Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, maybe in the middle of some stupid argument with a stranger on the internet, the thought briefly crosses my mind: I should just say that whoever is currently driving me up the wall is racist. Or sexist. Or, myself being a non-white woman, a combination of the two.
This is a joke, obviously, but the more and more I jest about it, I admit, the more tempting the possibility to do so becomes — especially because it often works in declawing your target almost immediately. In the right room, with the right audience, one utterance of, “As a woman of color, if you criticize me, you’re a bigot” will make many well-meaning, white guilt-feeling, Obama-voting liberals clam up, suddenly aware that their image as well-meaning, white guilt-feeling, Obama-voting liberals within circles of similarly well-meaning, white guilt-feeling, Obama-voting liberals is at risk. So those with greater senses of decorum (or at least guilt) deflect, or de-escalate, or quickly concede defeat. For people of marginalized identities who are shrewd enough to play this hand, it’s a second- or third-tier superpower.
In the long arc of the mostly moral universe, we have arrived at this uncomfortable midpoint where liberation — from racism, from sexism, from other ingrained and systemic forms of linked oppression — is still a distant dream, but the language and gestures of social justice are more mainstream than ever. People (or at least the aforementioned well-meaning, white guilt-feeling, Obama-voting liberals) talk about “privilege” and “inclusion.” Prompted by incidents of real violence and injustice, they assuage themselves by buying books recommended on anti-racist reading lists. They spend their weekends marching in the streets for various causes, side-eyeing the people who go out to brunch, despite the fact that that will likely be them nibbling on eggs benedicts and sipping on mimosas on future Sunday mornings.
It is within such a dissonant environment that the invocation of identity itself is one of the few weapons that people of marginalized identities can claim in their arsenal, by dint of their very marginalization. In the hands of people who are both marginalized and disingenuous, identity has been stripped of meaning and transformed into a rhetorical cudgel, alternately used to silence detractors and assume a kind of moral posture. I call this “Identity Fraud”: a knowing misuse of identity that primarily benefits those brazen enough to wield this maneuver.
Some might refer to this as pulling the race card or any other variation thereof. But such a term has become antiquated, co-opted and tainted by conservatives and those reacting negatively to what they see as excessive “wokeness” in contemporary discourse. My viewpoints do not align with theirs; rather, I would argue that it is to the detriment of left, progressive movements that a bad-faith weaponization of identity has saturated the fount of sociocultural dynamics. The danger of what I’m talking about lies not with the ideas behind brandishing identity — that it is meaningful, and that people of marginalized identities as a whole continue to suffer from inequities — so much as how inadequately this cynical rhetorical strategy addresses those fundamental problems in favor of shallow optics, cheap distractions, and personal gain. And in doing so, it risks adverse ramifications, too.
In the hands of people who are both marginalized and disingenuous, identity has been stripped of meaning and transformed into a rhetorical cudgel.
You can witness Identity Fraud happening most often in spaces that operate primarily in the attention economy, which is also what this rhetorical strategy is predicated on: optics over substance, awareness equated to action, the loudest people in the room drowning out others who can’t match their volume. Let’s take, for instance, the media industry, which like many other fields, is undeniably, frustratingly white. When this very website relaunched with a letter that listed all its editors and writers, I saw onlookers — some of them my own peers in non-white spaces — condemn the venture as yet another vanity media project with zero people of color. When those claims failed basic fact checking, the critics changed their complaints to say that there were no Black people employed by the site. When those allegations were shown to be untrue, our critics amended their grievances once again, this time to declare that clearly the non-white people involved had no real power, and besides which, it was actually pretty rude of the white employees who corrected them to embarrass them by doing so?
What are we asking for when we say there aren’t enough people of color in a place of cultural power and influence? Where I would have once staked my ambition on becoming one of the few diversity hires (😉) atop a masthead, or joining the few accomplished names winning prestigious awards, I now see that so much of how I and others talk about diversity, inclusion, and progress in this context is rooted in barely couched professional self-interest rather than a real commitment to upending the insular elitism that defines so much of how this industry works. There are newsroom leaders, like disgraced Ozy CEO Carlos Watson — and plenty more, I promise you that — who make diversity essential to their image to mask ineptitude, dishonesty, or mistreatment of employees. It’s hard not to feel that much of the endeavor, while perhaps worthwhile in some regards, ultimately rings hollow.
