Our new era of identity politics

The Obama presidency was supposed herald a new post-racial America. An author explains why that will never happen

By Mandy Van Deven
Published July 11, 2011 11:45AM (EDT)

Will we ever see the end of identity politics? In 2004, headlines heralded the end of race as we know it. Since Barack Obama was elected in the United States, much has been made of our new, supposedly post-racial society. But in recent years, we've also seen the rise of a new form of right-wing identity politics led by conservatives like Glenn Beck and neo-feminist Sarah Palin. The truth is -- as Beck's claims of "reverse racism," the vehemence of the birthers, and the continued movement against gay marriage prove -- the politics of identity are still as important as ever.

In "Who Are We – And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?" Guardian columnist Gary Younge argues that, instead of pretending that we're all the same, we should embrace the value of difference. As he looks at everything from the "wise Latina" backlash during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to "The American Directory of Certified Uncle Toms," a controversial book arguing that W.E.B. DuBois wasn’t sufficiently "black," Younge encourages readers to recognize the continuing importance of who we are in a rapidly globalized world. The dream of a uniform human race isn't plausible, he believes, or even ideal.

Salon spoke to Younge about which identities still matter, what Hillary Clinton supporters got wrong, and why affirmative action might do more harm than good.

Why write a book about identity now?

The idea became acute in my mind after Sept. 11, when identity became crudely constructed into two camps: pro-American/anti-American or pro-Islamic/anti-Islamic. In Europe, where I was at the time, there was this moral panic about the presence of Muslims and people were talking in ways that were verifiably ridiculous. There was talk in Britain about how homegrown bombers were a new thing when Britain was barely out of the war with Northern Ireland and has been growing its own bombers for centuries. Yet the sense of how it saw itself in the world resulted in an attempt to reconfigure its historical image to demonize Muslims. So, I thought there was a contribution I could make to talk about this stuff more intelligently.

So, what determines which parts of our identity are meaningful beyond our individual experience? Being tall, for example, isn’t considered as important as being a woman.

For identities to be meaningful as social identities, we can’t entirely own them. Let’s say you were a beer-swilling, sexually promiscuous, nominal Muslim American named Ali Aziz on Sept. 10, 2001; on Sept. 12 a whole new set of things came around for you that you didn’t choose. They may have no bearing on what you think about yourself or how you live your life, but suddenly you’re being asked to vouch for certain things and being treated in different ways. This is going to bring about a shift in who you are, not on the basis of anything you’ve done, but on how everybody around you understands you. So, we don’t choose our social identities entirely, but we do have some say about how we go about working through that fictional composite character. One does have the ability to decide not to answer for Islam at all or to become more devoutly Muslim or renounce the religion or change one’s name. We have those choices, but the moment will often choose us as much as we would choose it.

When I’m walking or driving down the road at night in some areas of America, the fact of my race can become a really big deal because I am a black guy, whereas in other areas in other times it can be really insignificant. But in both situations, I’m the same guy.

Right. So the meaning of our identity depends on our surroundings.

Thinking of identities as being part of a fixed hierarchy is a terrible mistake. Being gay and black doesn’t mean that person has it twice as bad as a straight white woman. That’s the kind of mess some white feminists got into with the 2008 presidential debates between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. They suggested that somehow a black male candidate had it easy, and that it was much worse to be a white woman candidate, which is just crazy. Not that it was more difficult for Obama than her. It’s just that the terms of the discussion weren’t helpful to either of them.

One of the many reasons this is an obstacle is that identities aren’t fixed in place and time. Their meaning and relevance is always shifting. As much as anything, this book is an attack on essentialism, because one thing essentialists have always tried to do is suggest there is a fixed notion to who and what we are. Actually, we are many things to many people while also being one thing to ourselves. Whatever else is said about Hillary Clinton, no one questions her being born in America or claims she is a Muslim. They have certainly said other things – demeaned her on the basis of her relationship with her husband or etched out every laugh line, crease and wrinkle – but identity should not be a competition. And if it is made a competition, then everybody loses.

But doesn't all electoral politics involve boiling  people into identities: black, white, woman, man, Christian, Muslim?

I think it’s more sinister than that. In electoral politics, a black person or a white woman still has the issue of having to persuade people they can do the job just as well as a white man in order to get elected. But there is a way in which diversity can be, as Angela Davis said, “the difference that brings no difference, the change that brings no change.” Bangladesh recently had a presidential campaign between two women, but no one would suggest that means women in Bangladesh are doing really well. The world is full of examples of individuals from underrepresented groups gaining more power without the status of the whole group increasing. One of the paradoxes of Obama’s presidency is that African-Americans have never felt better about their place in American politics, yet they’ve rarely fared worse economically and socially.

