What Is “Identity Politics” and Why Does It Matter?

What Is “Identity Politics” and Why Does It Matter? May 15, 2018

What Is “Identity Politics” and Why Does It Matter?

American academia (post-secondary education organizations and institutions and especially scholars/professors) is allegedly rife with something called “identity politics.” It’s a buzzword (or phrase). What does it mean and why does it matter?

One claim being made by many American (and I’m sure other) academics is that higher education and society in general is “stacked in favor of” the dominant group—namely, white males. All (fill in the blank with the name of a science or academic discipline) is dominated by white males and others are blocked from achievement in it.

This is not usually spoken about as a conscious conspiracy among white males (or just “whites”) but is usually spoken about as a profound cultural bias-habit that even most whites are not fully aware of.

“Identity politics” is one response to the unlevel playing field. It is more than that, but that’s how it appears.

Identity politics appears when a particular oppressed group (and their supporters) claim they are systematically locked out of achievement because, for example, the criteria for assessment and evaluation are determined by the dominant cultural group (viz., whites and mostly males) in order to keep them dominant.

But identity politics goes further than that. As the term is commonly used in academic circles it means (functions to communicate the idea) that a particular oppressed, marginalized group has taken to itself the identity of being just, right, in its claims about oppression and about the oppressors to the extent that dialogue becomes impossible. The oppressed group demand inclusion and equality even if that means a radical revision of the traditional criteria used to assess and evaluate candidates.

In identity politics the main, if not sole, essential project to be taken up and pursued toward its goal is liberation of the oppressed group not only from its exclusion and marginalization but to the centers of power and influence without challenge. In other words, the posture perceived is “Don’t talk back; just step aside and let us in.”

Along with that posture is at least a perceived attitude that the oppressed group’s construal of social reality is privileged just because they are oppressed, marginalized, excluded. In other words, so it seems, they do not believe they should have to convince those in the dominant center of social reality (in this case especially the academy) using universal or even inter-subjective discourse. They are permitted simply to accuse because, from their point of view, based on their experience, their identity (or some part of it) is irrationally subjected to exclusion by sheer prejudice and will to power. Anyone who is not one of them who dares to raise a question about their beliefs or tactics is subject to accusation of being hateful.

From the point of view of the oppressed group, exclusion based solely on hate, however subtle and even unconscious, along with exclusion based on the dominant group’s desire to protect its power, is evil and deserves confrontation with exposure of its naked prejudice. Calls for “reasonable discourse” and “gradual inclusion” and “reconciliation” (by the oppressor group) are unmasked as attempts to absorb, mollify, and control the oppressed group.

It always helps in matters such as this to offer an illustration. Here is a purely hypothetical one. A professional society of (fill in the blank) puts forth a list of the most creative and influential (fill the blank with a group of professional people who would possibly belong to that society). The list is composed almost solely of white males. This particular professional has traditionally attracted white males although there are no explicit barriers to others entering it. The list is greeted with scorn by non-whites and non-males (women, transgender women, people of color) solely because it does not include the number or percentage of non-whites, non-males they believe it should include.

The argument is made that the list is representative of the people in the profession. A few are women and people of color.

The opponents argue that the list should not have been published for no other reason than that it deepens the impression that women and people of color are not qualified (creative, influential). Other opponents argue that its publication is good because it demonstrates that white males consciously or unconsciously exclude women and people of color from their ranks (of those they consider creative and influential).

Defenders of the list argue that there are no barriers to women or people of color in the profession and that objective criteria were used (a poll of professionals who belong to the society) to create the list.

Opponents argue that the very fact of so few women and people of color in the profession proves there are barriers—whether they are consciously created or are results of unconscious but real bias and exclusion. No other proof is needed.

Defenders point out that there are professions populated by very few white males. Opponents respond that because white males have long held the levers of power in society any absence on their part (from a profession) cannot be evidence of exclusion; it has to be voluntary.

It seems that the politics of identity rests very much on an assumption (and no value judgment is implied here) that being under represented in a profession automatically proves bias in the profession unless the under representation is on the part of whites and/or males. Exclusion is proven by under representation except in the case of whites and/or males because of their dominance in culture. And exclusion automatically gives an excluded group a special, privileged insight into the dynamics of power and politics in social life.

Of course this is a totally inadequate explanation of “identity politics” and I invite (ironically) reasonable discourse about it. First, is this what others understand “identity politics” to mean (function)? Second, is identity politics (so understood) good, bad, necessary, what?

I am only interested here in starting a conversation. I will not post comments that include vulgar, vile, hateful, slanderous language or language that automatically excludes critical response. The key is conversation; this is not place for angry tirades. Tell me if I’m wrong, but picture yourself in my living room or office. How would you say it then? And if you can’t say it calmly and without vitriol, don’t say it.

Otherwise, I’m listening….


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