There are countless other examples of how identity is used as a shield and a tool. Some of them date back decades; it was 30 years ago that Clarence Thomas, accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, called the hearings against him “a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” There are still more these days: Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, regularly panned for how she has handled protesters and the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old by a police officer, dismissed “99 percent” of the criticism as motivated by her race and gender. Bill Cosby, upon being freed from prison after his sexual assault conviction was overturned this year, called the decision “justice for Black America.” Residents of San Francisco’s Japantown argued that they were being marginalized in their attempt to block the conversion of an area luxury hotel into housing for homeless people, citing the sacrifices of their “ancestors [who] rebuilt Japantown after returning from their unjust incarceration during WWII.” The pride that Alejandro Mayorkas — who this year became the first immigrant and first Latino to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — has said he feels in his identity cannot erase how his role in policing the country’s borders perpetuates violence against fellow immigrants.
But even more common and overwhelming are the instances that can be found online, especially on social media platforms like Twitter, where the lexicon and behaviors of progressivism are modeled, disseminated, and distorted by journalists, activists, fauxtivists, politicians, entrepreneurs, academics, screenwriters, celebrities, fans, teens, shitposters, and all the other kinds of people awash in the discourse froth at any given moment. It is a place for one-uppance and clout building, not nuance or good faith. There, identity somehow gets called up to bat in scenarios as absurd as accusing anyone who doesn’t like the second season of Ted Lasso racist and/or sexist, or Taylor Swift calling a Netflix show “degrading to hard working women” for having a canonically teenaged and frankly bratty character make a crack about Swift’s dating history.
Something that seems difficult for people to acknowledge these days is that people of ostensibly marginalized identities aren’t immune from being opportunists and hacks. In fact, it would be prejudiced to suggest otherwise.
To better understand Identity Fraud and how it functions today in a racialized world, it is helpful to remember the allegory of the girlboss. Girlbosses, of course, were those typically white, female CEOs who built brands off of empowered corporate feminism while privately and hypocritically eschewing the values of parity (or at least basic ethical labor practices). Their downfalls were — and still are — often accompanied by appalled commentary from venture capitalists who believe that those women were victims of sexism. But in culture writ large, it is generally understood that these women capitalized on their gender and the veneer of feminism to try to deflect criticism while fast-tracking their entry into an elite club of primarily white, male, wealthy founders and entrepreneurs. They girlbossed too close to the sun; by now, they have become something of a joke, one third of the mocking refrain “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss.”
The invocation of racial identity, however, is still an uncomfortable topic to broach, in part because unspoken norms dictate who gets to broach it in the first place. So much of how we talk about race is predicated on “lived experience”: that tacit permission to speak on a topic from a place of supposed authority and authenticity, as philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò writes in his seminal essay about “being-in-the-room privilege” and standpoint epistemology. In “elite” spaces that, through power and influence, have greater social implications and impact — “the Situation Room, the newsroom, the bargaining table, the conference room,” Táíwò lists — care is increasingly taken to cede the floor to those whose identities are assumed to correspond to the topic at hand.
Standpoint epistemology — the theory that knowledge is socially situated, and thus those in marginalized positions are better able to offer knowledge related to their marginalization in society — is a fine and reasonable premise in and of itself. But in practice, as Táíwò describes, this call to center those who are assumed to be the most marginalized in an elite room often does not mean speaking to people who are impoverished or refugees or incarcerated; instead, it looks more like “handing conversational authority and attentional goods to those who most snugly fit into the social categories associated with these ills — regardless of what they actually do or do not know, or what they have or have not personally experienced.”
As a result, people who are already advantaged enough to be present in the elite space are treated as representatives of all those with whom they share one aspect of identity, no matter how fine that common thread, and regardless of how vastly their experiences may differ from the most marginalized. This is, more or less, representation politics in a nutshell: “the assumption that all members of the community possess the same interests, and that representatives are therefore immediate embodiments of this collective will,” historian Salar Mohandesi writes for Viewpoint Magazine, pointing to how the over-personalization of politics led to identity becoming a “political project in itself” rather than merely a smaller part of a larger political project.
So, naturally, powerful and wealthy figures like Oprah, Beyoncé, and Michelle Obama are turned to for “insights into the experiences of Black women,” as the scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes for the New Yorker. An Ivy League-educated grandson of white-collar Chinese immigrants, for instance, might be presumed to be able to speak most directly about the plight of underpaid Fuzhounese restaurant workers, or undocumented Filipino immigrants, or deported Korean adoptees. Someone like me, a person with a relative abundance of privilege and platform, is presented with the opportunity to become the face of Asian Americans.
