Response to 'Identity Politics' : Opportunity and power lie in social context, not a vacuum of individual responsibility
The opinion piece “Take individual responsibility: Identity politics are not a real solution to social issues” contains a perspective that some Rice students share, but ignores the historical context of the social issues to which the author refers. The author interprets “identity politics” as a buzzword meant to divide. However, the term was meant to bring attention to groups historically ignored in major sociopolitical movements, in particular black women and other women of color.
The op-ed is a reflection on taking advantage of opportunity and working hard, values that we can all agree are important. It’s true that everyone carries their own baggage, and the author is right in that there’s no accurate way to compare hardships. But the piece conveniently omits the fact that opportunity does not exist equally for everyone in this country, and there are certain groups of people who have been and still are systematically denied opportunities to succeed.
It is necessary to differentiate between enduring personal hardships in one’s life and experiencing systemic disadvantage based on factors like race and social class, i.e., residential segregation, mass incarceration, differential access to healthcare and education, and gerrymandering and voting policies that continue to disenfranchise certain groups. Putting quotations around the word oppressed to imply that it’s trivial does not mean that it is.
The author’s idea that “the more ‘oppressed’ you are, the more your voice and interests matter” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to have a voice. If you are from a group that is systematically oppressed and you are speaking about the injustice you experience, then yes, your voice should matter because you are directly impacted by the issue. No one should be able to say that your experience of oppression is invalid, as the author suggests in his piece.
However, if you’re a member of a disadvantaged group and you’re addressing people who can actually combat the injustices you face, oftentimes your voice isn’t heard or is viewed as threatening to those in power. Just look at what happened at Standing Rock with the Dakota Access Pipeline. If the views of the people most impacted had actually been considered, construction wouldn’t have even begun.
We agree with the author that no one should buy into a victim mentality, but calling out oppression doesn’t necessarily mean victimizing oneself. Arguing that individuals ought to take more responsibility for their success is largely unproductive; this idea has been reinforced in all of us again and again. Perhaps a more constructive question we should be asking is, how do we provide the same opportunities for all members of our society? How do we create a true meritocracy, the world that the author describes? How do we turn what we consider privilege for some into a right for all? We probably won’t agree on the best way to get there, but we can start by talking about where we should be heading. Progress begins by listening to those who are trying to speak up instead of dismissing them as divisive.
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Companies should strive to go beyond “quotas” for underrepresented groups as their measure of diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion are reflected in how marginalized groups are treated by others, the opportunities available to these groups and the amount of respect given to a person’s voice. Even if a company has an equal demographic split, can they really say they are diverse or inclusive if select people experience bias or lack opportunities for success?