Carty ’15: Identity politics is counter-productive

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, February 7, 2013

A few months ago on Facebook, a friend of mine wrote of how one friend’s perspective “as a white male in a fraternity” seemed to guide his opinion about sexual assault policies at Brown. A couple days later, I saw one writer’s opinion explained away by another’s accusation that he was simply “bummed that his straightness, whiteness and dudeness got implicated in something negative.” I see this sort of posturing fairly often. In perennially sensitive debates about topics like race, sex, feminism or sexual assault, one participant, usually of a certain privileged status, brings up an opinion that goes against the grain, qualifies the question or challenges the conventional wisdom. And in response, he is often dismissed with some reference to his white, male or fill-in-the-blank privilege.

I do not like this trend. I find it to be a particularly unsavory, awful kind of identity politics, and I think it’s counterproductive.

I recently read a 1969 essay by feminist activist Carol Hanisch that I found helpful in deciphering this trend. The phrase “The Personal is Political” is both the title and the focus of her piece. In it, Hanisch writes that “personal problems are political problems,” and she encourages women and members of the women’s movement to recognize that the day-to-day injustices of their lives — such as men’s unwillingness to hire or date them unless they “look pretty and giggle” or perceptions of them as “sensitive, emotional … (or) dumb” — are personal injustices that proceed from larger systems of power and control. It is worth organizing and acting against these systems of oppression, the sources of those original misdeeds.

To invert “The Personal is Political” is to say that the political — anything that comments on larger power relations — is personal. This is where the Facebook posts come in. From this inverse angle, anything from a rape joke to an online opinion can be deemed a result of the speaker’s own privilege. So, when a friend of mine expresses an opinion about Brown’s sexual assault policies, it is safe to say, if one follows this line of reasoning, that his political speech is formed by his personal experience within a larger system. It is fair to chalk up his opinion to his privileged identity “as a white male in a fraternity.” It is not ridiculous to see others as shaped by social processes and to see their opinions as evidence of that influence. It is not ridiculous — but it is detrimental.

When we discount people’s opinions by saying they are shaped by privilege, we don’t actually win the argument. The opinions they expound, regardless of how correct or incorrect they are, still stand. If a white guy posting on Facebook presents a rape myth, we should not expect to prove him wrong by saying he is posting such a thing because of his white male privilege. We should expect to prove him wrong when we prove the myth wrong. Ideas don’t leave the public sphere because they get kicked out. They leave because they are incorrect.

Likewise, this practice discourages people who might otherwise be involved supporters. When we tell others their speech results from their privileged circumstances, we send two messages. On one level is the implicit idea that one cannot break free from those circumstances. Inevitably, we say, opinions will always be shaped by identity. On another level, we say the opinion in question, and accordingly the speaker of that opinion, is not welcome. Shaped by a privilege he cannot seem to escape, the speaker is not a part of this movement, of this concept or of this conversation.

Lastly, by dismissing an opinion because of the unchosen identity of the person who gives that opinion, we do something that is antithetical to the spirit of just about every social liberation movement. These movements — whether a feminist movement, civil rights movement or gay liberation movement — each gain great strength from their abilities to speak to persons as distinct individuals rather than indistinguishable representatives of groups. The freedom to be seen as a unique being, filled with agency and originality, released from the burden of gender roles, racial stereotypes or heteronormativity, is a freedom for which each one of these movements strives. When we discard someone else’s opinion because of his privileged identity, we ignore this ideal. We see people as automatons, built by and trapped within a repressive system, rather than individuals. There is a serious moral failing within that judgement. It is not fair, and it is not reflective of the countless differences and nuances that reside within each one of us, whether we are influenced by privilege or by oppression.

Most of the time that we see this bit of identity politics, it surrounds a difficult debate. But when we call out others’ privileges and discount opinions in the process, we tend to make those debates even more difficult. So the next time a socially privileged person comments on a sensitive topic, think before you attribute his opinion to that which he cannot change.


Kevin Carty ’15 is a political science concentrator from Washington, D.C. He can be emailed at or followed @Politicarty.

  • why are emails mandatory?

    This is a very well-written article that effectively sums up what I have been feeling as of late. Kudos, Kevin.

