identity politics: why it matters
August 15, 2017 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I have been communicating with a younger online friend for a few months. Lately, he's gotten the idea in his head that "identity politics" are the root of all evil in this country, that we should be judging people as individual and ignoring things like race, gender, etc. All well in good, except as far as I can tell, that's not how the world actually operates. What are some good arguments and sources that I can use to help him understand why the group matters in politics?

Dude in question is a mixed-race 18 year old. He means well, but I feel he's falling into right-wing ideology as we speak. I'm trying to find ways to combat his ideas, I mean it would be great if everybody were judged as individuals and race and gender didn't matter at all, but no matter how many statistics I show him to demonstrate that there are group level issues such as bias in hiring that need group-level responses, I'm not getting through. Am I taking the wrong tack here?

How can I get through to him? He denies that he's ever experienced any racial bias due to his identity, so it's difficult to convince him of privilege or anything else because he hasn't personally experienced it. I don't want this dude to fall into the alt right black hole. Hope me.
posted by zug to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I think there is an argument to be made that "identity politics are the root of all evil in this country" if you think of the mass murder of indigenous Americans and the thorough moral bankruptcy of slavery as "identity politics." White people did not come to possess 90% of the financial and political power in this country through luck or nature, we/they (as a non-anglo white person it would be easy to point out that my ancestors were starving and getting slaughtered in the old country and not exactly manifesting any destiny in north America, nonetheless I benefit from substantial privilege) raped, murdered, and stole our way into it. It doesn't make any sense to arbitrarily start treating people in a social/racial vacuum within a culture that was literally built upon subjugation of difference.

Maybe suggest he read Waking Up White which I personally found to be both insightful and relatively different in its perspective on colorblindness.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:02 PM on August 15, 2017 [8 favorites]

Introduce him to the podcast Pod Save The People. In today's episode, "The House We Live In," one of the first points of discussion was debunking the idea that confederate anything is about honoring southern culture or history, because when the Civil War was fought, the value of the human beings owned as slaves was greater than all other assets or production potential of the north and south combined. Then someone read a statement Robert E. Lee wrote about slavery being divinely guided and the "best" situation for Africans because as a race they were inferior. By "allowing" them to be slaves, god was helping Africans to one day have the potential to become elevated in some fashion. Then there are interviews with politicians, academics, and activists. It's an amazing podcast that does a great job facilitating the types of knowledge and conversation about race and politics every American needs to hear (heal?) right now if we are going to finally end racial oppression and violence in the US.

Long story short - your young friend can't talk about what they do not know about. Pod Save The People.
posted by jbenben at 1:03 PM on August 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

One of the ideas I found most illuminating in Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me was his consistent use of the phrase "people who believed they [are/were] white," which points out the whole notion of "racial" division is, well, a fiction created by people in power to deny that power to other groups.
posted by uberchet at 1:06 PM on August 15, 2017 [9 favorites]

Charlottesville seems like a pretty good argument for why groups ("identity politics") matter. Ask him what racial/gender/gay slurs he knows. Does he think those things don't matter when said to someone? Does he think other people don't know them? Does he know anyone who doesn't like people from any of those groups? And "I had a black classmate who I liked once" doesn't count. Does he think the fact that a Nazi dressed like Donald Trump murdered a woman this weekend might be an indication that other people in society may harbor racist, but not necessarily murderous, feelings? If the answer is yes to any of those questions, that's why identity politics exists.

Personally, I think the microaggression movement has gone way too far and is alienating people who would otherwise be allies. Part of my strategy with this person would be to agree that some things our side gets very angry about are completely unreasonable. But that also means that many other things our side gets angry about (Charlottesville, crimes against gays, Muslims, black folks, etc.) *do* matter.

Microagressions happen on both sides. People on the right are enraged that a football player kneels during the national anthem, so much so that he has been effectively banned from his profession. But those same people couldn't care less if a black person, let alone a dozen, or a hundred, is murdered in the street by a police officer. That's as nonsensical and politically correct as anything the left has invented. The "War on Christmas" is a microagression. Microaggressions are not strictly the province of the left.

I also think that rural Midwesterners and folks living in Appalachia should be recognized by Democrats as an (economic) identity group like any other. Not in a "white power" sense, but in the sense that, like urban minorities, those groups need help, and Democrats should help them instead of ignoring them. Their sense seems to be that, for example, transgender bathrooms matter more to Democrats than whether those people can survive day to day. It's not a zero sum game. Both things can and should be important.

