Last week, I shared some general thoughts about the election and the four years that preceded it. In my very first column, I spoke about the importance of representation of marginalized groups in the media. Today, going deeper into the field of politics, I want to discuss representation at its core. What is it, actually? What forms can representation take? Most importantly, what are the material consequences of representation (or a lack thereof)?
The last few weeks have ushered in some historic firsts. Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres became the first openly gay Black men elected to Congress, Sarah McBride is the first openly transgender state senator in Delaware and Cori Bush is Missouri’s first Black congresswoman. Perhaps most striking was Kamala Harris’ election as the first Black and South Asian vice president.
What does this representation really mean? Here is one way to put it: The leadership of our country is starting to look like, act like and come from the same places as its people. Our government is starting to tell a truer story about its citizens. Here is another: Our government’s policies will soon be informed by the interests of an even more diverse session of lawmakers. In this sense, representation comprises both a person and the actions of that person on behalf of their identity group. It is a noun and a verb.
Political figures have a unique affinity with celebrities. In a world that is still shockingly stratified by race, they are typically the most visible part of “the other.” For a white person who generally lives among white people, the Black people they know most about might be Beyoncé or the Obamas. A similar phenomenon exists between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people. A cisgender person who lives among cisgender people might be most intimately acquainted with popular representatives of the trans community: think Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox.
When we discuss their identities, it is usually in terms of how well or accurately these prominent people represent their race, gender, sexual orientation and so on. This phenomenon is especially potent when that identity distinguishes them from the people who usually hold that office or top the charts. As firsts, the aforementioned members of the 117th Congress and our new vice president are novel manifestations of Black, South Asian and queer cultures (and their intersections) in the context of national politics. As triumphant as they must feel, that novelty must also be daunting.
In her first speech as vice president-elect of the United States, Harris said, “while I may be the first woman to hold this office, I will not be the last.” This is a reminder that the work of representation is not done: A first cannot be a last because there are so many more female and Black and South Asian and queer stories to tell. These political firsts must become the new normal because they reflect what is already normal, and has been for a long time.