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Identity Politics as Strategic Essentialism

by m seenarine 102915

Multiple, Fluid Identities

Each person identiies her or his self as an individual, and as part of various groups. These identities in turn shapes what each person thinks and largely determine their experience of the world, lives as females, males or queers. One of sociology's main insights is that identity is always situational, contextual, and contingent, which means that an individual's behavior is influenced by many aspects, including their political and social environments. We have multiple identities and are natural actors at playing our different roles.

In his seminal sociology book, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," Goffman discusses many aspects of an individual's on-stage and off-stage performance. Individuals act differently depending on the situation, for example, while in public or alone in private. A person's identity may be contingent on many aspects, such as being part of a community or relationship. Individual and social behavior are also influenced by social and psychological contexts, for example, whether in crisis or relaxed.

Most people are largely unaware of their multiple identities, and of the many and rapid changes we make daily. Personal and social identities are fluid and varies a lot. And individuals enjoy their backstage or private place where they can be themselves, and totally set aside their role or identity in society. But, even though individuals are constantly changing, there are some essentialist aspects to identity.

Performance Limitations

A born-female is biological different from a born-male. As such, there are some universal qualities to being a female, in addition to the lived experiences of being in a subjugated group. Males do not menstruate or give birth, which are essentially female processes.

Also, individuals and groups do not have limitless choice in identities, and females have less freedom to choose identities to wear. Identities are often ascribed at birth according to male, class-based, racial and religious hierarchies, which largely limits an individual's performance. Across the globe, identities are deeply constrained by dominant political and social forces, such as Western compulsory heterosexuality, strictly defined gender roles for women and men, differential access to and control over resources, strict religious mandates governing social behavior, and deeply-held cultural norms.

Marxists argue that non-class based identities tends to draw attention away from common tactical interests and strategic goals, for example, those shared by an educated poor black woman and a poor white man in ending private property and class inequality. Identity politics leads to the construction of fences instead of building bridges across ethnic, cultural and religious boundaries. And, these notions can play into the ruling elites' designation of certain groups for persecution, like blacks, and their substitution of a "conflict of identities" for an underlying and root conflict between rich and poor.

Strategic Identities

Paradoxically, although identities are fluid, having a static identity is becoming an increasingly important way for subjugated individuals and communities to organize and resist their oppression. Individuals and communities are organizing themselves based on identity-based oppression, and transforming individual agency into more powerful interest groups. Identity-based politics is based on common oppression of sex, race, religion, class, location, culture, language, etc.

Unlike biology which is real, political identities are socially constructed. For example, "blackness" is situational, contingent and contextual, and one may be too black or not black enough in the course of a day. All political identities, for example #blacklivesmatter, are essentialist, in the sense that there is no universal conception of "blackness." Having a "black" identity essentializes individuals with multiple, fluid identities, into just one based on skin color. But, political identities are used for tactical goals that are important for confronting immediate oppressions like everyday sexism, institutionalized racism, systemic religious bias, and environmental injustice.

Essentialism as Empowerment

Essentializing oneself into a singular identity can be useful and empowering. Organizing based on race and excluding whites from meetings does not mean that blacks are racists who hate whites and are white-phobic. There is a role for supportive allies in expressing solidarity and working towards coalition-building, but asserting “whiteness” is not one of them. Essentialism is important to understand, but there is a lot of confusion and bias surrounding this discussion, especially in feminism.

Individuals within oppressed communities may realize the importance of identity empowerment, for example, “black pride,” and yet seek to move beyond the single essentialist identity of “blackness.” Having a political identity, such as "black" can be part of a strategic essentialism that opens up the possibility of transcending oppression based on skin color. Therefore, a race-based strategic essentialism may be viewed as a temporary and necessary step towards liberation from racial oppression. Instead of insisting on mandatory inclusion, non-black allies can work to deconstruct “whiteness” and ending white identity.

Female Essentialism

Unlike racial constructions which vary, women are real and biological oppression is universal. A strategic essentialism may be necessary for females to organize and resist thousands of years of victimization under hegemonic masculinity, misogyny and violence. However, if born-females adopt strategic essentialism they are considered anti-trans. However, there are many issues that only affect born-females, for example, sexual reproduction.