When I hear that "identity politics" are the problem, what I hear is "my problems don't matter." I think a point of agreement for me personally is that if they're from the rural Midwest or Appalachia or identify with those groups, that person's problems *do* matter and the only people talking about those problems (unfortunately laced with racist bullshit) are Republicans. That should change, as voters have certainly made it known.

I guess my argument here is to find points of agreement, and push on areas where there are obvious problems in society that this person isn't currently recognizing.

On preview, I am mixed race person and I know racist white people. Making an argument based on white guilt or historical issues is absolutely not going to work.
posted by cnc at 1:25 PM on August 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

Doubts about "identity politics" does not automatically equate to "right wing ideology". One perspective it that it was the wedge that allowed the donor class to pull the Democratic party away from it's union / labor base.
posted by cfraenkel at 1:29 PM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think your friend needs to make a baseline analytical distinction between two very different questions: "how should I judge people?" and "how is power distributed in our society today?" I agree with him wholeheartedly that we should judge people as individuals and, in any person to person interaction, seeing an individual purely as a group member is a mistake. But when you want to understand how power is actually distributed between individuals in society--and how power affects behaviour--we do still need to think on a group-level. This is because, in most societies, there has been a really clear-cut history of obvious, crude, legal and political discrimination on the basis of group-identity of some kind or the other for centuries. "Judge people purely as individuals" is less than 300 years old as an idea, and it became a dominant idea in world history only, slowly, in the twentieth century. For most of the history of everywhere, discrimination on the basis of group identity was the norm. We all live in the aftermath of that, and its effects haven't been erased by the legal abolition of some of these forms of discrimination. The legacy of every individual in every society -- the houses we grew up in, the worldview of the parents or grandparents who raised us, the physical spaces we move through -- is shaped by that past. In the US context, if he is American, he may want to look at some resources on redlining in housing and the use of racist restrictive covenants to understand how the literal physical world he moves through has been affected by history. (Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations includes a very good factual account of the impact of redlining and similar policies in the US, and I recommend it especially if your friend doesn't know much about the history of race relations in the US between slavery and Martin Luther King.)

None of this gives us reasons for judging others. It doesn't mean our privileges make us bad people or our disadvantages make us good. But these are the facts about the world he lives in, and that any individual he might meet lives in. These facts are relevant, often, to how we treat others in the same way that the fact of gravity is relevant. Since we live in a world with gravity, we need to not drop things from great heights onto the heads of others. Since we live in a world of inherited inequality, we need to be alive to how that history may be affecting us when we make decisions about dealing with others. The dynamics of privilege and disadvantage are just facts about the world. They're not, in themselves, axes of moral judgment. People can behave badly in the light of those facts--in the same way that it is bad to drop bricks on individuals in a world of gravity, it is bad to attack people for being less privileged than you in a world of inequality--but the facts themselves just are what they are.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:54 PM on August 15, 2017 [20 favorites]

Black people pay more for car insurance than any other race. Bias is entrenched into systems you'd never even think of.

It doesn't help to focus on what we "should" do instead of fixing what we ARE doing.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:55 PM on August 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think it's important to realize that this inner monologue is very different coming from a mixed race person than a white person. And if you present as whiter than him, your position can only sounds like someone closing the door on him and branding him as an Other.

My grandmother can sometimes pass as white, and two generations later I'm absolutely white. I was raised to believe in the magical properties of color blindness. My white dad is convinced that we vanquished racism in the 70s, and liberals are bringing it back. My mom is anxious and just ready to be white.

My parents are kinda out there, so I was always skeptical of any ideology they pushed. But a few things that helped cement it:

- My dad would jokingly refer to me as his blonde haired blue eyed 'spic. He thought the arbitrariness of whiteness was funny. But it also meant that I was aware of my privilege, not inheriting my mom's unruly curls like my sister. When learning about the 'one drop' rule later in school, I realized that I could also lose my whiteness.

- Making mixed race friends. It's alienating to talk about this shit with both white and minority folks. Their language is binary, and you're always left out. That makes not talking about it, (which merit based color blindness is selling) really appealing. When I finally made enough friends who didn't raise their eyebrows that I'm a super white Hispanic lady, I finally had the space to start learning about how to talk about this shit. I remember being floored by Zadie Smith, finally getting all these characters who live in the in-between.

