Social Justice Usage
Source: hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. 88–89.
Identity politics emerges out of the struggles of oppressed or exploited groups to have a standpoint on which to critique dominant structures, a position that gives purpose and meaning to struggle. Critical pedagogies of liberation respond to these concerns and necessarily embrace experience, confessions and testimony as relevant ways of knowing, as important, vital dimensions of any learning process.
New Discourses Commentary
Identity politics is, in some sense, the basis and goal of Critical Social Justice activism and the Theory behind it, but the term itself is complicated in meaning, even within Critical Social Justice Theory and activism itself. There, as outside of the Critical Social Justice context, the term has many meanings to many people and can be interpreted variously under each of these. These contradictions can be resolved, and it can easily be understood that forwarding a specific type of radical, if not revolutionary, identity politics is the primary agenda of Social Justice. Many sources, both scholarly and popular, within the Critical Social Justice canon identify themselves as “unapologetically” committed to identity politics.
Of particular note and central importance, the identity politics typically referred to within Critical Social Justice is distinct from and even “calls into question” “traditional civil rights discourse” (as explained by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction). The specific approach and meaning of “identity politics” in play follows from the very radical queer/lesbian black feminist Combahee River Collective, which coined the term in 1977, long after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. That is, while the phrase “identity politics” has been retrofitted onto the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, its origins were in a radical movement from over a decade later that sought specifically to reject and invert the fundamental premises of that movement. Thus, the confusion in the term is a contemporary phenomenon that disguises the fact that the term arose in explicit rejection of the means and methods of the movement it claims to continue.
Before getting into the different interpretations of the term, a simple way to explain identity politics is that it crafts political special interest groups out of identity groups and advocates for them. This can be done with varying levels of rigor and with differing foci and intentions, which is a highly relevant point that we will have to linger on later. To say this about identity politics is to cast it as neither good nor bad, but to the degree the system relies upon identity politics (i.e., special interest politics) of this sort, it will manifest different sociopolitical outcomes that may be more or less desirable, depending upon one’s desires and political orientation.
In this sense, if we understand the term this loosely, identity politics can certainly be engaged in from a liberal perspective, a perspective of racial supremacy (e.g., white supremacy), or from a fundamentally “liberatory” (read: radical, if not revolutionary) anti-liberal perspective (see also, critical race Theory). For our purposes, not least because the term arose specifically in service to a radical agenda that sought to depart from liberal civil rights work, we generally try to avoid calling the liberal approach by the term “identity politics,” and we see the latter two as both sides of a single coin that deserves the term. Critical Social Justice advocates tend to try to blur or elide this distinction because they want to capitalize upon the good reputation of liberal equality movements while advancing something that “ruthlessly” (as Marx put it) critiques the foundations that made and make them possible. This distinction is of central importance to the forthcoming discussion of this concept.
To get into the complexity of understanding this term even within Critical Social Justice, Robin Diangelo, critical whiteness educator and author of White Fragility, illustrates some of it by presenting it very simply: “The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality.” This, she “unapologetically” advocates for throughout her writing. This definition appears to differ significantly from the understanding forwarded by black feminist bell hooks, above, which focuses more upon struggle and standpoint (see also, standpoint epistemology, knowledge(s), lived experience, and ways of knowing), advocating these as a basis for critique of structural and systemic dominance (see also, critical, critical theory, critical race Theory, structural, structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodern, Foucauldian, Neo-Marxism, and New Left). Both of these meanings are consistent with Critical Theory, however, and derive from the usage of the radical activists in the Combahee River Collective.
Meanwhile, the dictionary (per Google) provides this definition for identity politics: “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics,” which hints that DiAngelo, at least, might be leaving something significant out of her interpretation. This interpretation, as can be read in the examples below from Crenshaw, itself can be considered problematic, in particular that it gives way to essentialism (hooks, after the above quote in the same source, is likewise partially skeptical of identity politics for this reason – see also, anti-essentialism and strategic essentialism). That is, they are concerned that identity politics tends to treat these issues too simply, not only by reducing them to a narrow set of characteristics that may caricature those identity groups unfairly, but also by seeking to operate coalitionally (see also, solidarity) and thus erasing special, special interests with them. Note that Crenshaw would have been inspired by the Combahee River Collective and its work, as the concept of intersectionality, which is credited to her, seems actually to have arisen from the Collective at least a decade earlier.
Black feminists like hooks and critical race Theorists (and intersectionalists) like Crenshaw, however, do not so much object to identity politics for its issues with essentialism as they do because those problems tend to erase the complexity in “intersecting” oppressed identities. Both, specifically, complain that both antiracism and feminism tend to relegate black women’s issues to the “margins” of concern rather than elevating and centering them. That is, people of this ilk, who at the time did much to define what has become the contemporary Critical Social Justice movement and its Theory, are highly sympathetic to—indeed, advocate for—identity politics and the (identity) politicization of everything (e.g., “the personal is political,” “teaching is a political act” and “emotions are political”—see white women’s tears) so long as the model underlying the identity politics is intersectional in orientation. This is what DiAngelo (below) means when she talks about the relevance of her positionality to her politics, which is what hooks was hearkening to (above) when she mentions “standpoint.”
