In a recent Facebook discussion I got drawn into regarding Zizek and identity politics, I started by arguing for an understanding of identity politics that is not synonymous with the politics of representation and recognition that desire more POC or queer people or women on television or as CEOs or politicians and presidents. That is, since it started, identity politics has had a radical critique of capitalism, a notion of building wide coalitions among various marginalized groups, and a desire for intersectional analysis that troubled the ideas that there was one source of oppression (class or sex or race, etc). I noted that I was not trying to position identity politics as a field of thought that is uncritiquable, but defend it as an important critical intervention in thought that gave an imaginative space for folks to decenter white men’s work as hallowed and sacred while also allowing people to develop critiques of identity politics. That is, identity politics, by and large, has been far more self-reflexive than the philosophical and theological projects of white men and can’t just be dismissed as a ridiculous project even if it gets things wrong.

Another commentor who self-identified as a reader of Zizek and agreed with Z’s critiques of identity politics responded that they DID want to argue that identity politics is a ridiculous project which “doesn’t mean it’s not important, or even emancipatory.” This stuck with me because it clarified for me why I did want to defend identity politics.

Dismissals of identity politics as ridiculous even as they are “important” or “emancipatory” strikes me as a kind of intellectual doublespeak that highlights the misunderstanding that grounds the dismissal in the first place. That these dismissals often come from persons who have probably read a handful of books by marginalized persons vs. hundreds of books by white men (insert “not ALL people who make these dismissals…”) is telling. The dismissals again position marginalized thinkers as those upon whom the burden of proof (that IP isn’t a ridiculous project) rests. While, of course, the folks dismissing identity politics are certain their ideas and philosophies and theologies are more convincing because they are more rigorous, it never seems to cross their minds that perhaps they find those fields more rigorous that they have rigorously been educated within? That is, the tokenization of marginalized thinkers on class syllabi, their introduction only as persons to be placed in comparison to white thinkers or male thinkers, is one of the best ways to fail at exploring the thought of marginalized intellectuals rigorously and is also the primary ways they are taught.

This logic of dismissal, where marginzalized persons are responsible for proving the necessity and validity of their fields of study, their lines of thought, their intellectual pursuits, reminded me of my time as an undergraduate at a predominately white institution that had one tenured black faculty when I arrived, and two when I graduated four years later. In my classes, the obvious gaps of thought when it came to race were places where I made very quick connections, pointing out the absence of thought on race, which impressed a lot of the white folks around me but didn’t solve my main problem which was, why do I have to teach this to myself in the first place? The answer to this was very clear from faculty and fellow students’ responses to my work, which is that it was interesting, but not central to the discussions at hand. Or, that I needed to engage with the primary white sources more, or that my work was ridiculous because the primacy of these white guys’ thought is just so obvious, why would I even bother making the critiques I was trying to make? Or that I was to blame for not bringing up race more and so, would have to suffer lowered marks on my grade because I didn’t bring myself into class sufficiently enough.

Having been in predominately white academic institutions since 2006, I understand why one would be able to dismiss identity politics as a ridiculous project. When one hasn’t lived through a college experience that is intellectually hostile to explorations of race and gender, when one is able to find one’s history and philosophies and theologies throughout the course catalog instead of hoping each semester that one of the maybe 5 classes on black people or race would be taught, it is quite easy to understand ones normative interests as being In a position to dismiss identity politics as ridiculous. Easily dismissing these ideas are not a surprise when one is not having to spend time hoping that the only class on a black novelist, Toni Morrison, wouldn’t just be an online summer class that you couldn’t afford to take because you didn’t have money for summer classes; or that the 3 paragraphs on black liberation theology in your Christian doctrine book might be expanded on in class, but never are. Or that the library would have the books by some black thinker that is a seminal work in critical race theory, but not important enough to garner space on the college’s bookshelves; or that you could find enough time between classes where you were always responsible for bringing race into the discussions and final papers where you always ended up doing a lot of research that wasn’t contained in the class—because your interests in race meant you had to make all the connections between primary white scholars and yourself (and probably not very well)—to finish the black feminist literary criticism collection or collection of poetry by Toi Dericotte or Cornelious Eady because that was a small piece of intellectual and literary solace you could find that made your days of racial microaggressions and obvious white supremacy a little more bearable.

The ease with which these dismissals come suggest a lack of understanding of what precisely is at stake for people who might gravitate to identity politics, which is trying not to let the waves of violence overtake one’s ability to imagine another way of being in the world. That it is Zizek’s work, dealing so heavily in Hegel (who dismisses the whole African continent from the history of philsophy) and Lacan (whose homophobia is well recorded), that is utilized to repeat the same kind of dismissal of black people and women and queer folks from histories of thought that his predecessors have also attempted is somewhat telling of the lack of reflexivity that occurs even in a world where critical theoretical interventions into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy have been made.

