Human are social animals. We constantly organizing into different groups, it is part of our innate nature.
The idea of identity politics has helped groups like African-Americans, woman and LGBT people work together for civil rights for their group as a whole. We now live in a world where the internet has created almost infinite opportunities for people to connect. One of the ways this has changed our culture is that many people can now find others “like” themselves far more easily. We also can be far more specific about what our “likes” are. We can now find others like us, in some may meaningful to us, from all around the world in the blink of an eye. If you knit, if you are vegan, if you ethnically half Irish/half Japanese or if you are a half Irish/half Japanese vegan knitter you can find others like you and be in regular touch with them. It can be an amazing source of support; you can now easily can reach out to people who can give you support and help you as you wrestle with your own sense of identity.
While this can be amazingly positive, it can also lull us into a false sense of trust, safety and security. As we form relationships in these kinds of groups we often assume that we have more in common with the people in these groups than we actually so. As I gay man, it can be wonderful, at times, to be with other LGBT people. I remember initially how amazing and affirming it felt to join gay groups, march in gay pride, etc., especially as I was first coming out. However, over time, I have come to realize that being queer not enough for me to decide to bring someone into my life in a meaningful way. Because I meet another gay person that doesn’t mean s/he is trustworthy, honest or would make a good friend or a good leader. I am fairly certain that woman, black people, Episcopalians and vegans have all probably learned the same lesson.
The older I get more I realize that my membership in these kinds of groups, LGBT, religious, social, etc can be wonderful and affirming, but are not without risks. Meeting others with whom I have some one thing or set of things in common doesn’t at all mean I have anything else in common with them. One fact about someone says nothing about them beyond that specific issue.
Taking this point even a little further, that false sense of security might lead me to believe that others in my “group” are good and honorable people. I can put my trust in someone in my group; I can feel comfortable giving my power over to that person, and trusting that s/he can be a leader for me. On the other side, it can also lead those hungry for power to use their membership in an affinity group manipulate fellow group members, abuse power and bring advantage to themselves at the expense of others in their group.
How often do we think that the person know from church must be a good person because they attend the same church we do? Do we think that someone in our own racial or ethnic group is a better person because they share an ethnic heritage with us? How many women might choose a woman lawyer and thinking she might be a better lawyer because she is a woman? Gay men like Roy Kohn and J. Edgar Hoover greedily gathered power and were major players in the ruthless persecution of other gay people. Phyllis Schlafly is a woman who spent a large part of her adult life working against feminist causes. African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas has ruled or argued against issues civil rights issues involving Black Americans over and over again. Your greatest enemy may someone who in some ways seems like your brother or a sister.
While I think the idea of affinity groups and identity politics have a place in our lives there are important cautions and real dangers. It is important watch ourselves in groups; to we make sure that our expectations of the types of relationships we form within our affinity groups are based in reality, not some fantasy of what SHOULD be true. We have to be careful not turn too much power over to our fellow group members. People who seek power and control come in all shapes and sizes. Your worse enemy may look like you, like the same things you like , may even have many of the same views as you and yet still may be using you and taking advantage of you.
Your greatest friends or allies people may be people very different from you. There amazing white anti-racists, loyal straight people hard working for LGBT justice causes and committed justice-seeking men who are ardent feminists.
Think outside the group…