Identity politics

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Identity politics is a political approach wherein people of a particular gender, religion, race, social background, class or other identifying factors, develop political agendas that are based upon these identities. The term is used in a variety of ways to describe phenomena as diverse as multiculturalism, women's movements, civil rights, lesbian and gay movements, and regional separatist movements.[1]

Many contemporary advocates of identity politics take an intersectional perspective, which accounts for the range of interacting systems of oppression that may affect their lives and come from their various identities. According to many who describe themselves as advocates of identity politics, it centers the lived experiences of those facing systemic oppression; the purpose is to better understand the interplay of racial, economic, sex-based, and gender-based oppression (among others) and to ensure no one group is disproportionately affected by political actions, present and future.[2][3][4] Such contemporary applications of identity politics describe people of specific race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, economic class, disability status, education, religion, language, profession, political party, veteran status, and geographic location. These identity labels are not mutually exclusive but are in many cases compounded into one when describing hyper-specific groups. An example is that of African-American, homosexual, women, who constitute a particular hyper-specific identity class.[5] Those who take an intersectional perspective, such as Kimberle Crenshaw, criticise narrower forms of identity politics which over-emphasise inter-group differences and ignore intra-group differences and forms of oppression.

Critics of identity politics have seen it as particularist, in contrast to the universalism of liberal perspectives, or argue that it detracts attention from non-identity based structures of oppression and exploitation. A leftist critique of identity politics, such as that of Nancy Fraser[6], point out that political mobilization based on identitarian affirmation leads to surface redistribution that does not challenge the status quo. Instead, Fraser argued, identitarian deconstruction, rather than affirmation, is more conductive to a leftist politics of economic redistribution. Other critique, such as that of Kurzwelly, Rapport and Spiegel[7], points out that identity politics often leads to reproduction and reification of essentialist notions of identity, notions which are inherently erroneous.


The term was coined by the Combahee River Collective in 1977.[8] The collective group of women saw identity politics as an analysis that introduced opportunity for Black women to be actively involved in politics, while simultaneously acting as a tool to authenticate Black women's personal experiences.[9] It took on widespread usage in the early 1980s,[clarification needed] and in the ensuing decades has been employed in myriad cases with radically different connotations dependent upon the term's context.[10][11] It has gained currency with the emergence of social activism,[clarification needed] manifesting in various dialogues within the feminist, American civil rights, and LGBT movements, as well as multiple nationalist and postcolonial organizations.[12][13]

In academic usage, the term identity politics refers to a wide range of political activities and theoretical analyses rooted in experiences of injustice shared by different, often excluded social groups. In this context, identity politics aims to reclaim greater self-determination and political freedom for marginalized peoples through understanding particular paradigms and lifestyle factors, and challenging externally imposed characterizations and limitations, instead of organizing solely around status quo belief systems or traditional party affiliations.[14] Identity is used "as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orient social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition."[12]


The term identity politics may have been used in political discourse since at least the 1970s.[10] The first known written appearance of the term is found in the April 1977 statement of the Black feminist socialist group, Combahee River Collective, which was originally printed in 1979's Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism,[15] later in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, a founding member of the Collective,[16] who have been credited with coining the term.[17][18] In their terminal statement, they said:[19]

[A]s children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated different—for example, when we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being 'ladylike' and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression....We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression.

— Combahee River Collective, "The Combahee River Collective Statement"[20]

Identity politics, as a mode of categorizing, are closely connected to the ascription that some social groups are oppressed (such as women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities); that is, the idea that individuals belonging to those groups are, by virtue of their identity, more vulnerable to forms of oppression such as cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation of labour, marginalization, or subjugation.[14] Therefore, these lines of social difference can be seen as ways to gain empowerment or avenues through which to work towards a more equal society.[21] In the United States, identity politics is usually ascribed to these oppressed minority groups who are fighting discrimination. In Canada and Spain, identity politics has been used to describe separatist movements; in Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe, it has described violent nationalist and ethnic conflicts. Overall, in Europe, identity politics are exclusionary and based on the idea that the silent majority needs to be protected from globalization and immigration.[22]

Some groups have combined identity politics with Marxist social class analysis and class consciousness—the most notable example being the Black Panther Party—but this is not necessarily characteristic of the form. Another example is the group MOVE, which mixed Black nationalism with anarcho-primitivism (a radical form of green politics based on the idea that civilization is an instrument of oppression, advocating the return to a hunter gatherer society).[23][24] Identity politics can be left-wing or right-wing, with examples of the latter being Ulster Loyalist, Islamist and Christian Identity movements, and examples of the former being queer nationalism and black nationalism.

