We often hear the term “identity politics”, often from right wing critics on places like Fox News. Their definition, for purposes of their complaints, is that we on the left, and in the Democratic Party, have different and individual platforms for various groups. They pretty much mean a sliced and diced set of ideas rather than a one size fits all approach to meeting social needs. But what really is identity politics and how was it defined by the creator of the concept? Before we get into a full discussion of the phrase we’ll need to look back a bit in time at some history.
When discussing feminism we can look to the women’s suffrage movement as the first effort to expand women’s rights and participation in American society. This period is now generally referred to as “first wave feminism”. The movement was far from inclusive. It was middle and upper class white women fighting for the right to vote. They explicitly excluded participation of Black women, most famously at a Washington, D.C. march where Black women were told they could only march at the back of the parade, at a distance behind. We see the ratification of the nineteenth amendment as the culmination of this movement and use words like “granted women the right to vote”. Yet that phrase is only partly true. It would have to say “granted white women” to truly reflect the results of the nineteenth amendment. It wasn’t until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that Black women were included and guaranteed the right to vote.
Second wave feminism is typically credited to having started with Betty Friedan publishing The Feminine Mystique. This, again, was a movement of middle and upper class women. To be even more specific, it was a movement of straight white women. The leadership specifically excluded lesbians and women who didn’t conform to the image of straight America. The goals outlined, things like access to abortion, birth control, and equal pay, reflected the needs defined by white women. Many of the Black women who joined the movement didn’t stay because they didn’t find that organizations like NOW had a place for them. To fully understand the origins of “identity” and “identity politics” we also need to look to the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was largely a movement lead by men and to a great extent reflected the goals these men. When the Black Power movement came to prominence in the 1960’s it was male dominated and often oppressive of women that tried to become part of the movement. Things started to change for Black women in the early 1970’s. Feeling left out of both movements they started to meet on their own.
The origins of the use of the phrase “identity politics” trace to a single person, Barbara Smith. She was working with other Black women, including her twin sister Beverly. Eventually the group named itself “The Combahee River Collective”. The name was derived from the largest military operation in U.S. history that was lead by a woman. (In 1863 Harriet Tubman lead the Combahee River Raid, freeing over 700 enslaved African Americans.) In 1977 the group released a statement outlining their work. It started “We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974.” A key part of the statement was that to understand the oppression faced by an individual or a group one needed to reflect on all the parts of who a person is, that while commonalities may exist between oppression of Black women and white women, there were differences as well. Black women also face and are subjected to racism. Since the 1977 statement Barbara Smith has identified as a lesbian. To completely understand the oppression she faces as an individual we need to look at all parts of her identity, Black, woman, lesbian. Ending oppression in any one of these areas may alleviate part of what happens in her world, but oppression will continue until we recognize and address all parts of her identity. The statement from the CRC reflected the need to understand the situation an oppressed person found themself in, not just looking a single factor of who and and what they are, but rather to all parts of their life and identity. As an example we can look to Afghanistan.
With the Taliban taking control again in Afghanistan we have seen the return of women being forced to wear burkas. As westerners we are horrified by the idea of a woman being forced to dress like this. Yet to that Afghan woman this may not be her biggest concern related to her oppression. Greater, perhaps, is that her daughter can’t go to school, can’t be educated. Yes, both are atrocities, at least from our perspective. Yet if we want to offer some sort of aid the focus needs to be on her greatest needs, not what bothers us the most. We can find examples here at home as well. There are several states that have recently enacted laws attempting to discourage (OK, repress is a better word) voting from people of color. Reprehensible? Yes. But maybe it’s not the most important concern of a Black woman in Georgia who’s not earning enough to feed her family.
As a final part of this essay I need to speak a bit as well about “intersectionalism”. This term is credited to Kimberlé Crenshaw and was first seen when she published ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of the Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics’ in 1989. Note: Kimberlé Crenshaw is one of the originators of Critical Race Theory – the real CRT, not the CRT of Fox News. From Critical Race Theory: A Primer
The case that Crenshaw used to introduce the concept was the black woman. She argued that black women are unprivileged by virtue of both their sex and their race. Thus, they are marginalized more than black men (who are underprivileged by virtue of race, but privileged by virtue of sex) and white women (who are unprivileged by virtue of sex, but privileged by virtue of race). Intersectionality means that, as a woman, black women have different experiences of racism than black men; and as black people, they have different experiences of sexism than white women.
Essentially, Crenshaw was using a different word to speak of the same situations described by Barbara Smith and the CRC. As a note, Beverly Smith has been quoted as saying she had used the word “intersection” in early discussions about identity politics.
I’d like to close with words from Barbara Smith. In its quotidian usage “identity politics” has become a bastardization of its original intent. Barbara Smith:
Few are aware that the widely used and often-maligned concept of ‘identity politics’ originated in the statement. Attacked by both the right and the left, identity politics has been consistently misunderstood. What we meant was that Black women had a right to determine their own political agendas based upon who they were and the multiple systems of oppression that targeted them. Although narrow interpretations of identity politics have been used to justify separatism, Combahee believed in coalitions and was open to working with anyone with whom we shared political values and goals.