• Steph Shuff

The Hard Limits of Identity Politics

Updated: Dec 22, 2019

When I tell people I lived in Washington, D.C for over thirteen years, I get one of two reactions: One is, "I'm so sorry." The other is, "You're so lucky!"

These reactions reflect the duality that all Washingtonians know well: on the one hand, there is Washington, a powerful city full of rich lobbyists and stiff politicians and the frequent inconvenience of a Presidential motorcade. Then, there is D.C., a hip town full of diverse art and award-winning cuisine and the occasional excitement of a First Lady sighting. These two places co-exist so closely that there is no physical boundary between them, a philosophical difference as subtle but as profound as the physical distance between "the Capitol" and "Capitol Hill."

During the Obama years, the underlying "coolness" of our first black president bridged a gap between Washington and D.C. The Obamas routinely rubbed shoulders with sports and entertainment superstars. The White House Correspondents Dinner - an annual spring event that is designed to create goodwill between the White House and the reporters who cover it - is typically a stuffy affair full of unattractive reporters who take themselves too seriously. During the Obama years, however, this event defined the awakening of political wokeness, filling up instead with beautiful celebrities (who also take themselves too seriously). During these years, journalists lamented that the event was now excluding the very people it was meant to honor.

When Trump took office in January of 2017, the mood in town shifted noticeably, and the gap between Washington and D.C. grew wide once again. On one hand, D.C. distanced itself from the now conservative Washington, a distance made obvious by the routine harassment of Trump advisers at area restaurants. On the other hand, a Trump-fueled Washington had already distanced itself from the heartbeat of D.C. with rhetoric that was and continues to be anti-gay, anti-black, anti-woman, and anti-immigrant, four groups that make up the vast majority of D.C.'s cultural lifeblood.

Over the eight years of the Obama presidency that made up the bulk of my time in DC, I had grown accustomed to the optimism of both my twenties and the Obama years. Politics were cool, I was invincible, and my life was going to be something amazing. The 2016 election coincided perfectly with the end of my twenties and the onset of reality: I was no closer to my dream life. Politics had turned from cool to toxic. And a stench had fallen on D.C. that I couldn't bear to smell. As much as I hated Trump, I hated this new tension in D.C. more. But what was the underlying issue? I wasn't sure.

I figured a change of scenery would help, so I left. And after a short time in my hometown in Florida, I found myself in Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder, Colorado is as strangely dualistic a place as D.C., if in a very different way. Boulderites are notoriously healthy, introspective, and spiritual. At one point, I met a woman who made a living as a spiritual business coach - her job was to counsel business owners on bringing their business ventures closer to their spiritual calling. She told me that one of her most popular services was to embed spiritual sigils into the design of a brand's logo, to bring about more core alignment with the founder's intentions. I tried to be open minded, but the East Coast cynic in me could barely keep a straight face.

As earnest as Boulderites seem to be, all this navel-gazing comes at a price. It's as if they are so focused inwardly on their own spiritual growth and development they forget that being a good person also means an awareness of people around you. I have never been shoulder-checked on the sidewalk or grocery store by absent minded strangers more times in my life than in the two months I spent living in Boulder, Colorado. It amazed me that, across the country, New York City pedestrians can successfully navigate the crowded sidewalks of Times Square without so much as grazing another human, but a hiker on an empty Boulder trail in the middle of the wilderness couldn't help from bumping into me when hiking down-trail the opposite direction. Boulder drivers drift aimlessly from lane to lane and turn without the right of way. Boulder grocery store patrons wander listlessly as if they are the only soul in the crowded aisles. It is truly ironic that Boulderites spend so much time developing their spiritual energies and so little time caring about the physical presence of any other person in the room. Despite this genuine attempt at saving their souls with healing crystals and tarot readings and life coaching, people in Boulder are still people: driven by ego, self-centered, and unaware. At one point, I met a man who called himself Rainbow without any sense of irony or humor. He was as earnest about his own enlightenment as he was flippant about his recent DUI, jail time, and subsequent probation. I have never met so many individuals so confident in their spiritual superiority while at the same time blissfully unaware of the ways in which they are broken. It began to occur to me that perhaps it wasn’t D.C. that lived a double life - it was people in general.

