The problem with identity politics

6 July 2017
Louise O'Shea

The label “identity politics” is applied to a range of positions and practices, the key unifying features of which are sectional approaches to challenging oppression and the prioritisation of subjective experience.

These can be highly theorised or simply reflect a common sense based on what seem like readily observable truths: that the world is divided between people who suffer oppression and those who do not, and that group interests flow from multiple sectional divides. For example, the fact women are oppressed makes men at best constitutionally disinterested in women’s liberation or at worst culpable in their oppression. So it goes for other forms of oppression.

The way in which identity politics is expressed changes over time. In the 1960s separatism was a key manifestation, in particular among women and, later, lesbian women. Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African movement, which encouraged Blacks in the US to return to Africa to be free of racism, was an earlier example of a similar political outlook.

Today, separatism doesn’t attract much support. Much more widespread is a form of identity politics in which experience (often emphasised with the entirely superfluous adjective “lived”) is accorded primacy, endowing an unquestionable validity upon the subjects and their analytical and strategic approach to oppression.

Two recent examples demonstrate this point of view.

One is a statement released by the refugee advocacy group Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees (known as RISE) in the lead-up to the Palm Sunday march, traditionally the largest pro-refugee demonstration of the year. As part of a demand for greater RISE representation on the speaking platform, the group argued:

“RISE is the only organisation within Australia that is entirely governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees. The work that we do is underpinned by our belief in the power and necessity of self-determination. It is integral that the voices of those with lived experiences are amplified, leading the conversation on all matters pertaining to refugees … It is a movement like RISE that should be placed at the fore of the refugee advocacy space.”

An article supportive of this statement, published in Community Four, further elaborates this position:

“Over time these communities have taught us that effective and sustainable change for the oppressed only truly comes when they themselves take control of their own movement. This is because they are the ones that live with the daily reality of oppression and are the ones that will have to live with any change that is achieved (unlike those of us who can switch the lights off and go home at the end of the day as truly free citizens). It is their diverse voices that we need to listen to before taking another step forward.”

Another example is the response of feminist columnist Clementine Ford to a widely applauded video made by high school boys in support of International Women’s Day:

“[F]orgive me for not really caring all that much about the sudden ‘wokeness’ of boys who categorically are not forced to suffer the same backlash that their female peers are just for speaking to their actual experiences.”

A number of instructions to men who genuinely want to support women follow:

“Listen to us when we tell you about our experiences of womanhood … Read books by female writers, watch movies about female protagonists (and ones with actual depth), listen to podcasts made by women, buy music written and recorded by women. Care about our stories and care that we are the ones to tell them. Women are entitled to be the witness bearers to our own lives – we don’t need a right-on male ally to tell us what is and isn’t up with our shit.”

The common theme here is, first, that experience of oppression confers an incontrovertible authority that alone qualifies a person to speak, analyse and present strategies to challenge or eliminate oppression. Second is that those who do not share this experience can do no more than play a passive role supporting those who do, or else become complicit in the problem.

Like other varieties of identity politics, it links the validity of any argument to the identity of the person making it. What is being said becomes a second rate consideration to who is saying it.

The limits of experience

The problem with this approach is that, on its own, experience is an inadequate foundation from which to develop an analysis of oppression or to devise political strategies to end it.

In part, this is because the experience of oppression is not uniform, and the oppressed are not a homogeneous bloc. In reality, there are as many experiences as there are individuals who suffer oppression.

The sexism experienced by someone like Julia Gillard or Gina Rinehart, for example, is dramatically different from that experienced by a migrant woman worker on the minimum wage or a single mother dependent on a pension. Likewise, the experience of a refugee who has spent years languishing in detention and one who has managed to avoid this ordeal are very different, although equally valid, examples of the refugee experience.

Political strategies based on subjective experience will tend to arbitrarily elevate certain experiences over others, reduce the complex reality of oppression to a mere stereotype or become overwhelmed to the point that the coherence of the oppressed group itself is called into question.

Attempts to determine which experience is “authentic” or properly representative are highly problematic. Rather than capturing some pure reality of oppression, they more often reflect the broader prejudices – or the political agendas – of those people making the determinations.

The second problem with this approach, related to the first, is that the way in which individuals respond to their experience of oppression can vary widely, even when the experience is very similar.

The experience of oppression can, for example, lead to an acceptance, whole or partial, of a particular group’s subordinate place in society, whether because individuals have internalised their oppression or because they feel they have no choice but to adapt to the apparently unassailable status quo.

Entirely understandably, many refugees respond to their oppression by more eagerly embracing their adopted country and its culture and institutions to demonstrate their gratitude or because they feel that to do otherwise might provoke hostility. This can be the case even though the very same country and its institutions may have brutalised them in their efforts to gain asylum.

Likewise, many women pro-actively impose sexist norms and values on other women, despite experiencing the negative effects of sexism themselves. It is overwhelmingly mothers, for example, who socialise young women into the “appropriate” – i.e. usually sexist – ways for women to look and behave.

But the experience of oppression can also have the opposite effect. Under the right circumstances, it can politicise people and incline them towards rebellion. You only have to think of the daring acts of the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s or the protests and riots in offshore detention centres. The sense of injustice born from experience can transform an individual into an activist and fighter against the powers that be, just as much as it can force them into submission.

