Now's the time to celebrate the diverse country we've become and the individual struggles that got us here. Identity may not be political, but politics is always personal.
In the last few months I’ve had some heated political conversations with progressive friends about the upcoming midterm elections. Those discussions go something like this: The Clinton campaign made a mistake by playing “identity politics” in the 2016 presidential race, and Democrats will keep losing as long as they focus on issues like race and gender, playing on people’s feelings of marginalization. It’s divisive, they say, at a time when the left should be building bridges.
The Democrats made a stunning number of unforced errors in 2016, but celebrating the obvious — that their party looks far more like the America we actually live in than the America some in the GOP want to take us back to — wasn’t one of them.
The Democrats should be proud of that reality, not wary.
It’s not as if I wake up every day yearning to talk about being black and fighting racism. I’d rather my country overcome its racism so I can go about my other business.
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It’s not like members of the trans community love lobbying over bigoted bathroom legislation and workplace discrimination. They’d prefer to carry out their private lives in peace and freely pursue their careers like everybody else.
It’s not like the young Mexican-American immigrant I interviewed for my story about becoming a citizen last spring craves the attention that comes with sharing his story of finally feeling like he belongs here. He just wants to go vote — for the first time ever, now that he’s become naturalized — and happily take advantage of the rights and privileges he’s just been granted.
And it’s not as if the women I interviewed about their #MeToo experiences ache to relive traumatic moments of harassment and abuse at the hands of entitled and chauvinistic men. They just feel it’s important to point out that many women struggle because of problematic male attitudes and behavior, and the trivializing of their experiences.
We do tend to hear empathetic stories from the left about people’s journeys from hardship to redemption — in a country that has a deep history of imposing hardship on populations deemed undesirable and inferior.
But what’s also true is that Democrats didn’t politicize identity. America did.
In the case of African Americans, it did so by using all sorts of legal and business tricks.
The same can be said for women, who only won the constitutional right to vote in 1920 and still battle for equal pay and protections against harassment and assault.
The same can be said for people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or queer.
It has taken all of American history for two men or two women to be able to walk down the street hand in hand without risking attack, and that fight goes on, in red states and in blue states like our own and even in supposed safe zones like Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
We use the expression “identity politics” in such a pejorative way against the left that it blinds us to the other obvious fact: that conservatives routinely deploy the politics of heterosexual white identity to rile up the overwhelming-majority constituency in the GOP.
The greatest expression of so-called “identity politics” in recent memory was the election of the man currently sitting in the Oval Office, who has shamelessly played on people’s subterranean anxieties about the country getting more diverse and more socially aware, as if those things are a threat to the republic and not its savior.
And what to make of those who seek scapegoats for their feelings of being left out of society and the economy, just at the moment in our nation’s history when so many of us have begun to feel included and valued?
When we vote this election season, we will pour all of ourselves into this most sacred of civic duties. Not because identity is political, but because politics is personal, for every one of us, from Asian-American women to white men, from straight singles in the city center to lesbian couples in the suburbs. That’s truest for those of us who have chosen to argue and fight — and put our identities and backgrounds out there for a cranky public’s consumption — in order to push for acceptance, security and opportunity.
President Barack Obama often repeated a high-minded sentiment from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We need to update that.
The arc of the moral universe is long. But in order for justice to prevail, it is up to us to bend it.
We do that by telling our stories. By amplifying the stories of the voiceless. By voting. And by making sure we never go back to the old days.