A second, more profound, possibly intentional confusion exists within Critical Social Justice with regard to identity politics—its attempt to situate its own efforts (which forward equity as justice) as though they are in the same vein as the liberal equality movements that they simultaneously criticize as a way dominant groups have maintained control over subordinated ones (see also, liberalism, equity, and equality). As Robin DiAngelo (see below) explicitly states, she sees her identity politics as a continuation of—in fact, the central feature of—the liberal equality movements that came before, merely as a result of the fact that they took up advancement of identity-based rights and opportunities as a cause. She writes,
All progress we have made in the realm of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics: women’s suffrage, the American with Disabilities Act, Title 9, federal recognition of same-sex marriage. A key issue in the 2016 presidential election was the white working class. These are all manifestations of identity politics. (p. xiii)
As noted above, whether or not this is considered “identity politics” is a semantic quibble. We fall on one side of this dispute, and DiAngelo (and many in the Critical Social Justice worldview) fall on the other. There’s little fruit in attempting to resolve this difference over the full and exact meaning of terms, and we leave that discussion to philosophers with more time and inclination on their hands. What is undeniable, however, is that DiAngelo’s claim that her “unapologetic” identity politicking approach is not a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, as the term’s specific origins in a radical collective that unambiguously called into question the intellectual and moral architecture of that movement would indicate (these being Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism).
As mentioned above, there is a fundamental difference between advancing identity-based causes via illiberal, group-based advocacy and doing so via liberalism. The latter centers the precise human universalism and individualism DiAngelo attempts to co-opt from the very first sentences of her authors note to White Fragility: “The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. … We have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics.” The latter not only denies it, but also problematizes it consistently and vigorously. (Though there are noteworthy exceptions in his complete catalogue, this universal humanist and liberal individualist approach is what Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated most consistently during the Civil Rights Movement. It is also something heavily problematized in Social Justice – see also, liberalism, universalism, and individualism – leading some thinkers in Social Justice to classify King as problematically “comfortable” for whites. Of note, DiAngelo herself problematizes those ideas heavily in another of her books, Is Everyone Really Equal?)
For the same reason that we would suggest that an identity politics that genuinely advances identity-based supremacy (say, white supremacy or patriarchy—not merely understood in the “systemic” sense of Theory) is wrong and illiberal, we would suggest that an identity politics that genuinely advances specific identity-based inferiority and infamy (though in the reverse direction) is also wrong and illiberal. These, we contend, deserve the term “identity politics,” while liberal approaches do not, in that liberal approaches actually advocate for universal humanism, equality, and treating everyone as individuals rather than as members of hierarchically ranked (positively or negatively) identity groups.
By choosing to orient itself in an identity-first fashion—explicitly for the purposes of doing identity politics (see Crenshaw, below)—the identity politics practiced by Social Justice is in the same conceptual universe as that practiced by Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan and in a completely different conceptual universe as that practiced under liberal civil rights movements. They are not the same thing, of course, as they represent polar-opposite approaches to the issue of identity, but they share similar assumptions and dispositions and can, under the right circumstances, generate similar kinds of outcomes. (This is what is meant by horseshoe theory.)
Anti-essentialism; Antiracism; Authentic; Black feminism; Center; Critical; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Cultural Marxism; Dominance; Equality; Equity; Erase; Essentialism; Exploitation; Feminism; Foucauldian; Identity; Identity-first; Individualism; Intersectionality; Justice; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Liberation; Lived experience; Marginalization; Marxian; Nazi; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Oppression; Patriarchy; Position; Postmodern; Poststructural; Problematic; Race; Radical; Revolution; Social Justice; Solidarity; Standpoint epistemology; Strategic essentialism; Structural; Structuralism; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Universalism; Ways of knowing, White; White fragility; White supremacy; Whiteness
Source: Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299, p. 1299.
If, as this analysis asserts, history and context determine the utility of identity politics, how, then, do we understand identity politics today, especially in light of our recognition of multiple dimensions of identity? More specifically, what does it mean to argue that gendered identities have been obscured in antiracist discourses, just as race identities have been obscured in feminist discourses? Does that mean we cannot talk about identity? Or instead, that any discourse about identity has to acknowledge how our identities are constructed through the intersection of multiple dimensions? A beginning response to these questions requires that we first recognize that the organized identity groups in which we find ourselves are in fact coalitions, or at least potential coalitions waiting to be formed.
