Yasmin Nair: ‘Critique on identity politics should be about power’

We need to criticize identity politics when it’s a tool to strengthen capitalism, but without ignoring how issues like racism, migration or gender play a role in how people are exploited. That’s what Yasmin Nair advocates for. Nair is a writer, academic and queer-activist living in Chicago. According to her the left needs to pay more attention to how several factors determine how economic inequality targets people.

  • © Jeroen Los © Jeroen Los

Hasna Ankal

17 June 2017
MO*medewerkers

Yasmin Nair denounces how a ‘small but loud part of the left’ fails to see how class in the United States today looks different than what it looked like in the 20’s. In her view the criticism of identity politics after the election of Donald Trump was partly due to a hostile attitude towards racial minorities held by ‘mostly white left men who publish a lot but do not know the world outside of their city’.

At the same time Nair often doesn’t agree with a identity politics of a different part of the left that is easily satisfied with calls for diversity. It was during her work as a queer-activist twenty years ago that she began to be more critical of identity politics. In that work, she rejected for instance the campaign for gay marriage in the United States Gay. According to her and her fellow activists, that campaign was, among other things, a distraction from the battle for universal health care in a country where for many people such care is only accessible through marrying someone who already has health insurance.

In a book called Against Equality, Nair refers to the old radical demands of the LGBT- and queer community: ‘AIDS activism in the 1980s called for universal health care, the demand for which has been abandoned by the gay mainstream in favor of the idea that gays should simply be given health care through marriage.’

In a conversation Nair tells about how she maintains this way of looking at identity when she thinks and writes about other issues linked with diversity. In the past year for example she was not enthusiastic when campaigners for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton emphasized that Clinton was a female candidate.

‘Many said we should have a woman in power. So I and some other authors responded with the call to look at Clinton as the wife of an ex-president who supported a some of his policies that had terrible consequences. I remind people of how she supported a welfare reform of which millions of people now feel the bad long-term consequences. Hillary Clinton also defended a migration policy that created the current large pool of ten to twelve million undocumented people in this country.’

‘The point of my critique of identity politics is that we must also look at power when we have women with power and that we have to look at what that power means.’

With this Nair alludes to how Bill Clinton had the explicit support of his wife when in 1996 he expanded the list of reasons for which migrants can be deported. It then became more difficult to apply for a residence status. According to Nair, these and other parts of the new legislation pushed more people to a status of illegality.

‘In these examples identity in politics is not simply bad because Hillary Clinton is a woman. The point of my critique of identity politics is that we must also look at power when we have women with power and that we have to look at what that power means. That’s why I contributed to the book False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, which extensively explores her campaign and her career as a politician.’

Power models

A tendency to be careless in looking at the identity of a marginalized group is something Nair also often sees in movement of activists, such as the movement for immigrants. ‘The message there shouldn’t be that we should always help pro-immigrant movements no matter what they do. We need to think about how even these movements end up replicating power paradigms. For example, I often emphasize how the focus on reuniting families is a problem. It’s a typical American focus, but it’s about family as an identity. This focus on family is counterproductive because it ignores immigration as an economic matter.’

‘This focus on family is counterproductive because it ignores immigration as an economic matter.’

But wasn’t it it a good thing to give a group of migrants a chance to stay by arguing they have family ties to the US? To this question Nair replies that the family reunification campaigns didn’t bring strong results. ‘The campaigns pointed to poor beautiful young people without documents who we should keep with us. With this, we only got Obama’s executive orders, but no legislation. The problem is that Trump can easily cancel these orders, which means we have nothing for a longer term. Some of the left have supported these campaigns without looking at potential long-term solutions to think about immigration.’

While Nair pleads for a critical look at identity, she is concerned with how in recent debates writers and academics point to identity politics as a reason for Trump’s victory. ‘In these discussions, I saw how the American habit of in some way blaming people of color if something goes wrong in politics. We saw this with white leftist people who said that Trump won because we neglected the white working class. But hereby they say two seriously problematic things, namely that the white working class is inherently racist and that we should ignore the situation of African Americans and other people of color. It shocks me when white leftist people, who should know much better, have no language or politics to articulate that Trump simply won because of a variety of very complicated factors.’

Nair is convinced that this is about a small group of leftist people, but she thinks this has too much influence on our discussions about identity. ‘In the US, people from this group often come from Brooklyn or wish they did and do not know or write about other parts of the US. But, with some exceptions, they publish many texts with a limited understanding of the complexity of class and identity. When they write about rural areas in the US, they do not seem to understand that today there are also many people of color and migrants who are also affected by the closure of large factories. In addition, you must see how racism is a part of how people are exploited by capitalism. If you do not look at all this, you get an analysis of identity politics that excludes people. To avoid this, a critique of identity politics must be about an analysis of power.’

Resistance

With the new and large group of refugees in the United States and especially in Europe, the task for the left to think in a different way about economic inequality is even more urgent, says Nair. ‘If Syrians flee from a country in which they belong to the middle or higher class, we can not describe their position in Europe as ‘privileged’. We must develop a complicated analysis of how class and migration work within the current crisis. It is our job as the left to see things like class, race, gender and migration as matters that are related and not as separate issues.’

‘Whiteness is an identity, but is also seen in the left as a natural and universal position.’

But Nair sees a resistance to this task in many analyzes. According to her this is partly due to the resistance to changes in the academic world that took place because of more diversity. ‘Many of the pleas for more attention to the so-called white working class are about whiteness. Whiteness is an identity, but is also seen in the left as a natural and universal position from which white men in particular can allow other groups to enter somewhere. Now that this position has become less self-evident, we see a racial animus among left-wing academics.’

The way Nair approaches identity doesn’t make her popular among either the fans of Hillary Clinton fans or those of Bernie Sanders. ‘But I do not follow a trajectory of popularity. I follow the trajectory of my politics. When my comrades and I criticized gay marriage, our work could hardly get published and we couldn’t organize anything at a university. But people are now seeing how gay marriage has made the demand for universal health care more difficult. Now everyone must marry for health care because everyone can get married. The left needs a better imagination to not repeat this kind of failure.’

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