Representation is Not Identity Politics

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4 mins read
Graphic by Julie Frontera

Why did the Wonder Woman (2017) and Black Panther (2018) films make over $800M and $1.3B respectively? Because their protagonists weren’t just more white men.

A whole different group of audience members could see themselves being the hero, saving the world, behaving with honor. They had representation.

Representation was what I was looking for in the 2018 midterm elections in Michigan. I was not looking to build my own identity through the cult of personality or any other aspect of a candidate.

I know who I am. I wanted to see candidates who reflected me—hard-working, educated, outspoken, smart—elected to serve in the three highest elected positions in the state. And I have that now with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

“Identity politics”  was a term coined by conservatives to shame those of us who seek representation in our elected officials. It is a thinly-veiled attempt to tell us that all of our needs are adequately represented by the dominant culture, race, gender, and ethnicity of the United States.

The implication is that everyone’s experience, everyone’s identity, is basically the same. Everyone has the same advantages and disadvantages. Everyone has the same choices. Everyone can see the same kind of future. And everyone’s success or failure is their own (especially failure for minorities; especially success for cis white men).

Therefore, representation was repackaged as ‘identity politics’ which is akin to ‘political correctness’. It’s something that snowflakes need. It’s a crutch for those who can’t succeed on their own. It’s an excuse for backing and supporting candidates who aren’t the establishment candidates. And it’s packaged as a deeply flawed way to choose elected officials.

Wrong.

Americans, whether liberal or conservative, vote their values. Because those values are an intrinsic part of our identities created by our experiences, we look for candidates who share them. For example, as a child of teachers I value public education

Why wouldn’t we vote our values? Why wouldn’t we seek representation from the people who are literally there to make decisions for us, as our  proxy? And how could our own identities not influence the choices we make every day—from where we eat lunch to what tv shows we watch?

I do not vote for candidates who fulfill my idea of my identity. I vote for candidates who represent my values, my ideas, my experiences—without actually deriving my own identity from these people. I am separate and valuable on my own. But I appreciate people whose own identities share characteristics of mine.

The danger arises when voters appropriate the identity of their candidate as their own. Witness the rise of hate crimes since January 2017. The true “identity politics”  is not being able to separate yourself from a false idol whose values ultimately diminish your identity.

I can look to my Governor and tell my little girl that she can grow up to run a state someday. That’s representation.

I do not look to my President and presume that I too am above the law. That’s identity politics.


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