How To Be More Tolerant When Identity Politics Doesn’t Work For You
Recent progress has been made across issues of race, gender, sexuality and disability in the UK. Racist slurs which were once commonplace in the public arena are now taboo. New public buildings now have ramps installed. Gay marriage is legal. Asking for someone’s pronouns is becoming a more familiar concept.
But we still have a long way to go. Oppression remains. If you are different then you are seen as faulty. If you are faulty you are liable to receive abuse and face pressure to conform. Your needs will be disregarded. You are asked to change, rather than society making accommodations for your differences.
Resistance to this pressure to conform has often taken the shape of identity politics. This is when a particular minority group becomes conscious of itself and begins to self-advocate. This is an incredibly effective vehicle for change. From the civil rights movement to gay pride to disability awareness campaigns — members of identity groups have spoken with one loud voice. This has forced society to recognise its oppressive norms and make changes.
Identity politics doesn’t work for everyone
Despite the huge success of identity politics, two issues can arise:
- Some people feel threatened by the pace of change — often those struggling with their own self-acceptance.
- Formalising identities requires the creation of new ‘boxes’ to confine people within. The borders of these boxes will be somewhat arbitrary and ill-defined.
Some people may not feel that any particular label fits them. They might not feel at home in any of the current identities on offer.
But everyone suffers from norms about race, gender, sexuality and disability. For example, a man who is critical of identity politics may suffer from gender expectations which prevent him from being vulnerable.
Also, feeling alienated by identity politics is not a good reason to reject other people’s journeys in self-acceptance and self-advocacy.
So how can you be more accepting of yourself and others if identity politics doesn’t work for you?
Societal norms can be so insidious because they are not interested in our feelings. Rather than validate our real experiences they tell us what we ‘should’ feel or ‘should’ want. This can be incredibly distressing because when we are in pain or struggling we are dismissed. This dismissal may be administered by a parent or colleague, but it is very often self-administered by our own internal monologue.
Let’s say I often experience sensory overload in crowded places. I may be dismissive towards these emotions. I might say ‘oh, everyone finds crowded places overwhelming’ — with an implied ‘get over it!’. Someone may try and solve this with identity politics, informing me that I must be autistic and so it is understandable I find things hard. But I may feel resistant to this. After all, I’ve decided that what I experience is no different from the norm. And either way, it’s not worth ‘fussing’ over.
I want to recognise the validity of people’s desire to resist label-led discourse. It can be frustrating to be put in a box. That box may come with a lot of other associated meanings that don’t fit your unique experience.
Let’s instead experiment with a simple but kind response to my self-discovery. Rather than dismissing my experience of finding crowds overwhelming, I could try taking it seriously. Whether or not my sensory overload emotion is common or not — it is a real difficulty that I face. Whether or not it is because I’m autistic — it is a real difficulty that I face. Because my feelings are valid, I’m allowed to seek support for them. I owe myself patience and compassion, not dismissal.
Try asking yourself: am I truly honouring how I feel? When I find something difficult do I condemn that struggle or do I feel sympathy? Do I wonder how I could make my life easier or do I tell myself to ‘get on with it’?
And just as this applies to self-talk, it applies to speaking to others around you.
Ask yourself: am I truly honouring the feelings of others? When they find something difficult do I condemn them or do I feel sympathy? Do I wonder how I could make their life easier or do I tell them to ‘get on with it’?
Dismantling oppressive structures together
Self-acceptance has led numerous minority groups to become self-conscious and find their voices.
The great news is you don’t need to join an existing identity to benefit from this as well.
There will be a unique combination of things which make your life hard.
You can be your own club. Your own identity. Feel emboldened to speak up when you experience society dismissing your emotions.
And do the same for others. Validate their feelings, rather than dismissing them. An emotion can’t be right or wrong, it’s just a feeling. If someone says that a particular identity is helpful for them, experiment with believing them and explore how that insight can make you kinder towards them.
In this way, we can all be more open and work together to dismantle oppressive power structures — whether or not we want to use the vehicle of identity politics.