Checking Boxes: How opinion writing warped identity politics
First-person opinion writing has dominated British media in the last decade. Our departing Intersections Editor reflects on the impact this writing has had on identity politics in culture and in themselves
“How do you identify?” the editor asks me in an email. “I just want to know if this commission is appropriate to assign to you.”
“Well,” I reply. “As a person of colour, I suppose. LGBTQ+, I guess. I live in Scotland. I’m Irish.”
“Perfect!” she lets me know. “You check a lot of boxes.”
She assigns me a piece on East-Asian representation in cinema, a takedown of Ireland's abortion laws, a piece on the queer politics of a new television show. I’m tasked with convincing readers who are not East-Asian, or women, or Irish, or queer why these things should matter to them. I use my own life experience to do so, turning past grievances into morality lessons. Twenty-something years of existing suddenly becomes my weapon and my shield. I wield them with something that resembles authority. I write the pieces and many more like them. I mine my own history for trauma that I use to hook the reader. I spill my guts trying to rejuvenate pain into something relevant and something palatable.
These sorts of first-person, identity-led articles have become ubiquitous in British media. They come from the same good intentions as diversity hires; editors realising that they need more BIPOC+, LGBTQ+, female, working-class, young writers. Opinion writing is how many emerging journalists (myself included) get their start. Journalism and publishing are still industries dominated by white, middle-class men and therefore you quickly learn to play the game: what can you bring to stories that other people can’t? For me, it was the queer angle, the female angle, the Asian angle; these windows onto the world that bear no resemblance to how I actually experience life day-to-day. Instead they are flattened versions of myself that sell headlines, SEO and advertising.
Identity-based opinion writing tends to be formed around the same muddy amalgamation of content as the anti-racism book, a genre of non-fiction that has had an unprecedented rise in popularity in the last ten years, a rise that parallels the opinion piece's. Memoir and reportage rub up against each other in both forms, as writers draw connections between personal anecdote and fact. This can make for powerful writing, a way to personalise vague theoretical discourse or statistics. But it also conflates lived experience with expertise and individual perspective with insight into an entire sector of the population. One person cannot possibly stand-in for every single person they share one aspect of their identity with, and yet a culture of tokenistic representation and hiring practices has created this expectation. A marginalised background has become a desirable CV asset. Congratulations, you got the job and also the task of dismantling systemic oppression within our business!
Anti-racism books and identity-based articles about race are written for and sold to a white core audience. The writers of these books and articles are given the impossible task of perfectly distilling complex, sprawling ideas with loaded histories into a singular text that can act as a moral map for its readers. While excellent books and articles are undoubtedly produced by this process, so too is the homogenisation of identity.
And this kind of writing feels good to write. Banging out 800 words on how racism is bad is a cheap high. Turning your trauma into the day’s most-read article is cathartic, especially for those whose identity has been weaponised against them in the past. Being in control of the weapon – your body, your history, what has been done to you, what will be done to you – even just for the four minutes it takes for a reader to skim-read your article, feels powerful. But that power is a mirage that fades quickly when you get your fee and capitalism gets your pain.
Despite the glossy optics of representation, we are light years away from systemic change that would bring true justice to populations marginalised in our societies. While speaking in a collective voice has radical roots – as well as the potential to return in a radical form – these marginalised groups are now often represented in the media through individual expressions of identity. On a political level, what do these texts achieve other than personal gain? As someone who has spent years constructing, deconstructing and performing perceptions of their identity by writing for the other, I would suggest that there is little personal gain achieved through this act of self-flagellation.
Identity is a trapdoor. Let other people turn it against you and you lose. Lean into it, use it, make money from it, build a career on it and you lose. While I stopped churning out these identity-framed opinion articles, I still write about the aspects of myself that for one editor checked boxes. Writers should not be forced to strip their work of their identity – despite many being encouraged to do so to move beyond identity politics into 'serious' writing – but we deserve to be more than checkboxes for the sake of being checkboxes. Throw down weaponised identity, pull down the mask and let the illusion of power slip away. Who are you without your signifers? Who have you always been?
Katie Goh is a journalist, author, and The Skinny's outgoing Intersections Editor. Her first book, The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters, is out now via 404 Ink