Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Has identity politics killed solidarity? - (Janet) Guest post!

Social media has manipulated and capitalised on our emotions in order to usher in a new era of fascism, and it’s also managed to silo some movements and render them ineffective (check out the final third of Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation). More than that though, it’s also facilitated a very dangerous sense of individualism.


This individualism has taken form in the new manifestation of Identity Politics. In the past, Identity Politics has been a vital tool in talking about lived experience, inherent prejudice and using privilege to help others, platforming those struggles. The next steps for identity politics should be as follows, beautifully summarised by Devyn Springer:

It is not an end to identity politics we seek, rather a politic that encompasses the realities of different identities infused with class analysis and observation of power dynamics.


However, many are cultivating a new version which has manipulated Identity Politics into a method of avoiding solidarity and even justifying prejudice. After all, and this needs to be said loudly: identity doesn’t make you instantly Left-radical or active. Bigoted, neo - Conservative and any kind of people of marginalised identities exist in abundance. Fascists of marginalised identities exist, such a Milo Yiannopoulos, who use they their identities to validate their fascism.


I want to discuss how something so positive has been misused, and I want to rally people of marginalised identities into real action against the state and all forms of oppression.


To tackle this trend, I need to outline the value and limitations of identity politics first, not least to avoid giving ammunition to a racism and bigotry that even the Left think they’re immune to. I’ll also need to discuss this in three sections, to be as thorough as possible, and speak essentially to different audiences, all of which I am personally a part of myself in some way. This will make this piece longer, but far less susceptible to clickbait manipulation (hopefully).




Why identities are important and the limitations of identity.


Lived experience is incredibly important - it’s the reason why White Feminism (well satirized here, although White Feminism can indeed be LGBTQIA inclusive and racist) is a failure and reinforces racism. These are people with literally no idea of the reality of racism openly ignoring or capitalising on the struggles of women of colour. Look no further than the “I’m with her campaign” or photos of white liberal feminists hugging cops. It’s an intentionally exclusionary phenomenon of people who are benefitting from racism, naturally continuing in that fashion. The conundrum which occurs though, is the platforming of these people solely based on their identity, without consideration of their politics. A similar danger occurs when we analyse transphobia in ‘feminism’, most notably illustrated by Trans Exclusionary ‘Radical’ Feminists (TERFs), ‘feminists’ with an incredibly fascist agenda against transgender people. People are uncomfortable calling out their racism and transphobia because of their identity as ‘women’. As women, their experiences are genuine and a lot can be learned - but identity isn’t a default authority, it’s not research or statistics, and it doesn’t trump the safety or experience of other marginalised people. It’s only an element, only a part of a wider thought process or idea or stance.


You see racism in other movements designed to facilitate freedoms for oppressed people too, even in the actual anti-racist movement. You can wear a solidarity safety pin or have an antifa t-shirt and be racist. For the record, being an ally, or preferably an accomplice, doesn’t give you the right to treat other people in a bigoted way. The marginalised people you may have ‘helped’ shouldn’t be grateful to you.


Arguing this with those who feel like they’re immune to racism takes us unfortunately to this weird fetishization of the White Working Class in England. An identity (obviously) but apparently different to identity politics (somehow). This is a harrowing example of the feeling of entitlement and victimhood from some on the Left.  The White Working Class sounds like something from a BNP pamphlet circa 2009, but it’s actually a term now used by some to pander to casual racism. It’s also something US Nazi poster boy Richard Spencer is interested in bringing to the Right even more:


Donald Trump's movement, whether [Trump strategist] Kellyanne Conway wants to admit it or not, was fundamentally about identity for white people. - Richard Spencer, not just a man from those gifs getting punched by an antifascist.

A Left trying to mobilise the working class community avoids introspection of racism and class engagement when they validate the term White Working Class. Yes, academic circles and posturing are alienating and exclusive, but it’s not because of their whiteness that people are excluded, it’s a class thing. Middle class people of colour exist, but they’re not propelled to this status in harmony with their colour. This renders the term useless, and in a white majority and racist West, it literally reinforces racism and a victim complex employed by the ideology of White Supremacy. If they’re clutching at straws to justify why their engagement with working class communities is low, stop trying to sell papers and actually listen to people. Chances are, those you might identify as such actually hugely resent the term White Working Class.


Identity is important in that it’s vital to know and celebrate your history and who you are in a place which marginalises you for that. Identity is why Bernadette McAliskey called upon other Irish people and people of Irish descent to stop partaking in the oppression of Black people in America, so the Irish know who they are and where they’re from. Identity isn’t however, a currency or an all confirming view, so shouting about ‘white people/the Irish were slaves too’ when engaging with Black people on the topic of slavery is literally using a struggle to defend your own white supremacist ideas and victimhood. That is not the solidarity that Irish people called for. Without genuine solidarity with other movements, struggles and people, none can really succeed.


