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Identity Politics

Who Am I? What Do I Stand For?

That is a question I spent last night pondering when I should have been sleeping.  I think the question came into my mind because of an article a friend published that talked about identity politics.  I sure do wish I could turn off the circuitous route that my mind takes at night, but alas, I don’t seem to be able to do that.

An ongoing dialogue is what got me started – that the problems in our country today are enabled by identity politics.  Certain celebrity thought leaders claim that identity politics are tearing us apart.  Actually, I agree with that concept, and four years ago, I spouted it whenever I had the chance.  I still believe that we are being torn apart by identity politics.

Why then does the concept keep me up at night?  I think that the question nags me is this:  if we “cancel” identity politics, do we “cancel” my identity?

I grew up in a generally conservative family and inherited my paradigm that conservative is good.  It wasn’t a particularly well-informed perspective. I accepted what I was told by those around me and that was a nice, calm way of life.  Forty-some years ago, I began my own family which leaned conservative, although in retrospect, probably more centrist. I have learned a lot from my husband who is very well-read and has strong core values with the ability to keep an open mind.

I was innocently happy, never thought much about politics, and my life continued comfortably around people who thought and looked as I did.  Some might say I was comfortable with the blue pill.

Then came the first radical thought

My open-minded husband and I were sitting at breakfast one morning, probably 2015ish.  There had been a rash of police violence toward black men and my go-to station, Fox News, was quite positioned on their coverage.  So, imagine my surprise when my husband calmly said at the breakfast table, “Police violence isn’t new.  They protect their own, and so there is less oversight on their actions.”

Wait, what?

Police are good.  They protect us. They help us.  They keep us safe.

Then I started thinking about the term “us.”  I remembered a young black man in a 1990s diversity training session I attended talking about giving his son “the talk.”  It was, perhaps, an early warning sign that challenged my personal narrative and stuck with me.  I wrote about that in 2013 and again in 2020 and the story hadn’t really changed.

Does “us” receive equal treatment?

Could it possibly be that the protection could be more strongly focused for some people over others?  While that is clearly an overgeneralization, it rocked my paradigm.

Then it became personal

Then came “MeToo.” Now it was personal. No one had to convince me that women have struggled to attain equality.  Heck, I spent 25 years planning pay levels for financial institutions.

And I was a female Marine in the 1970s.  One of our classes at Officer Candidate School in 1975 focused on explaining to us that we must never establish a pattern of being absent once a month, regardless of the reason.  We would be considered weak.  We were Marines.  We were tough.  That blunt message was kind and clear: Act like a man.

Once I left the Marine Corps, the blunt messaging gave way to whispered subtleties.  It was harder to figure out the messages and easier to hope they weren’t what you thought they might have been.  I learned that, as a woman in business, I didn’t have the same status unless it came from Affirmative Action.

Our world was changing.  It was growing more diverse.

Enter legislation

As we evolved in our recognition of differences, we began to legislate behavior – equal opportunity and treatment under the law.  Obvious differences were being addressed and I began to feel as if the world was changing for the better.

It did change – more opportunities were offered to more people, and businesses began to understand that there was a significant up-side to diversity.  After all, their customers were diverse.

Legislation, however, began to strangle conversation.  The simple acknowledgment that someone may be offended by words or actions morphed into paralysis.  Paralysis generated resentment, and appropriately so.  People became stopped saying anything for fear it would be deemed offensive.

But the fundamental issues that necessitated legislation in the first place never really changed.  The façade of equality was cracking as we realized that marginalization of some groups of people still happened. The change we tried to legislate wasn’t taking hold.

But without real change, the expectations that legislation was supposed to help stoked cynicism.   The subtleties remained and were impossible to debate. So, the world view becomes, “It’s getting better.” But it doesn’t feel any different and that begins to take a toll.

Perhaps that was the origin of “identity politics.”  Groups said, “If you won’t listen to me, I’ll find my allies and speak louder.”  The pain of being unheard, juxtaposed over the expectations of change, fuels cynicism.   I find myself looking at the length of time we’ve been discussing all this as a country, and the fact that the spirit of the change is still precarious, and I am cynical.

