Identity-Based Politics are Not the Problem, Identity-Based Oppression Is

How conservatives and liberals confuse a symptom for the disease

Tim Wise
7 min readJul 6, 2018

Cartoon by Joel Pett, Lexington Herald-Leader, November 29, 2016

Although criticizing “identity politics” has become a hobby for some (on both the right and left), appreciating how racial, gender, sexual, and other identities help shape our experiences and perspectives can be critical to productive political discourse.

These identities are not without consequence, after all, nor are their consequences of secondary importance to other, more universal, concerns. They are often central to people’s lives.

Contrary to the claims of libertarians and conservatives, we are not merely “individuals.” Humans have never lived in isolation. None of us were raised on an island by a porpoise. We exist as members of groups, where those groups’ respective statuses have influenced the relationship to opportunity that individuals have enjoyed.

What’s more, it is only because those identities have been given particular meaning by systems of inequality — in short, because of oppression on the basis of those things — that individuals now seek to organize around said identities.

Which is to say that if one doesn’t like identity politics, there is a rather obvious way to stop them: put an end to the subordination of people on the basis of identity.

Identity for Me, but Not Thee: Ignoring Dominant Group Identity Politics

Even more, though, the critique of identity politics rests on a fundamental conceit, apparently invisible to those who offer the criticism: namely, the notion that identity politics is what those “other” people do, rather than something engaged in just as readily by those who criticize the concept.

So, for instance, it’s focusing on the experiences or needs of black and brown folks, rather than centering the white working class (as if the latter is not also about identity).

It’s prioritizing the needs of women, rather than centering men, who are presumed to be identity-less avatars of universal normalcy.

It’s what you’re guilty of when you talk too much about LGBTQ folks, but not what you do when you pander to conservative Christians who…

Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)