A Black Lives Matters peace march in Sheffield, UK in 2016. Photo: Pa

Minorities report: why the debate over identity politics isn't going away

As long as certain groups face marginalisation because of who they are, identity will be a political issue
November 14, 2018

Delving into today’s identity politics debate inevitably begins with a protracted chicken-and-egg discussion. Which came first, white identity politics or the left-wing activist response to it? Is identity politics a natural response to the marginalisation of minorities, or a departure from universal goals that created tribal fractures where none existed before?

The first wave of books on identity politics came after the Trump and Brexit surprises of 2016, when (mostly) white men of liberal credentials announced that it was the left’s fault that we were in this mess. The US academic Mark Lilla wrote that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

David Goodhart, the founding editor of Prospect, chimed in with his own condemnation. For Goodhart, rooted “Somewheres” had been motivated to vote in unexpected ways because the rootless “Anywheres” had alienated them. Other writers of similar pedigree argued that identity politics provoked white people to vote along the lines of their own identity, something which had not occurred to them before liberalism’s coddling of minorities. What had previously been an academic discussion now filtered into the speeches of government ministers such as Michael Gove. The phrase “identity politics,” in certain circles, became shorthand for uppity groups who will not let the real business of politics proceed smoothly. Few in these circles paused to ask whether that real business, as they defined it, had always involved marginalising people based on their identity.

Two years on and a new wave of books has arrived on the same subject. Francis Fukuyama’s Identity starts by defending his most famous work. Fukuyama is rather annoyed, it turns out, by being subjected to a barrage of questions about whether our current predicament has invalidated his thesis in The End of History and The Last Man that liberal democracy would reign supreme. He would like to make clear that there was a question mark at the end of the essay that birthed his 1992 book and that, in fact, he did mention in the last chapters that “neither nationalism or religion were about to disappear as forces in world politics.”

Still, Fukuyama acknowledges that identity politics has grown into an unexpectedly powerful force. “Liberal democracies,” he argues, “have not fully solved the problem of thymos—the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity. In addition, there has been an economic upheaval and demographic upending that has concentrated a sense of grievance in different groups, and thus a precipitation of animus in identity.

There is a contradiction at the heart of this sweeping and ambitious book. Fukuyama believes that our need for individual respect and dignity is a natural response to a globalised age; but he also says that this need must be suppressed in favour of an overarching national identity. He also leaves it unclear how we should build these national identities: he fetishises leadership, citing as inspiration the scene in the (very bad) movie Invictus, when Nelson Mandela inspires the Springboks before the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. He suggests that we bring back some sort of national service to create a national identity beyond that of the self or community group.


Read Philip Collins on Britain's "whitelash"

_____________________ Fukuyama doesn’t acknowledge sufficiently that the nation state can be a lethal tool in weaponising our need to be respected. The history of the 20th century should have taught us this lesson, if nothing else. In addition, there is something almost quaint about his faith in the appeal of the nation state at a time when thymoscan be satisfied via borderless digital movements such as the alt-right or Islamic State. Fukuyama’s book reads like a lament for a simpler time from an author puzzled why we can’t all just get along.

That intellectual detachment is even more palpable in the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. Appiah has still less time for identity politics than Fukuyama—they are literally, for him, “lies”—and no time at all for national identity, which he regards as incoherent and unreliable. Appiah picks five facets—creed, country, colour, class and culture—and demonstrates how we are freezing fluid traits and ideas, and then fixating on them as single defining identities that do not exist outside our own imaginations.

What Fukuyama called thymos, Appiah identifies as “Medusa syndrome”—the gaze that freezes what it beholds into stone. Religions, for example, are not “sets of immutable beliefs” but “mutable practices and communities.” Religion is “an activity, not a thing.” Once we have realised this, Appiah says, it will become apparent that what needs to change is how we transcend the five facets. Identity is a choice, not an inevitability.

He is right, but only up to a point. Religion, like class and race, is inflected by social and economic circumstances, which can create strong tribal and group identities that very much do behave like “things.”

*** Appiah is a warm and lyrical writer—nothing like the bloodless Fukuyama—but I still found him hard to relate to. He himself is a live intersection of identities: mixed race, Ghanaian and British living in the US, gay and feminist. Perhaps it is because he has so successfully managed to transcend his own identities, that he minimises their importance to most people. He underestimates the sharpness of identity when it is not swaddled by a suave cosmopolitanism. That may sound unkind. But neither Fukuyama nor Appiah grapples adequately with how the dismissal of identity politics pursued by disadvantaged groups is predicated not on philosophical maturity, but rather on their relative distance from disadvantage.

An electrifying contrast to the lecturer’s lectern and the philosopher’s armchair is Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, a work of political theory that critiques identity politics from the left. Haider, an American journalist and academic, starts off with a personal anecdote. At school, Haider was taunted after 9/11 by his classmates, who called him “Osama” while his teacher “watched with either apathy or agreement.” He found himself unsettled both in the US and in his parents’ country, Pakistan. He also came across the work of Huey P Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Newton’s 1973 work Revolutionary Suicide set him on his path to political study and activism.

