Sunday, January 14, 2007

Identity Politricks

I've always loathed the pernicious trap of identity politics.

Ever since Sen. Barack Obama has been weighing a 2008 presidential run, I have become intensely aware of the possibility that the front-runners to be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee could be a white woman and a black man.

When this topic comes up in conversation, I am often met with well-meaning assurances about how well liked Obama is and how divisive Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is -- unspoken acknowledgments that I shouldn't worry because my guy is more popular, and each time I can't help wanting to shout: "But wait! I'm a woman, too!"


There is a sense, often reflected in the media, that black women are black first and women second and that our loyalties fall the same way. And while that is a gross simplification that makes the Berkeley feminist in me want to scream at the top of her lungs, the equally loud, equally Berkeley, race activist in me fights to keep her at bay because the reverse assumption is no better.

The alternative is to call myself a woman first and downplay my identity as a black American. Naturally, this is not the first time my dual identities have had to compete, but it is the first time they're duking it out on the political stage instead of in my own psyche. And the irony that something that should be causing me so much pride is responsible for this psychic conflict is not lost on me.


The answer is as simple as the question is stupid. Of course identity doesn't work like that. Women of color are not "women who happen to be racial minorities" and we're not "racial minorities who also happen to be female." We're women of color. And both of those identities inform our decisions, along with the many other identities we happen to embrace.

There are votes to be won by recognizing the simple truth that there is a community of women who are also concerned about race, and there is a community of blacks who are also concerned about gender. Dividing the issue so starkly will cost both of these candidates by forcing an artificial ranking of identities in which no one wants to engage.

This is a problem not only of the Democratic Party perhaps taking minority votes for granted at times, but also of a lazy media spoon-feeding the usual "vote for one of your own" tropes at minorities. This could also be applied to Christians who will only vote for straight white Christians, or men who vote only for men, and so forth. You don't hear much about the Jews or Muslims who voted for Christians, the men who voted for women, the straight people who voted for a gay candidate.

Perhaps we could just start being adults who vote for other adults, based on issues and perceptions of ability and integrity. That alone would change a hell of a lot in the political dynamic of this country, which seems to consist mostly of idiots telling screaming children what they want to hear.

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