I think a lot of white women love Ta'Nehisi Coates because he gives us a model of using one axis of privilege to illuminate another axis of marginalization. He's so good about bringing attention to the limits of his marginalization without dismissing them. I am always aware of my privilege. But having lived with my white side of the family, my privilege was always a reason to dismiss my marginalization.
posted by politikitty at 2:20 PM on August 15, 2017 [16 favorites]

There are much more nuanced views on identity than I'm qualified to delve into, but my rule of thumb is this: self-identification with a group, whether it's cultural, ethnic, or social is something you can choose. The identity others use, that you have limited control over, is where the institutional problems exist. Whether you consciously choose them or not, there are physical characteristics of your body others can use to categorize you. Their judgment is not always conscious.

So while people, especially kids, can claim that you can choose your religious and political affiliations, your profession, and make an attempt to claim your ability to succeed economically is based on your personal abilities, those aspects of identity that others project upon you, based on factors you cannot control, are still there. Refusing to recognize these factors does not make us a more equitable society.

Racism and sexism do not cease to exist when we stop talking about them as public issues. If people are not challenged in their biases, or we refuse to question if and why some people are treated differently, they become the unspoken assumptions that freeze the stratification of our social structure. And the people with money, with influence, with power, will see this as a status quo worth preserving and will react to changes behind closed doors, not out in the open.
posted by mikeh at 2:29 PM on August 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

And that's also to say that although you can "choose" parts of your cultural identity, you shouldn't have to. No one should have to hide or feel shamed by their cultural background. I feel like I glossed over that in the idea of "choice" -- choice is a naive way of looking at things, and something that someone younger might not understand. Or an older person might see as something you *must* do, to assimilate in ways that have nothing to do with your value as a person, and everything to do with falling in line with some sort of norm.
posted by mikeh at 2:33 PM on August 15, 2017

Quick answer: then what are the causes of identity politics? Why do people feel the need for it? Those needs, the forces that cause them -- focus on those.
posted by amtho at 2:41 PM on August 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

You're not taking the wrong tack. There is no right tack. You can't convert him. He's sailing away on the good ship Alt Right right now. The wind is fully in his sails - media manipulation, unconscious forces, peer pressure, all of it is full on. Against that, any carefully crafted argument you make will be one little puff of air. I'd let him know you're done arguing with him, but that's for you, not him.

I've spent years (YEARS) trying to educate my nearest and dearest younger relatives and seen them go from "edgy" Social Justice Warrior critics to climate change deniers to Red Pill enthusiasts to Grab Them By the Pussy apologists to I shit you not, Mein Kampf thumping segregationists. We are in a weird place culturally right now with the young men. What is happening can not be chalked up to a lack of information.
posted by benadryl at 3:11 PM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Charlottesville is great example of the evils of "identity politics" -- a bunch of people whose entire identity is whiteness, and their mission to preserve it and its privilege at any cost.

The thing is, those people make it impossible for other people to opt out of "identity politics." Nobody can escape identity politics when a bunch of white people elect white people to make things better for white people and worse for everyone else. When someone writes a memo where I work about how the odds are that I'm biologically unsuited to my job, I'm not opting in to identity politics -- he forced me there.

The reality of the world is profoundly depressing for your 18 year old mixed-race friend and it wouldn't surprise me if he's subconsciously trying to deny it, identify more with the oppressors than the oppressed. I remember my friends I went through a serious casually-sexist phase around that age -- we dismissed other women as "chicks," parroted all the dumb "we're not like other girls" bullshit. I think it may just be an adolescent way of not dealing with the grim reality that is staring you in the face.

So idk, maybe you treat this the way you treat a child in any shitty situation trying to use magical thinking to avoid it. Like when kids insist that the obviously terrible parent who abandoned them is really great, or whatever. You don't let anything objectively untrue go unchallenged, but you're kind of generally patient and understanding while they figure this shit out themselves?
posted by mrmurbles at 4:05 PM on August 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think you're doing a lot just by chatting with this kid. Keeping communication open and civilized about touchy subjects is so important. Sometimes it's difficult (like maybe now); sometimes it requires a little more silence / listening / processing time.

But keeping it open, and reminding them that you're open to them, could truly be a lifesaver for a young person who otherwise can only find "truth" (a.k.a. acknowledgement of ugly/complicated reflections of society that the more genteel/PC would usually shun you for) *in* those rage-y hateful online or outright-Nazi shout gatherings.

