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The Identity Politics Glitch

“When neoliberals ask for “diversity”, or more opportunities for the disenfranchised to franchise themselves, what they want is to hand out “white masks” to people of colour as if it’s charity.”

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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“The colonial world is a world divided into compartments. It is probably unnecessary to recall the existence of native quarters and European quarters, of schools for natives and schools for Europeans; in the same way we need not recall apartheid in South Africa. Yet, if we examine closely this system of compartments, we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized.”

Frantz Fanon [1]

Identity Politics is the concept that puts “Black” in Black Panther, “Gay” in Gay Pride, “Gender” in Gender Performativity, “Jewish” in Jewish Diaspora, “Women” in Women’s Rights, and, dare I say it for the Marxists out there, “Working” in Working-Class. If there is hierarchy, there is hegemony; and those who are not identified as members of the leading social group are subject to harsh authoritarian treatment. For the oppressed, an identity is a constant imposition, not something someone puts on when they feel like it, or perform occasionally. Black people can’t detach from their skin, being inside or outside of the closet is a struggle, the gender dichotomy is omnipresent, we live the Christian calendar and traditions everyday, toxic masculinity creeps at every corner, and back-breaking work barely makes ends meet (if there is work).

Organising under a shared identity can be liberating. Not feeling alone in the struggle, knowing that the problem is not you being a freak, and that together we can really make a difference for everyone. Not to mention the self-esteem boost of shared cultural practices, physical and emotional self-expression.

Recognising a shared identity means also recognising differences with others. Recognising differences isn’t necessarily separatist, it’s a unifying practice because we bond based on shared experience (as opposed to being-the-same), and we support each other in the intersections between different struggles. According to Frantz Fanon, these different categories have been put in place by colonial forces. Carefully observing them, analysing why they were put in place, by whom, and in what ways these categories manifest themselves now is quite essential for building a decolonized world.

Sounds beautiful, but of course nothing is that perfect. Some interpret this organisational style as “tribalism”, which is something that can be used to weaken a wider movement of resistance against capitalism by inciting conflict between so-called “tribes”. Colonisers exploited already existing tribal disputes, and today’s hegemony has inherited this practice towards social justice movements. However, to argue that tribalism is the problem in this case is a perpetuation of the colonial attitude that imposes Western values on non-Western people. The problem is not how indigenous people were organising themselves, but instead how they were exploited.

Today, being “officially” recognised as Native American requires a DNA test that proves the opposite of the “one-drop-rule”. Meaning, instead of the claim that one drop of “black blood” makes you black, one drop of “non-indigenous blood” makes Native Americans not Native. This is a type of racial violence that distorts and restricts indigenous heritage and existence. Furthermore, it reduces the acknowledgment of identity to the extent to which it’s convenient to the Government to acknowledge it, rather than actually respecting what indigenous identity means to indigenous people. DNA is not all that matters, and it doesn’t even distinguish between different tribes. Much of Native identity is about participation in a particular tribe and practices. It should be up to that tribe to grant nationhood to a member [2].

Governmental restrictions of people’s affirmation and expression of identity is what leads to the extinction of tribes, and a complete erasure of heritage. This contemporary practice is very much related to the colonial practice of forced Christian conversions and marriages in Brazil. Fanon would call that white masks, but I’ll bring that up again later in the article. For now we can call it a bloodless genocide, where numerous peoples were forced into extinction through Western assimilation.

When it comes to bloody genocide there is no stronger voice than that of Africans in the diaspora. Black identity isn’t alienating in the way white identity is, so let’s be careful to not tell people of colour that they “misunderstand the nature of race”. The Identitarian movement [3], which is lead by an Austrian man who wants to preserve white identity and fortress Europe, is in no way comparable with the Pan-Africanist movement [4], which aims to restore nationhood to Africans in the continent and in the diaspora. There is nothing racist about Pan-Africanists saying they don’t want white people directly involved in their organisations, it’s a fair strategy to combat white supremacy that should be respected and supported.

None of these identity based political movements have to interfere with the wider movement of resistance against capitalism. Saying that organising under a shared identity distracts from organising against the capitalist ruling class is like saying beehives and honey-making distract from pollination. It doesn’t, they complement each other, especially if we have an intersectional approach. What interferes is white people feeling entitled to show up at other people’s “hives” and start telling them what they are doing wrong and what they should be doing instead.

Another thing that interferes is awesome movements getting cooped by capitalist forces (like politicians and corporations). That’s why nowadays it’s apparently hard for people to separate Identity politics from Hilary Clinton, since she took this side of the debate against Bernie, who claimed the let’s-all-unite-against-capitalism argument [5]. But Hilary is no more representative of Identity Politics than Ivanka Trump is representative of Toni Morrison’s descriptions of female slave labor [6]. Just because one (mis)quotes the other doesn’t mean they are representative of each other, just as Urban Dictionary isn’t all there is to a term’s definition.

Identity politics doesn’t only mean practicing reverse social exclusion [7] and creating safe(er) spaces based on race, culture and gender [8], or a hypocritical reproduction of the discrimination we claim to be fighting against.