Will it ever change?

These days, it seems hopeless.  As a member of an “identity group,” when I hear someone railing against “identity politics,” it feels as if I am being told to crawl back into my comfortable box of homogeneity.

And as I lay awake last night, I realized that I could do that.  I fit the profile, generally, of the identity that has been the power structure of our country since its founding.

Should I just accept that our country is founded on the principles and values I grew up with and ignore the fact that the country is no longer the country of my youth?

But then I think about the fact that twenty-four years from now, according to the Brookings Institute, there will no longer be a majority of any one ethnic group.  That comfortable box of homogeneity is going away.

So who am I? 

I’m still trying to figure that out, so I don’t have a definitive answer and probably never will.

I started this post by saying that I agreed that we are being torn apart by identity politics, and I do. But as I have evolved, I have realized that identity politics still have a place, and probably will until there is real change.

So here’s the question that begs for me now:  How can we cancel identity politics until we truly embrace and respect the diversity of who we are? 

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Carol Anderson
Carol Andersonhttp://andersonperformancepartners.com
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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4 CONVERSATIONS

  1. What an honest and insightful post, Carol.

    I feel adding this quote from a former COO of the Danish Chamber of Commerce to the discussion:
    “The American philosopher John Rawls has in the tradition of Adam Smith come up with a model for moral demands of a society; demands that any libertarian adherent to free market economics should pose. Rawls asks us to imagine an experiment where we create a society while not knowing which place in society we will personally hold: Will we be sick, be prosperous, or have another destiny? Said differently, we should argue for rules in this society without the benefit of knowing if we were to be upper or lower class. It is no big deal to advocate for inequality if your economic needs are all met. But which moral implications would this experiment entail in the real world? No two persons would have the same priorities – exactly because it is a moral exercise, not just an economic one.

    The humble, but practical, conclusion must be that everybody who, for very good reasons, argues for a free market economy has to take up this moral requirement: Support for a market economy must be supplemented with requests for political initiatives that assure a society which we ourselves would wish to inhabit – regardless of how our position in this society could be radically changed tomorrow. This is a good standard by which to measure one’s commitment to fairness – the goal being to assure the general population’s continuous broad support for free market economics, the economic model most likely to provide prosperity for all.”

    There is a false belief in USA that if somebody else rises, life becomes less advantageous for me. It is false because if society as a whole gets richer – and the distribution becomes just a little less skewed towards the top – life gets more advantageous for everybody. Even for those that just remain in place. When the systems is perceived as fair, most people want to play within the system. It is when the system has lost its legitimacy because it doesn’t work for too many that people use “extracurricular” means which endangers everybody, rich and poor, by causing anxiety, violence, and “identity politics”.

    Given that white high school students think that it will require for them around $1mill per year to be willing to put up with the indignities our fellow Americans with darker skin tones have to live with every day of their lives, there is a recognized and much overdue change needed.

  2. Carol: I think “identity politics” is just one of man:y manifestations of human nature. The reality is that equality has never existed in this country or any other part of the world. Sometimes that inequality shows up in size, strength, intelligence, race, gender, and many other aspects that tend to divide us. The theory that all are created equal is simply a false theory. However of this, I am certain: Burning buildings, changing the names of parks and schools, defacing or tearing down statues, rioting, and other forms of destruction and violence will solve nothing, including our divisions. If anything those actions and those that participate in them are simply making things worse.

    The trick is not to eliminate those things that divide us, that will never happen. It is to be tolerent of those that are different and to live peacefully within that sphere of difference.

    • Agree, Ken. But how do we do that? We all agree. Those of us who routinely comment on this topic have a basic premise – something has to change. We may disagree on issues, but we also believe in dialogue.

      You have a “bee in your bonnet”…rioting and the ensuing destruction. It comes out in your comments. I have my own “bees”…lots of them! Florida is trying to make it illegal for a teacher to teach about systemic racism. Is that how we move forward? Erasing the past?

      But the undercurrent I hear throughout the BC360 commentary is that we would like to see change. How can we help?

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