The way in which the oppressed respond to their experience of oppression is thus highly subjective. It can be influenced by personal factors, other aspects of the individual such as their class position or political background and the broader political climate in which they are immersed. This is reflected in the various and divergent political manifestations of resistance to oppression: there are conservative women’s groups and radical ones. There are refugee groups that campaign against the government, and others that attempt to curry favour with it.

Finally, the causes of oppression cannot be elucidated from experience alone. It is not possible to understand the workings of the whole economy from the vantage point of one workplace, nor is it possible to develop an appreciation of the multitude of structural factors that underpin women’s oppression from the sexist realities of daily life.

This is reflected in a common reaction of refugees in offshore concentration camps: utter confoundment at why they are being treated so appallingly. Inevitably, an analysis derived from experience will tend to reduce the causes of oppression to that which is readily observable: the bad attitudes or behaviour of individual men, white people and so on. Or perhaps sometimes aspects of authority that are familiar: the police, welfare agencies or the media. These can only ever be partial insights that tend to distort or oversimplify the complex social reality that contributes to inequality.

To understand this complex social reality, it is necessary to move beyond the limits of experience.

So expecting to derive any meaningful understanding of oppression by passively listening to the experiences of the oppressed is doomed to chronic confusion and ultimate failure. So too is elevating to a principle the belief that experience alone gives an individual exclusive insight into what is needed to remedy oppression and understand its causes.

Any high school boy trying to take Clementine Ford’s advice would be unable to become an effective ally in women’s liberation. After all, which “authentic voice” is he to follow: Clementine Ford, Janet Albrechtsen or Julie Bishop? A refugee movement that attempted to implement a strategy of ensuring refugees as a group “lead the conversation on all matters pertaining to refugees” (as opposed to simply complying with the wishes of one advocacy group like RISE) similarly would find this goal impossible.

Experience of oppression

This is not to say that the experience of oppression does not matter or that those who do not experience oppression should or can provide any greater clarity. Rather, it highlights that experience alone cannot adequately inform an analysis of oppression or a political strategy to fight it. Such an analysis must be arrived at through argument and debate among the oppressed, and those who share the goal of liberation. Ultimately, analysis and strategy must be tested in practice through the experience of struggle as well as by reference to historical experience.

In this process, experience undoubtedly plays a role. It is self-evident that those who experience oppression are best placed to describe the way in which it is perpetuated, both overtly and via more subtle means, and understand the deleterious effects it can have. This can help others become better attuned to the social realities of oppression, which in turn helps to create a more inclusive political environment.

The common experience of members of oppressed groups, even in very different social circumstances, also confirms that structural discrimination is what underpins a particular group’s subordinate position, not merely bad luck, individual failings or general social disadvantage. This helps to identity the problem and highlight what is needed to achieve liberation.

The experience of oppression further has the potential to politicise those who suffer it. It can provide important insights into the way in which power is deployed and inequality maintained, which is harder to observe by those who are spared such treatment. And it can push people to resist – without resistance there can be no liberation.

Often, although certainly not always, oppression can lead to greater empathy with other groups subject to similar treatment, even if those empathising are themselves not directly affected.

The experience of oppression can equip people to better recognise the operation of power and control, or the common social consequences of it. This raises the potential for solidarity and can help make clear the need for an integrated theory of society that can account for different forms of oppression, the interests that connect them and the strategies needed to combat them. That is, it can push people toward an understanding of social inequality that goes beyond their own narrow experience.


It is undoubtedly true that experience is an important factor in the struggle against oppression. A white person could not have been Martin Luther King Jnr and a straight person could not have been Harvey Milk. When members of an oppressed group challenge their oppression, it is much more compelling for others who are not yet part of the resistance. Their experience imbues them with a greater moral authority among those they are attempting to lead, which is why struggles against oppression tend to be strongest when they are led by those who suffer it.

To win liberation, the active participation of a critical mass of the oppressed is essential, and inconceivable without the emergence of leaders from among these same social layers.

But this isn’t because only the oppressed, by virtue of their experience, possess the necessary insight into their oppression to lead a struggle. Martin Luther King Jnr wasn’t a great leader of the oppressed because of any particular experience or because his was more “authentic” than that of other would-be leaders, but because he could rouse people, raise their confidence to fight and their sense of hope. This came from his broader social vision, analysis and political influences.

Likewise, the successes of women’s rights’ struggles in the 1960s were connected with the strength of the trade union movement and the overall climate of rebellion, which shaped the political approach of activists just as much as their experience tended to.

A theory of oppression and struggle for liberation is strongest when it is built on a theory of society that can account for all forms of oppression and inequality, identify accurately their causes and provide a strategy for liberation. The strength of any such theory can only be tested by history and in ongoing struggle.

Experience alone is an inadequate starting point from which to develop such a theory. It is not sufficient to be concerned only with that which you have experience of, or to passively take a lead from those with no other qualification than belonging to an oppressed group. All those committed to liberation and social equality have an obligation to actively engage with, question and test different theories of society and oppression, and learn from the lessons of struggle that have tested these historically and in the here and now. This can’t be done without moving beyond the narrow politics of identity and experience.

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