There's still lots of room/time for him to change, and dip toes in and out of different identities. (I can't even fathom what it's like to still be a teenager in this crazy political/media environment.)

Being multiracial:
I would really emphasize what politikitty said above. Being multiracial in America is very complicated. From minute to minute, eyeball to eyeball, person to person, context to context, power dynamic to power dynamic: you, just sitting there, having been born and been given a name (however congruous with your parents' backgrounds or not), embody for someone else ALL or SOME or conspicuously NONE of the racialized assumptions that relate to your background(s) -- these that've been churning, burning, mutating along through our many histories.

I would remind biracial-teen-me that, for example, my parents' marriage would have been illegal in the first two decades of their lives. Plus, in my own lifetime, 2nd grade through 9th grade / year 2000, every year we were forced to fill out Scantron standardized tests where you could mark only one RACE box, because otherwise the computer would, like, explode or throw out your entire test or whatever. So, which do you pick? The race you most appear to physically embody, the race of the parent who parented you more, the race of the neighborhood you live in, the race/culture of the language you speak more often, ... wha? It doesn't take long for one to be resentful of and cynical regarding what The Government [Thinks It] Knows about you, about non-White-American cultures, about everything.

And if the Government is suddenly whipping from actively trying to include more groups/people under the label of People, to then condoning the worst hate and basically doing nothing for anyone who is not White, Male, Rich, *and* Actively Trying To Only Make Themselves Richer.... god. It's understandable to want to just escape the noise.

Not having experienced explicit bias:
I'm guessing there's more he could talk about with this.
At 17/18 I applied to colleges and got in to one that my (white Irish-American) best friend did not. She never said it about me, but she would often speak disparagingly about this one slacker kid who also got in to University X -- and he was My Race. She was REALLY INTO the ire over affirmative action at that time. At 18, I didn't consider her feelings to be a racial bias against me because I felt I couldn't complain -- but it still stung internally, and here I still do remember it at 32, with a little more emotional and political context to go along with it.

Empathy and interaction and re-engagement with history:
To me it sounds like in this kid's wish for everyone to shut up about identity politics is really the wish to be acknowledged. Or the understandable desire to wish we were "postracial" (oooof).

Then there's also history lessons that in school might have been glossed over or straight-up ignored. (Howard Zinn! Howard Zinn!)

I wonder if, in your chats, you continue to provide an emotionally safe space for him, and perhaps reflect TO HIM that he IS ALREADY an empathic person, who has a great capacity to think about nuance and grey areas. And racism/discrimination unchecked happens in all groups.

I think intersectionality (rather than talking strictly about white privilege) would be a useful concept to come back to. And in the conversation flow, admitting one's own biases / embarrassing beliefs from the past might help to keep his ear. Teens are particularly attuned to the hypocrisy of adults.
posted by cluebucket at 4:51 PM on August 15, 2017 [9 favorites]

He might be more amenable to this argument, from political theorist (and libertarian) Jacob Levy, The Defense of Liberty Can't Do Without Identity Politics:
If you think—as I think any liberal who cares about liberty, whether classical, market, neo-, welfarist, Rawlsian, or whatever, must—that the combination of mass incarceration and aggressive policing amounts to a grave injustice, then you need to be able to think in race-conscious terms. What brought about this crisis? The war on drugs and police militarization, some readers will say. Okay, but what brought about the war on drugs and police militarization? The answer isn’t some simple intellectual mistake. The answer is deeply tied up in American racial politics.

The disproportionate impact of mass incarceration and aggressive policing on African-Americans isn’t some unfortunate side-effect of well-intentioned policies. The politics of drug prohibition, the war on drugs, and the subsequent expansions of police power and imprisonment were never racially innocent to begin with, and it is no accident that Nixon launched the War on Drugs when the ink was barely dry on the formal end of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement.

As has so often happened in American history, state power expanded in order to persuade white voters that blacks were being kept under control. The appropriation of the language of freedom and anti-statism by those seeking to defend state-level racial tyrannies in the south fools more people than it should, but illiberal state power has far more often been caused by white racism than resisted by it. To think otherwise, one has to think that police and prisons don’t count as instances of state power at all.
Black Lives Matter has provided the first truly large-scale political mobilization against police violence and mass incarceration since the War on Drugs began. It’s perfectly true that many liberal (very much including libertarian) scholars and analysts have been calling for reform of police practices, an end to police militarization and civil forfeiture abuse, respect for civil liberties, and drug decriminalization or legalization for a long time. It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.