There are many critiques of identity politics to be had, many that I share and hope are heard. But there is a difference in critiquing because one wants to think more clearly about the political situation we find ourselves in—how holding onto identity can delimit our ability to imagine critical interventions that are necessary to dismantling oppressive structures—and dismissing because one never understood in the first place what people were trying to do with identity politics. That is, stay alive.

But perhaps survival is a ridiculous project.

11 thoughts

  1. I’m really feeling this post. It speaks to much of my experience as well. What seems most ridiculous to me is the tacit assumption among many critics that they know the essence of “identity politics.” In order to critique it, they assume a reductive account of it. In fact, in most conversations, the choice of this label signals to me someone who has likely already dismissed or misapprehended the complex realities and intentionalities of subaltern people’s struggles for survival, self-understanding, and community. It has never occurred to me to be an advocate of “identity politics.” But those suffering from legacies of slavery, misogyny, and genocide–I believe I have much to learn from their politics.

  2. I’ve been pretty eager to read some feedback to this, and am disappointed that there aren’t yet any comments. So I’ll go first. Amaryah, first of al, thank you for this provocative piece.

    While I am somewhat familiar with Zizek’s work, I only know his critique of identity politics second hand; nevertheless, I think you raise important points. I, too, am tired of the double-speak of liberals or the academic left.

    I have three questions for you.

    1. What value do you think there might be in teasing apart identity politics as an active political program from identity politics as a conceptual scheme? It seems to me that the biggest problems with identity politics are conceptual; just as so-called contextual theology often circumscribes critical discourse into its own context, I think identity politics makes the identity of the oppressed the problem (e.g., “the Negro problem”), when in reality it is society that has the identity problem (i.e., it’s not people of color who are obsessed with identity, but white society).

    2. Following the first, I wonder about your thoughts about how identity politics has been deployed in theology. Something that gives me a fair bit of anxiety is how “identity theologies” are cordoned off as their own sub-disciplines, so that the meta-disciplines (e.g., systematic theology, etc.) are still largely unaffected. I think at the root of this is the problem of universality, which I believe is what is at stake in Zizek’s critique of identity politics. To clarify what I mean, let me use Cone’s theology as an example. At least in Cone’s early work, blackness is a symbol that is intended to signify all racial oppression in America, like that of the Native Americans. And with this construal, the claim of black theology is precisely that white theology is the identity theology, and that blackness is not about black particularity, but a more serious universality. I imagine that Zizek would want to give primacy to class instead of race as a concrete universal, which is a move I am inclined to agree with, even though my own work is about race.

    3. In public politics or theology, what do you think keeps identity politics/theologies from collapsing into moralistic interest groups that are finally operating with a Nietzschean will to power?

    1. Hi Matt,

      I don’t know that I’m very invested in teasing apart identity politics as political program and IP as conceptual framework, mostly because I don’t think that is my project. If folks want to work on that though, I don’t really feel one way or the other about it.

      As far as the second, I’m still a little confused about what you are asking. For now all I can really say is I don’t think can supplant race with class because in modernity race brings into being the question of private property. In that sense it seems like the most universal way to deal with class is to deal with race and coloniality.

      I’m also confused about this question in that I’m not sure why this question is important to you? Could you maybe say more of what you are trying to get at? There seems to be some fear of identity politics turning into the “bad guy” that aligns with white supremacist paranoia that this has already happened and IP is the bad guy now.

      1. Hi Amaryah,

        Let me try to clarify what I was after. My three questions were all interrelated.

        I think that on-the-ground political action has no choice but to coalesce by means of interest groups, and these are invariably defined by certain identity markers. I think that’s necessary and acceptable. But I think identity politics as a way of conceiving of politics as such can be problematic. At the end of your post, you said, “There are many critiques of identity politics to be had, many that I share and hope are heard.” What I was asking: these critiques, are they practical or conceptual or is that a distinction you would resist? My sense from your comment is that you don’t like or care about that distinction.

        I don’t think that class should supplant race. I’m sorry if I sounded like I was saying that. My question is about universality, which is why I used Cone as an example. So as far as I interpret him, Cone thinks that the particular experience of black people is the appropriate symbol for all who are under the oppression of white supremacy; i.e., blackness is asserted because of its universality, which is materially grounded in the particular experience of black people. So my question is about the use of particular identities in theology (or politics): is there a burden to push towards a universality that exceeds the particular identity, as Cone attempts to do?

