The problem with “identity-based” organising | MovementsRethink part 5

This afternoon’s discussion focussed heavily on identity and identity-based organising and activism. It has been something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot and the discussion definitely helped me to think thoroughly through this. Identity politics are heavily present in contempory social movements; e.g. LGBTI, sex worker, transgender, gay, lesbian, woman, black, person of colour, asian, etc. There are simply too many labels referring to identities, on basis of which organising is done.

The question is, however, how usefull identity is in activism; in one way it allows us to create connections and communities, it creates a comfortable definition to a social movement. But it also creates a sense of “who is in and who is out”, a common question discussed in women’s spaces is “are you a feminist?” where the way feminism is talked about it heavily based identity, political identity in this case. And how are identities defined? who fits into the LGBTIQQ alphabet soup? who is transgender? who is a woman? Instead of making these definitions in advance, sometimes “self-identification” is used, which makes sense, as identity is a very individual thing; yet part of me questions how much this can contribute to a sense of positioning oneself as a “victim” or creates value for the “underdog” which can provoke a sense of ownership over said identity… An example is some of the discussions that I’ve encountered in the sex worker’s rights movement, about how is a valid sex worker: strippers? street walkers? brothel workers? pimps? who can claim the label, which is often – though unsurprisingly – heavily policed.

However, identity can create connections, it can create a sense of solidarity and a togetherness. Therein is some value, it allows one to position oneself, not only in terms of social movements, but also in terms of privilege; it can allow oneself to understand one’s own privilege, which is a staple of many social movements, and arguably quite important.

Personally I prefer to focus on experience rather than identity, identity is too abstract for my taste. Experience is something that allows organising across the boundaries of different social movements, without having to have a common “identity” as something. Yet this is not easy, the question regarding one’s identity is actively asked in a lot of spaces, and depending on your answer, your voice will be subjected to policing in that space…

A comment in the group was that perhaps identity shouldn’t be thought of as the basis of social movements, activism and organising; rather it should be seen as a tool, to be used when useful and disregarded when problematic. This makes sense to me, but it doesn’t solve the problem of identity based movements currently, and how they shape activism currently, and how such spaces are still often problematic.


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