As dramatic as the four chairs swiveling in The Voice reality show was the selection process that saw Kamala Harris appointed as Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential candidate. Black women celebrated the news as a much-needed win for a historically marginalized group. Curiously, part of the Indian diaspora in the United States as well as Indians back home participated in the online revelry.
In this melee of identity and representation, detailed examinations of her actual stances and policies were left out. If it weren’t for her failed run as the Presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, many wouldn’t have even known about Harris' dubious tough-on-crime record as a prosecutor, her indefensible refusal to hold abusers in the Catholic Church accountable, her nebulous stances on healthcare, and her capitalist coziness with Big Tech. A half-Black, half-Indian woman as the Vice President of the United States is a win for the idea of representation but is it necessarily a victory for the people that she’s supposedly representing- Black, Indian American, and biracial groups?
Intersectionality, inclusivity, and identity politics are terms no longer strictly associated with social justice movements or staid academics in grey conference rooms. When pop icons like Beyoncé, Instagram influencers and even Teen Vogue columnists invoke these terms, it is clear that aside from signaling a brand of politics, social justice buzzwords now carry a copious amount of cultural and social capital.
The Rise and Fall of Identity Politics
However, with great popularity comes great responsibility. Across the political spectrum, identity politics has been critiqued as “divisive”, “on steroids,” and of promoting “oppression Olympics”. In the race to claim supposed “victimhood” and marginalization, the theory is that identity politics has become a zero-sum, exclusionary game that fails to challenge power structures and focuses on the elevation of individuals instead of promoting universal solidarity and empowerment. This isn’t an elegy of identity politics rather an attempt to underline its flaw- mistaking representation for equity, and symbols for structural change.
A good example of this is Barack Obama’s presidency which was supposed to herald a post-racial America. However, during his tenure, Black wealth went down, the neoliberal consensus was maintained, millions of immigrants were deported, imperialist wars in the Global South continued and even expanded, and black and brown children and women were droned indiscriminately. It turns out that the country’s first Black President was not very different from many of his white predecessors.
The pathology of blaming the loss of Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Elizabeth Warren in 2020 solely on sexism occludes the real takeaways from their defeats- that while sexism is real and does irreparable harm to women, merely electing a woman to a position of power is not the panacea.
Some of the poorest countries in the Global South were far ahead of the curve when it came to electing women. Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the world’s first elected Prime Minister ever in 1960. Indira Gandhi became the first woman Prime Minister of India in 1966 (there hasn’t been another since) and Benazir Bhutto the first Prime Minister of a Muslim majority nation in 1988. Does that mean these Global South countries are paragons of gender equality? Hardly so. One can use many metrics but for simplicity’s sake, the United Nations’ 2018 Gender Inequality Index places Sri Lanka at 86, India at 122, and Pakistan 136 out of 198 countries. Sexism continues to be rife in these countries and true emancipation of women remains a distant dream.
Many political observers have found that there’s little evidence of women political leaders being significantly better at delivering results than men, In fact, their track records show that their election wins were more individual victories than that of the electorate. Being women, after all, doesn’t make people better at politics or even have better politics- Margaret Thatcher exemplifies that.
Intersectionality as a Personal Trait
The apex of the identity discourse gone amok was the meltdown around Warren’s candidacy. Her reliance on “woke” identity-based virtue signaling such as giving a “young trans person” veto power over her Secretary of Education nominee, the alleged conversation with fellow candidate, Bernie Sanders, who told her a woman can’t become President, and her eventual withdrawal produced a barrage of post-mortems that peremptorily laid the cause of the defeat at the omnipotent feet of sexism, despite the fact that the previous Democratic nominee was a woman.
One of the most egregious examples of the cynical usage of intersectionality was an article by Suzanna Danuta Walters in The Nation which anointed Warren as the “first intersectional presidential candidate” (the headline was later changed after social media backlash). No evidence was offered for this claim- the main point of difference seems to be the “framing” of her policies which, according to the author, included intersectional language, vis-à-vis the more “narrow”, discrete takes of her rivals. Whether the actual policies were intersectional, meaning that they would disproportionately benefit groups at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression, was left unaddressed.
Here, instead of using intersectionality as a tool to analyze the specific political positions of the candidates, the emphasis is on presenting policies in an intersectional way. Though this article is one example, it encapsulates the myriad ways in which feminist tools, frameworks, and methods have been appropriated to become labels that one can slap on people as and when one deems fit, rather than a praxis to be applied and realized through policies, programs, and provocations. In this way, intersectionality is repurposed to become a personalized personality trait and diversity and inclusivity devolve into tokenism.
Reclaiming Identity and its Politics
The discourse around electing a woman to the presidency has become one of crude gender reductionism where a flawed individual (for instance, Clinton’s support for neoconservative foreign policy and Warren claiming Native American heritage for decades) is elevated to the status of a would-be messiah whose ascendance is projected as the personal victory for all women.
Identity politics is a necessary constituent of social justice struggles. However, the problem with harping on representation is that representation becomes the issue and the end objective, rather than an honest appraisal of why that representation was missing in the first place. When deployed in a cynical, self-serving or naïvely well-intentioned way, identity politics devolves into tokenism where the individual takes precedence over the multitude and mass movements are eschewed for the soaring but empty rhetoric of hope and change.
It is perhaps time that we go back to the source of this term, enshrined in the Combahee River Collective statement, that simultaneously recognized the importance of a politics borne out of one’s personal experiences and the primacy of building coalitions and practicing politics grounded in material conditions and realities. The personal is political and should be universal.