Worse still, there is the incredibly harrowing trend where celebrities, millionaires and brands are being praised as activists, while working class people putting everything on the line to make a stand against the state are ignored. Someone living in a mansion can assert themselves a feminist or flirt with radical iconography, and profit from it, especially if of the right identity (see Miley Cyrus for example). Philanthropy is scraps from the table. In this age, even politicians are given a break based on identity. Of course, if you only attack celebrities and politicians of colour/who are female or non-binary, then you are, of course, a piece of shit.


Racism, which is my main focus in this conversation, concentrates most violently in poorer, working class areas. What you see at Goldsmiths or a SOAS campus is not life in Stoke on Trent. The kinds of language used in some of the London-centric scenes and university social circles, for example, aren’t used frequently in other places. The focus on smaller cultural gains and spaces is a haven only for people who have the luxury of being part of those circles. It’s not a reality for the rest of us. Trends like the new Identity Politics don’t translate at all in places where racism is intense and our spaces are limited. Our approach in Stoke, Bradford and Portsmouth (to name but three places) is more immediate, dangerous and vital, therefore an individualist approach isn’t an option.

The middle class scenes which perpetuate this new kind of Identity Politics focus on maintaining a micro-environment while being very removed from the more intense threats.


How identity can be misused by people of marginalised identities.


Here, I’ll write but a couple of examples of my experience as a Pakistani woman which have pushed me to write this article, these are more the issues which are festering on the Left, as opposed to the overt examples (Sikhs of the EDL etc.).


  • Seeing a Muslim person saying something to the effect of “as a Muslim person the responsibility of that knowledge [knowledge of the death tolls and inaction of the world in regards to the Holocaust] or acknowledgement isn’t on me”. When did we, South Asians, become incapable of or above solidarity, empathy and basic research?
  • In 2016, where a transgender model and activist posed in a dress made of 76 countries where homosexuality was illegal. The liberal Left, and Right, celebrated this, but Writer Sarah E. for Anti Imperialism.org rightly noted:


It not only glosses over the general anti-Queer violence of the global north, but entirely ignores the relationship between the imperialist north and the conditions of these southern peoples...The constant message playing in the back of the First World population’s mind is asking “why can’t they be more like us? What’s wrong with them?” entirely forgetting how we got here.


This perfectly shows our complete ignorance of the wider struggles of the world, colonial history, foreign policy. It shows actually an ignorance of our real identities and their uncomfortable histories. We want to celebrate Nike having a campaign featuring women in hijab, but we don’t want to talk about the Muslim and indigenous women in Nike sweatshops. All we see is identity, binaries and single ‘facts’ in a Western bubble. It’s easier to like and share a meme than to analyse nuance and history, than to consider the complex and acknowledge responsibility.

This change from using identity to know oneself and your struggle, to only caring about your own existence, has occurred hand in hand with social media. Here the gamification (turning something into a game for better engagement) of social interactions has happened seamlessly - getting likes and validation is winning. Selfies garner likes, being visible gets you interactions. This obsession with self promotion, including using your identity as a USP (Unique Selling Point), has killed any radical notion associated with celebration of a marginalised people. This depressing phenomenon is SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) friendly too - keep your politics simple (read: without nuance or research) and you’re onto a winner. It’s a celebration of you, desolately, only you.

A further example of this is an article by Nico Quintana, a transgender, QPOC and Latinx activist who argued this year that Black Bloc is a racist tactic, urging white activists to stop employing it. Concealing your identity from the police is actually:


a) not a white invention
b) literally what’s keeping any radical movement afloat, police will target you at a vigil let alone a protest, surveillance is 80% of the game
c) not a privileged thing: many people, namely working class people, will lose their jobs, homes and sometimes even children should they be exposed supporting ‘radical’ protest.


We shouldn’t ask white people to de-mask, we should mask up ourselves.
The current dangers for all oppressed people right now are immense. We need solidarity: knowledge and action, resource and time, seeing the links between struggles. Focusing on isolated identities is the reason why anti-blackness is rife in South Asian circles for example - now Identity Politics makes us more inward, and often more bigoted, totally removed from radical politics. Arguing over whether Beyonce is allowed to wear South Asian dress in a music video becomes the most important discussion to be had according to the Internet vanguards (cultural exchange dies alongside solidarity too). These critics certainly aren’t the ones campaigning for justice for Kingsley Burrell, or any number of black people being brutalised by the state. They’re not frontline contributing to any radical change or the safety of a people. Nuanced cultural discussion and direct action can of course both occur, but I’m telling you that right now, they’re not.


Where do we go from here: Utilising identities for action, not complacency.


Legendary radical Audre Lorde was right when she said that self care isn’t self indulgence, however, anyone who uses this radical Black woman’s voice for passivity is appropriating works beyond their understanding.