        The third concern follows. No, I don’t think identity politics is the bad guy, nor would I ever validate white supremacist paranoia. But at the end of the day, political struggles intend to win victory, and so pushing a political agenda through to its logical end is appropriate. Continuing with Cone for an example, I think it’s abundantly clear in his work that the assertion of black power is qualitatively different than the assertion of white power; and I think the difference lies in the fact that black power is a call for the universal good, while white power is the assertion of an interest group that exists because of a particular identity. And it seems to me that it is the latter that collapses into will-to-power-politics, precisely by remaining an identity politics. Alternatively, black power, though seeming like an identity politics, may not be a form of will to power, precisely because it asserts the Good, which is, by virtue of what it is, always universal.

  3. Matt, I think your last question illustrates what is wrong with the label “identity politics.” This label conjures up the abstract idea of an identity amassing power for itself to the detriment of other identities (like an caricatured, collective Ubermensch) and then lumps virtually all localized resistance movements into that paradigm. But what many such movements are seeking–and I’ll just take black theology as an example–is not to be dominant over others but rather to have the historically subjugated people that they represent finally be treated with the full respect that is owed to human beings. This is a much more reasonable and serious aspiration.

    I also have one thought about this point from your second question: “the claim of black theology is precisely that white theology is the identity theology, and that blackness is not about black particularity, but a more serious universality.” I would add one nuance to the last part by saying that blackness is not ONLY about black particularity, but ALSO a more serious universality–because I believe it is important to affirm both aspects. The historical particularity of the situation is crucial; this particularity (i.e., the actual goals and circumstances of the movement) proves that the logic of black theology is not that of an abstract identity politics but rather that of a dehumanized community seeking basic levels of survival and freedom. At the same time, I think you’re right to underscore Cone’s particularization of whiteness and his emphasis on the universal symbolic significance of blackness. As I understand it, the universal power of this symbol has to do with its representation of unjust suffering. I don’t think the question of whether race or class is more important makes much sense here. The question, for me, is who is suffering unjustly and what forms of thought and action are they developing to deal with the causes of that suffering.

  4. Just to be clear, I was the “another commentator” who “responded that they DID want to argue that identity politics is a ridiculous project which “doesn’t mean it’s not important, or even emancipatory.'” I was never asked what I meant by that, or invited to say more. It was just assumed that Amaryah knew what I meant by that. I was very misunderstood, was not listened to, and the ensuing “discussion” was offensive, dismissive, and highly toxic. Shame was used as a tactic against dissent of the majority opinion (which was decisively against Zizek), and any resistance to the ideas presented in the thread was met with tropes that I was just supporting the hegemonic allergy to race or identity critiques, which could not have been farther from the truth.

    1. Hi Silas,

      I don’t think it’s true that you weren’t invited to clarify your position or Zizek’s as Tim asked for clarity on your thoughts and I also said you were welcome to share on Zizek’s position because I’m not a reader of his. You spent several comments making one off statements about disliking strategic essentialism and reading Zizek being like poetry instead of actually responding to people’s comments. Sorry you didn’t feel listened to, but it didn’t feel like you were very serious about making arguments aside from very brief interjections.

      1. Fair enough. You are probably right. I was traveling at the time and unable to make real in-depth comments; I should have left it alone. The discussion kept going back and forth; at times it was almost playful to being quite serious; I never know exactly how to use FB to communicate well on this sort of thing. I am committed to responding seriously, which will require returning to Zizek to consider your critiques more substantively. I think you are wrong both about Zizek, and about my motives for defending him against identity politics. But your concerns warrant a more serious engagement. I plan to write something over the next few weeks, and will be ager to get your thoughts on it once it is done. Thank you again. I hope we get a chance to learn more about each other’s perspectives in the coming months.

  5. I interpret my own comment about the “ridiculous character of Identity Politics” through J. Halberstam’s discussion of failure and losing in “Queer Art of Failure”, which would have been an interesting matter to discuss if I had been given the opportunity to do so. I think it is a unfair assumption to make that because one is critical of identity politics that either means that one is (a) jumping to defend of the white racist status quo, or (b) “never understood in the first place what people were trying to do with identity politics.” This kind of invective is really unfair. Actually, your last phrase about “survival being a ridiculous project” is exactly the line of thinking I am taking. I interpret my own comment about the “ridiculous” character of identity politics through J. Halberstam’s discussion of failure in “Queer Art of Failure”, which would have been an interesting thing to discuss if I had been given the opportunity to actually engage, rather than just fend off accusatory and shaming comments. Let us raise the level of “really existing discourse” rather than use the tools of shame, fear, and territorialization.

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