Anita Hill accused US Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; Thomas would be the second African American judge on the Supreme Court. Crenshaw argues that Hill was then deemed anti-black in the movement against racism, and although she came forward on the feminist issue of sexual harassment, she was excluded because when considering feminism, it is the narrative of white middle-class women that prevails.[11] Crenshaw concludes that acknowledging intersecting categories when groups unite on the basis of identity politics is better than ignoring categories altogether.[11]


A Le Monde/IFOP poll in January 2011 conducted in France and Germany found that a majority felt Muslims are "scattered improperly"; an analyst for IFOP said the results indicated something "beyond linking immigration with security or immigration with unemployment, to linking Islam with a threat to identity".[43]

According to Marc Lynch, the post-Arab Spring era has seen increasing Arab identity politics, which is "marked by state-state rivalries as well as state-society conflicts". Lynch believes this is creating a new Arab Cold War, no longer characterized by Sunni-Shia sectarian divides but by a reemergent Arab identity in the region.[44] Najla Said has explored her lifelong experience with Arab identity politics in her book Looking for Palestine.[45]

See also


  1. ^ "Identity politics". Oxford Living Dictionaries. Archived from the original on 17 February 2019. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  2. ^ "Identity politics". Merriam-Webster. Archived from the original on 19 February 2019. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Heyes, Cressida (1 January 2016). "Identity Politics". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Archived from the original on 27 March 2017. Retrieved 3 May 2017.
  4. ^ a b Vasiliki Neofotistos (2013). "Identity Politics". Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 27 October 2018. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  5. ^ a b Wiarda, Howard J. (8 April 2016) [1st pub. Ashgate:2014]. Political Culture, Political Science, and Identity Politics: An Uneasy Alliance. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-07885-2. OCLC 982044314. Archived from the original on 19 August 2017. Retrieved 21 February 2018. There are disputes regarding the origins of the term 'identity politics' .... Almost all authors, even while disagreeing over who was the first to use the term, agree that its original usage goes back to the 1970s and even the 1960s.
  6. ^ Heyes, Cressida. "Identity Politics". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University. Archived from the original on 30 August 2006. Retrieved 11 November 2012.
  7. ^ See, e.g., Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978)
  8. ^ Collier-Thomas, edited by Bettye; Franklin, V.P. (2001). Sisters in the struggle African American women in the civil rights-black power movement ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). New York: New York University Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-8147-1603-8. Archived from the original on 17 June 2018. Retrieved 11 October 2017.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Harris, Duchess. From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960–1980, in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, eds: Bettye Collier-Thomas, V. P. Franklin, NYU Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8147-1603-2, p. 300
  10. ^ "The Combahee River Collective Statement". Archived from the original on 24 February 2017. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  11. ^ a b c d e Crenshaw, Kimberle (1 January 1991). "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color". Stanford Law Review. 43 (6): 1241–99. CiteSeerX doi:10.2307/1229039. JSTOR 1229039.
  12. ^ by Committee. "Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (MOVE) Records | Temple University Libraries". library.temple.edu. Archived from the original on 1 May 2017. Retrieved 3 May 2017.
  13. ^ no attrib. "On a Move – Website of the MOVE Organization". onamove.com. Archived from the original on 29 April 2017. Retrieved 3 May 2017.
  14. ^ Calhoun, Craig (1994). Craig Calhoun (ed.). Social Theory and the Politics of Identity. Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-55786-473-4.[page needed]
  15. ^ Bartels, Larry (16 April 2014). "Can the Republican Party thrive on white identity?". The Washington Post.
  16. ^ "Trump denounces David Duke, KKK". Archived from the original on 21 August 2018. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  17. ^ "David Duke: Charlottesville protests about 'fulfilling promises of Donald Trump'". The Hill. 12 August 2017. Archived from the original on 13 August 2017. Retrieved 2 December 2017.
