On Identity Politics (Martin Luther King Day, 2023)

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This Martin Luther King Day, I decided to adapt something I wrote as part of a longer piece on racism. The piece was written mainly for white people to reflect on, because I can only speak from my experience as a white male.

I’ve encountered a number of (white) Buddhist practitioners who argue strongly against “identify politics,” claiming that it’s fundamentally opposed to the Buddha’s teaching.

But what is “identity politics”? In The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, Satya Mohanty, a professor of English, whose specialties include colonial and postcolonial studies, describes it as “joint political action by individuals who feel themselves united by membership in a marginalized social category (ethnicity, gender, class, religion) that gives them common political interests.”

By that definition, the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and gay pride are all examples of identity politics.

Distorted Understandings of Identity Politics

Often what spiritual practitioners argue against is very different from what Mohanty describes. For example, in an online discussion one Western Buddhist stated that identity politics means that “the most important thing about a person is the group to which they belong, not their individuality.” Another, having said something very similar, went on to add, “identity politics is about classifying people into groups, and praising them, criticizing or condemning them because of their specific group identities.”

It seems that the more opposed people are to identity politics, the more different their definition of it is from the academic one. The more opposed they are to it, the more they include negative attributes in their definitions. Often what they describe not only doesn’t correspond to formal definitions, but to what we see happening on the ground — in the organizations that campaign for rights for marginalized groups or in the individual lives of people who support those groups.

For example, I’ve never come across an individual from a minority ethnic group who says that the most important thing about them is their ethnicity. Usually they regard the most important things about them as their being a parent, or being a spouse, and so on. Usually people feel affinities for other groupings as well as their ethnicity, based on class, religion, profession, etc. These are also an important part of their sense of who they are.

In general most people do not go around obsessing about what race they are. Our race is something we become aware of when we’re forced to, and one of the ways this commonly happens is when someone behaves in a racist way toward us. A Black or Asian person being asked by a white person, “But where do you really come from?”, or being stopped by the police for the second time in a week is forced into an awareness of their ethnicity. The more unfair or discriminatory a society is, the more those on the receiving end are to have to be aware of their ethnicity.

Also, only a tiny minority of people in groups that have been denied their rights are set on claiming that one group is inherently better than others. People from ethnic minorities almost all want equality.

There are two specific concerns with identity politics in the comments I quoted above.

Concern 1: Identity Politics Subsumes Individuality

This first is that people will subsume their individuality in group membership, presumably ceasing to think for themselves and instead having a tribal identity. Tribalism is a common problem with other political movements. It’s certainly not unique to the situation that marginalized groups find themselves in. And it’s certainly not inevitable when campaigning for equal rights that people will adopt group-think, any more than happens in other political movements. I’ve yet to see anyone arguing against identity politics produce any evidence that a loss of individuality is peculiar to people who have been discriminated against, who point to that discrimination as wrong, and who call for change.

Observing that you are a member of a group that has been marginalized or oppressed may or may not involve tribalism. Tribalism involves seeing one’s own tribe as good and other tribes as bad. But the purpose of identity politics is not to become dominant over other groups, it’s to gain the equality that’s been denied. The group doing the oppressing is not usually seen as being inherently bad, but as behaving in an unskillful way.

The point of demanding equality is to pressure or encourage the oppressive group to give up unskillful behaviors and to treat others as equals. This would not be possible if the oppressing group was inherently evil. In fact it recognizes that the oppressive group is inherently redeemable.

Of course people are people, and it’s inevitable that some people who embrace identity politics will have unskillful attitudes towards groups that oppress them. The surprising thing for me is how rare this is. That oppressed people generally want equality rather than vengeance is a testament to the high level of basic goodness that exists in the average human heart.

Concern 2: Assumptions of Superiority and Inferiority

The second specific concern is that those practicing identity politics see themselves as being better than other groups because of their status as victims of oppression. I’ve known plenty of individuals who are not minorities who carry a sense that the world is against them, and who seem to identify as victims, gaining some sense of “specialness” from that. And no doubt there are some people from marginalized groups who similarly cling to a sense of grievance and victimization. But the key thing is that discrimination and oppression do exist, and the important thing is to create a fairer world. To look for things to blame in oppressed individuals is hardly helpful, especially if one isn’t also placing even more emphasis on criticizing those doing the oppressing.

Both these fears — individuality being subsumed by group identities, and assumptions of superiority and inferiority — may sometimes, in some individuals, be true. But they’re not inherent in what identity politics is.

Those particular dangers are potentially there every time you participate in a group enterprise. For example I might describe myself as a Buddhist and become part of a spiritual community. And as a result I might decide that my identity as a member of that spiritual community is the most important thing about me. I might take on ideas without thinking about them. I might agree with the viewpoints of leaders rather than thinking for myself. Being a Buddhist can undermine your individuality in favor of a group identity. And of course I might consider my chosen group to be the best Buddhist group, and Buddhism generally to be better than other religions.

Being a Buddhist can be a practice of “identity politics” in this distorted sense. But it’s clear we don’t have to fall prey to those traps. We can be Buddhist and also maintain our individuality and not get caught up in what Buddhism calls “superiority conceit.”

I find myself wondering how people who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity, skin color, or gender could possibly find equality without first recognizing that they are part of a group that is subject to discrimination, and then highlight this discrimination and demand equality. This is how change happens. People identifying themselves as part of a group that’s discriminated against is a necessary step toward equality.

