What is Identity

Ophelia Benson


Politics on the Left has been roiled for decades by questions about identity. Many thinkers and activists have criticized the turn to identity politics from the good old days of solidarity and labor struggles (for instance, Todd Gitlin in The Twilight of Common Dreams). An obvious response to that criticism is that labor struggles haven’t always done a brilliant job of including women and nonwhite people, to put it mildly. Critics call this “identity politics" in a pejorative sense; fans call it “intersectionality." The idea is that there is more than one axis on which to lack privilege, and social justice requires taking all of them into account. One word for these multiple axes is identity—woman or man, black or white, same-sex oriented or other-sex oriented.

But what does identity mean? What are we talking about when we use the word? It’s clear enough if it means those large categories (race, sex, sexual orientation) and maybe some others (nationality, ethnic background, class), but it doesn’t always mean that, and it isn’t always clear enough.

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