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Why criticisms of identity politics sound ridiculous to me

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional Rally/March, Pittsburgh East Liberty Women's March 2017. Credit: Flickr/feral godmother. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

I remember the first time I was called a nigger.

I was in the 4th grade. I remember being in a classroom, joking with a friend (a white girl) and calling her a nincompoop. She looked to me, her smile melting into a look of contempt, and replied, “You’re wrong…you’re the nigger.”

She had obviously misheard me, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about yet I understood, on a visceral level, the underlying message and how it made me feel: small, ugly… less than.

Since that unwitting attempt to “put me in my place,” I’ve endured countless scenarios — sometimes casual, sometimes hostile—that made me feel one or more of those things throughout my life, a consequence of navigating a white-dominated society with an anti-black value system woven into the tapestry of its white-oriented culture.

The thing is, I’m not just Black: I’m also an atheist. While far more benign compared to anti-blackness, being an atheist tacks on a more uncommon layer of prejudice that I contend with given our Christian hegemonic society, even within the Black community. Since most are reared in a social environment that constantly encourages and reinforces some type of religious or theistic belief, many view these normative ideas as being identical to truth.

This view results in thinking something traumatic must have happened to those who reject these normative beliefs, or that they must hate god (which is misotheismnot atheism), or that there must be something wrong with them mentally—because, somehow, we’ve been conditioned to believe that no sane individual would reject the idea of an invisible yet omnipresent supernatural being we’ve never seen and are only familiar with through primitive stories and hearsay.

But I’m not just an atheist. I must deal with a wide range of animus, fear, bias, ignorance, microaggressions, alienation, and erasure reserved not just for atheists, and not just for Blacks, but for the intersection of blackness and atheism. I’ll always be an outspoken atheist as well as unapologetically Black (that is, I despise respectability politics, readily speak to the real-lived texture of Black life, and choose to not diminish issues disproportionately impacting Black America).

Those who suggest I ignore either of these essential pieces of my being, depending on which space I occupy, are really asking me to deny who I am for their comfort and their allegiance to social norms declaring those aspects of my identity matter less. Being a Black atheist within white-centered atheist spaces that satiate the concerns and interests of white atheists really helped me realize the importance of the questions, “Who’s being left out—and why?”

Thinking deeply about this also helped shape my appreciation of the ways I hold many social advantages as an able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual male in a society that confers a surplus of meaning to those occupying these identities while delegitimizing the humanity of those who do not. So, for me, the reason why intersectionality is vital is apparent: it’s both a metaphor and frame of understanding that acknowledges multiple “avenues” of prejudice and marginalization exist, and that these “avenues” intersect.

Intersectionality reminds us to consider how we are all impacted differently due to the complex, intersecting nature of social power dynamics. Still, there remain many who disparage or otherwise question the need for intersectionality. This usually happens for three reasons.

1. Naysayers don’t understand identity or its impact on our shared social reality.

There are many assumptions we take for granted when it comes to identity and the patterned social arrangements of society. Before speaking further about the significance of an intersectional analysis, it’s necessary to unpack some fundamentals of what identity does and does not entail.

Identities are systematized descriptors that reference objective and causally relevant characteristics of a shared reality.

Identities are based on specific cultural contexts, social histories, and lived experiences.

Identities are the conditional products of social interaction and social institutions, subject to occupying particular locations within time, social space, and historical communities.

Identities are not an attempt to reduce an entire group to an essential, coherent monolith. To share an identity with others is to share in only one facet of a multifaceted reality. There is no contradiction between identifying with specific social groups and being a complex, unique individual.

When discussing common identity—separate from individual identity—we’re describing what’s imposed on us by an established history of social standards, stratification, controlling images, and stereotypes.

To affirm that we have an identity, or to state that we’re a part of a particular identity group, is to simply agree that we have a location in social space informed by the interlocking social structures we inhabit.

It’s necessary to increase awareness regarding the ways in which this complicated social reality impacts people differently if we want to build a society where the most vulnerable among us are recognized and listened to in hopes of alleviating (and ultimately, eliminating) their vulnerable status.

This is why Kimberlé Crenshaw, scholar and civil rights activist who coined the term intersectionality, once described intersectionality as being “an analytic sensibility” and “a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.”

She’s also articulated how intersectionality helps us increase attentiveness to identity-based “blind spots” when it comes to aspects of unequal social power dynamics we don’t ourselves experience.

