Critical Questions: Identity politics

Tuesday, February 6, 2018 - 6:17pm


Emily Koffsky


Are Middle Eastern and Northern African people Caucasian, African or Asian? Last November, the group of students who identify as ME/NA said no to all three and demanded to be recognized as a distinct category by the University of Michigan through their #WeExist campaign.

It makes sense that ME/NA students would want their own identity in official records. Though many of them have fair skin and their families originate from the continents of Asia and Africa, their group has different needs when compared to whites, Blacks and Asians. (I, as a personal opinion, would also want to split “Asian” into East, Southeast and South, as each of those groups’ needs are also wholly different).

The #WeExist campaign is an example of a campaign of identity politics, or a brand of politics in which racial, cultural, religious, socioeconomic or other groups pursue their own interests in isolation from the rest of the body politic.

The expression “identity politics” became the subject of much negative attention during the 2016 presidential election, and it hasn’t been getting a good rep since then.

The left heard of it in regard to white identity politics, in which white Americans—who are finding their share of the population and influence decreasing—voted for a candidate who spoke to their concerns while marginalized groups suffered. Meanwhile, the right accused Hillary Clinton of pandering to voters of along racial lines to court votes. Even Bernie Sanders, the furthest-left candidate, later criticized the Democrats’ emphasis on identity politics.

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. even went on to say in his book, “The Disuniting of America”, that focusing on our differences more than our similarities will result in a “cult of ethnicity” that will disintegrate the cooperative, compromise-based model of the United States’s democracy.

It has been observed since ancient times that the democratic process goes smoothly if the constituents are homogeneous. Elites in the Athenian and Roman republics had a common, unwavering background that was not subject to compromise. In an increasingly multicultural and polarized world, are identity politics and democracy compatible?

A 2016 survey of major democracies by the United Nation World Happiness Report offers a bleak picture. For one, the happiest nations in the world are “fairly homogeneous nations with strong social safety nets” without the same kind of racial identity politics that exists in the U.S.

However, identity isn't just about race; it encompasses gender, religion, ethnicity and a variety of other factors that make up a human being. Some of my international friends like to tell me, “Americans are obsessed with race.” But the example of Taiwan shows other countries can be just as “obsessed” with identity as we are, yet still thrive.

In Taiwan's 2016 election, the Democratic Progressive Party, headed by Tsai Ing-wen, won by a landslide. Their victory was helped largely by an identity shift in Taiwan.

Two months before the election, Chou Tzu-yu, a Taiwanese singer in the K-pop girl group TWICE, was berated by Chinese netizens who were offended by her display of a Republic of China flag during an appearance on a Korean TV show. The other members of TWICE showed the flags of South Korea and Japan, signaling the countries they came from.

The incident resulted in TWICE being barred from Chinese television and Tzu-yu being forced to pull out of an endorsement, causing the president of her record company to apologize to the Chinese media. Tzu-yu also released an apology on the day before Taiwan’s elections, affirming there is only one China and she is proud to be Chinese.

Tzu-yu’s apology was met with outrage in Taiwan, and may have influenced the election results by 1 to 2 percent in favor of Tsai, who supports Taiwanese independence. Why did this happen?

In Taiwan, a majority of citizens now identify as solely Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese or a combination of the two). Though the People’s Republic of China tries to push a narrative of eventual reunification, this becomes more unrealistic as the identity of the island’s people is shifting.

Two years before the elections, university students stormed Taiwan's legislature, protesting against what they saw as former President Ma Ying-jeou's closed-door efforts to rapidly integrate the island’s economy with that of the mainland.

That identity politics can coexist with democracy in Taiwan shows its universal nature, for we are all embedded in some sort of identity.

However, we cannot just stay within our identity groups and expect everyone to listen to every one of our demands, especially if our group is smaller and weaker. That is the kind of identity politics that was criticized during the 2016 elections.

Here is where coalition building comes in; when we make temporary alliances with other groups to achieve a common goal.

Sometimes the alliance is difficult to forge, especially if your group and another group seem radically different, or even outright antagonistic. For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that rich industrialists prevented the white and Black working class from allying themselves through the invocation of racist attitudes against African Americans.

Despite this, psychological experiments demonstrate that if group members contact each other and find even simple commonalities (if both sides agreed the roads were bad in their municipality, for instance), there is more goodwill and trust. University of Oxford psychologist Miles Hewstone found this to be true with groups as separated and distrusting of each other as Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Moreover, though people in our identity groups may share a common thread, at the same time we are composed of multiple identities; this is known as intersectionality. I am Japanese-American, a straight male, a New Jerseyan, an out-of-state student, an immigrant and a non-practicing Buddhist. Each of these aspects is inseparable from my existence.

You cannot talk about economic inequality without talking about race and gender. You cannot talk about mass incarceration without talking about Black males and institutional racism. You cannot talk about American jobs being shipped away without talking about middle-class whites. You cannot talk about affirmative action without talking about being dark-skinned and low-income.

Our racial, socioeconomic, sexual, cultural and religious identities are so intertwined that simply offering solutions across the board targeting only one of these aspects will not work. Simply fixing economic inequality will not lead to true equality for minorities, as there are more institutional hurdles to climb over.

Similarly, not all people in a given group are the same. Just because President Donald Trump made comments about undocumented immigrants does not mean Latinos who are here legally will all vote for Democrats (in fact, 28 percent of them voted for Trump, slightly more support than what Mitt Romney received 4 years earlier).

Contrary to what some pundits think, identity politics is a universal phenomenon and the U.S. just expresses it differently from other countries as a reflection of its own unique racial history. Our democracy will not collapse because of identity politics; rather, it can survive and thrive if we learn to compromise and respect each others’ differences.