In a year of anti-Asian attacks, including the Atlanta shooting that killed six Asian women, I somehow — because of some stuff I wrote — became a candidate to join a pundit class who increase their profile by speaking on all manner of capital-“I” issues. My words, which were the spontaneous outpouring of grief and emotion, were turned into Instagram posts and stories that strangers tagged me in. Old classmates contacted me to say they had seen what I had written in one Asian-American pocket of the internet or another. I received an email inviting me to be featured in a telecommunications conglomerate’s video series about “emerging change-makers,” in an episode about Asian American history and discrimination.
I became aware, suddenly, of the cottage industry of professional commenters whose personal brands are built on their communities’ pains and joys, on acting as a sort of palatable interpreter for an external audience. These professionals may include entertainers, writers, and CEOs, but are rarely poor immigrants, rarely the longtime Chinatown residents who face poverty and displacement. Those kinds of Asians suffer while their “lived experience” representatives’ futures glitter.
I only sort of begrudge those pundits, however well meaning (although who knows, maybe I’ll become one yet). But what vexes me more is that this understanding of identity and representation — whether through the arbitrary replacement of Sally Rooney with a “Sally Parez or Sally Wong” (as one Asian-Australian writer called for), or the ascension of any person of marginalized identity into a position of power (no matter how compromised) — is celebrated as a collective political triumph, rather than what it most often is: individual, symbolic, or even actively harmful.
In this way, identity politics as it’s understood today is utterly individualist, as the writer Asad Haider points out in his book Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. This is a departure from “its initial form as a theorization of a revolutionary political practice” — by which Haider is referring to the original concept of identity politics coined by the Combahee River Collective (C.R.C.) in a 1977 statement. The C.R.C., composed of Black feminist lesbian socialists, was born of disillusionment with other liberation movements that they found to be neither sufficiently anti-racist (white feminism) nor anti-sexist and anti-homophobic (the predominantly male Black nationalist and white leftist movements) for their intersection of identities. The group’s conceptualization of identity politics was, more or less, the belief that “Black women — and all oppressed people — had the right to form their own political agendas,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, speaking with C.R.C. cofounder Barbara Smith, writes in the New Yorker.
This was a radical notion at the time, especially in its focus on Black women’s struggles at the bottom of the social hierarchy, ground down by interlocked systems of oppression. But asserting a marginalized person’s crucial right to articulate their own political agenda did not mean siloing disparate groups by identity or ruling that “only those who suffered a particular oppression could fight against it or even comment on it,” per Taylor. The C.R.C. was, above all, a solidarity coalition that aimed to bring together those who suffered under capitalism, imperialism, and the patriarchy: an alliance of race, class, gender, and sexuality. What made the C.R.C.’s conception so revolutionary half a century ago was its focus on those at the bottom of the pecking order — poor, Black women with little socioeconomic mobility — rather than those who sat atop the pyramid of representation. Identity politics as it is commonly understood today — individualist, tied to shallow ideas of representation and authenticity — is far from the radical imagination of the past.
In practice, contemporary identity politics has been overtaken by a fetishization of optics at the expense of the tangible interests of the most marginalized.
That is partly what is so aggravating and even noxious about how contemporary identity politics is wielded: in practice, the concept has been overtaken by a fetishization of optics at the expense of the tangible interests of the most marginalized. Táíwò calls this “elite capture”: “the control over political agendas and resources by a group’s most advantaged people.” How much oxygen is taken up by calls for inclusion in big-budget movies, high-society events, and (forgive me) federal spy agencies? How much of this is mere distraction from the prospect of breaking free from those elite ideals, or efforts to materially improve the lives of people — many, many of them “of color” — who have inadequate healthcare, are exploited by their employers, are deported in precarious conditions, or otherwise suffer under the apparatuses that are fundamentally contingent upon continued division and hierarchization?
Some might hope that all this attention and awareness will provide a halo effect for all the other concerns that fall under any marginalized group’s umbrella: a blockbuster starring an Asian American superhero will force others to see Asians as heroes, which will force them to see Asians as humans, which will… prevent xenophobic violence and deaths? More and more, I am convinced that such a conceptual reach is, in Táíwò’s words, little more than “a racial Reaganomics: a strategy reliant on fantasies about the exchange rate between the attention economy and the material economy.” There is of course capacity for a plurality of thought, for people to care about multiple issues at once, but I find myself skeptical of the persistent optimism about cultural trickle-down theory. Sure, all of this may be technically possible, but how much faith are you willing to put in it?
I should clarify: I think marginalized people should condemn bias and bigotry. I am also of the opinion that there is a vocal contingent on the left that could certainly stand to believe a little more in identity as a real factor in how people navigate the world. (Funnily enough, it seems that much on that front has still not changed from the days when the C.R.C. splintered off into its own movement.)
