Karin Jean-Pierre has assumed office on May 13 as White House Press Secretary.
As media follows every little change in the White House, especially when it concerns such a high-profile and prestigious post, this would have made it to the headlines even without adding the extra information that she was the first openly LGBTQI+ person to do so.
Becoming The Press Secretary, probably the most important position any journalist can dream of, is a huge achievement. It requires a serious level of determination, a lot of hard work, many nights and weekends sacrificed on the altar of the homeland.
Karin Jean-Pierre surely did all that. She’d already spent a year as Principal Deputy Press Secretary and before that she was the chief of staff of Kamala Harris during the presidential campaign and a senior advisor for the Biden team (not to mention that she also worked for Barack Obama during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns). All 24/7 types of jobs, still she has the time to be a partner and a mother for a daughter. She worked as political analyst and lecturer. At Columbia University, of all places, a well-known and highly appreciated institution. She is an activist. She was a firefighter, both in the rhetorical and the very real sense.
So, she has everything required to fulfill the job.
Being an openly gay person is only one aspect of her, maybe defining many steps she took during her life (like the decisions she took after her suicide-attempt, when her mother was shocked by her coming out as lesbian), but it is not the only thing defining who she is. A passionate (at least according to outgoing Press Secretary Jen Psaki) and smart person, with a “moral core that makes her not just a great colleague, but an amazing mom and human. Plus, she has a great sense of humor”.
And (hopefully) what she is (a black LQBTQI+ person), wasn’t the main reason behind her getting her newest post.
And when she will do her job, day by day, she will not only, or mainly represent her smaller (or bigger) community, but in fact, will represent the President of the United States of America and through him, in theory (and hopefully), the country itself, with every American included. (As Barack Obama said it in 2004, “There is no Black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America, there’s the United States”.)
Alas, with pushing that single thing, her sexual orientation, about her to the front, the rest seems not to matter that much and gives plenty of space to attacks against her, like that of right-wing conservative pundit Dave Rubin, who dared to say that “we know nothing about her other than the most important things – she’s a Black lesbo”. Unfair? Definitely. Racist? Discriminatory? Yes.
But the unspoken question is there, did she get the post because she was fit for it or only because there was some (imaginary) quota to be met?
Of course, identity matters.
In fact, politics (and in the end, the very existence of humans in itself) is, and has always been about some level of identity, as we are tribal beings, often defining ourselves and our communities in comparison (or even against) some other group. The difference is that “national” or “religious” identity was replaced by “racial” or “gender” or other identities and people are more ready and open to use their identity as a marker of political association, instead of being “capitalist” or “socialist”.
While the topics covered and the disputes started by those groups advocating for certain disadvantaged (or discriminated) minorities are valid and the issue needs to be addressed, the way it is done has gone wrong. The social movements (think #MeToo or BlackLivesMatter) behind the issues got “hijacked”, the problems got reduced to “buzzwords” and branded content; with real action replaced by hollow gestures and countless social media messages, including outright attacks against people.
Identity matters, but not only that.
In fact, in most cases, identity as a starting point should not make us forget, that solidarity should be built across lines of difference, instead of closing ranks around ever-narrower conceptions of group interests and arguments/criticism should not be replaced by “weaponized backlash”.
Over-emphasizing difference often proved counterproductive, as it prevented common action, oppressing or sidelining intra-group differences and not allowing solidarity to form across groups. It often makes it seem that gaining recognition (vis-à-vis inclusion) would equal to politics or would automatically lead to social transformation.
And when it does not or when it reaches a certain level, new identities and new confrontations arise. LGB grew into LGBTQ and now into LGBTQQIAAP, though even the acronym was born after lengthy debates as of which should come first. As of now, there are about fifty gender-designations to choose on Facebook. (Just a side note. Alas, instead of making life easier for many, questions on sites like gender.fandom.com/wiki suggest that the more “categories” people can choose from, the more confused they are as they cannot really identify even with the sub-sub-subgroups.)
But if those groups are right on saying that they have exclusive rights on their own histories, symbols and traditions (e.g. nobody should wear a sari, who’s not Indian or should not have a specifically styled eyebrow if he/she/they don’t belong to a specific ethnic group), then what’s the real difference between them and nationalist groups demanding the single use of national symbols, apart from the fact that they define themselves based on different categories? Or if they have the right to do so and many feel appealed when a Caucasian cisgender woman writes about a black queer girl, then why did others criticize J.K. Rowling for failing to include LGBTQ characters in Harry Potter? In fact, why does the fact, that it doesn’t have identity in its center, diminish the value of Harry Potter as a good children’s story that actually made hundreds of thousands of children to take up a book, something no other book could achieve for a decade?
“In that moment, what they needed was not for their oppression to be celebrated, centered or narrated in the newest academic parlance.” (Olúfémi O. Táíwo) nem muszáj kihangsúlyozni, de sztem tök jó mondat
In talking about his brand-new (published on May 3, 2022) and (really interesting) book, Elite Capture, the author, Olúfémi O. Táíwo (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown) said that he tried to give voice to people on the left who neither see personal identity as the lone vector for inequality, nor reject its relevance outright. He recalled a story about residents in Flint, Michigan and their fight for clean water, claiming that they actually managed to reach their goal by forgetting the differences in identities and uniting for a common objective. “In that moment”, he wrote, “what they needed was not for their oppression to be celebrated, centered or narrated in the newest academic parlance.”
When they forgot what made them different and instead focused on what linked them together.
Inclusion instead of recognition.
Elon Musk was probably not completely right when he claimed that Netflix’s recent bad period (loss of 200.000 subscribers, stocks crashing to four year low etc.) was the result of “the woke virus mind” that is “making Netflix unwatchable”.
The streamer service’s woes are due to many factors combined (stronger competition on the market, the end of the pandemic and with that less time to binge watch series), but there is a grain of truth in what Musk said, as one can often feel that they are spoon-fed with the “identity doctrine” (quote from Twitter), even when it has no additional value to the story.
And it’s not that Elon Musk’s political ideas changed a lot. (It is politics that has changed, just like the way how we look at culture, videos, books.
Identity has its values.
But if identity is put above and beyond everything else, it is easy to lose focus and forget other, important attributives.
Like that Karin Jean-Pierre made it to White House Press Secretary because she was determined and worked hard to achieve a dream, defying the odds.