In the context of antiracism, recognizing the ways in which the intersectional experiences of women of color are marginalized in prevailing conceptions of identity politics does not require that we give up attempts to organize as communities of color. Rather, intersectionality provides a basis for re-conceptualizing race as a coalition between men and women of color. For example, in the area of tape, intersectionality provides away of explaining why women of color have to abandon. the general argument that the interests of the community require the suppression of any confrontation around intra-racial rape. Intersectionality may provide the means for dealing with other marginalizations as well. For example, race can also be a coalition of straight and gay people of color, and thus serve as a basis for critique of churches and other cultural institutions that reproduce heterosexism.
With identity thus re-conceptualized, it may be easier to understand the need for, and to summon the courage to challenge, groups that are after all, in one sense, “home” to us, in the name of the parts of us that are not made at home. This takes a great deal of energy, and arouses intense anxiety. The most one could expect is that we will dare to speak against internal exclusions and marginalizations, that we might call attention to how the identity of “the group” has been centered on the intersectional identities of a few. Recognizing that identity politics takes place at the site where categories intersect thus seems more fruitful than challenging the possibility of talking about categories at all. Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.
Source: DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, p. xiii.
The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. Yet the nation began with the attempted genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of their land. American wealth was built on the labor of kidnapped and enslaved Africans and their descendants. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, and black women were denied access to that right until 1964. The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality. We have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics.
The identities of those sitting at the tables of power in this country have remained remarkably similar: white, male, middle- and upper-class, able-bodied. Acknowledging this fact may be dismissed as political correctness, but it is still a fact. The decisions made at those tables affect the lives of those not at the tables. Exclusion by those at the table doesn’t depend on willful intent; we don’t have to intend to exclude for the results of our actions to be exclusion. While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them. Nor will I be motivated to remove the barriers if they provide an advantage to which I feel entitled.
All progress we have made in the realm of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics: women’s suffrage, the American with Disabilities Act, Title 9, federal recognition of same-sex marriage. A key issue in the 2016 presidential election was the white working class. These are all manifestations of identity politics.
Source: DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, p. ix.
This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic. I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective. This usage may be jarring to white readers because we are so rarely asked to think about ourselves or fellow whites in racial terms. But rather than retreat in the face of that discomfort, we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity—a necessary antidote to white fragility. This raises another issue rooted in identity politics: in speaking as a white person to a primarily white audience, I am yet again centering white people and the white voice. I have not found a way around this dilemma, for as an insider I can speak to the white experience in ways that may be harder to deny. So, though I am centering the white voice, I am also using my insider status to challenge racism. To not use my position this way is to uphold racism, and that is unacceptable; it is a “both/and” that I must live with. I would never suggest that mine is the only voice that should be heard, only that it is one of the many pieces needed to solve the overall puzzle.
Source: Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299, pp. 1241–1242.
Over the last two decades, women have organized against the almost routine violence that shapes their lives. Drawing from the strength of shared experience, women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices. This politicization in turn has transformed the way we understand violence against women. For example, battering and rape, once seen as private (family matters) and aberrational (errant sexual aggression), are now largely recognized as part of a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class. This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of people of color and gays and lesbians, among others. For all these groups, identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development.
The embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination-that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example, is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of political empowerment and social reconstruction.
The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. Moreover, ignoring differences within groups frequently contributes to tension among groups, another problem of identity politics that frustrates efforts to politicize violence against women. Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as “woman” or “person of color” as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.
Source: Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299, pp. 1297–1298.
This is not to deny that the process of categorization is itself an exercise of power, but the story is much more complicated and nuanced than that. First, the process of categorizing—or, in identity terms, naming—is not unilateral. Subordinated people can and do participate, sometimes even subverting the naming process in empowering ways. One need only think about the historical subversion of the category “Black,” or the current transformation of “queer,” to understand that categorization is not a one-way street. Clearly, there is unequal power, but there is nonetheless some degree of agency that people can and do exert in the politics of naming. And it is important to note that identity continues to be as site of resistance for members of different subordinated groups. We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” “I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance, but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, non-determinant. There is truth in both characterizations, of course, but they function, quite differently depending on the political context. At this point in history, a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for disempowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it.
Vulgar constructionism thus distorts the possibilities for meaningful identity politics by conflating at least two separate but closely linked manifestations of power. One is the power exercised simply through the process of categorization; the other, the power to cause that categorization to have social and material consequences. While the former power facilitates the latter, the political implications of challenging one over the other matter greatly. We can look at debates over racial subordination throughout history and see that, in each instance, there was a possibility of challenging either the construction of identity or the system of subordination based on that identity.
Source: Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299, p. 1298.
With particular regard to problems confronting women of color, when identity politics fail us, as they frequently do, it is not primarily because those politics take as natural certain categories that are socially constructed, but rather because the descriptive content of those categories and the narratives on which they are based have privileged some experiences and excluded others.
Revision date: 12/9/20