The Debate We Have To Have: Identity Politics And The Left


Among people of the radical and progressive left, there are occasional arguments about what is called identity politics. Though there was an interesting debate along similar lines in Overland last year, generally few bother to discuss what it is, or why they support or oppose it.

People who oppose identity politics might identity it in a certain way, whilst few seem to self-consciously practice it. Like the word “emo”, it is rarely claimed, and, when the label is applied, it is often received as a term of abuse.

It’s hard to discuss something when there is no identifiable Bible or Manifesto of Identity Politics. Its champions usually identify themselves in different manner. However, there are certain identifiable tendencies, which at least some people on the left might call identity politics, and which I will try to outline here.

In the debate in Overland, Juliana Qian wrote of the proposition: “Should the Left check its privilege?” Qian wrote in defence of what she calls privilege theory. As her interlocutor, social justice lawyer Lizzie O’Shea wrote, the most famous essay outlining the concept of racial privilege was written by Peggy McIntosh in 1988. She provided a lengthy list of “white privilege”.

Two examples of this privilege are as follows: “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race… I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” McIntosh’s point is that in everyday life, white people have experiences that would be different if she were not white. These are identified as privileges.

Within her essay, McIntosh acknowledged that there were diverse types of “privilege” that she identified:

Not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbours will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.

We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies.

Given this proviso, we can see positive and negative elements of this theory of “privilege”. On the one hand, focusing on race through the prism of privilege draws attention to the lived experiences of people who aren’t white, and how they experience systemic racism. In itself, this was a valuable and useful contribution, which helped people understand an aspect of racism in a personal way.

However, calling something a “privilege” when it “should be the norm in a just society” may be unhelpful. Many of us will be familiar with the expression that something is “privilege, not a right”.


Privilege as a broad concept may be useful, but analytically, it is worth remembering that the list of privileges is complex. Some of them may be, in a sense, unjust. Others are simply good things that should be everyone’s birthright, and, ideally, would be taken for granted by everyone. This should be a comparatively minor point, but I think lack of clarity on this has contributed to the tendencies that I regard as unfortunate features of identity politics.

McIntosh concluded by observing that “systemic change takes many decades”, but this will seem like “pressing questions for me” and others “if we raise our daily consciousness on the prequisites” of racial privilege. Knowing about this privilege does not necessary prove that “we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.”

In this sense, the essay recognised that there were systemic problems. Privilege analysis raised awareness of the problems, but the point was systemic change.

Thus, I think a distinction can be drawn between privilege analysis and identity politics. Not everyone who uses the concept of “privilege” necessarily embraces identity politics. I think that the insights offered by this model of analysis have, for some people, been married to identity politics, such that privilege becomes not a prism of analysis, but a conclusive and enveloping theory, uniformly applied to all political issues, without any analytical complications.

One can understand this through common tendencies. Identity politics is marked by a primacy of identity: belonging to this or that group, and the presumed lived experience that comes with that identity. This lived experience is presumed to be conclusive in arguments, such that belonging to the relevant group is thought to be a kind of authoritative argument. Those who do not belong to the group – whether the group is defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness and so on – are regarded as unequipped to have the same insight as those who do have the correct identity.

Those who disagree – for example, a man who disputes a woman’s professed experience of sexism, or a heterosexual person disputing an allegation of homophobia – are not only being presumptuous, but are, ipso facto, wrong.

In this sense, identity politics is anti-intellectual. Book learning is not taken seriously, and no expertise is recognised beyond personal experience, which is presumed from belonging to the relevant category of people. Primacy of identity marks it out as identity politics.

This may seem like a caricature. There are some who adopt a different position – they think that, for example, a woman’s opinion of anti-female sexism should generally be given more weight than a man’s.

In itself, this is a position that is committed to certain rules of rationality – weighing up evidence, a willingness to be persuaded in a certain direction – that I would distinguish from identity politics. How much weight a person’s identity should be given in a debate may be subject to argument. Identity politics is what I’d identify as belonging to the tendency whereby identity is enough to prove a point. Indeed, identity in some forms is not only identified as enough to prove a point: it is identified as all that is needed to have the right to discuss certain issues. Those without the relevant identity are regarded as impudent trespassers on discussions about issues affecting those belonging to this or that group.

Another tendency that can be recognised in identity politics is a suspicion of those who do not share the relevant identity, and thus have a relevant privilege. Their attempts at solidarity, if welcomed at all, are treated with constant and continuing scepticism.

The privileged can, as supplicants, try to be “allies”. Yet being an ally is regarded not as a right, but, well, as a privilege. For example, a white person can be an ally to black people for a while, but it is presumed that because of their privilege, they will never understand racism in a meaningful sense – certainly not in the sense that those with lived experience as black people do.