  18. ^ "Richard Spencer, alt-right figure: 'Trump has never denounced the Alt-Right. Nor will he'". The Washington Times. 23 August 2017. Archived from the original on 3 December 2017. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  19. ^ "The Primal Scream of Identity Politics". Weekly Standard. 27 October 2017. Archived from the original on 30 October 2017. Retrieved 30 November 2017.
  20. ^ M.A. Chaudhary & Gautam Chaudhary, Global Encyclopaedia of Political Geography, New Delhi, 2009, ISBN 978-81-8220-233-7, p. 112
  21. ^ Brendan, O'Neill (19 February 2015). "Identity politics has created an army of vicious, narcissistic cowards". The Spectator. Archived from the original on 30 June 2015. Retrieved 28 June 2015.
  22. ^ Jones, Owen (2012). Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (updated ed.). London: Verso. p. 255. ISBN 978-1-84467-864-8.
  23. ^ a b c d Hoffman, Amy (2007). An Army of Ex-Lovers: My life at the Gay Community News. University of Massachusetts Press. pp. xi–xiii. ISBN 978-1558496217.
  24. ^ a b Hoffman, Amy (2007). An Army of Ex-Lovers: My life at the Gay Community News. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 978-1558496217.
  25. ^ phoenix. "Gay Rights Are Not Queer Liberation". autostraddle.com. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  26. ^ Lorde, Audre (1982). Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. New York: Crossing Press. ISBN 978-0-89594-123-7.
  27. ^ Kemp, Yakini B. (2004). "Writing Power: Identity Complexities and the Exotic Erotic in Audre Lorde's writing". Studies in the Literary Imagination. 37: 22–36.
  28. ^ Leonard, Keith D. (28 September 2012). ""Which Me Will Survive": Rethinking Identity, Reclaiming Audre Lorde" Archived 20 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine. Callaloo. 35 (3): 758–77. doi:10.1353/cal.2012.0100. ISSN 1080-6512.
  29. ^ a b "Queer Theory and the Social Construction of Sexuality". Homosexuality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Archived from the original on 9 December 2011. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  30. ^ Butler, Judith (1988). "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory". Theatre Journal. 40 (4): 519–531. doi:10.2307/3207893. JSTOR 3207893.
  31. ^ Halperin, David M. (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-90097-3.
  32. ^ Jagose, Annamarie, 1996. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.
  33. ^ Spivak, Gayatri Chakrovotry (2008). Other Asias. Malden, M.A.: Blackwell Publishing. p. 260. ISBN 978-1405102070.
  34. ^ Abraham, Susan (2009). "Strategic Essentialism in Nationalist Discourses: Sketching a Feminist Agenda in the Study of Religion". Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 25 (1): 156–161. doi:10.2979/fsr.2009.25.1.156. Archived from the original on 18 October 2017. Retrieved 17 December 2017 – via Project Muse.
  35. ^ G. Ritze/J. M. Ryan eds., The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology (2010) p. 193
  36. ^ a b Hedges, Chris (5 February 2018). "The Bankruptcy of the American Left". Truthdig. Archived from the original on 9 February 2018. Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  37. ^ Hobsbawm, Eric (2 May 1996). "Identity Politics and the Left Archived 18 September 2017 at the Wayback Machine". 1996 Trust Lecture. Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust. amielandmelburn.org.uk. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  38. ^ PBS.org Archived 4 August 2017 at the Wayback Machine, Thinktank transcript 235
  39. ^ Sleeper, Jim (1 January 1993). "In Defense of Civic Culture". Progressive Policy Institute. ppionline.org. Archived from the original on 16 January 2010. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  40. ^ Sparrow, Jeff (17 November 2016). "Class and identity politics are not mutually exclusive. The left should use this to its benefit | Jeff Sparrow". the Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 July 2018. Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  41. ^ Crenshaw, Kimberle (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum. pp. 139–68.
  42. ^ Yuval-Davis, Nira (1 August 2006). "Intersectionality and Feminist Politics". European Journal of Women's Studies. 13 (3): 193–209. doi:10.1177/1350506806065752. ISSN 1350-5068. Archived from the original on 3 November 2016. Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  43. ^ "European Poll: An Islamic Threat?". Al Jazeera. 6 January 2011. Archived from the original on 14 October 2012. Retrieved 19 October 2012.
  44. ^ Lynch, Mark (2019). The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East. Columbia University Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0231158855.
  45. ^ "Najla Said: "My Arab-American story is not typical in any way"". Salon (website). 28 July 2013.

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