We need to look after ourselves in a dangerous world which threatens us because of who we are. We must take care of ourselves while we fight the fascists, the state, and all other threatening bodies that are advancing quickly.


Identity shouldn’t be used as a way to shirk responsibility for starting, joining or having solidarity with movements: it should be your motivation. Identity cannot be the end-all-and-be-all of activism. This tired student/middle class/liberal reflex to poke holes or declare something vaguely problematic means more hypothesizing the abstract instead of acting on the reality. Which is the intention. And no, I'm not saying critique as something progresses isn’t important. This isn't the same.


I’m arguing that this new evolution of Identity Politics is holding back action. Not in a “if we acknowledge our differences and dynamics it’s divisive” way, which is of course bullshit, but in a “my identity means I won’t act” kind of way.


The use of identity to shirk of responsibility is one I’ve experienced more intensely recently in England.


“I won’t join an anti-racist group or general movement with lots of white people/males”


This exists in two veins:
  • We want allies, the ones we know have privilege in society, to take action. We see it as their responsibility as they benefit from the racist or sexist dynamic.
  • We don't want white and other privileged people involved, and we won't do anything to change the movement or make our own. So, it'll remain white and we'll remain passive.


In either case we want autonomy. However we won’t take the lead, and we don’t fight for that autonomy.


A group in England (an intentional anchor back into the context I’m discussing, these ideas can’t and shouldn’t be wholly applied to an environment like France or the US, for example) will remain white until you walk in and say this is my thing now, let’s get stuff done, and invite other POC to join. A group may indeed be inherently bigoted and so you start your own local movement. It can be difficult, it can be scary, but activism is hard.
At this stage, inaction is facilitating fascism. Let's just think about the messy hypocrisy of “I want freedom but only when white/men facilitate it for me and/or stop fighting for it with me”.


Of course these groups can be shit, but there are so many people of marginalised identities doing nothing tangible, all these people who actually can get together, and make something new. There are so many people of marginalised identities making their own movements, struggling, because you’re not showing up for them.


Our actions need to reflect our ideology - do we really love our roots and people? Do we really believe in justice and freedom for all people? If so then we need to act, otherwise we only love ourselves.


There were three racist White Lives Matter demonstrations in England toward the end of 2016 - if everyone who was able was there or contributed in some way (activism isn't of course just physical bodies) these would have been much more successful demonstrations on our side. We love to talk about White Supremacy in the states, but it’s apparently not as interesting here.


It’s true, some activism is actually more popular than other kinds, some has a social element and is popular on social media - you can even tag yourself at events. What isn’t so glamorous, however, is waking up at 6am to help the residents of Bradford fight off the EDL, or the community of Rotherham where a Pakistani man was literally murdered. You know what’s a real drag? The police violently targeting activists at these kinds of demos, so Facebook tagging is kept to a minimum. If it didn’t happen on Facebook, did it happen at all? Was it worth doing? Judging by the turnout of ‘anti-racist’ activists or people, apparently not.


Some struggles are just easier to talk about and not as harrowing. Sure, some identities can mean facing state brutality and fatality, but why not focus solely on an issue like white body positivity instead? Why would you act on black and brown people being detained or murdered by the state when you could focus only and exclusively on your own struggles? Least likely still is considering the intersections between say, body positivity and being black or brown. Let’s try something even bigger and more complex: Why think about the way every facet of capitalism is racist when you can hone in exclusively on your own experience?


In writing, I’m not trying to put all responsibility on marginalised people. I acknowledge too that everything around us encourages us to be insular, ‘selfish’ and isolated, we’re supposed to feel like movements won’t work but signing a petition might do the trick. Facing a world of complexity and violence, a violence targeted at every facet of our lives, is difficult. Being active in fighting it is even harder. What I’m doing is putting urgency into how we move forward, so yes, we have revival of movements like the Asian Youth Movement, seeing organised communities work in solidarity with others. Let’s give more time and support to Black Lives Matter UK and Jewdas, let’s actually take a stand with other struggles.


Let’s self organise, let’s join movements and the ones that need it - let’s diversify them, let’s lead the way. Can you write? Design? Flyer? Babysit? Do admin? Cook? What skills can you contribute to an active anti-fascist movement which confronts racism head on, irl? Think about it, then do it.


To summarise in two key points (TL;DR):
  1. Identity is a key element in any social and political discourse, but it’s not an absolute or total authority on a subject. Lived experience is incredibly valuable, but it isn’t the entire story.
  2. Identity should be used as a motivation for action, a way to map different privileges and help others, and not to shirk responsibility to focus only on your own struggles.


Who you are does define what struggles you face, but where you sit in the world and how you fight different oppressions together is key to completely fighting fascism.