If Black Lives Matter is “identity politics,” then identity politics has provided one of the most significant political mobilizations in defense of freedom in the United States in my lifetime. That doesn’t belong on the “to be sure” exception side of a rule that is driven by the politics of gender pronouns. It’s precisely the other way around.
posted by willbaude at 5:49 PM on August 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

That doesn’t belong on the “to be sure” exception side of a rule that is driven by the politics of gender pronouns. It’s precisely the other way around.

Sorry I'm not actually sure what this means, can you explain it?

Specifically, what is the " 'to be sure' exception side of a rule that are driven by the politics of gender pronouns?"
posted by mrmurbles at 8:01 PM on August 15, 2017

A conversation I had the other day went, in paraphrase, like this:
1) Black people are stopped and searched at rates far higher than white people. Is this a problem? (Yes.)
2) Men in their 40's & 50's commit suicide at rates higher than any other group. Is this a problem? (Yes.)
3) Infants, the elderly, and the disabled are more vulnerable to death by abandonment than any other demographics. Is this a problem? (Yes.)
4) Smokers are more likely to die of cancer. Is this a problem? (Yes.)
5) (taken from other recent askmefi post, I'm keeping this one) People with bedbug infestations less likely to find dates. Is this a problem? (Yes.)

We all need different things, and it's not a problem to say so. "Identity politics" is ALL politics, and race/gender/orientation/religion/what have you are just some of the most common identities. We can absolutely argue about whether this or that identity needs a specific thing, but anyone saying "identity politics is the problem" is denying reality at the semantic level. Your identity, chosen or not, defines how you experience reality differently from other people. Duh. So why are they saying that? Why THAT coinage? It's a way of not saying what you mean, so why is that happening?

I don't think I changed a mind, but I didn't hear the words "identity politics" again that night.
posted by saysthis at 8:45 PM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's good that you are both communicating and willing to engage with each other. Keeping that line of communication open is the way to go. And he can probably understand that our identity informs our experience and our views (as much as our experience informs our identity).

Now I find it a tad, if not outright condescending that you feel the need to "convert" him, as if he has no agency and no access to the information and knowledge to which you have access. How would you feel if he felt the need to "fix" you because your beliefs are inherently wrong?
posted by Kwadeng at 1:41 AM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think he may actually be coming from a different place than you think he is, specifically because he is mixed race, frustration over "identity politics" may be coming from a place a lot of POC struggling come from, which is the difference between race-conscious politics and politics you are forced to take because of your identity or race. The one is common sense, the other can feel stifling.

So for me, for example (pre 2016), I used to get my hackles up whenever someone suggested because I was Hispanic I should vote for a certain candidate or party because of my identity - it made me feel like I was being denied the privilege of choice that white people, by virtue of not identifying specifically as white people, were allowed.

A better tack might be, "You're right, we should judge based on individuals. But unfortunately, some OTHER people do judge based on these qualities, and that's why it's important for ALL of us to fight them."
posted by corb at 5:02 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Politics is about organizing around group interests, or all sorts and descriptions. To believe that identify politics is wrong or bad you would have to believe that the identities in question are not salient in terms of the personal interests of the people in question -- which in the case of race, gender and sexual orientation plainly isn't the case in the US. The harder case to make is that identity politics is fine, unless that identity is white, straight, male or able-bodied, which then makes identify politics not a specific case of a general modality of political organization, but instead something reserved solely for redistributive purposes.
posted by MattD at 7:33 AM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Given all the posts we've seen on MeFi in recent years about how arguments rarely change people's minds, I wonder if you might have more success by asking lots of questions and listening. The more you try to change his mind - stating things as facts, especially things he doesn't believe; asking leading questions - the more defensive he's likely to get.

If, instead, you ask a lot of questions that genuinely elicit his own thoughts; reflect those thoughts back to show you heard him; and share your own personal experiences, you might encourage him to listen, too.

Checking out nonviolent communication might provide some useful info.

It's a LOT of work, but it might be more effective than trying direct persuasion.
posted by kristi at 11:34 AM on August 18, 2017

« Older What investment options do I have for a chunk of...   |   Stunt memoir recommendations Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.