Do You Identify Or Are You Identified?

By Nick Pendergrast

Herbert J Gans make some important points questioning who gets to choose an identity and who has identities imposed on them. These points, from the book The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965 are relevant to the backlash against “identity politics” that is coming from the Right and even some on the Left.

Gans explains:

‘Whatever limits the identification process puts on ethnic and racial identity, minorities are relatively free to choose the frequency and intensity of identity expression as well as the feelings, activities, and objects associated with it. Nativeborn whites do not care much whether immigrants feel racial or ethnic pride or through what objects they express that pride. They quickly become upset, however, if identity is expressed in ways that threaten the public order or white superiority in that order’ (p. 104, my emphasis).

The final point about being upset when identity challenges white superiority is where I think a lot of the criticisms of “identity politics” are coming from. Many discussions lumped under the very broadly applied term “identity politics” such as exploring who is given a voice in activist movements and who isn’t, labelling whiteness in discussions about race etc challenge white supremacy, or at least create an environment where such a challenge is more likely.

I think there are some valid critiques of certain kinds of identity politics, however, part of what I see as less legitimate criticisms come from white men (for example) and more privileged groups generally being annoyed at being labelled as such, reflected in comments I’ve seen online such as “I’m so sick of being called a white man!”. Generally in a white supremacist society those who are white are not labelled by others and get to choose whatever labels/identities they like. This definitely rings true in my own experience, as someone who falls into many categories of privilege and any labels that I associate with I have chosen myself, rather than being imposed from outside. In contrast, more marginalised groups such as PoC often have an identity imposed on them by a white majority in Western countries such as Australia and the United States. Gans gives an example of this in a US context:

‘However, Asian Americans, like Hispanics, take their identity from external identifications made by native-born Americans who are unwilling to make distinctions among the immigrants’ various countries of origin. If those speaking for the country’s native-born majority decide how to identify the newcomers, it is easier to call them Asian American than Chinese, Korean, or Japanese’ (p. 103).

Obviously those who are white may face other oppressions based on their gender, sexual preference etc and a similar labelling process is likely to apply, but more generally those with more privilege are more able to choose their own labels/identities and those with less are more likely to have labels/identities imposed on them. Despite the backlash against the naming of whiteness, labelling whiteness is very important.

Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson has published important work on the topic of whiteness. Image from rmit.edu.au

Aileen Moreton-Robinson does a great job at explaining why this is the case in her chapter ‘Whiteness, Epistemology and Indigenous representation’ from the book Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Moreton-Robinson (p. 75) explains that ‘In the West, whiteness defines itself as the norm’ and ‘race is deemed to belong to the other’. Therefore whiteness is ‘an invisible regime of power’ that underpins colonialism (p. 76). In an academic context, the failure to label whiteness has meant that knowledge created by white scholars has generally been perceived as objectives whereas the knowledges developed by Indigenous scholars are often dismissed as implausible and subjective (p. 85).

Whiteness as the “default” or the “norm” through not being labelled also plays out in sport. Moreton-Robinson explains that white athletes such as Dawn Fraser, Pat Rafter and Ian Thorpe ‘are not associated with a particular racial group’ and she asks us to ‘consider why Cathy Freeman is positioned as running for reconciliation, yet Ian Thorpe swims for the nation’ (p. 79). Freeman, as an Aboriginal Australian, is racialised and therefore is portrayed as running for a specific group within Australia, whereas Thorpe, as a white Australian, is not racialised, and is seen as representing the country as a whole. 

The famous image of runner Cathy Freeman carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags. Photo from Getty Images.

Rather than being upset at receiving such labels as “white man”, those of us with more privilege should embrace the naming of whiteness as an important part of the struggle to challenge white supremacy.

This article is the second in a three-part series of posts on identity politics, you can check out the others here:

Article 1:  ‘What Do You Mean By “Identity Politics”?

Article 3: ‘Questioning Trickle Down Identity Politics’.

What Do You Mean By “Identity Politics”?

By Nick Pendergrast

I was recently reading the book The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965 in my academic work and I believe that the chapter ‘Ethnic and Racial Identity’ by Herbert J Gans makes some important contributions to current debates about identity politics.

Let’s start off with a definition of the term. Gans defines identity politics as:

‘…political activity devoted primarily to expressing and defending activists’ ethnic or racial identity’ (p. 102).

