Identity Politics, Once Again

Am Johal review's Asad Haider's Mistaken Identity.
By Am Johal
Mistaken Identities: Race and Class in the Age of Trump

Asad Haider
Mistaken Identity
Verso (2018)

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Asad Haider's fascinating book, ‘Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump' (Verso, 2018) is a timely and nuanced intervention in to the innumerable discussions on identity politics that are circulating today across the political spectrum. From Paul Ryan to Slavoj Zizek, from Viktor Orban to Narendra Modi, Jordan Peterson to Hillary Clinton, Jagmeet Singh to Justin Trudeau, identity politics is all the rage today in the age of Trump. However, the term too often gets thrown around and used as an ideological trope and is set up for superficial straw man-type attacks. When the term identity politics is evoked to critique a form of politics, who is it for and what is it trying to do and what does it precisely mean? Is it kicking up, or is it kicking down?

What sets Haider's work apart on this crucial topic is that it is a critique of identity politics from within the progressive left, rather than the reactionary right. The question is whether the progressive left is mature enough to contend with its main points of critique on identity politics. Though I don't agree with all of it, Haider's book works as a generous and generative intervention and is particularly notable for the way he weaves in personal anecdotes from his own experience and upbringing as a Pakistani-American in rural Pennsylvania, accidentally finding Huey Newton in the library when looking for Isaac Newton.

One of the main criticisms of identity politics has to do with what happens when 'identity' becomes the primary mode of political identification, what relationship can it have to other forms of emancipatory struggles. Haider asks, "Is it possible to go beyond the liberal paradigm of victimhood and the paradox of rights?"1 When does a focus on identity intended to be an opening to widen a political struggle and open up the blind spots that coalition politics can often walk in to? According to some, were it not for the historical closures of labour unions, social democratic parties and other bastions of the left, there likely wouldn't be the need for 'identity politics.' It's partially due to their inequalities and less than open doors that identity politics appears as a political force. If the expression of identity is intended to be part of a universal, rather than an expression of narrow forms of victimhood and individuation, who adjudicates whether one form builds a movement and while another does not, and where do those lines get drawn and by whom? This is one of the many paradoxes to grapple with in Haider's book.

Haider identifes how the term 'identity politics' came to be used in its contemporary sense - The Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbian militants, that had formed in Boston in 1977, who coined the term, wrote, "We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation."2 Haider then deftly walks through several thinkers including Huey Newton and other Black Panther leaders, Malcolm X, Judith Butler and others to interrogate and consider how identity politics has inflected and shaped political movements the past few decades.

Haider continues with the more recent examples of coalition building that occurred with anti-war opposition movements that opposed the Iraq War to the more recent Occupy protests, including his own involvement in them. Campus level infighting around essentializing views tied to forms of identity politics irritate Haider, particularly when they work against solidarities across difference. Haider argues that they ultimately undermine the power of movements as they struggle to scale up to the larger political forces that are at stake. Haider writes, "It was impossible to put off the task of rethinking everything, learning how we got here, trying to recover our history, and finding alternative approaches. How could we understand the distance of our contemporary situation from the mass mobilizations of the past when a grassroots movement against racism was being undermined by the very language of antiracism?…The problem we encountered was that forming a new ideology would have to confront the tenacity of the existing ideology. And "race" is the most tenacious ideologies of all."3

Whiteness and white supremacy is also invented and turned in to an ideological form historically. Haider's deconstruction of whiteness as a concept reminded me of an Italian friend who remarked that the Italians were considered brown people in Canada until the early 1970's when other brown people began arriving in larger numbers – at that point, the Italians became white. Haider writes that the Irish in immigrating to America joined the 'white race' by supporting slavery: "So the process of becoming white meant that those previous racial categories were abolished and racialized groups like the Irish were progressively incorporated in to the white race as a means of fortifying and intensifying the exploitation of black labourers."4 He cites Frederick Douglass in his invocation that the white race is invented, not un-coincidentally, with the creation of slavery and colonialism more generally.

The book covers the late 1970's crisis of hegemony that forms in the post World War Two era through the important theoretical work of Stuart Hall. Drawing on the intellectual legacy of early cultural studies, Haider works through the intense entanglements of identity politics, class and emancipatory movements that were challenged during the rise of Thatcher and their attempts to overcome difference.

The immigrant is a core problem for political thought, writes Haider. There is the invocation of the people in the form of Trump's border wall regarding who belongs and who does not (ethnos) and of the demos, invoking the US bill of rights or international human rights as an attempt at universalization of abstract rights. It is this contradiction that Haider cites as the original sin of the American state. But when the particularities of injured communities are brought in to the realm of rights, inequalities and power differentials that exist can be combed over, or as Wendy Brown writes, they are "more likely to become sites of the production and regulation of identity as injury than vehicles of emancipation."5

Crucially, Haider ends the book calling for a politics of solidarity that is universalizing and moves through and past identity, partially through the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou. He writes, "Our world is in dire need of a new insurgent universality. We are capable of producing it; we all are, by definition. What we lack is program, strategy, and tactics. If we set the consolations of identity aside, that discussion can begin."6 But that's easier said than done. When identities have been so eroded and undermined historically, it's a difficult thing to set identity aside so easily - but can it be evoked in forms that produce greater political solidarities and understanding across difference to support emancipatory ends. To paraphrase a friend of mine: "I'd like some politics with my identity politics."7


  1. Haider, pg. 108
  2. Haider, pg. 7
  3. Haider, pg. 41
  4. Haider, pg. 57-58
  5. Haider, pg. 106
  6. Haider, pg. 114
  7. Thanks to Cara Ng who used this term in a conversation when I ran in her on Pender Street earlier this summer.
Am Johal
Am Johal is Director of SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. He is the author of 'Ecological Metapolitics: Badiou and the Anthropocene' and co-author of "Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale."
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