Bian: The trouble with the ‘identity politics’ accusation

Andrea Bian, Opinion Editor

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about how the Medill faculty needs more women of color. I detailed how I wanted to learn from journalists whose experiences might more closely parallel mine if I enter the journalism industry. I had hoped to add to a broader conversation about how representation and diversity matters in academia.

I don’t think my column necessarily failed to do that. However, I received quite a bit of pushback regarding the column and its adherence to “identity politics.”

Here’s why I disagree, and why I think identity politics is an often incorrectly used accusation built on shaky logic.

The definition of identity politics, according to Merriam-Webster, is “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”

This definition, as it appears in the dictionary, describes a harmful version of identity politics. I do think that identity politics can often be used in a way that is divisive rather than inclusive. This version of identity politics — where people use their identities as a way to shut out other identities in pursuit of policy and ideas that benefit them — can be hurtful to the success of a larger group of people.

But the definition of identity politics is often conflated, as I saw in response to my column regarding the homogenous faculty population in Medill. Multiple people sent me messages and responses accusing me of using identity politics to support my desire for more women of color to be hired as Medill faculty members. I heard a response that I’ve heard countless times before when it comes to people standing up for people of their own identities: “Be above identity politics.”

I’d like to clarify that I did not mention that the current state of Medill faculty is subpar in any way — in fact, I specifically mentioned that the caliber of Medill faculty in terms of industry experience and knowledge is unparalleled. Medill is one of the top journalism schools in the nation, and I think because of that, diversity should be taken more seriously here.

I don’t think that identity politics, as it is officially defined, apply to the point I was trying to make in the column. When hiring faculty, I’m sure Medill has multiple priorities — first and foremost, hiring people who are qualified and can offer indispensable knowledge to Medill students. Diversity is not one of their priorities, or, at least, it appears not to be, given the largely homogenous makeup of the current faculty.

I also don’t think that the hiring of qualified faculty members and the hiring of diverse faculty members are mutually exclusive. There are countless women of color fit to be on Medill’s faculty. Saying that by hiring women of color, Medill would be undermining its commitment to having quality faculty members is not only untrue but represents a view that is profoundly racist.

The journalism industry, as it stands right now, is one that really doesn’t look anything like me. I am well aware of that, and I believe that in order to increase diversity, women of color need to see people who look like them teaching their classes. This premise isn’t only meant to further the success of people with my own identity without advancing the success of anyone else, quite the contrary. A more diverse newsroom benefits everyone. As I stated in my last column, a diverse newsroom helps staff diversify their coverage, bringing events and issues that affect more people to the forefront.

I don’t see how that is inherently negative, or how that idea would at all decrease the quality or integrity of the journalism industry.

Being told to “be above identity politics” is not only impossible, it’s demeaning. Interpreting a disregard for someone’s ethnic or cultural identity as a superior ability to “rise above” can only come from a place of privilege. I can’t be above so-called “identity politics,” because my identity affects me every day and will continue to affect me should I pursue journalism. Saying that I should simply rise above concerns about my identity has a similar connotation to “why can’t we all just get along?”, suggesting that people who want increased diversity in a certain industry or landscape are inherently bad at agreeing with other people.

If you can be above identity politics, that’s indicative of your privilege, not that you possess a certain skill that other people don’t. Identity politics, often used to describe a downfall of political issues relating to people of color, is no longer an issue specific to people of color. Thirty to 40 percent of white Americans identify with their whiteness in a politically meaningful way, according to Duke political science Prof. Ashley Jardina.

If white Americans now identify with whiteness in a way that affects their political views, how widespread is identity politics? How much does it affect the very people who claim to be unaffected by it?

Identity politics are inevitable if a community feels threatened. Harshly accusing people of color of relying on identity politics is a way to undermine their arguments. It’s a way to belittle people into silencing their concerns about diversity, and a way to silence them. I understand my purpose in speaking out about diversity concerns, and no accusation of “identity politics” will deter me from continuing to do so.

Andrea Bian is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at andreabian2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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