Becoming pregnant and having abortions are not issues many men or trans care much about, and there is a worldwide attack on female reproductive rights currently underway. A female-born strategic essentialism may be the only way to effectively organize for reproductive rights and resist femicides, female infanticide, domestic violence, sexual harassment, child marriages, sex trafficking, pornography, and the thousands of daily horrors born-females face and have faced for centuries. It is a coincidence that trans theory and bashing of female essentialism plays into centuries of male academia's backlash against feminists?

Sexual fluidity is real. Queer men can perform as females, and have done so in countless cultures for thousands of years. However trans are far more the exception rather the norm. The lived experience of the vast majority of females is based on their biology at birth. What is oppressive is not biology, and lack of fluidity, but sexual dualism based on gendered-biology.

Sex Vs Gender

Sex is real, but gender is socially constructed. Gender is a hierarchical system based on sexual biology, in which femininity is defined as female-submissive behavior and masculinity as male-dominant behavior. Under patriarchy, women are gendered as an inferior caste, domesticated and sexually commodified to serve the needs of superior, god-like men. Radical feminists seeks to abolish gender, not increase the fluidity and transition between an oppressive and hierarchical gender binary.

Trans theory denies the existence of sexual biology, which is real, and argues instead that performance is real, and should be based on fluidity. But in its attempt at de-gendering patriarchy, trans theory does not de-construct and eliminate the patriarchal binary. Actually, it reinforces gender dualism and merely reifies transition to masculinity or femininity.

Worse, trans theory serves to undermine the only substantial form of resistance to patriarchal hegemony that exist, which is based on sexual biology, the resistance of women. Decades of female-based resistance, leadership and achievements in changing oppressive family laws, providing domestic shelters, and advancing women's rights are reduced and demonized as naive essentialists. With this framing, the entire 1st and 2nd wave feminist movements of born-females is reduced to transphobic collaboration with the patriarchy enemy.

The agency and resistance of born-females organizing based on biology, and women seeking separation from all forms of patriarchal ideology and structures, are de-ligitimized. And, instead of organizing based on biology, organizing based on biological mutilation is held as the new, anti-patriarchal standard all women must aim for. Yet, sexual transitions and surgery are highly privileged, first-world opportunities that billions of born-females in the global south have little or no access to.

Trans Essentialism

Trans theory was developed by European men like Foucault and Derrida. Their conception of gender resistance is deeply Eurocentric, and continues a racist legacy and ideological colonization of gynocentric indigenous cultures. 

Paradoxically, trans theory's reduction of the complex, multiple identities of individuals into one based solely on gender performance is not viewed as essentialist. Rather trans essentialism is characterized as both necessary and the final step for personal and social liberation. This translates into defining trans as the only true revolutionaries, and those who are fully-transitioned as being the most revolutionary. There is a place for trans solidarity in the feminist movement, but men performing as hyper-sexualized females and copting women's groups and issues are not some of them.

In the new, trans world-order, born-females who chose not to transition are betraying their own cause and complicity in patriarchal oppression. As part of their insidious victim-blaming and abnegation of social responsibility, victimized females are blamed for their own abuse for not adopting more fluidity. This framing conveniently ignores the thousands of years of patriarchal oppression of females who reject femininity, and the hundred of millions who are beaten, burned and murdered as infants, children and adults. 

Strategic Female Essentialism

Until patriarchy is negated, only femininity, or female-submisive behavior, is rewarded. As such, a partially-transitioned, upper-class white man, with a dick still attached, can be awarded the status "woman" of the year for reinforcing sexist dualism. Celebrating this class-based and privileged gender fluidity as freedom from patriarchy is disillusionary obfuscation and derailment of the lived reality of submissivity.

Female-submissivity is dehumanizing, not liberating. Submissiveness limits the lives of the vast majority of born-females on the planet, and a few class-privileged men performing like women does nothing to change underprivileged women's daily misery. Neither does a few class-privileged women transitioning and performing as men. Until male dominance and violence are eliminated, born-females may need a strategic essentialism in order to organize and resist female-based oppression.


m seenarine is the founder of Climate Change 911 and author of Cyborgs Versus the Earth Goddess: Men's Domestication of Women and Animals and Female Resistance (2017 Xpyr Press), Meat Climate Change: The 2nd Leading Cause of Global Warming (2016 Xpyr Press), and Education and Empowerment Among Dalit (Untouchable) Women in India: Voices from the Subaltern (2004 Edwin Mellen Press).