Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World


Written by: on September 30, 2023

In college my grades were directly dependent on how I performed relative to my peers. There were classes where I would routinely score in the 50s out of 100 and end up with the same “B” letter grade as a class where I scored 96 out of 100. And in some ways, it made sense. Educational institutions, even for those serving younger students, seem to be built on a foundation of competition. In the U.S., social institutions in general can tend to be competitive, from our labor markets, to our higher education admissions processes, and even the fabric of our country, our democratic elections.[1] This competitive nature has simply become our understanding of the world. I don’t think of my successes as depriving others of something. And yet, in some ways it does. If I score highly on a test, that means others’ relative score gets pushed down. If I beat out a group to secure a job, I have a salary and healthcare that they possibly also needed for themselves and their family. And in the political sphere especially, if the candidate I was hoping for won I don’t necessarily see it as a loss for the other close to 50% of the population.

In his book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama explores how our competitive society, with our needs for individual recognition, can be held in tension with and balanced with a need for social solidarity. Specifically, he explores the role of identity in that tension.[2]

It’s curious that when we think about the phrase “identity politics” we associate it with negative feelings. The phrase was first coined by Barbara Smith, a Black feminist, and the Combahee River collective in 1974[3]. “Identity politics” was supposed to be a more profound because it would “come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”[4] Understanding differences in experience: racial, economic, gender, and other oppressions that bound experiences and influenced their lives would help ensure no one would be forgotten or left behind.[5]

That last part is key. It was meant to bring people along, not exclude. So what happened? Francis Fukuyama seemed to understand that there are forces at play that could turn the good that identity politics could do into a divisive and destructive tool.[6] I would argue that perhaps the competitive nature of our society’s basic structures and institutions have distorted the good in identity politics. Competition is in itself not inherently bad. Again, society is rife with what philosopher Waheed Hussain would call “rivalry-defining arrangements”.[7] These range from something as simple and trivial as a tennis match to my aforementioned grading system. The problem begins when the stakes are no longer trivial and include essential goods and services[8], and it seems in Fukuyama’s mind, one’s dignity.[9] Somehow, politics doesn’t just mean one candidate is chosen along with their respective monetary, foreign, and whatever policy anymore. The goods and services that people need along with tenants core to their dignity and identity are seemingly threatened. Instead of bringing everyone along then, identity politics actively excludes.

Fukuyama’s plea for the nation then resounds: how do we distinguish who we are, fight for the ways in which we’ve been marginalized and oppressed and also maintain social unity in thinking of others? [10]

[1] Waheed Hussain, “Pitting People Against Each Other,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 48, no.1 (February 2020): 79-113, https://doi-org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/papa.12158

[2] Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020), 11.

[3] Alicia Garza, “Identity Politics: Friend or Foe?,” UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute, September 24, 2019, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/identity-politics-friend-or-foe.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Fukuyama, Identity, 16.

[7] Hussain, “Pitting People Against Each Other”.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Fukuyama, Identity, 39.

[10] Ibid, 244.

About the Author

Caleb Lu

12 responses to “Frenemies”

  1. Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

    Caleb, Thanks for your thought-provoking post. I really appreciate the information you brought in through your additional sources, especially the note that “identity politics” was introduced by Barbara Smith and was to “come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

    I’m struck by your ending question: “Fukuyama’s plea for the nation then resounds: how do we distinguish who we are, fight for the ways in which we’ve been marginalized and oppressed and also maintain social unity in thinking of others?” Such a big question. I does seem like there’s got to be an answer.

    So good to see you in Oxford!

    • Caleb Lu says:

      I certainly hope there’s an answer! I’ve loved being a part of this program with all of you because I think I see glimpses of what it looks like when we get together and interact.

  2. Kristy Newport says:

    Thank you for boldly leaving the reader with a question unanswered. You are trusting us to wrestle with the question.
    You end with:
    how do we distinguish who we are, fight for the ways in which we’ve been marginalized and oppressed and also maintain social unity in thinking of others?

    In your sphere of influence, are there ways you have found to integrate and respect differences?

