In this Mini-series Peer Support and Learning post, Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin, Peer Support Coordinator, discusses the place of identity politics in peer support at the University…
It can sometimes feel like an exhausted and relentless rhetoric that ‘identity politics’ are usurping how we interact with socio-political and popular culture. This is primarily clear in contemporary art criticism, as controversial documentary producer and art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, laid out in regard to the 2017 Turner Prize Nominations, the first all non-British, and ¾ Artists of Colour shortlist in the prize’s history. Januszczak tweeted:
“Identity issues” – is there a bleaker phrase in art? Artists, stop telling us about yourselves. Look up! #TurnerPrize #pious #worthy
Identity politics was also the subject of a Radio 4 documentary, by Iranian-American writer Sohrab Ahmari for the Art of Now series, entitled ‘Identity Crisis’; primarily arguing “that contemporary art is being stifled by an obsession with identity politics”. Both Januszczak’s interpretation of the Turner shortlist, and Ahmari’s radio documentary, approach the inclusion of identity in the specific context of contemporary to be an arduous, self-involved and regressive obstacle, standing in the way of critical and innovative work. They take an almost entirely negative viewpoint that referring to personal identity in the context of community and shared experience – and how we articulate and express these ideas – is inherently restrictive, reductive and, in its own way, discriminatory.
Although these examples are specific to a fine art context, they speak to a wider idea surrounding community groups and personal identity – and the role that they play together. The rhetoric understood by Januszczak and Ahmari here raises the question, ‘does the including of some automatically mean the exclusion of others?’ This argument looks at what it means to socially and politically organise groups of people, based around shared characteristics and aspects of identity, as opposed to interests or opinions in common.
When looking at student engagement in extracurricular groups and schemes, the ability to connect with other students that belong to similar identity-oriented communities to them is a considerable factor. At the Students’ Association, of the almost 300 societies open to all students, around 47 of them are to bring students together either personally from, or interested in, a certain country, area of the world, or cultural background. The demand, then, is clearly great, and they provide much needed spaces for students to convene with a shared cultural interest in a certain identity, both within and outside of the university context.
In Peer Learning and Support, there is just one identity-oriented scheme – LGBTQ+ Peer Mentoring – that matches new incoming students at the university with older year students in a mentoring dynamic. Both the mentor and the mentee belong to the LGBTQ+ community, with the fundamental understanding that lived experience can be one of the most powerful factors in supporting someone. The mentoring scheme involves students meeting up no more than 12 times across the academic year. The mentee receives guidance, support and an impartial listening ear, on a range of topics that can commonly affect those that are LGBTQ+; which can include coming out, experiencing homophobia or transphobia, gender identity and expression, and navigating a new city whilst LGBTQ+.
Circling back to the ideas shared by Januszczak and Ahmari respectively, all students involved in the LGBTQ+ Peer Mentoring scheme are also students that do still belong to a general university community. So, an argument could be made that questions the need for a separate and distinguished scheme for those students.
For example, a lesbian Biology student might access BioPALS, and the need to have a specifically carved out space for their sexuality and the experiences oriented around it could appear pointless. Further, a common argument is that this practice of different aspects of identity requiring different spaces contributes to the polarising and othering nature of separating minorities from more mainstream spaces. Is having a designated space for LGBTQ+ people fuelling the stigmas that that community already face? And further contributing the idea that they are not welcome into broader community spaces?
Counter to this, in the short time that LGBTQ+ Peer Mentoring has existed, the scheme reached LGBTQ+ students at undergraduate, masters and PhD levels, and has had a real, positive impact on the students involved. After the 2018/19 Semester 2, a mentee gave the following feedback:
The mentoring programme has helped me so much. I honestly don’t know how I would live without this. My mentor was the only person I could be vulnerable with and I have grown so much throughout this semester.
The key aspect here, that is a testament to the crucial nature of services like this scheme, is the ability – and in some regard, permission – to be vulnerable.
In the example demonstrated earlier, with a student engaging in both BioPALS and LGBTQ+ Peer Mentoring, both of these schemes are identity based – one supports academic identity and one supports sexuality, and both are as integral to a student’s university experience as each other, and fulfil equally as important roles. It is both restrictive and contrary to human nature to expect individuals to choose aspects of their interests or identities over others.
Ahmari, S., (2019). Identity Crisis. Art of Now, BBC Radio 4.