The Dead End of Identity Politics.

Pull up a chair. I have a story to tell.


A former colleague of mine posts this on Facebook. Makes you wanna give it an eyeroll or two, right? There is nothing in this critique that one can use to organize or build community around; rather it is simply one more scold in an atmosphere full of them. I challenged the person who posted it to find me something similar on how you can build bridges or educate the mass of people that we will actually need in order to build a coalition for change. She replied that she was not necessarily using it to exclude folks from spaces; fine, I said. I do not understand how one can post something like that and say with a straight face that they “are not trying to exclude”, but I was ready to let it go.

A socialist organizer friend of mine weighs in on the fourth point. I read it and….huh. It kinda does sound like the poster is blaming white LGBTQ+ individuals for their own oppression. I mean, I can kinda see the point (these struggles are connected, and one oppression fuels others), but it was made in such a bombastically ridiculous way as to lose the point entirely. And knowing the struggles that white LGBTQ+ youth endure in the South, this particular admonishment came across as being very unfeeling and insensitive.

The response that he gets from others? Google It, basically. Maybe I should not have done this, but I basically told the person who said that to stuff it. Like, this mess gets very old, very fast. When another person, a queer Black woman, came in and left a big block of text stating that it was perfectly within her right to tell people to Google It, and how I was apparently devaluing intracommunity work by stating that it is an organizer’s job to educate, I stated the following:

Everyone cannot be an organizer. Fine. But please, do not politicize your laziness and comfort.

Her response?

Did you just call me lazy? Did you not hear me say that I am a queer Black woman….

What conversation is there to be had around that? It is as if the mere existence of her identity inoculates her from any critique. How did we get here?

Freddie DeBoer makes a great point in his piece on what he calls “critique drift“:

“This all largely descends from a related condition: many in the broad online left have adopted a norm where being an ally means that you never critique people who are presumed to be speaking from your side, and especially if they are seen as speaking from a position of greater oppression. I understand the need for solidarity, I understand the problem of undermining and derailing, and I recognize why people feel strongly that those who have traditionally been silenced should be given a position of privilege in our conversations. But critique drift demonstrates why a healthy, functioning political movement can’t forbid tactical criticism of those with whom you largely agree. Because critical vocabulary and political arguments are common intellectual property which gain or lose power based on their communal use, never criticizing those who misuse them ultimately disarms the left. Refusing to say ‘this is a real thing, but you are not being fair or helpful in making that accusation right now’ alienates potential allies, contributes to the burgeoning backlash against social justice politics, and prevents us from making the most accurate, cogent critique possible.”

Look, I am Black. Also, sometimes, I can be wrong. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, and yet we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed “sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist” and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle. And listen, maybe that is cool with some folks. Maybe the revolution that so many of these types speak about will simply consist of everyone spontaneously coming to consciousness and there will be no need for coalitions, give-and-take, or contact with people who do not know every word or phrase that these groups use as some sort of litmus test for the unwashed.

But for the rest of us who reside in a reality-based world, where every social interaction is not tailored for your idiosyncratic indignations, we know that casting folks out for the tiniest of offenses will lead to a Left that will forever be marginalized and ineffective. I have stated before that the kind of people who put out these lists and engage in the kind of identitarian caterwauling that has become rote copy on the Internet might actually want that, as a world where left-wing activism is made potent and transformative will be one where they cannot simply take comfort in their cocoon of self-righteousness. But damn them when I can turn on my computer and see one Black person after another being gunned down by police. Damn them when we have a president that can sit there with a straight face and speak the words of freedom and liberation while using the power at his disposal to deny those very concepts to others. And damn them when we can get thousands of words on Patricia Arquette drunk at a party or how it is privileged to not like the same musicians that they do, but we cannot seem to get any thoughts on how the biggest moment for communities of color since the 1960s is being squandered in a hail of intergenerational squabbling. And do not even get me started on people writing articles that malign long-standing activist organizations without a whiff of evidence that there has been any wrongdoing on their part.

“What are we doing here?”

That is a question that I often ask my wife, a fellow organizer. I do not ask that question about place; I ask that question about strategy. I wonder what shaming people for simple mistakes does for movement-building, or abusing basic sociological concepts to divide people and disrupt momentum, or acting like the capitalists and privileged classes that we claim to be against. Her answer is the same every time: “I have no idea.”

Neither do I. And neither do the communities who need our help.