In a previous article [9] I discussed how colourblindness is not anti-racist, it’s in fact a careless exercise of (white) privilege, and how categorising others while remaining neutral is an essential strategy for the persistence of White Patriarchy. White people do what they want, when they want [10], and I object when white men tell people of colour and queers that their identity based communities makes them feel discriminated against. Masculinity and whiteness are also socially performed identities, but they are imposed on most of the world as an objective, neutral, and superior state of being. Listening to so-called-others helps one understand why these identity based communities are so important in facing such an incredibly hostile world.

Even Anzaldua [15], who rejected oppositional identity politics and idealized a post-racial world, acknowledged that she would “stop using labels. That’s what [she] want[s] to work towards. But until we come to that time, if you lay your body down and don’t declare certain facets of yourself, they get stepped on.”

That is not to say identity politics can’t be problematic. Some approach it superficially and end up throwing empty statements around that focus more on personal image than on genuine social change: when causes become trends. An example of this is how in the last 10 years, Zwarte Piet [11] has been more widely condemned in the Netherlands. While that in itself is positive, it can be a problem when Dutch people think that taking a stance against this tradition is an opportunity to earn a not-racist badge. It’s important to avoid interpreting certain things as the problem, but instead as symptoms of a much bigger problem. This way we ensure that Dutch Racism doesn’t manifest itself in other ways.

Another issue that rises from Identity Politics is the expectation of homogeneity. Kimberle Crenshaw thought us over 20 years ago [12] that when feminist circles attempt to homogenise womanhood and the experience of sexism, they erase the different forms of oppression women of colour experience, and consequently erasing black womanhood itself. Today we can say the same for TERF’s [13] and the erasure of the trans experience. This is why identity politics must be perceived as intrinsically connected to intersectionality.

Identity politics is not what brings those compartments Fanon speaks of into existence. We choose to look at them, take them, dismantle them, and from there we can build a new world. Non-Westerners mustn’t be the same as Westerners. In a white supremacist world, assimilation means whitification. The colonised has oppressor and oppressed within, a neurotic inferiority complex, and a survival instinct that leads to a horrible desire to adjust. This is fed and exploited. When neo-liberals ask for “diversity”, or more opportunities for the disenfranchised to franchise themselves, what they want is to hand out “white masks” [14] to people of colour as if it’s charity. What we should have is a world where we can exist without them.

So, what does this debate mean for the woke generation? A complete inability to get over ourselves and just get shit done.


  1. Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon (1965, p.36)
  2. Genetic “Markers”- Not a Valid Test of Native Identity. Blood quantum laws. And a video on the subject can be found here.
  3. The new-right hipsters.
  4. A Britannica definition of Pan-Africanism. Check also the Brazilian political organisation Reaja.
  5. Bernie Sanders still says class is more important than race. He is still wrong.
  6. Ivanka Criticised for quoting Toni Morrison.
  7. For instance calling people out, and banning public displays of cultural appropriation in specific spaces.
  8. For example organizing events, meetings and parties for Queers and PoC only.
  9. White Privilege in Dutch Anarchism.
  10. Joyce Galvão’s private commentary on Mallu Magalhães and cultural appropriation in Brazilian music.
  11. Zwarte Piet
  12. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, by Kimberle Crenshaw (Stanford Law Review, 1991).
  13. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.
  14. Black Skins White masks by Frantz Fanon.
  15. Gloria E. Anzaldúa was a scholar of Latina feminist phenomenology.

Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.


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10 Comments »

  1. When you say that “none of these identity based political movements have to interfere with the wider movement of resistance against capitalism,” I can’t help but wonder who your target audience is with this piece. If you’re primarily addressing white leftists for whom “movement-building” is, in fact, a priority, then I suspect you would consider someone such as myself to be a bit of a wild card in this conversation. If that’s the case, then it really doesn’t matter which side of the debate you’re on because, in either event, it’s simply a matter of which collective identity you consider to be more deserving of your time and attention. What never seems to enter this conversation as you’ve chosen to frame it is the ontological status of individual indentities and how these individuals relate to the broader social categories that might be ascribed to them – whether by themselves or by someone else.

    When you speak of “respecting what indigenous identity means to indigenous people,” an implicit assumption here would seem to be that “indigenous identity” means precisely the same thing to each indigenous person regardless of the myriad of other factors (personality, life experiences, likes and dislikes, etc) that make an individual who and what they are. Furthermore, the fact that you’re speaking in the present tense would seems to suggest that you’re speaking about what indigenous identity means to indigenous people today rather than what it may have meant to them prior to colonization. Unless you’re saying that the way in which individuals relate to their cultural identities is independent of historical context, does it even make sense to say that indigenous people would have perceived a need to form “political movements” around their shared identity prior to the European Invasion? And, if not, how would they have come into contact with leftist notions of “political organizing” in the first place – which are themselves a colonial imposition?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I speak of today but absolutely not independent of historical context. By “indigenous people” I don’t mean there are only one of those- and not regardless of the “myriad of factors”. I mention different tribes and practices- and how reducing their identity to DNA doesn’t do that justice. (Check the references if you have more questions about that). The subject of this article is not Individuality- it’s Identity Politics. There are plenty of articles on the site that explore individuality- you can look around for something you relate to more.