    • Caleb Lu says:

      It’s so hard! If I’m being honest, I find myself either being way too aggressive with my words or almost completely avoiding differences.

      More recently, I find myself standing in the generational gap, trying to bridge older and younger members at my church and oddly at the churches I guest speak at from time to time. Much of my effort has been spent trying to be a better listener. I’ve been finding that listening isn’t as passive as I once thought as I can not only help people feel heard, but I can help them tell their stories better by asking good questions as I listen. As a result, I can help foster a better understanding. It’s definitely not a “solution” as it doesn’t really solve things immediately, but I’ve found it helps to build an environment where that question I pose at the end can be wrestled with together.

      thanks for the question!

  3. mm Chad McSwain says:

    Thank you for bringing Barbara Smith into the conversation. I must admit that my assumptions of identity politics are negative. I’m curious if you know of any positive examples of identity politics that might be helpful. It is always interesting to see the ways that a positive perspective can be hijacked to serve as a straw man for another position.

    • Caleb Lu says:

      Oh boy what a question! I’m not sure identity politics, the way it presents itself today, is totally helpful. Like I mention and I think Fukuyama hints at, the way people’s essential needs and dignity are being pitted against each other makes it hard.

      My unresearched opinion is that perhaps more recently, identity is coming out of political affiliation more so than politics being shaped by identity. If we can somehow get into the stories and experiences that shape why people politically identify the way they do, maybe we have more understanding for one another.

      One of my close family members, for example, is a healthcare provider and runs their own clinic. They are not a fan of medicaid and has created this image of people who qualify for medicaid as moochers (generalizing the feeling they give off) and doesn’t accept them at the office they run. There are exceptions though, like the son of a close friend. When my family member heard this person’s story and they “so and so’s son” rather than just a theoretical person out in the world, it changes how they’re viewed.

      Kind of a long-winded way of saying, I think we can use identity politics for good when we remember that there are real people with real experiences and stories behind all the policies that are being pushed for and fought over.

  4. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Caleb,
    Today I am crossing the great divide. I am reading Year 3 blogposts!

    We are currently working on Bebbington and Clarks’ Chapter 3, but was excited about reading Fukuyama’s book.

    With the Caleb “Fukuyama Trailer” I am seeing a glimmer of how political identities are clouding my immigration issue. This will bear further investigation. In line with this, I am remembering, (correctly or incorrectly), Simon Walker’s mention of affective tribalism.

    From CHATGPT….Affective tribalism refers to a phenomenon where individuals align themselves emotionally and psychologically with a particular group or tribe, often based on shared values, beliefs, or identities. This alignment can lead to a strong sense of belonging and loyalty to the group, as well as a tendency to view members of other groups with suspicion or hostility.

    Affective tribalism can manifest in various contexts, including politics, religion, sports, and social affiliations. In these contexts, individuals may become deeply attached to their group and exhibit a heightened emotional response to issues or events that affect the group, even to the point of ignoring or dismissing evidence or arguments that contradict their group’s views.

    This phenomenon can sometimes lead to polarization and division, as individuals may prioritize their group’s interests and identity over cooperation and understanding with those outside their group. It can also contribute to social and political conflicts when different tribes clash over competing interests and beliefs

    Shalom y’all!

    • Caleb Lu says:

      Love it! Appreciate seeing your name pop up here! I had a similar thought and am hoping to find some time to come and read some of your posts this semester.

  5. A great post as usual Caleb,
    I agree with what you said here; “That last part is key. It was meant to bring people along, not exclude.”
    Russell said it best with his CHATGPT tribalism definition.

  6. mm Becca Hald says:

    Caleb, great post. I am not sure where the answer lies to Fukuyama’s question, but I wonder if it starts with becoming less competitive. What happens when we stop trying to fight for a piece of the pie and start helping one another climb up the ladder? As you mentioned in the discussion on identity politics, “It was meant to bring people along, not exclude.”

  7. Alana Hayes says:

    Great post! I went down a Rabbit Hole when reading this book on Barbara Smith! She was a force!

    What was the most surprising revelation while reading this book for you!?

Leave a Reply