  • heyholetsgo

    What’s even worse is that people privileged by Brown’s racist, affirmative action policies (Latinos and Blacks) deny their privilege and shame “privileged” white kids at Brown. If you want to know the facts, Asians get screwed the most and the most underrepresented group at Ivies are non-Jewish white boys. Thus, privilege is relative and a horrible generalization. Unfortunately, the Third World Program at Brown indoctrinates students to believe in the opposite. For more info, read this award winning study:

    • KN

      affirmative action and antidiscriminatory policies for institutional diversity are not racist nor do they “privilege” anyone. no one is “shaming” white kids just for being white or having privilege. yes, privilege is “relative” in that you can have some forms of privilege and simultaneously experience oppression in other ways, but regardless real abuses of privilege should be shamed and stopped. it’s not a matter of indoctrination; i’m not at all affiliated with the TWC, and i don’t think everyone is a fragile, special snowflake or that every difference constitutes an identity.

      that study ignores that in a holistic college admissions process, test scores should not be the sole factor in determining “representation.”

    • “the most underrepresented group at Ivies are non-Jewish white boys”

      US Demographics:
      White or European American 72.4 %
      Black or African American 12.6 %
      Asian 24.8 %
      American Indian or Alaska Native 0.9 %
      Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander 0.2 %
      Some other race 6.2 %
      Two or more races 2.9 %

      I question what you mean by underrepresented.

      • EastAsianNationalist

        That graph pretty much proves him right.

    • moose

      Do you ever read anything that doesn’t attempt to confirm what you already believe?

  • KN

    it is not privileged identity that is the inherent problem, it is the refusal to acknowledge that sometimes the unearned, given (even if unasked-for and passive) benefits of privilege can mean that the individual is more ignorant and perhaps offensive about the subject at hand because of less direct experience or exposure. obviously this is not always the case; privilege doesn’t automatically make someone an a-hole, and you can be oppressed and still be an a-hole. but often, people are a-holes even without necessarily realizing it because their privilege allows them to be.

    but just because they are enabled to be a-holes doesn’t mean they should be. and when they are a-holes, even unintentionally, they should be called out so they can stop it. one cannot change many parts of one’s identity (and its socially/societally constructed meanings), but one individually can actively change one’s own awareness/education and use it to work against systematic oppression by modifying behavior, etc. one can “break free” from circumstances by controlling what one does (or does not do) with one’s privilege.

    i don’t dismiss opinions just because they are from privileged people (and all brown students are in some ways privileged), and i don’t believe people are defined in some essentialist way by their privilege, but i definitely value informed opinions more. it is detrimental and counterproductive when incorrect ideas, often already unproven elsewhere, take up valuable space. it is not my job to always dispel myths whenever i come across them. that is an unfair burden and inefficient use of limited resources, and to expect it is a sign of a sense of privileged entitlement.

    you don’t have to be an expert to have an opinion, but you need to respect other voices and accept that you do not and should not always have the most authority in a conversation. if you don’t, why should you be welcome? you always have the “right” to your opinion regardless of your identity–you exercise that right all the time. but i have the right to question your opinion if i think it is uninformed, and the default level of information is sometimes shaped or influenced by your identity, privileged or not. i don’t blame you for that, but i do blame you if you let the lack of information continue, especially you express it without self-awareness of the issue.

    as for would-be supporters, if they were really genuine about the movement, they would examine call-outs without getting defensive. if the call-out is warranted, they should work to fix the offense. if not, move on. if it’s that easy to get discouraged from engagement, i am skeptical about the initial interest at all. true, generative listening sometimes requires just shutting up in the first place. this is not the same as dismissal.

    • KN

      i don’t “dismiss” any “opinion that goes against the grain, qualifies the question or challenges the conventional wisdom” merely because the speaker has privilege. but opinions/ideas/arguments are not of equal quality, and many times i rightfully disagree with a “challenging” opinion because it is very misinformed, which more often than not could have to do with the speaker’s privilege.

    • KN

      i don’t “dismiss” any “opinion that goes against the grain, qualifies the question or challenges the conventional wisdom” merely because the speaker has privilege. but opinions/ideas/arguments are not of equal quality, and many times i disagree with a “challenging” opinion because it is very misinformed. this more often than not could do with the speaker’s opinion.

      you can’t choose the privilege with which you were born. but it’s really not that hard to check it.

      • KN

        *this more often than not could do with the speaker’s privilege.

    • KN

      Privilege is luck that is usually invisible to its owner because it is bestowed by systemic institutions. And it is a variable that introduces undesirable bias into discussion if it is omitted, not accounted for.