White Identity Politics

The concerns  that your membership of a particular racial group is the most important thing about you, and the belief that your racial group is superior to the majority racial group that is oppressing you, are in fact a very accurate description of racism.

And it strikes me that it’s white people who have historically been most obsessed about their ethnicity and the ethnicity of others. In other words, the most common form of “identity politics” (in a negative sense) may be white identity politics. This isn’t classic identity politics, since white people as a whole are not an oppressed minority, although many have seen themselves as the victims, or potential victims of other races, who were “the white man’s burden,” in Kipling’s words.

White racists see themselves as being special because of their whiteness. This sense of specialness gives them a sense of superiority compared to other groups.

It should go without saying that not all white people actively oppress or hate other races, but this attitude of superiority is very common.

“The Most Important Thing About a Person”

It was white people who invented (and kept redefining) the concept of whiteness.

Whiteness was the “the most important thing about a person” when the Supreme Court decided that black people could not be considered citizens. The most important thing about a person was their race when it came to many facets of life, from who you could marry to whether you could drink from a particular water fountain.

Even today, a person’s whiteness or non-whiteness is often the most important thing about for an employer when it comes to considering them for a job. Studies show that résumés submitted with “white names” (e.g. Ryan Jones) are more likely to receive replies than identical résumés with “black names” (for example Leroy Jones). For a policemen, a driver’s color is often the most important thing about them when it comes to deciding whether to pull them over. Black people are stopped, on average, one and a half times more often than white drivers, although this discrepancy vanishes at night, when it’s harder to see a driver’s race.

Race, in many times and places, has overwhelmingly been the most important thing about a person, as judged by white people. Not all white people, to be sure, but enough so that entire societies have had laws and constitutions based on the concept of racial superiority, designed to keep white people in a superior social and economic position. That is what racism is. It’s not simply disliking or resenting people of another race. It’s racial oppression.

This history of racism in the west is the history of white identify politics and of white assumptions of superiority leading to racial oppression. The history of anti-racism is the history of resistance to white identity politics and white assumptions of superiority, and resistance to racial oppression.

Because attitudes of superiority by white people have created oppression, ethnic minorities have been forced to band together to protect themselves and demand equal rights. This is  “identity politics.” And this is what some white people claim is a bad thing. These (white) people rarely talk about white assumptions of superiority, and how they create the need for identity politics.

Martin Luther King’s Dream

Buddhist critics of identity politics (or their own distorted idea of it) often point to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream: that one day his children would be judged by the contents of their characters rather than the color of their skin. It sometimes seems it’s the only quote of his that they know.

They claim that King’s approach was one of advocating “color-blindness.” They see this as very different from identity politics, which, in an academic definition is “joint political action by individuals who feel themselves united by membership in a marginalized social category.” But what King did was precisely to take “joint political action” with others who were oppressed (along with white allies, of course).

Achieving equality, in King’s eyes, was to come about through “militancy” —  through struggling against the forces of racism.

King talked of a “Negro community” that existed in relation to “white people.” He wasn’t color-blind:

We must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.

He was very aware the struggle needed white allies, but he also complained that even white so-called allies could be a hindrance:

I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

(Incidentally, King wrote the above words from prison, which is why I’ve used his mugshot as an illustration.)

Martin Luther King’s dream didn’t depend upon people simply on ignoring race or pretending that race doesn’t exist. It depended on people (white and black) acknowledging oppression and actually standing up against it. For “white moderates” this meant getting to the point of caring about the plight of black people enough to actually do something.

“The white moderate” may have had no hatred toward Black people, but they were, King observed, more attached to “order” than in seeing change come about. Change is always turbulent. It’s socially turbulent because people are forced to protest. It’s personally turbulent because we who don’t care enough have to overcome our apathy and stand with the oppressed. And this means accepting uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

Those who are against identity politics often seem to resemble the white moderates King criticized. But then again, many of us do. As a white Dharma practitioner I feel it’s my responsibility to recognize not just active oppression and discrimination, but the passivity and complacency that allows oppression and discrimination to continue to ruin the lives of entire communities of people. Some of that passivity is mine. I need to recognize it, own it, overcome it, and so become actively opposed to racism and an active supporter of those who are subject to racism.

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • It’s great to see so many people speaking out against oppression and racism. At the same time I’m saddened that so few extend the ideal of equality to non humans. From Wikipedia,

    “Anthropocentrism (/ˌænθroʊpoʊˈsɛntrɪzəm/;[1] from Ancient Greek ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos) ‘human being’, and κέντρον (kéntron) ‘center’) is the belief that human beings are the central or most important entity in the universe.[2] The term can be used interchangeably with humanocentrism, and some refer to the concept as human supremacy or human exceptionalism. From an anthropocentric perspective, humankind is seen as separate from nature and superior to it, and other entities (animals, plants, minerals, etc.) are viewed as resources for humans to use.[2]”

    This view is systematic….. something most of us believe in, at least to some extent, without even realizing it.

    “In their behavior toward creatures, all men are Nazis. Human beings see oppression vividly when they’re the victims. Otherwise they victimize blindly and without a thought.”
    Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1978 Nobel Laureate”

    https://animalclock.org/

    For me the “anti-anthropocentrism” parts of Buddhist teaching are a big selling point.

    Reply
  • Hi Bodhipaksa,
    thank you for sharing such a thoughtful, well written essay, and no, I wasn’t aware that you had written a book on the subject. I’ve read about a dozen of your blog posts though (various topics) and enjoyed them all.
    🙏

    Reply

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