Commentary

Commentary: The Importance of Identity in Politics

This past holiday break over Christmas dinner, my family and I began discussing politics. As the conversation turned to analyzing Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, our remarks grew increasingly heated. When I began to open up about how my experience as a woman has led me to believe Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, my uncle uttered the statement “I’m sick of talking about identity politics.”

The term “identity politics,” or the ways in which an individual’s political beliefs are influenced by their race, gender, sexuality, culture, and social identity, has become a contemporary buzzword. Republican critiques of “identity politics” and “intersectionality,” defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the “manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect,” have become increasingly common.  These critics claim that viewing politics through the perspective of a specific facet of identity is selfish, inhibits progress towards equality, and furthers party divides.

Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, stated that identity politics is “morally wrong” and has a corrupt foundation.

These commentators, however, detract from the goal of the ideology. When the term “identity politics” was coined in the 1970s by a group of black women known as the Combahee River Collective, their intention was to fight against oppression and bring members of marginalized groups closer to equality. The concept of identity was a starting point in having important and critical discussions about marginalization, personal bias, and privilege. They used identity as a segue into compromises.

E.Huang/The Phillipian

In our country’s fraught political climate, it’s important to cultivate this sense of empathy and common understanding enhanced by individual identity. Recognizing people’s struggles, or lack thereof, is a vital step in understanding others’ viewpoints. For example, although my uncle and I may disagree on whether Kavanaugh should be allowed to be a Supreme Court Justice, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a civil discussion. He should make an effort to understand how his opinion as an educated white man can be different and equally valid as that of a young woman regarding sexual assault, toxic masculinity, and sexism. Only after trying to understand our privileges, or lack thereof, can we begin to have an effective and educated debate. 

My uncle’s criticism of identity politics, however, missed the point that I was attempting to make. Being a woman doesn’t, and shouldn’t, give me superiority or authority in a discussion simply because that is a marginalized identity. On the flip side, his identity as a man shouldn’t mean that his viewpoint is illegitimate. My intention wasn’t to deprive him of his power or ability to speak his mind; rather, it was to acknowledge our individual biases and provide a different interpretation of the topic.

We should make an effort to see past the recent popularity of “identity politics” and recognize its true intention. When identity politics is used in a way that emphasizes equality and rights, it can help us reach a better understanding of one another. Especially at Andover, where people from relatively diverse backgrounds engage in political discourse in a variety of settings, it’s important to acknowledge the privileges we have and disadvantages we face and how they can color our interpretation of an issue. Making a tangible effort to address identity and involve it in discussions, instead of simply bypassing it or viewing it as an attack on someone else, is important in reaching compromises and maintaining a level of respect that feels increasingly rare in politics today.

Margot Hutchins is a three-year  Upper from Stonington, Conn. and an Associate Copy Editor for The Phillipian.  Contact the author at mhutchins20@andover.edu.