    • EastAsianNationalist

      That’s just the theoretical framework of privilege, not how its usually applied in real life.

      Nearly every instance of privilege “calling out” I’ve witnessed has been a sort of accusation, an offensive rhetorical tactic meant to undermine the opponent’s credibility. If the person’s privilege did not actually cause you to judge them differently, then why not just argue the point directly?

      No, people have every right to be defensive when so much of “calling out” is intentionally offensive.

  • beta

    Wow it must be really hard to be a person with privilege when talking about oppression with members of marginalized groups. You’re really brave for speaking out on the silencing of privileged people, kudos.

  • moose

    Has the author ever looked into these subjects academically to know that a lot of this is not only inaccurate, but off topic and addressing an incorrect assumption made by the author himself? Well written, poorly thought up and poorly reasoned. Know that your “opinion” is not being dismissed because of your obviously blinding privilege, but because you are simply uninformed.

    • EastAsianNationalist

      Usually when these types accuse people of being uninformed, it’s later
      revealed that the supposed information held by the “enlightened”
      individual are little more than opinions and points of view that’s been
      formulated within their own social “justice” echo chambers.

  • zdrav

    The straight white male perspective is none of the following things: universal, neutral, and default.

    White guys have the right to voice their opinion on any matter they choose, but they should realize that their viewpoint is heavily influenced by their upbringing and status. No, it’s not just us people of color who are “special interests”.

    • BH

      They also have the right to voice their opinion on any matter they choose without getting devalued and dismissed for being straight white guys. There’s a lot of that here.

      • zdrav

        Yes, if there’s any demographic whose opinions and experiences we are far too ignorant of and dismissive of, it’s those of straight white men.

        Are you for real?

        • BH

          Quite. You’re a perfect example of my point. If the writer or I agreed with you, we’re fine; “aware of our privilege and all that. If we dare disagree, we’re just ignorant white dudes you feel morally superior to.

          • zdrav

            If you were a White dude who claimed that there wasn’t any racial discrimination in America anymore, then yes, you’d be displaying supreme ignorance and yes, your race and class probably played a big factor in gravely misinforming you about race relations in America.

          • BH

            Doesn’t have to be about race, or what the statement is. It’s anything- disagree with a liberal in general or minority in particular, and at minimum it’s “ignorant” “privileged” etc. After that it’s usually “Racist!”.

            Just because someone is less privileged doesn’t make them more correct.

          • zdrav

            Perhaps it’s because what you’re saying actually IS racist and saturated with selfish privilege.

            Why don’t you make a statement, and see if I react unthinkingly with an unwarranted “Racist!” claim. I’m pretty level-headed, so I won’t reflexively say that unless it’s blatantly obvious.

        • EastAsianNationalist

          Sounds accurate. Anything from straight white men are simply disregarded because of “racism”, while white liberals line up around the block to “sit down and shut up” when a black person is talking, no matter how unreasonable it may be. It’s quite the double standard these days.

          • zdrav

            I never realized that Bill Clinton was a gay Latina woman.

            Do you have ANY proof to backup your BS?

  • Lex

    I think a lot of these comments, while well-thought-out, are missing a little bit. I see the author not as saying that one’s background/status has little or no effect on one’s opinions/ideas. If he said that, he would be wrong. Instead, he is saying that background/status has an effect on EVERYONE’s opinions/ideas. Unfortunately, though, the system we operate in at Brown allows for people to express, as reason for someone being under-informed, their white male status in a way that you couldn’t if they were a white female, a non-white male, or whatever else. I think Brown shouldn’t have school on Rosh Hashanah. I largely think this because I’m Jewish. But nobody would ever dismiss my arguments by saying “You just think that as a product of your Jewish upbringing.” Occasionally I might deserve to hear that, because occasionally when my views are wrong, they are wrong because I’ve been brought up in a Jewish community. Same goes for skin-color minorities, sexuality minorities, etc.

  • raillan

    This is not an opinion so much as a Mr. Carty’s solipsism grasping for a lifeline. The BDH needs to stop publishing the tantrums of straight white dudes who find their straight white dudeness embattled.

    • EastAsianNationalist

      It’s like you didn’t even need to come up with a cogent argument.

  • Syen

    Very well written and argued. I want to say I support your position as a minority student myself, but that would be quite ironic…