During the 1980s, the politics of identity became very prominent and it was also linked to a new wave of social movement activism.[25]

Debates and criticism[edit]

Nature of the movement[edit]

The term identity politics has been applied retroactively to varying movements that long predate its coinage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. discussed identity politics extensively in his 1991 book The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger, a strong supporter of liberal conceptions of civil rights, argues that a liberal democracy requires a common basis for culture and society to function. Rather than seeing civil society as already fractured along lines of power and powerlessness (according to race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.), Schlesinger suggests that basing politics on group marginalization is itself what fractures the civil polity, and that identity politics therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending marginalization. Schlesinger believes that "movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than … perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference."[26]

Brendan O'Neill has suggested that identity politics causes (rather than simply recognizing and acting on) political schisms along lines of social identity. Thus, he contrasts the politics of gay liberation and identity politics by saying: "[Peter] Tatchell also had, back in the day, … a commitment to the politics of liberation, which encouraged gays to come out and live and engage. Now, we have the politics of identity, which invites people to stay in, to look inward, to obsess over the body and the self, to surround themselves with a moral forcefield to protect their worldview—which has nothing to do with the world—from any questioning."[27][undue weight? ]

Similarly in the United Kingdom, author Owen Jones argues that identity politics often marginalize the working class, saying:

In the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing intellectuals who were both inspired and informed by a powerful labour movement wrote hundreds of books and articles on working-class issues. Such work would help shape the views of politicians at the very top of the Labour Party. Today, progressive intellectuals are far more interested in issues of identity. ... Of course, the struggles for the emancipation of women, gays, and ethnic minorities are exceptionally important causes. New Labour has co-opted them, passing genuinely progressive legislation on gay equality and women's rights, for example. But it is an agenda that has happily co-existed with the sidelining of the working class in politics, allowing New Labour to protect its radical flank while pressing ahead with Thatcherite policies.

LGBT issues[edit]

The gay liberation movement of the late 1960s through the mid-1980s urged lesbians and gay men to engage in radical direct action, and to counter societal shame with gay pride.[29] In the feminist spirit of the personal being political, the most basic form of activism was an emphasis on coming out to family, friends and colleagues, and living life as an openly lesbian or gay person.[29] While the 1970s were the peak of "gay liberation" in New York City and other urban areas in the United States, "gay liberation" was the term still used instead of "gay pride" in more oppressive areas into the mid-1980s, with some organizations opting for the more inclusive, "lesbian and gay liberation".[29][30] While women and transgender activists had lobbied for more inclusive names from the beginning of the movement, the initialism LGBT, or "Queer" as a counterculture shorthand for LGBT, did not gain much acceptance as an umbrella term until much later in the 1980s, and in some areas not until the '90s or even '00s.[29][30][31] During this period in the United States, identity politics were largely seen in these communities in the definitions espoused by writers such as self-identified, "black, dyke, feminist, poet, mother" Audre Lorde's view, that lived experience matters, defines us, and is the only thing that grants authority to speak on these topics; that, "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive."[32][33][34]