In India, there are quotas for marginalized groups in government positions, so the issue becomes more about whether elected people from those segments of the population are actually acting on behalf of those groups – and many times they aren’t.

My feeling about affirmative action is that if you stop there, then of course it is inadequate, but these things do have to be kick-started. In Britain the Labour Party had a short period where they had women-only shortlists and only women could stand in local primaries in certain constituencies. This was since deemed illegal, but in the period when it happened there was a sharp increase in women [running for office]. And a lot of them are still there or have risen closer to the top. Nothing suggests we should leave the problem of discrimination to the good sense and kind will of powerful majority groups. It’s quite rare in the history of discrimination that people have given up their power. The question is, How do you intervene to make those changes? If partial changes, like simply having a quota of women in power, are as far as you’re going, there is a chance that might be worse than nothing.

When people like Michele Bachmann or Bobby Jindal are lauded as progress for women and people of color, it really drives home the fact that electing people purely based on their race or gender isn't a terribly good idea.

For the most part, and this is certainly true with women, the right has been better at promoting underrepresented individuals because they are <em>only</em> represented as individuals. They aren’t in any way linked to a broader group’s collective struggle. The right only allows people to be elevated who are not tied to the demands of the women’s movement, gay rights and so forth: Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Angela Merkel. The left has a harder time with this. When you voted for Jesse Jackson in the '80s, you were voting for an agenda that would lead to racial uplift. When you voted for Margaret Thatcher, you were only voting for Margaret Thatcher. You weren't voting for women’s equality.

T he left tries to play both angles, to its detriment.

What is intriguing, and this was true for Obama and Hillary, is how the left feels the need to dance around the tension of the symbolic elements of their candidates. At one moment Hillary would talk about punching holes in the glass ceiling, and at another she would say her gender was irrelevant. Obama used the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to announce his nomination, then never acknowledged the anniversary outright. The symbolic nature of the candidacies are important in that they can increase votes, so they want to harness it and galvanize around it, but they try to do it without ever being too identified with the broader questions related to their identities.

You write in the book about gatekeepers, people who decide who does and doesn't belong to a particular group. A recent example is the brouhaha over bisexual men getting kicked out of a gay softball league for not being gay. Why is this kind of gatekeeping so dangerous?

When gatekeepers are official, they have an institutional ability to include or exclude. They affect the material conditions of people’s lives by making some lives hell and others sweet. The example in the book is of 40,000 Jews in Israel being told they’re no longer Jewish, which is not an insignificant thing to happen to you in Israel. On an unofficial, social and cultural level, the impact is just as real and relevant. A gatekeeper’s job is to say you can only do this and you cannot do that. There is the price of entry to be what you are, so if you want to be a member, this is what you must pay. And if you transgress this, then you’re cast out. In order for that to work, philosophically, the nature of the identity has to be fixed. It can’t change with time and circumstance. For gatekeepers to make sense, the identities that they evoke cannot be fluid.

But if we think of our identities as fluid, won't that make it more difficult to fight for our rights?

To some extent identities are becoming blurrier, but to a larger extent we’re just starting to recognize them as having always been blurry. "Black" was never really a singular category, and within it there were gradations of mulatto, quadroon, octaroon and so forth. But the nature of identity may also shift. Most of the recent protests in the Arab world, Spain, Portugal and Greece have been youth-led. Age is an identity, even if at first glance it may not seem to be one, and it has been an effective vehicle through which to mobilize. No group is cohesive, but to the extent that it might be a mobilizing force, age was. In the last presidential election, “black” became a significant mobilizing category, while “female” was not a significant mobilizing category. They thought it would be, and Republicans certainly hoped it would be, but it wasn’t. So, there are a range of ways this is and isn’t successful.

So if we can't get rid of identity politics, how do we bridge our differences?

There are three things I think are important: empathy, imagination and solidarity. There are a million and one things I am never going to be. No matter how hard I try, being an Afghan lesbian woman is never going to happen for me. But how difficult is it to put yourself in someone else’s shoes a little bit? You don’t have to walk a mile in them; you just have to try them on. When I hear some people talk about marginalized groups, it almost sounds politically autistic in its inability to empathize.

In France they say Muslim women don’t want to wear the veil, that their husbands make them wear it. But we don’t really know that, do we? And we don’t think of it in relation to what women wear in the West – high heels, for example – that by all accounts are uncomfortable or bad for your body. What we wear is not independent of the social expectations around us. It’s more complicated than that. There was an interesting moment two weeks ago in Birmingham, England, where a group of hijab-wearing Muslim women joined the SlutWalk – because the idea was that they support the right of people to wear what they want no matter what it is or for what reason they wear it. I don’t think people feeling emotional will bring about major social change, but I do think those are easy conversations to have. From them emerges empathy, and that leads to acts of solidarity.

Mandy Van Deven

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