Group Identity Essentialism

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Steven J. Lawrence:

" group identity essentialism, which is an umbrella category that includes racial essentialism, gender essentialism, and other categories of essentialism related to group identities. Group identity essentialism is a term I’ve taken to use over the past few years because of a pattern of behaviors I have observed in social justice activist circles and both far left and far right social media environments where group identity theories are fundamental to the culture. To my knowledge, the term “group identity essentialism” has not yet come into vogue, but I hope it will spread soon because I think this term can be useful in naming a widespread problem that has been exacerbating the large scale cultural conflicts and inter-group hostilities that have deepened since the beginning of the 2010’s when the rhetoric of the “culture wars” began to rapidly escalate far beyond the levels they had ever been at before." (


Steven J. Lawrence:

"Group Identity Essentialism is not the same as Identity Politics Group identity essentialism is the belief that because we can place individuals who belong to certain groups into fixed categories—we can be assured that we can know another individual’s inner life, desires, needs, beliefs, and moral character simply because the individual belongs to the demographic group that we have organized inside those categorization schemes. It is the belief that we can presume (often negative) character traits to exist in these individuals in accordance with our ideology’s literature.

This is not the same thing as identity politics, which involves a group of individuals coming together in the spirit of positive collective identity to share their lived experiences and to advocate positive social change on behalf of their identity group. Collective action on the behalf of one’s own group (especially if that group has been actively oppressed) is powerful and moral, so it’s important to draw a clear distinctive line between the positive and much-needed civic activity of identity politics and group identity essentialism.

Identity politics is a term that was coined by Barbara Smith and other members of the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977 to encourage international “political movements to understand inequality as a structural and intersectional phenomenon which affects oppressed groups differently”.

To put it simply, identity politics is a good thing and needs to be recognized and supported.

Much positive change has occurred because of the hard and courageous work of people from marginalized and oppressed groups who came together to advocate for themselves and their fellow group members. There is no question that their shared lived experiences, the uniqueness of the oppression faced by certain groups, and the necessity of building group solidarity and collective power has made the world a better place. Over the past few decades, support for gender equality, recognition of transgender identities, and acceptance of same-sex marriage have increased in some regions. In addition, there has been a marked decrease in racist attitudes among the younger generations of America, with sixteen countries reporting a decrease in racism in a global survey as recently as 2014.

But, there has been a troubling shift that those who wish for societal progress need to be honest about.

We are entering an era in which the identities of both historically marginalized and oppressed groups and those who belong to groups that have been deemed to be normative, privileged or oppressive are being fossilized and positioned against one another. In other words, we are entering an era in which group identity essentialism is becoming widespread and formally legitimized on all sides. This should be greatly concerning for us all.

The stereotyping of entire groups of people has been around for a long time. From Cotton Mather’s widely circulated writings that promoted the belief that Black people had to develop “white souls” in order to gain “Christian” redemption; the age-old trope of the supposedly preternatural greed of the “shifty Jew”; the near timeless treatment of women as property throughout history the world over; today’s fashionable condemnation of “wypipo” as intrinsically wired to exploit and oppress people from other identity groups; and the equally fashionable contempt for men who are stereotyped as “taking up space,” as naturally prone to condescend to women (mansplaining), uniquely given to offering organized online arguments (manthreading) and as reflexively hard-wired to engage in sexual domination and, thus, requiring a program of pre-emptive training and intervention in their younger years.

Stated frankly, resentment-based or supremacist ideologies have always made themselves available to what Eric Hoffer called the “True Believer”—those whose moral zealotry often masks the underlying ego triumphalism and need for domination that usurps and undermines the high-minded ideals that originally drew them to “the cause” or “the movement”. In the best of scenarios, we can reasonably hope that chaos and violence will not be the outcome when the adoption of extreme belief systems reaches critical mass. And, perhaps we can also rely on the belief that the rule of law, social norms based on human decency, and the legal (and armed) protection of a populace that is relatively non-traumatized by war, poverty and disease will not allow wide-scale chaos, disorder and political violence to happen. But, if history is a guide, it would serve us well to keep in mind how fragile our sense of safety, moral order and societal stability really is.

For all these reasons, it’s important that we question the frameworks and ideologies that we are being asked to adopt uncritically and to put into practice in our schools, governmental organizations and workplaces. If we truly want the world to be a better place, we will need to understand that us-against-them ideologies are deceptive and dangerous precisely because they offer a moral choice that ignores the full dimensionality of human experience and the possibility of badness in ourselves and goodness in our enemies. We must never forget how easy it is to justify the poisoning of our world through the spread of fashionable intellectual theories that give us the permission to indulge in our natural tendencies to shore up our own sense of superiority by dehumanizing and taking action against entire groups of people." (

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