By the 2000s, in some areas of postmodern queer studies (notably those around gender) the idea of "identity politics" began to shift away from that of naming and claiming lived experience, and authority arising from lived experience, to one emphasizing choice and performance.[35] Some who draw on the work of authors like Judith Butler particularly stress this concept of remaking and unmaking performative identities.[36] Writers in the field of Queer theory have at times taken this to the extent as to now argue that "queer", despite generations of specific use to describe a "non-heterosexual" sexual orientation,[37] no longer needs to refer to any specific sexual orientation at all; that it is now only about "disrupting the mainstream", with author David M. Halperin arguing that straight people may now also self-identify as "queer".[38] However, many LGBT people believe this concept of "queer heterosexuality" is an oxymoron and offensive form of cultural appropriation which not only robs gays and lesbians of their identities, but makes invisible and irrelevant the actual, lived experience of oppression that causes them to be marginalized in the first place.[39][35] "It desexualizes identity, when the issue is precisely about a sexual identity."[40]

Some supporters of identity politics take stances based on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work (namely, "Can the Subaltern Speak?") and have described some forms of identity politics as strategic essentialism, a form which has sought to work with hegemonic discourses to reform the understanding of "universal" goals.[41][42][43] Others point out the erroneous logic and the ultimate dangers of reproducing strong identitarian divisions inherent in essentialism.[44]

Critiques and criticisms of identity politics[edit]

Those who criticize identity politics from the right see it as inherently Collectivist and prejudicial, in contradiction to the ideals of Classical liberalism.[45] Those who criticize identity politics from the left see it as a version of bourgeois nationalism, i.e. as a divide and conquer strategy by the ruling classes to divide people by nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. so as to distract the working class from uniting for the purpose of class struggle.[46][47][48][49]

Critics argue that groups based on a particular shared identity (e.g. race, or gender identity) can divert energy and attention from more fundamental issues, similar to the history of divide and rule strategies. Chris Hedges has criticized identity politics as one of the factors making up a form of "corporate capitalism" that only masquerades as a political platform, and which he believes "will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance."[50] Sociologist Charles Derber asserts that the American left is "largely an identity-politics party" and that it "offers no broad critique of the political economy of capitalism. It focuses on reforms for Blacks and women and so forth. But it doesn’t offer a contextual analysis within capitalism." Both he and David North of the Socialist Equality Party posit that these fragmented and isolated identity movements which permeate the left have allowed for a far-right resurgence.[50] Cornel West asserted that discourse on racial, gender and sexual orientation identity was "crucial" and "indispensable," but emphasized that it "must be connected to a moral integrity and deep political solidarity that hones in on a financialized form of predatory capitalism. A capitalism that is killing the planet, poor people, working people here and abroad."[51]

Critiques of identity politics have also been expressed by writers such as Eric Hobsbawm,[46] Todd Gitlin,[52] Michael Tomasky, Richard Rorty, Michael Parenti,[49] Jodi Dean,[53] Sean Wilentz[54] and philosopher Slavoj Žižek.[55] Hobsbawm, as a Marxist, criticized nationalisms and the principle of national self-determination adopted in many countries after 1919, since in his view national governments are often merely an expression of a ruling class or power, and their proliferation was a source of the wars of the 20th century. Hence, Hobsbawm argues that identity politics, such as queer nationalism, Islamism, Cornish nationalism or Ulster loyalism are just other versions of bourgeois nationalism. The view that identity politics (rooted in challenging racism, sexism, and the like) obscures class inequality is widespread in the United States and other Western nations. This framing ignores how class-based politics are identity politics themselves, according to Jeff Sparrow.[56]

Intersectional critiques[edit]

In her journal article Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color, Kimberle Crenshaw treats identity politics as a process that brings people together based on a shared aspect of their identity. Crenshaw applauds identity politics for bringing African Americans (and other non-white people), gays and lesbians, and other oppressed groups together in community and progress.[21] But she critiques it because "it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences."[21] Crenshaw argues that for Black women, at least two aspects of their identity are the subject of oppression: their race and their sex.[57] Thus, although identity politics are useful, we must be aware of the role of intersectionality. Nira Yuval-Davis supports Crenshaw's critiques in Intersectionality and Feminist Politics and explains that "Identities are individual and collective narratives that answer the question 'who am/are I/we?" [58]

