This month as we celebrate Black History Month, let us contemplate identity politics together. A narrative heard in the media these days from those from the so called “alt-right” is that we have become a society that is overly concerned with “identity politics.” Identity politics concerns any individual, group, or organization from marginalized populations that stand up for their rights as citizens and human beings. Identity politics have been part and parcel of our civil rights movements, the UUA’s own support of marriage equality, and our support for the movement for Black lives. Identity politics can be said to be a norm in Unitarian Universalist justice work. As people of faith, who understand that ultimately identity is a social construct that causes suffering, how do we respond to the critique that our identity politicking is causing separation and division?
The larger question for us is, what are the origins of this identity politicking and are we to blame for the separation of people in this country into distinct identities? Generally, white people in this country have the privilege of being exempt from the need to identify and from being categorized. During our ASJ social justice assembly in January, we watched a brief film where a white gentleman revealed that being a white male allowed him to look in the mirror and see only “a person.”
This is not true for many of us, women look in the mirror and often see woman, Black people look in the mirror and see Blackness. Many Trans persons look in the mirror and see an identity construct that isn’t congruent with how they know themselves. What are the sources of these identity constructs?
Identity politics is part and parcel of the landscape of American society, Black persons were placed into the identity caste system when they landed in the country. They were not Black people in Africa, they were just persons from different tribes and geographical regions. I have a Puerto Rican friend who was shocked to learn that he had a marginalized identity when he moved to the continental US. In Puerto Rico, he was simply a person, here in the Continental U.S., he was a Hispanic person with less rights and less humanity. Neither he nor any of us created our identities, we were assigned these identities by forces out of our control.
As long as identity is a factor in the administration of justice and fairness, than identity politics must be an equalizing factor in the world. It is a statement of privilege to declare that we must get beyond identity politics, one that doesn’t see that the ignoring of identity will only silence those who are oppressed.
It is our job to figure out the complex work of how to be a unified people that celebrates diversity. How do we hold the paradox of unity and diversity, multiplicity and oneness?
The faith that can hold paradox is a mature faith, our paradox is that we know that we are not separate yet we must affirm differences. The key for us is to find those ultimate principles, those transpersonal elements that unite us as human beings. We all wish to be happy, we all have persons that are the objects of our love, we all have inherent worth and dignity. Identity politics can be holy and faithful, if we use it as a path to eventually go beyond separation. Identity politics will not go away with simply wishing it away; it will go away when we embrace the reality of our separation and begin working towards unification and healing.