It might seem strange for an American Muslim of Pakistani origin to be attracted to black nationalism, but in Haider’s telling it makes sense. When our individual identities are almost infinitely granular how else are we to create any sort of meaningful political movement, other than across identities? When the reasons for the economic exclusion of certain groups intersect, the way forward is through coalition. Haider, though, is sceptical of the individualised way in which identity politics is practised, an atomism which makes coalition-building harder.

“The framework of identity reduces politics to… gaining recognition as an individual, rather than your membership in a collectivity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure,” Haider writes. “As a result, identity politics paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very norms it set out to criticise.” His book is all the stronger for not asking that identity be jettisoned or that victims of prejudice rise above their grievances. He isn’t asking everyone to be Nelson Mandela.

Today’s identity politics, Haider fears, risks descending into tokenism. The US Democratic Party, for example, stands accused simultaneously of taking identity politics too far, and of not taking it far enough. The real problem, he says, is not one of degree, but of sincerity. Identity politics has now become about getting a seat at the table—more women on FTSE 100 boards, for example. It is about getting a share of the spoils for particular groups, which in practice will mean particular individuals in those groups, rather than raising everyone together.

While reading this book my defensiveness about identity politics melted away. I allowed myself to become agitated by the flawed way it is being practised in a way I don’t usually find myself becoming agitated. These flaws include the dubious practice of “calling out” people for their supposed privilege, the almost ubiquitous first-person you find in pieces about identity (“as a Muslim woman…”) and the chilling effects of the policing of so-called “cultural appropriation.” Identity politics is a dead end when it’s divorced from a universal movement.

This defensiveness is born out of fear that criticising the ways in which identity politics can become narcissistic tips into invalidating group resistance. This is a fine line that Haider manages to tread.

A powerful rebuke to those who can’t understand the unavoidable importance of identity comes in the form of Kamal Ahmed’s memoir The Life and Times of a Very British Man. Ahmed is, at first glance, a triumph of integration: a mixed-race journalist with a Muslim name who enjoys a successful career, lately as the BBC’s economics editor and soon-to-be editorial director. But the book tells a different story—of childhood racist bullying, hot tears and teenage brawls, and the isolation of constantly being in a minority of one.

This struck me as a profoundly sad book. Despite Ahmed’s “arrival” and the fact that he feels “as British as they come, like hot buttered toasted bacon sarnies,” he is still “something of an alien” in his own country. Ahmed is no longer a bullied novelty. He now suffers another indignity: the assumption that his mixed identity is an asset. He applies for a job at the BBC and hears whispers that “the brown Muslim will get it.”

It is, of course, not only minorities who are suffering from a crisis of identity—so is the country they are supposed to be integrating into. “Britain has found it hard to have the conversation about what it has become...” Ahmed writes, “Our very Britishness has stopped us talking about our very Britishness. I do not speak Arabic. Have visited Khartoum just once. And therefore I have never had the ‘from home’ narrative to fall back on, the stories at my father’s knee to use as nourishment. The romantic red dust of the Sahara is not mine, the call to prayer is not mine, not in the way the River Thames is mine, the sands of a Devon summer holiday beach are mine, a pint down the pub is mine.”

Born and bred in Sudan myself, I empathised with a man who, despite all of this—and despite not receiving any religious or cultural orientation from his Sudanese father—still does not feel like he is at one with this country. Perhaps it’s easier to settle comfortably in Britain if you are first rooted somewhere else. That way you can cherry pick from your new country’s culture without feeling like you might fall into a void when you are rejected.

Moving as this is, there is something discomfiting about the fact that Ahmed felt that he had to write this memoir centred around his identity as “other,” when he seems to have little interest in that identity. His background, which is in truth much more English than anything else, is simply not interesting enough to carry this sort of memoir, which is perhaps why Ahmed felt he needed to veer into a lengthy picking apart of Enoch Powell’s 1968 “rivers of blood” speech, which, like Ahmed, turned 50 this year. His premise feels forced. But perhaps this reflects the publishing industry’s bias: it beholds a complicated and successful person with an interesting career in journalism and only sees him “as a mixed-race man.”

One day we might live in a world where people like Ahmed will write a memoir and it will not be about identity—it will be about business or law or trainspotting, the kinds of things white personalities write about. We are stuck in a world where identity is anything but peripheral, but the only way out of it is through it. Only by reckoning with all the ways identity still shapes our chances in life—white and non-white—can it be made irrelevant.

Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition by Francis Fukuyama is published by Profile, £16.99

The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity—Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture by Kwame Anthony Appiah is published by Profile, £14.99

Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trumpby Asad Haider is published by Verso, £10.99

The Life and Times of a Very British Man by Kamal Ahmed is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99