by Jen Chau
At the annual cookie swap that my mom and I have in December (yesssss, I said cookie swap), her friends called me into the kitchen. Somehow, word had gotten out that I wasn't yet sure for whom I was voting. So here I was, standing in front of a group of about ten middle-class, middle-aged white women, all seemingly for Hillary. And they looked at me. "Soooooo, Jenny?! Who's it going to be? I mean, Hillary is your Wellesley sister after all!!!" Wow, trying to play the Wellesley card. Dirty and low. I took a deep breath, considered getting into it with them...but then decided not to, since my thinking wasn't yet fully formed. That, and at least 5 seriously arched eyebrows told me better. I said, "Ya knooooowwww, let's just enjoy the cookies, ok?" They let me off the hook, but I knew that this would be a tough one. A situation in which people were going to want to see whether I cared more about sexism or racism. After all, this is how people are looking at this race.
Well, a month later, I am happy to say that I have finally figured out who I am voting for! This is exciting because today is the NYC Primary! Hillary and Barack have provided quite the conundrum for a lot of us. See here, here, here, and here. Gender or race? Race or gender? Which is most important? By the looks of how we are talking about Hillary and Barack, it seems that this has become a battle of identity vs. identity. Man vs. woman. White vs. Black. Gender vs. Race.
I have been watching media coverage because I am very interested in how identity has been discussed in the context of this race so far. It seems that many people are particularly critical of the fact that it is being brought into the conversations at all ("Stick to the issues!"). But you know what? These conversations are critical to the race. When we talk about our Presidency, these are the issues too. The fact that sexism and racism feels like a tangent to some is troubling. These are two issues with which our country still struggles in important ways. The insertion of identity into this race is a good thing for a few reasons:
First, identity is critical to who the candidates are and what they bring to the table. I think that we should see the candidates for all that they are, because the way in which a person identifies naturally shapes their thinking as well. The danger comes in, I think, when people view Hillary as just a woman, and Barack as just a black man (literally assume that each individual identifies only as we see them). Clearly, if we don't really know them and all with which they identify, then we can't presume to even guess about all that they stand for. We shouldn't ever view anyone in such superficial terms. We can't just assume that Hillary will do the best for women because she is a woman, and that Barack will do right by people of color just because he is a black man. Now, even if you think that there is some truth to each of those assumptions in this case, can we at least agree that you can't always rely on this simplistic mode of thought? Just look at Ward Connerly and all he does to undermine people of color.
Second, the diverse identities of these two candidates is something that we have not seen in presidential candidates, and it has brought people into the discussion in unprecedented ways. We worry that the younger generations are disenfranchised, and as a result, this country has struggled to get our youth involved for years (see Rock the Vote, Vote or Die, etc.). For the first time, Generation Xers and Generation Yers can relate to the candidates. "They actually look like many of us for the first time," I have heard people say. And yes, on a very basic level, this is important to people. Anecdotally, I know that young people don't pay attention or try to get involved in politics because it very rarely reflects who they are. Politicians don't "look" like them, share their concerns, or feel like true advocates. The fact that younger generations of voters are looking at Hillary and Barack and feeling connected and inspired is a great thing. We need just this kind of boost to turn around this country's culture of political apathy.
Finally, the identity of the candidates is not only inspiring individuals to act, but it is putting gender and race up for discussion at the dinner table. Just saying this makes me sound like a glutton for punishment, right? :) I think most people try to avoid these issues with their family, but I have always tried to tackle them head-on (starting in high school). My family actually talked about the two candidates this weekend and it turned into a blow-out fight between me and my parents....leading my mom to send me this article yesterday, with the note: "it happens in the best of families." I should know better by now (race is a hot button issues in my family), but I really didn't see it coming this time, so I couldn't put to use my usual strategies (a lot of deep breaths). Confirming both of my other points, it was clear to me that at least a couple of my family members were choosing their candidate based on who they felt most aligned to -- along gender and racial lines. And although it didn't feel like the best conversation when we were having it (I was angry with the simple statements being made -- "As a woman, I feel that you should vote for Hillary"), I felt good about the fact that this presidential race was already forcing us to talk as a family about where we want this country to go, and who is most apt to get us there. Race and gender don't typically get talked about in open and honest ways in my family unless I initiate, so I would think that a similar thing is happening at dinner tables across the country.
Since the conversation is seemingly revolving around gender (Hillary) and race (Barack), you can imagine that people have asked me what I am going to do. What happens when you identify as both a woman and a person of color? Does this presidential race mean that you have to show your allegiance and decide which part of your identity is the most important at the end of the day? If you are nodding yes, come on! You haven't gotten my point. And then I am in yet another "pick one" situation where you are merely curious about whether gender trumps race or race trumps gender for me. This is all too reminiscent of the kinds of questions I get asked as a mixed woman (ex. "but which race do you most relate to?"). Well, we are not going to do that.
I'll tell you how I have made my decision. I have taken into account my values and my ideals, and what I think this country needs, and I am going to choose the best person for the job based on those priorities (I work in HR! I'm not just going to hire the woman or the person of color because I can identify with them...I am going to interview the hell out of everyone and then choose the most capable person! I have standards and criteria, come on). I think that it is condescending to women voters and voters of color to assume that they are going to make their election decisions by picking the person who looks most like them. Let's give people a bit more credit.
I am going to pick the person who can get our country out of this pit. The person who can rally its citizens to action, fight for all children to receive an outstanding education, create unity amongst our divided communities, and show strong leadership within this country and abroad (i.e. forging international partnerships vs. starting more conflict).
After the family debate, I don't foresee myself getting into any other debates on who is the better candidate. I am happy that people are getting pumped up about this race, and I will do everything I can to keep that momentum going, but I'm not really interested in trying to push people to one side or another at this point.
I just hope that everyone will get out there and exercise their (in many cases) hard-won right to vote! Get out there and do damage in the Primaries, people! No excuses. :)