In Mapping the Margins, Crenshaw illustrates her point using the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy. Anita Hill accused US Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; Thomas would be the second African American judge on the Supreme Court. Crenshaw argues that Hill was then deemed anti-Black in the movement against racism, and although she came forward on the feminist issue of sexual harassment, she was excluded because when considering feminism, it is the narrative of white middle-class women that prevails.[21] Crenshaw concludes that acknowledging intersecting categories when groups unite on the basis of identity politics is better than ignoring categories altogether.[21]


Racial and ethnocultural[edit]

Ethnic, religious and racial identity politics dominated American politics in the 19th century, during the Second Party System (1830s–1850s)[59] as well as the Third Party System (1850s–1890s).[60] Racial identity has been the central theme in Southern politics since slavery was abolished.[61]

Similar patterns appear in the 21st century are commonly referenced in popular culture,[62] and are increasingly analyzed in media and social commentary as an interconnected part of politics and society.[63][64] Both a majority and minority group phenomenon, racial identity politics can develop as a reaction to the historical legacy of race-based oppression of a people[65] as well as a general group identity issue, as "racial identity politics utilizes racial consciousness or the group's collective memory and experiences as the essential framework for interpreting the actions and interests of all other social groups."[66]

Carol M. Swain has argued that non-white ethnic pride and an "emphasis on racial identity politics" is fomenting the rise of white nationalism.[67] Anthropologist Michael Messner has suggested that the Million Man March was an example of racial identity politics in the United States.[68]

Black feminist identity politics[edit]

Black feminist identity politics concern the identity-based politics derived from the lived experiences of struggles and oppression faced by Black women.[69]

In 1977, the Combahee River Collective (CRC) Statement argued that black women struggled with facing their oppression due to the sexism present within the Civil Rights Movement and the racism present within second-wave feminism. This statement—in which the CRC coined the term "identity politics"—gave black women in the U.S. a political foothold—both within radical movements and at large—from which they could confront the oppression they were facing. The CRC also claimed to expand upon the prior feminist adage that "the personal is political,"[70] pointing to their own consciousness-raising sessions, centering of black speech, and communal sharing of experiences of oppression as practices that expanded the phrase's scope. As mentioned earlier K. Crenshaw, claims that the oppression of black women is illustrated in two different directions: race and sex.[71]

In 1988, Deborah K. King coined the term Multiple jeopardy, theory that expands on how factors of oppression are all interconnected. King suggested that the identities of gender, class, and race each have an individual prejudicial connotation, which has an incremental effect on the inequity of which one experiences[72]

In 1991, Nancie Caraway explained from a white feminist perspective that the politics of black women had to be comprehended by broader feminist movements in the understanding that the different forms of oppression that black women face (via race and gender) are interconnected, presenting a compound of oppression (Intersectionality).[73]

Muslim identity politics[edit]

A Le Monde/IFOP poll in January 2011 conducted in France and Germany found that a majority felt Muslims are "scattered improperly"; an analyst for IFOP said the results indicated something "beyond linking immigration with security or immigration with unemployment, to linking Islam with a threat to identity".[74]

Arab identity politics[edit]

Arab identity politics concerns the identity-based politics derived from the racial or ethnocultural consciousness of Arab people. In the regionalism of the Middle East, it has particular meaning in relation to the national and cultural identities of non-Arab countries, such as Turkey, Iran and North African countries .[75][76] In their 2010 Being Arab: Arabism and the Politics of Recognition, academics Christopher Wise and Paul James challenged the view that, in the post-Afghanistan and Iraq invasion era, Arab identity-driven politics were ending. Refuting the view that had "drawn many analysts to conclude that the era of Arab identity politics has passed", Wise and James examined its development as a viable alternative to Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world.[77]

According to Marc Lynch, the post-Arab Spring era has seen increasing Arab identity politics, which is "marked by state-state rivalries as well as state-society conflicts". Lynch believes this is creating a new Arab Cold War, no longer characterized by Sunni-Shia sectarian divides but by a reemergent Arab identity in the region.[78] Najla Said has explored her lifelong experience with Arab identity politics in her book Looking for Palestine.[79]

Māori identity politics[edit]