Furthermore, deep down, all white people will always be racist anyway. Some might suggest that this is due to racial privilege, which white people benefit from, and thus have a stake in maintaining.

What are the power systems that institutionalise privilege? Privilege as a theory does not have this kind of empirical content, and does not try to offer this sort of insight. It addresses itself to how things are now. In a vague sense, it can be said to offer a vision of what a better future might look like. Perhaps, one in which no one has these privileges. Or one in which everyone has these privileges. At the very least, one in which privileges are not distributed on the basis of race, gender, able-bodied-ness and so on.

How do we get there? Well, it’s not clear. However, people from groups suffering the relevant forms of oppression and discrimination should lead the way. They can be supported by their “allies”, at best, but it seems the primary goal of those without privilege is to discuss and organise among themselves.

Those with relevant forms of privilege are expected above all to adopt the correct terminology and show proper deference in discussions with those who do not have their privilege. Engaging in critical discussion, showing scepticism, and disagreeing with people who do not have their privileges may be regarded as exhibiting a form of able-ism, racism, sexism (or whichever applies), by failing to defer to those without privilege.

Suppose an able-bodied person decides they want to be an ally to those with disabilities. This will be on certain terms. Firstly, those with disabilities must lead the movement of issues relating to disabilities. The able-bodied can help people with disabilities by agreeing with them, repeating and amplifying their views, and by listening.

It is not hard to see why those with substantively left-wing or liberal ideological values find it hard to square them with identity politics. Suppose a man wants to be an “ally” to feminists, and is also a Marxist. This will make it likely that he will disagree with many women and feminists about the causes of sexism, and how to resist it. This does not mean he does not genuinely care about sexism.

However, if he wants to be a good “ally”, he will put aside his Marxism, listen to women, tend to defer to their judgments, support them in their causes, even if he privately believes that some of the advocacy and tactics they engage in are unwise, unhelpful, exclusionary, shallow or anything else. Critical discussion is not regarded as a worthy or valuable contribution of “allies”.

Identity politics is also hard to square with substantive political values, because it is politically neutral. A civil libertarian, for example, might agree with many Aboriginal people on some issues, and disagree on others. Opposing how the criminal law discriminates against Aboriginal people might be the work of an ally, but being critical of the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act which transcribe racially offensive speech is not being an ally. Though both might spring from the same civil libertarianism, identity politics is not committed to political values, but loyalty to a particular group.

It is also ideologically neutral in a sense. Supporting this or that group as an “ally” without any underlying guiding values and analysis is kind of incoherent. Many women would regard it as a feminist position to be pro-choice in relation to abortion. However, there are many women who are pro-life and anti-abortion.

Should the male ally pick and choose based on left-wing values? Or should he simply respect the diversity of female voices, and respect the debate and make sure everyone is heard? Some Aboriginal people support the Recognise campaign, others oppose it. Unlike Amy McQuire in New Matilda, much of the major media has not reported this argument. Should white Australians who are only aware of Aboriginal support for Recognise support it on this basis? Should those who are aware of the dispute pick a side? On what basis should they pick a side within disputes of those groups?

Should it be on the basis of supporting sub-groups which are even less privileged? Should they side with majorities? How much of a majority is needed to clinch an argument? If a prospective ally doesn’t have an accurate way of gauging the popularity of a political position within a group, should they be silent until that group resolves it?

The effect of this is to make contributions by allies difficult. They are expected to serve much in the same way the most loyal apparatchiks served within communist parties. They are expected to listen, obey, and follow the party line, whatever it might be. Yet the means by which allies are meant to detect the party line is not entirely clear. This makes identity as an ally more precarious than identity as a member of the Communist Party.

Though I am personally quite critical of identity politics, I don’t write this explicitly with the intention of criticising or ridiculing it, though it may appear that way to some. I think that identity politics is taken for granted by some people, in much the same way other ideological beliefs and commitments sometimes are.

I have on occasion been met with something approaching shock when I frankly discuss my distaste for patriotism. Identity politics isn’t the worst thing the left has ever come up with. I suspect one of its major effects has been to increase the representation of people from various groups in the media, which is unequivocally a good thing.

However, identity politics rests on certain premises that I regard as at least questionable. If leftists and progressives are going to adopt this framework as a way of approaching political issues, activism and so on, I think it deserves some kind of debate and discussion.

If identity politics is a bad thing, we should at least have a clear idea of what it is that we disagree with. If it is a really terrific development, then perhaps its proponents can make a substantive case for it.

We’re keen for your thoughts on Michael’s essay. Feel free to comment below… and please keep it respectful. If you want to support this sort of media, also feel free to subscribe!

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).