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      • “The subject of this article is not Individuality- it’s Identity Politics.”

        It isn’t possible to separate those two things as neatly and tidily as you might like. “Identity” is just as much an individual as it is a collective phenomenon – and arguably more so. As leftists never tire of pointing out to those of us who are of a more egoistic bent, human beings are “social animals;” and, as such, are always becoming who they are through their interactions with other individuals. Your personal disinclination to discuss individuality in the context of “identity politics” does not make it irrelevant to the matters that you raise in this particular article. If the discussion of “identity politics” begins and ends with the presupposition that only collectives can have “identities,” then I hope that all sides of this discussion are content to continue chasing each other around in circles from now until eternity.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. “we bond based on shared experience (as opposed to being-the-same)”. Also- your entitlement in telling what should be relevant to people of colour when it comes to Identity is the subject of paragraph 8.

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    • “we bond based on shared experience (as opposed to being-the-same)”.

      An important and well-meaning concession that is, nonetheless, undercut by all of the surrounding ideological baggage about “political movements.”

      “Also- your entitlement in telling what should be relevant to people of colour when it comes to Identity is the subject of paragraph 8.”

      The fact that you liken political movements to beehives without a hint of irony is revealing in itself. I can’t imagine a more transparent illustration of the sort of collectivist groupthink that I’m talking about: “All hail the hive mind! And a pox on anyone who dares question its supremacy!” In essence, that’s what you’re saying. If pointing this out means having you tell me I’m entitled, then I’m perfectly fine with that.

      Liked by 2 people

      • If you equate collectives and groups to Supremacy it sounds like you can’t distinguish between White Power and Black Power (which is the subject of paragraph 7). It’s always amusing to see you reproduce the very things I discuss in my articles. No one blames you for disagreeing with me but I wonder why you keep coming back to read my work.

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  3. I was using the word ‘supremacy’ in a more colloquial sense than anything having to do with any sort of racial “supremacist movement.” Had I used a similar but different word such as ‘dominance’ or ‘ascendancy,’ it wouldn’t have substantially changed my meaning and you likely wouldn’t have decided to make a mountain out of a purely semantic molehill.

    In any case, I suppose I keep coming back in the possibly misplaced hopes that, by adding some of my own commentary (which is, in my view, perfectly relevant to the subject at hand), it might lead to a provocative and interesting discussion rather than the same tokenistic guilt trips that I’ve come to expect from the left-anarchist milieu.

    Besides, I could just as easily ask you the same question in a slightly different way: why publish your writing on a radical website with an open comments section if you’re just going to tell people that they’re ‘entitled’ or ‘privileged’ whenever they happen to disagree with you? My assumption as a reader is that you wouldn’t be submitting your writing in the first place if you didn’t want it to serve as a jumping-off point for further discussion – even if it means engaging with people with whom you may not agree.

    However, if I am mistaken in my assumption, then just come right out and say “I don’t want to discuss this with you.” It sure beats turning every disagreement into an issue of racial injustice in which I am the oppressor for speaking my mind and you are the oppressed for having to read it. As passionately as I may disagree with a lot of what you have to say, I don’t see myself as a victim of your unpalatable worldview, and there is no reason why you should see yourself as a victim of mine.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The “colloquial” use of terms is also something I talk about on paragraph 9 (Urban Dictionary definitions). I’m open for an interesting debate, but me and you have been at this for a while (since my first article here) and I pick up a sort of trolling ambiance from you… The kind of condescending tone that doesn’t give me the feeling you’re coming here to listen to what I have to say but to just attempt to humiliate. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just the nature of the internet. Nevertheless, based on our interaction in the past 8 months(?) I don’t have the feeling we will find common ground on this topic.

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  4. I think you’re probably right to suspect that our often less than cordial interactions are largely due to the nature of the internet. However, I also think there’s a larger dynamic at play here that can be attributed neither to the medium itself nor to a clash of personalities. The various ‘sects’ of North American anarchism (and probably elsewhere, although the North American context is the one I’m most familiar with) are more polarized today than ever before, with everyone retreating to their respective echo chambers and getting their hackles up whenever someone from a different perspective encroaches on their territory and says something they don’t want to hear. This is, perhaps, reflective of a broader phenomenon currently at play in Western political culture – particularly in the United States – in which ideologies are marketed like commodities on the supermarket shelf and “brand loyalty” has, in certain quarters, turned into a bloodsport. No one’s hands are clean in this dynamic – not mine, not yours, not anyone’s. And yet no one is exclusively responsible for creating it.
    If my comments seem caustic at times, it’s because I’ve seen this dynamic playing out for years and I’m pretty fed up with it. The radical activist/anarchist milieu in North America has, to a large extent, turned into an insular clique of self-righteous ideologues who use “call-out culture” as a rationale for silencing any opinions that they deem offensive to their sensibilities. My lack of patience for this tendency is probably what you’re perceiving as ‘trollishness’ on my part; and if, at times, I unintentionally lapse into the sorts of cliquish behaviours that I claim to be pushing back against, now you know why.

    Liked by 2 people

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