The Powerful Origins of “Identity Politics”

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Photograph by Ellen Shub

This past week, the amazing Barbara Smith was on a few podcasts (Millenials are Killing Capitalism most notably linked here) and was discussing her life’s work. After writing two essays this summer, one for The Nation and one for the Boston Globe on dismantling white supremacy, I was fortunate enough to learn about her work this summer and the groundbreaking Combahee River Collective. The Black feminist group based in Boston wrote one of the most powerful statements that encapsulated their vision for activism and fighting for specifically Black women, lesbians in particular. As of known record, this statement holds even more significance because it is the earliest known usage of a phrase that has polarized political discourse this generation: “identity politics.”

When I first was introduced to the term, initially I saw nothing wrong with the idea of having politics and awareness of your identity informing your policy positions. But as I grew to hold stronger left-leaning political views, I began to despise the idea of such a concept. I saw how identities were weaponized by the political establishment, pandering for our Black votes, and how it was also utilized to unite the right under white supremacy. I grew to have a very, very disturbing anti-identity politics stance where I would get upset at anyone who tried to bring it up as legitimate. Yet, amidst all of this, I never actually did any work to understand the phrase, its origins, nor the implications of identities that are almost always placed upon us by the state.

In the Combahee River Collective Statement, this is how they defined identity politics:

“This focusing upon our 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. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves.”

Identity politics, as the collective of radical Black feminists coined, is the way they describe how Black women saw their radical politics being directly tied into their identities that inform what they fight for. The term has been utilized as a means to criticize people as though they only care about identity as opposed to a more complete encompassing vision for liberation. The phrase was a means to encompass a comprehensive understanding of how so many identities people have, particularly Black women, in understanding the dimensions of oppression that people face.

Josh Briond on the MAKC podcast with Barbara Smith mentioned the conflation between this particular term and its origins with the issues in the Democratic party that assume that because of one’s identity, they cannot or are incapable of also committing harm. It is indeed woefully inaccurate and dangerous to assume, for example, that because Senator Kamala Harris is Black, she cannot be violently anti-Black in her rhetoric and policy. This whole concept in itself may have also created or evolved in a completely different sphere from the origins in the Combahee River Collective. As Smith echoed, the discussion she’s seen about the phrase in modern times seems so detached from its origins that leads to a gross disassociation but also a construed understanding of how identity informs our ability to build forth equitable policies.

In many ways, the way with which I’ve been unlearning much of the way with which I’ve understood politics has come with the necessary corrections. I don’t think I would have been able to push myself to realize new definitions and theories without being able to concede that I know next to nothing. And of course, that isn’t something that happens immediately. But that very process, that concession to always be learning has been such an integral skill. So whether it’s learning about the origins and the power in organizing around identity politics as it was conceived, or whether it’s about understanding anti-capitalist theory, the world just becomes so much more fascinating when you can be open to learning about things you were once uncomfortable with.

Being Noah Tesfaye #150: The Powerful Origins of “Identity Politics”

Thanks for reading this week! Follow me on Twitter if you want to ever discuss anything and hear my spontaneous thoughts. Also, if you want to see more of my work, visit my website!



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