2. Naysayers associate intersectionality with their favorite bogey monster: “identity politics.”

The phrase “identity politics” is merely a pejorative blanket term that invokes a variety of ambiguous, cherry-picked ideas of political failings.

Declaring something is “identity politics” is often a measure taken to trivialize identity-based issues that make many members of dominant social groups uncomfortable (e.g., Black Lives Matter critiquing anti-black racism, feminists critiquing sexism, LGBTQ activists critiquing cis-heteronormativity, etc.).

Basically, “identity politics” is used as an expression to identify political deviance — to describe political actions defying imbalanced political structures we’ve been conditioned to accept.

What’s ironic is politics are unavoidably connected to identity for everyone. Who and what we are is rooted in our identities. Identities are forged by socio-historical context, and they directly impact interpellation (the means by which we encounter our culture’s values and internalize them) as well as our lived experiences. Experiences correlate with identity to provide both an epistemic and a political basis for interpreting the world we exist in.

Consider white-centeredness, a deeply-rooted cultural feature of this nation. The term “white-centeredness” describes the centrality of white representation that permeates every facet of dominant culture. This representation upholds as “normal” the ubiquity of language, ideas, values, social mores, and worldviews established by the white perspective.

White-centeredness standardizes whiteness. This standardization saturates what we refer to as the “status quo.” The maintenance of this social order is white identity politics, as engaging in political activities to preserve these ideas and structures demands prioritizing the collective interests of white America.

The thing is, nobody distinguishes political motivations, political judgments, or political maneuvering that enshrines white-centeredness as being white identity politics. Instead, white identity politics go “undetected,” as we’re socialized to regard the sustaining of dominant culture as “what is expected” or “the way things ought to be.”

Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist with Swinburne University, echoes this sentiment, stating:

If the phrase has any value at all—and it really doesn’t—“identity politics” calls attention to the ways that people from majority groups, especially White people, do not “see” how their identities are governed by politics.

This is how Whiteness works: White culture is embedded into all fields of public life, from education, to the media, to science, to religion and beyond. White culture is constructed as the norm, so it becomes the taken-for-granted ideal with which other cultures are judged against by White people.

Hence, White people do not recognise how their race shapes their understanding of politics, and their relationships with minority groups.

It shouldn’t be surprising that those who occupy positions of social dominance seek to discredit identity politics wielded by those with restricted social power.

They’ll refer to it as “divisive” or “tribalism,” neglecting the fact that the political activism they belittle is in response to pre-existing social divisions situating certain social groups (tribes) with greater sociopolitical power at the expense of subordinating other social groups.

They’ll go to great lengths to invalidate missions for increased social and political power by those from marginalized social groups—communities systematically disenfranchised in ways that restrict access to resources, rights, or opportunities made fully available to other social groups.

In other words, the term “identity politics” is typically employed as a linguistic Trojan horse to stigmatize campaigns for civil rights.

In 1977, a Black feminist lesbian organization known as the Combahee River Collective issued a statement that may be considered the historical genesis of explicit identity politics. In it, the group expresses the relevance of identity to politics and how shared aspects of identity produces solidarity when confronting unique forms of oppression that target specific identities.

The group was formed after issues related to their particular life circumstances were continually disregarded due to pervasive heterosexism, erasure within the white-dominated women’s movement, and erasure within the male-dominated Black liberation movement.

For marginalized social groups, what is perceived as explicit identity politics is a challenge to status quo, and used as a means of seeking increased sociopolitical power currently not being distributed in an equal or just manner. This form of political engagement—which emphasizes issues and perspectives relevant to shared aspects of an identity— erves to address social ills that disproportionately impact the lives of marginalized social groups in clear and specific ways.

A laser focus on matters related to our own social positions breeds insularity and complacency, obstructing our emotional and intellectual connection to disparate social realities we don’t experience. This is why we need intersectionality—to challenge and expand that narrowed focus.

Speaking to how intersectionality forces us to move beyond more simplistic notions of complex social matters, Zevallos says:

Intersectionality is not about “identity politics,” a term used to denigrate minorities’ contributions to activism, academia and other public discussions. Intersectionality is a framework used to illustrate how systems of discrimination are interconnected.

Black women struggled against industrial relations law as they experience co-occurring incidents of racism and sexism in the workplace. The law puts Black women into a tricky position by forcing them to focus workplace complaints in either the area of race discrimination or gender discrimination.

