The Dangers of Modern Day Identity Politics
By Mana Shimamura
Various media outlets touted the 2018 midterm election as the most diverse political field in our history. With representation from groups that have never had a seat in congress, it would seem the United States is becoming more equitable. However, amid the rhetoric that embraces our cultural differences, by emphasizing the minority status of the contenders’ ethnicity, people unwittingly reduce candidates to their races. To be perceived through that limited scope skews where voters’ allegiances should lie.
The dissonance manifests through interviews when candidates, who are people of color, are repeatedly asked about their specific lineage and their connection to it, or in articles that talk about how they will get the (insert their racial group here) vote.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris deals with this line of questioning and expectation in her political career. In an interview with the Washington Post earlier this year, she said when she first ran for office she had difficulty with the pressures to “define” herself in a way that was digestible for the public, a.k.a. by her race. It’s noticeable through her different engagements she prefers the conversation to not focus on her DNA. When asked, she often gives curt responses, tells interviewers to read her book if they are curious about her racial identity or simply changes the subject. With Harris announcing her bid for the 2020 democratic presidential nominee, questions about her heritage will likely be provoked once again.
In a country where the societal discourse promotes diversity, it seems fitting that people have pride in their racial background and anything deviating from that would warrant suspicion and scorn. In the same Washington Post article that interviewed Harris, members of the Indian-American community spoke about how they were delighted with Harris being more open about her “Indian-ness,” and how she should use her race to connect with potential voters.
But there is something problematic about this mindset. What it inherently suggests is that people of the same race will have the same desires, and therefore she should capitalize on her ethnicity. This currency that is given to culture in politics implicitly encourages people to vote on racial relatability rather than a candidate’s track record and legislative goals, while simultaneously sustaining the fallacy that people from similar groups always have the same experience beyond the political realm.
“Unfortunately, it seems like the climate in this country has shifted, and the value we place on culture has increased exponentially, and to not value it makes you a bad person,” says Diego Padilla, a concerned voter and Peralta student. He has attempted to bring awareness to individuals who might favor Harris due to her skin color and, contrary to the two Indian-American interviewees in The Washington Post article, Padilla disapproves of Harris as the democratic nominee because, during her time as a prosecutor, she marginalized members of the poor minority community.
Critics might argue that not acknowledging someone’s race would be equivalent to denying the impact race plays in our society, however these two items are not mutually exclusive nor are they fully comparable. Interviewers can avoid asking candidates about their specific lineage, while still inquiring about their plans to deal with the racial issues that saturate our society, questions every candidate should expect to be asked regardless of their genetic composition.
Circumventing the topic of a candidate’s race is not to say mentioning race, under any capacity, is in and of itself problematic. It’s about not confining people of color through the narrow lens of their lineage and ascribing them narratives they might not subscribe to or see as an integral part of who they are and ultimately defining them on their terms, not ours. Furthermore, and specifically in politics, it’s about understanding that an individual’s biology will not determine the policies they set.
None of us exist in a vacuum, and the habits we practice in our private lives transpose to what we allow in the political sphere. Common actions such as asking a stranger their ethnicity unsolicited or assuming someone must understand a phenomenon associated with the culture that mirrors their physical features can all perpetuate the authority we give to potentially inconsequential factors. Everyone has the responsibility to reexamine their day-to-day activity and see if they are participating in dialogues that continue this rhetoric.
Asking voters to ignore someone’s race does not imply race does not matter in all aspects, rather the point is to make sure that if they do take it into consideration, it is relevant to the topic at hand.
With the 2020 election campaign kicking off and other candidates joining Harris in their hopes to be the next president, voters across the country have to be able to distinguish between arbitrary and pertinent details that surround us every day in order to make a judicious decision.
At the top: Mural on the side of Wild Child Boutique in Oakland, Calif. Photo Credit: Mana Shimamura