In class on Wednesday, we briefly touched on the concept of ‘identity politics’, and the discourse surrounding identity politics itself. One part of the discussion that caught my interest was the idea that identity politics hurts minority groups, by further marking them as ‘other’ and emphasizing separation. The quote on the slideshow which prompted this was:
“What are the limitations of identity politics? Are they complicit in the logic of colonialism or oppression? What is “the efficacy of maintaining a group identity based on primarily a sense of otherness and nonbelonging” (Eleanor Ty)?”
We were in a rush to get through the more important content, so we glanced over this, but I think there are a few key presumptions occurring here which are worth examining. Firstly, when it comes to identity politics, are these group identities based on a sense of otherness and nonbelonging? I think they often go hand in hand, due to the fact that groups which are othered often band together under an identity for community and support, but I would argue that these identities are not based in their otherness. I can’t speak as an Asian-American, but I often hear the discourse of identity politics surrounding my own LGBTQ identities, so I can speak to this: a large portion of my life I spend feeling queer, and not feeling othered. When I am in a group made up of largely other queer people or allies, as has often been the case in the last four years, our queer identities become the norm within our space. My friends like to joke sometimes, “oh my god! I forgot straight people existed!” It’s a joke, but it has a kernal of truth. I would argue strongly that identity groups are based in celebration of or even just experience of facets of identity, rather than otherness. The emphasis on otherness only occurs when the identity is existing or being expressed in a group not dominated by the identity, i.e. when I go home for the summer and get called slurs by my brother. There, it is very difficult to forget straight people exist.
The second presumption I would challenge in this argument that identity politics feeds oppression, is the idea of a “norm” to break off of which makes the identities “other” and “nonbelonging.” What exactly is the “norm?” The idea of a “norm” to which all other identities compare and are other too is very dangerous, as that “norm” is often subconsciously (or consciously in some cases) defined as straight, white, gender conforming, et cetera. If forming identity groups is to other yourself by breaking off from the “norm,” then the natural alternative you are supposed to take would be to conform to that “norm” by pretending to be those things, or by being a “good” member of the alternate identity group, when you cannot hide your own otherness. I was queer before I identified as queer, before I officially joined an identity group and began to act accordingly; I was only queer behind closed doors. I knew what society expected of me, and I acted accordingly, I hid the divergent parts of myself which could be hidden, and was a “good” member of the self-identities which could not be hidden.
To make one example, people often toss around the phrase, “not like other girls.” They mean it as a compliment, and many guys who mistakenly thought I was a girl have used it to try and express romantic interest in me. R.I.P. those guys. It’s such a disgusting and insulting phrase – as though there is something wrong with all girls, but thank god you’re not like the rest of them! This happens with feminism too – “not like those other feminists.” The point I’m trying to make here is that identity groups shouldn’t be afraid to deviate from the norm, to be other. There’s a difference between being other and being othered. It’s too common to see that people can only respect each other as equals if they’re the same, but we need to learn to respect each other as equals for our differences, to respect people who are other without othering them. When we avoid acknowledging that an identity is other, is different from our own, i.e. “I don’t see colour,” we force the people of the other identity into conformity – straight, white, binarily gendered, et cetera. When you claim not to be able to see colour, you do not free a person of colour from their societal disadvantages, you force them to conform to a norm under which white is the default. When you claim you just “don’t care” what your queer friend is “into” (something I hear from many well-intentioned straight friends), you don’t release them from fear of prejudice, you pressure them into conformity. I was already other before I officially declared myself as an identity, I was just forced to hide and conform, by my lack of declaration.
This has been kind of a long post, I’m sorry about that, but it’s something that’s been rattling around in my head since Wednesday. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this? I’m coming from a very specific life experience here, and my queer identity is nothing like racial identity, the kind of Asian-American experience we’re studying in this class, markedly by it’s ability to be hidden if necessary. Does anyone support the idea that identity politics furthers oppression? Or have any further insights?