The thing about identity and/or identity politics...
January 20, 2012
So this post is inspired by this post that is, in part, about how Otherkin can appropriate oppression narratives from other people. This sort of appropriation can even happen between two different, but oppressed, groups, like the infamous declaration that “gay is the new black.” However, the original post points out something interesting about how identities and identity politics can be co-opted. Recently, the Biyuti Collective posted a piece that was partially about the appropriation of the genderqueer identity by cis people with non-gendernormative gender expressions. It also applies to people involved in anti-oppressive politics who also decide to smash the oppressive binary by IDing as genderqueer. Another, but older, example of this is the appropriation of second w_ve/r_df_ms in the lesbian separatist movement, applying to those r_dfems who IDed as lesbian for political reasons.
The problem with these appropriations? And what some privileged people involved in SJ have forgotten? Identity politics is about identity. It isn’t about the exact terms and labels being used by individuals at certain points in time. It is about who people are and whether or not they are oppressed by this. I’ve seen some Indigenous people say that PoC isn’t a label that they feel represents them. Great. Does this mean that they somehow don’t experience racism for not being white? No. Because they are oppressed for who they are and not what ID term they might be using at the time.
Of course, I started discussing two different kinds of identity appropriation: the appropriation of oppression narratives and the appropriation of ID terms. The first works to dilute the power and impact of identity politics because it allows the notion of oppression to become so widely applicable as to loose all meaning. As Dumb Things White People Say has noted, it is hard to view anything as being true oppression without a body count. Thus, when Otherkin appropriate trans narratives, it aggravates trans* people who are literally suffering violence, death, homelessness, unemployment, etc. for being trans*. And they are suffering regardless of whatever identity term they are using to express themselves.
The appropriation of ID terms for political reasons is problematic for the same reason. It dilutes and obfuscates the impact and freedom experienced by oppressed people finding and using language to express themselves. Suddenly, the it becomes about the language and not the very real people who are suffering and being oppressed. It utterly trivializes the experiences of the people who are what they term is expressing. If you are involved in anti-oppressive politics and understand how and why the binary is oppressive this is not a good reason to ID as genderqueer.
And this isn’t about policing IDs. I’m not gonna question any person who self IDs as any of the above terms. I’m not gonna hold them to some normative notion of what it means to be genderqueer. However, they will get the ultimate side eye if I find out that they are using the term without actually being what the term represents. And, believe you me, these people actually do reveal themselves through their own admission. More than anything, this post is about trying to reach the anybody who thinks to themselves, “I believe that x is oppressive, thus I will ID as y.” This is always a mistake.
Why? Because identity politics isn’t about language. It is about identity. We all know that language changes and the terms that people use change. It isn’t about the language. First and foremost, it is about who people are and the oppression they experience as a result. Language is important for how we communicate these experiences and with each other, but it is only one way that who we are is expressed. Language is important for how we articulate and conceptualize these identities but it is not the identity itself.
Of course, then you might be thinking that if language matters less than the actual identities… Which isn’t true. Language, as limited as it is, is one of the few ways that we have for communicating inner selves to other people. Language becomes increasingly more important if a person finds that other, non-verbal avenues of expression are barred to them. And this is why it still matters, and will always matter, when people appropriate terms that aren’t theirs. It is also why trivializing and diluting the terms is a problem.