This seems like a reasonable definition to me and Gans also makes the point that a broad range of activity is lumped under the label of “identity politics”, even though it may not actually fit the above definition:

‘To what extent ethnic and racial groups become involved in politics to express their identity and to what extent they attempt to obtain the same decision-making influence, jobs, and related resources as other politically active groups is an important question’ (p. 102).

Often a really broad range of discussions about reducing racial inequality are dismissed as “identity politics”, which is assumed to be a negative thing, including even by some on the Left. I believe those doing so should question how broadly they apply this term and also their dismissal of “identity politics” generally. As far as I see, such a broad dismissal only serves to marginalise important discussions challenging racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism etc.

I posted some of the above on social media and ended up having a respectful, productive discussion with a friend on some of the critiques of identity politics. Such conversations seem rare online! I’ll get onto online etiquette below but the point was raised in this discussion that identity politics is often “misused” to prevent more nuanced conversation. They mentioned that:

‘For example I was once extolling the virtues of community gardens and was told that they are racist because community gardens can play a role in gentrification, which often benefits white people. Whereas the question could have been better framed along the lines of how, can we encourage community gardens without them being a vehicle for gentrification?’

In response, I argued that I don’t see bringing in issues of race to community gardens as shutting down the discussion. I’ve heard similar critiques from feminists regarding the slow food movement where we should all be making our own food and doing more food preparation at home in that within current gender norms, most of that extra labour will be done by women. I wouldn’t view that as shutting down a discussion on the slow food movement or “misusing” identity politics, but rather adding an important element to the discussion that is often left out.

Certainly we can all work on framing our arguments better, but again, I see those who challenge “identity politics” as often working to reduce the amount of times issues such as race and gender are brought into discussions around issues like food systems and environmental issues. In my opinion, avoiding bringing in these intersections is a negative thing. It seems to me that the problem identified is with activists framing their arguments in less productive ways and the take-home message is more for all of us to think about re-framing our critiques in more productive ways. This is an issue with online etiquette for everyone to consider, rather than a problem with identity politics.

I feel that framing such problems as an issue of identity politics rather than online etiquette can imply that these issues only apply to those who have marginalised identities and therefore their activity (online or otherwise) is more likely to be labelled (and often dismissed) as identity politics. This is not necessarily the intention of those making this critique but I’d argue it could be the effect. It seems to imply that it is People of Colour, women etc who are the ones that don’t engage well online, despite countless examples of those with more privilege going well beyond not framing arguments in the most productive way, and actually engaging in trolling, abuse and threats.

These discussions remind me of some points by academic Alana Lentin on 3CR Tuesday Breakfast. Lentin argued that some in the “White Left” try to make the case that racism is used as a stick to beat “ordinary” (coded language for white) people. She highlights this narrative as promoting the idea that “big, bad minorities” are “beating people over the head” for making a mistake.

On this point, I think there are important conversations to be had about call out versus call in culture, however, it’s also important for those of us who are white to be cautious about making arguments that feed into a “reverse racism” narrative. Such a narrative goes against all historical and structural evidence.

These discussions also remind me of critiques of the movie The Joker from Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack! podcast (which is now Bitchy Shitshow), where the hosts argued that a message from the movie is that more marginalised groups such as women and People of Colour have to be so careful to be nice to white men, despite how dangerous/scary etc we may be acting, and if they don’t, white male rage and violence is righteous and justifiable.

Image from Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack!

This is not to say that those criticising identity politics are advocating for violence by any means, just to say that we should be careful about feeding into a broader cultural backlash against marginalised groups having a greater say, or at least there being a broader discussion about the fact that some people are marginalised. Of course these inequalities unfortunately continue to persist but they are at least increasingly being challenged in more mainstream forums.

AFL players take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Surely this broader discussion is something that people should be celebrating, rather than viewing as an annoyance.

I encourage anyone critiquing identity politics in this really broad way that dismisses just about any attempt to raise issues such as racism as identity politics and views identity politics as a negative thing, to reconsider this view.

For more on these issues, I highly recommend the video ‘Dear Anti-Idpol Leftists…’ by Mexie on Youtube.

This article is the first in a three-part series of posts on identity politics, you can check out the others here:

Article 2: Do You Identify Or Are You Identified?

Article 3: ‘Questioning Trickle Down Identity Politics’.