Nor do I automatically discount the possibility that being able to weaponize identity should be considered a matter of reparations, or at least karmic justice, since actual reparations and/or justice and/or the dismantling of oppressive social structures do not seem to be in the imminent future. Certainly, there’s a part of me that believes that more marginalized people should be able to cash in and get their movies and book deals and board seats, or make a livelihood from convincing executives to pay them thousands or millions of dollars to restructure their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion trainings or whatever. In my heart of hearts, I may think it’s kind of a grift, but so what? Get that bread, etc.
But what are the dangers of sustaining this machination? Besides just being intellectually dishonest — boo hoo, who gives a fuck, one might very rationally retort — I fear the corrosive effects of such a cynical wielding of identity: the backlash against (or at least growing impatience with) any critical discussion of racial dynamics in this country; the shrinking possibility of collective solidarity across lines of identity and class, and with it, the hope for more radical change; the reduction of what is certainly not a simple issue into an either-or binary.
On that last point, journalist Jay Caspian Kang writes in the New York Times, “The range of possible solutions to the problem of inequality have drifted together and consolidated themselves.” He proffers as a case study the Louisville Project, an early aughts debate experiment at the University of Louisville that transformed high school and collegiate policy debate by honing in on debaters’ “identity advantages” in order to reroute arguments about broader theoretical problems into discussions about the personal effects of racism and oppression.
The project, pioneered by debate coach Ede Warner, undisputedly achieved its mission of disrupting the hegemony that elite institutions held over debate; a gay, Black team from Emporia State University, a public university with an 80 percent acceptance rate, won national debate titles using an identity-first approach in 2013. But, as Kang writes, it was also a portent of how discussions of race and inequality are now mediated through a process he calls “binary consensus building,” which forces people “into a type of acquiescence to whatever solution gets placed in front of them” in a field of scant options: black or white, A or B, one or the other. If you favor diversity, you will seek to eliminate standardized testing, Kang provides as a policymaking example. If you oppose inequality, you will vote for the identity-first debate team. The inverse must then also be true: If you do not defer to identity, you must be against equality.
This forced-binary consensus is a reductionist way of thinking, of engaging with the world and each other. It’s also one that, I think, is too easily co-opted by self-serving parties: not just my fellow brethren just looking to score some easy points here or there, but also the prominent non-white figures on the right who can just as nimbly hijack identity, enabled by the bad faith that is built into the foundations of Identity Fraud. Even white people, I have found, are starting to reflexively wave this rhetorical cudgel, too; in fights with other ostensibly well-meaning, white guilt-feeling, Obama-voting liberals, unable to win the argument on their own merits, they might whip out an accusation of not being a good enough ally to “BIPOC” while pretending not to see how they trot us out for their own polemic convenience. Consider, for instance, the film Malcolm & Marie, which takes this one step further by using a Black character (played by John David Washington) to voice the white filmmaker Sam Levinson’s frustrations with white critics. That’s just shameless.
So what are we to do about this? There is no simple solution, I’m afraid. Calling out instances of Identity Fraud in the wild so easily becomes a trap, as what separates use of identity and misuse of identity — which is what distinguishes my theory — comes down to intent. Maybe the person crying foul on an innocuous incident really does feel that they have been targeted because of their identity. Maybe they actually were targeted because of their identity; it wouldn’t be the first time. But maybe they were not, and maybe they know it, but maybe they will never admit it. That is what is so tricky about intent; it is nearly impossible for another person to divine.
For that reason, the burden lies upon each individual who is capable of committing Identity Fraud to peer within and ask themselves: “Is whatever that’s happening actually bigoted? Or am I merely reaching for a foolproof way to disarm someone who is saying something that I don’t like? Does using my identity in this way only enrich me, personally? Or is it for the collective, for the culture, for the people who are not in this elite room with me? Ultimately, am I lying to myself?” I think they’ll find that the answer comes quickly.
It is not without some reluctance that I, having asked myself these very questions, am thus forced to relinquish my running joke-turned-reflex of calling others racist and/or sexist when I have little else of substance to declare. In a world of unfairness, it is perhaps unspeakably cruel to implore those of us who are already marginalized by oppressive social structures to relinquish one of the few rhetorical advantages that said oppressive social structures produced. I don’t pretend that it will be easy or even fair. But then again, the arc of progress rarely is.
In the meantime, though, we could all do with some more self-reflection — and if you really get stuck, give me a call. I’ll be happy to lend my “WOC” expertise on identity issues for a very reasonable consulting fee.