Few things arouse my suspicion as much as white lefties denouncing identity politics. Not because I think identity politics is beyond criticism – the opposite in fact. There are problems with what we call identity politics which I will get to a little later.
But first, what gets my hackles up is how this attack on “identity politics” often follows a predictable pattern: take an example of systemic discrimination (usually against a woman), ridicule it as attention-seeking, and then moralise about how identity politics as a whole will be the death of the left.
And so it was last week when Crikey columnist Helen Razer derided Greens senator Larissa Waters for “tediously returning the Greens back to the fold of identity politics”. Razer was referring to Waters breastfeeding her infant daughter in parliament – the first to do so – and her comment that the Liberal government doesn’t “care about women”.
Look, if Razer or anyone else wants to complain about Waters using the occasion to draw attention to herself, that’s one thing. But to use this one incident to denounce all political activism that elevates the concerns of marginalised “identities” as useless, well that’s another. That’s the left’s own version of dog-whistling; a call to shut down anyone they regard to be distracting from the “real issue” of working class exploitation.
Razer ignores the very real structural barriers women face in the workplace, and how only two months ago Kate Ellis announced her retirement from politics after the birth of her son because of these barriers, for the cheap thrill of joking that Waters’ got her breasts out in parliament.
I’m not sure what is more scandalous – calling breastfeeding an excuse to flash your tits or a performance of identity rather than a necessity of biology.
It’s not surprising women are the main targets of the anti-identity politics traditional left, which can be as devoted to elevating the voices of white men as any conservative movement. It’s easier to deny the ongoing oppression of that class known as women – especially if they happen to be white – than it is of almost any other “identity”. By putting women in their place these commentators get a free ride, not to thoughtfully critique identity politics, but to dismiss it altogether.
Now, there are legitimate criticisms of identity politics. The impossible insistence that every conversation has to be inclusive of every conceivable identity, the silencing tactics of “call-out” culture, and the assumption that identity is always about how one feels rather than how society perceives and categorises people, are a few. But addressing these does not require an eradication of identity politics so much as a melding of economic and so-called identity issues.
Fighting sexism is not pure “identity politics” in the sense that Razer derides it, which is a focus on performing identity rather than addressing inequality. This is because sexism is not so much about identity – or how a person views themselves – but of how society views and treats them.
And here is where the racist dog-whistle of the anti-identity politics parade comes in. After Trump’s election victory, there were gleeful accusations that identity politics had allowed Trump to win. Even here, in Australia, I was informed multiple times on social media that my insistence on writing and talking about racism is what made people elect Trump.
How is this any different to the right-wing accusations that talking about racism is what causes racism?
Similarly, Razer uses her flagellation of Waters to argue against any political activism that does not centre the concerns of the white working class. Indeed, after praising Jacqui Lambie as a better fighter for women in Australia, Razer segues into her real point, praising the “marvellous speech” of Greens leader Richard Di Natale for understanding “why people might be led to vote for extreme right-wing candidates in the present age”, and calling “the election of Donald Trump a rejection of neoliberalism, an impatience with poverty”.
I’m not sure how exactly Razer thinks racism is a contemporary problem caused by neo-liberalism and poverty when it is literally the foundation of both Australia and the United States. Pointing out that black Americans managed to both be more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts and still not vote for Donald Trump would likely also get dismissed as “tedious identity politics” by Razer, who seems peculiarly wedded to the concept that if something doesn’t matter to her, then it doesn’t matter at all.
And why does it matter that a woman breastfed her infant in parliament? Because society has always drawn a distinction between the private sphere and the public, and decided that the former is the woman’s domain. But here was a woman blowing that distinction apart by demonstrating that it is possible for women not to have to separate working from motherhood.
Rather than use this opportunity to discuss how capitalism and sexism join forces to keep women relegated to the private sphere and dependent on men for economic survival, Razer whines it merely distracts from the real issue of there “not being any jobs”. In doing so, she comes across remarkably like this letter to the editor claiming parliament is “not a creche for women to use for their personal life’s actions”.
The irony is that this transforms the working class from an objective exploited status into the only acceptable platform from which to discuss inequality. It really is quite something to witness how advocating for the rights of the working class has devolved into a glorification of working class “culture” (whatever that is) and even of work itself, as if there is something inherently noble in being forced to do menial low-paid work to satisfy capitalism’s parasitic nature.
If this isn’t pure identity politics, then nothing is.