Professor Crenshaw’s use of intersectionality shines a light on how existing processes act as if individuals belong to discrete groups, when, in fact, Black women face multiple inequalities at the same time. Over the decades, theorists, including Professor Crenshaw, have further developed intersectionality to show how other relations of power structure inequality.

For example, a Black woman activist at a Black Lives Matter protest unfortunately could not expect the police to protect her safety, as we have seen all over the world — while a White woman activist at a Women’s March protest can expect the police to provide a peaceful environment for her to march across the city. Race offers a buffer for one gender group (White women), but not another (Black women); hence, interconnections of race, gender and other forms of disadvantage require concurrent attention.

3. Naysayers don’t want seismic social change.

Many people simply don’t want radical social progress, or significant societal changes that would create a more inclusive social order, as this requires casting asunder oppressive ideas and systems codified into the status quo that dominant social groups benefit from.

When you’re socially and politically exempt from systemic inequality, it isn’t unusual to focus on matters that relate more to your vantage point and to greet treating matters that decenter your purview with indifference, defensiveness, bewilderment, or hostility.

Editor at Large of The Establishment Ijeoma Oluo, who spoke to this tendency in her article Thank God For Identity Politics, describes those who take issue with intersectionality as “people who are threatened because they see intersectionality as something that is forcing them to change, to see themselves as something other than the aggrieved party.”

This brings to mind the recent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. No, it wasn’t a “We Hate Intersectionality” protest, but it damn sure was a flagrant display of white folks espousing exclusionary beliefs (e.g., chanting “You will not replace us,” parading KKK and neo-Nazi symbols) and expressing dissatisfaction with steps toward social progress: removing monuments commemorating white supremacy.

Despite being white and existing within a white-dominated society steeped in a white-centered culture, both the protestors and their sympathizers are unable to see themselves as anything other than “victims” of a changing world gradually eroding their hegemonic status.

This imagined distress of the privileged is encapsulated by the popular quote, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

We Need Accountability

I asked Oluo about her opinion regarding the criticism that intersectionality creates a “hierarchy of suffering,” to which she responded:

I think that it is the lack of intersectionality that creates a hierarchy of suffering. Intersectionality does just the opposite: it adjusts to the nuances of individual situations, and holds us all accountable to each other.

This. Right. Here.

Intersectionality demands accountability. Those occupying dominant social positions tend to be less accustomed to taking responsibility for attitudes or behaviors that adversely affect non-dominant group members.

This is something I’m intimately familiar with when it comes to Black men who embrace shallow “Black first” ideas of wokeness that’s hip to the antiblackness ever-present within our white supremacist society while also reproducing ideologies that overlook or cosign misogynoir and heterosexism. This is why Oluo affirms, “You cannot only pick up the parts of revolution that free you and then fight against those working to free themselves and still call yourself a revolutionary.”

We’ve all been socialized within a profoundly oppressive culture wherein widely accepted social mores cater to dominant social groups, whether based on gender, class, race, sexuality, ability, religion, or a combination of these and more.

The exercise of intersectionality intervenes on the everyday assumptions, expectations, and interests we uncritically accept that routinely eclipse the concerns of marginalized communities.

Writer, educator, and social activist Sikivu Hutchinson explains it this way:

Intersectionality is the human condition. It addresses the multiple positions of privilege and disadvantage that human beings occupy and experience in a global context shaped by white supremacy, capitalism, neoliberalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, segregation and state violence.

Intersectionality upends the single variable politics of being “left” or “right.” It speaks to the very nature of positionality in a world in which it’s impossible to stake a claim on a solitary fixed identity that isn’t informed by one’s relationship to social, political and economic structures of power, authority and control that are themselves rooted in specific histories.

As Oluo puts it, intersectionality requires folks to “set aside their egos and realize that we can always do better, and should always strive to do better, if we really want to be better.”

For the sake of realizing a society more inclusive of the disadvantaged and the underrepresented so that increased access to well-being and autonomy is possible, it’s vital we take advantage of an analytical tool that deliberately seeks out those who exist on the margins. And that tool is intersectionality.

This article was first published on The Establishment.

About the author

Sincere Kirabo is writer and social critic based in Washington, DC. He is a contributor with TheHumanist and has written for The Establishment, Everyday Feminism, and HuffPost. He currently serves as the social justice coordinator for the American Humanist Association. 


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