The Powerful Origins of “Identity Politics”

Noah Tesfaye
4 min readSep 27, 2020
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…

Noah Tesfaye

Just someone trying to share my story and find who I am, one post at a time