Due to somewhat competing tribe-based versus pan-Māori concepts, there is both an internal and external utilization of Māori identity politics in New Zealand.[80] Projected outwards, Māori identity politics has been a disrupting force in the politics of New Zealand and post-colonial conceptions of nationhood.[81] Its development has also been explored as causing parallel ethnic identity developments in non-Māori populations.[82] Academic Alison Jones, in her co-written Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds, suggests that a form of Māori identity politics, directly oppositional to Pākehā (white New Zealanders), has helped provide a "basis for internal collaboration and a politics of strength".[83]

A 2009, Ministry of Social Development journal identified Māori identity politics, and societal reactions to it, as the most prominent factor behind significant changes in self-identification from the 2006 New Zealand census.[84]

White identity politics[edit]

In 1998, political scientists Jeffrey Kaplan and Leonard Weinberg predicted that, by the late 20th-century, a "Euro-American radical right" would promote a trans-national white identity politics, which would invoke populist grievance narratives and encourage hostility against non-white peoples and multiculturalism.[85] In the United States, mainstream news has identified Donald Trump's presidency as a signal of increasing and widespread utilization of white identity politics within the Republican Party and political landscape.[86] Journalists Michael Scherer and David Smith have reported on its development since the mid-2010s.[87][88]

Ron Brownstein believed that President Trump uses "White Identity Politics" to bolster his base and that this would ultimately limit his ability to reach out to non-White American voters for the 2020 United States presidential election.[89] A four-year Reuters and Ipsos analysis concurred that "Trump's brand of white identity politics may be less effective in the 2020 election campaign."[90] Alternatively, examining the same poll, David Smith has written that "Trump’s embrace of white identity politics may work to his advantage" in 2020.[91] During the Democratic primaries, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg publicly warned that the president and his administration were using white identity politics, which he said was the most divisive form of identity politics.[92] Columnist Reihan Salam writes that he is not convinced that Trump uses "white identity politics" given the fact that he still has significant support from liberal and moderate Republicans – who are more favorable toward immigration and the legalization of undocumented immigrants – but believes that it could become a bigger issue as whites become a minority and assert their rights like other minority groups.[93] Salam also states that an increase in "white identity" politics is far from certain given the very high rates of intermarriage and the historical example of the once Anglo-Protestant cultural majority embracing a more inclusive white cultural majority which included Jews, Italians, Poles, Arabs, and Irish.[93][undue weight? ]

Columnist Ross Douthat has argued that it has been important to American politics since the Richard Nixon-era of the Republican Party,[94] and historian Nell Irvin Painter has analyzed Eric Kaufmann's thesis that the phenomenon is caused by immigration-derived racial diversity, which reduces the white majority, and an "anti-majority adversary culture".[95] Writing in Vox, political commentator Ezra Klein believes that demographic change has fueled the emergence of white identity politics.[96]

Asian-American identity politics[edit]

In the political realm of the United States, according to Jane Junn and Natalie Masuoka, the possibilities for an Asian American vote are built upon the assumption that those broadly categorized as Asian share a sense of racial identity, and that this group consciousness has political consequences. However, the idea of a monolithic Asian American bloc has been challenged as populations are diverse in terms of national origin and language—no one group is predominant—and scholars suggest that these many diverse groups favor their distinctive national origin groups over any pan-ethnic racial identity.[97] According to the 2000 Consensus, more than six national origin groups are classified collectively as Asian American, and these include: Chinese (23%), Filipino (18%), Asian Indian (17%), Vietnamese (11%), Korean (11%), and Japanese (8%), along with an “other Asian” category (12%). In addition, the definitions applied to racial categories in the United States are uniquely American constructs that Asian American immigrants may not adhere to upon entry.

Jun and Masuoka find that in comparison to blacks, the Asian American identity is more latent, and racial group consciousness is more susceptible to the surrounding context.


Gender identity politics is an approach that views politics, both in practice and as an academic discipline, as having a gendered nature and that gender is an identity that influences how people think.[98] Politics has become increasingly gender political as formal structures and informal 'rules of the game' have become gendered. How institutions affect men and women differently are starting to be analysed in more depth as gender will affect institutional innovation.[99]


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