Despite the absent-minded selfishness of Boulderites, I will say that people living in the West seem characteristically much more concerned with what's inside a person as opposed to the more superficial trappings of success that so often preoccupy the minds of people living in the Northeastern urban sprawl from Washington, DC to Boston. Not once in three months did someone ask me, "What do you do?" with the expectation that I answer with a line from my resume. Not once did I meet someone who made any kind of attempt to position themselves closer to me because of who I know or where I work. If I ever talked about my former life as a federal contractor, or my current life in political media, I received many more blank stares than I did business cards or LinkedIn connection requests.

I am still recovering from my time in D.C. Ironically, the selfishness that drives all people compels them to manifest this selfishness differently. In D.C., a town ruled by your relative proximity to power, people position themselves closer to others because of their selfishness. They become hyper aware of who is in the room, where those people work, and how their presence can be exploited. In Boulder, a town ruled by navel gazing and self-actualization, selfishness drives people to ignore the existence of other people. After thirteen years in D.C., I realized that two months of navel-gazing and being invisible was exactly the kind of rehabilitation I needed.

If I thought I couldn't become any more invisible than I was in Boulder, Colorado, I was wrong. At the beginning of January, I set out on a three week road-trip with a friend, a journey that would have us living out of the covered bed of his twenty year old Ford pickup truck and traveling across four states and four thousand miles. It was on this trip that I realized nothing will make you more invisible to Americans than poverty and homelessness.

For the record, I am neither poor nor homeless. I have a stable job, a loving family that welcomes me back to their home with open arms, and a savings account large enough to bail myself out of most tricky situations. Beyond that, I have the privilege of being a white woman. I live with the subconscious confidence of knowing that if I ever lost my job, I could find a new one in twelve hours. If I lost my home, I could find a place to rent in twelve minutes. If I lost my way, I could find someone to help me in twelve seconds. That is the privilege of being a white woman. I am given the benefit of the doubt in all scenarios, regardless of whether or not I deserve it.

Because of this privilege, I must also deal with the drawbacks of being a white woman. Above all, I am visible. Like most women, I have had a complicated relationship with this visibility since puberty. In some ways, it is empowering. In other ways, it is frustrating. Around twenty five, as I was battling the cultural expectations of my gender, the frustrations of my male-dominated career, and the inescapable visibility of being a young, beautiful woman in a city dominated by ugly old white men, I cut my long, flowing blonde hair into a cropped pixie cut. I marveled at the impact that even this small change had on how I was seen by the outside world. Or perhaps, I changed the way I carried myself, and people reacted in line. Most likely, it was a combination of both. Regardless, I felt more respected and more respectable with short hair than I ever did with long hair.

All this is to say, like many women, I have learned to be comfortable being seen. It is a comfort developed out of necessity, because there really is no other way to cope if you have been valued for your looks your entire life.

Despite the invisible underpinnings of my privilege, for a month, I was living out of a truck bed, so regardless of whether or not I was homeless and poor, I was perceived by those around me as homeless and poor. It brought on a level of invisibility I can't quite articulate. It's not that people didn't see me. It's that once they did, they pretended that they hadn't. I became fluent in the language of averted eyes and sideways stares.

Armed with the knowledge that my homelessness was temporary, I observed my own social undesirability with a detached fascination and reserved confidence not afforded to legitimate members of the homeless population. I operated with the understanding that as soon as I wanted my homelessness to be over, it would be. I viewed my own invisibility as more of an anthropological experiment rather than a place to which I had been banished by my own culture. This freed me from the anxiety of homelessness and poverty, and allowed me instead to simply observe it. It also spared me from the deep scars that being homeless must inflict.

But what about those who don't choose poverty, homelessness, or a lower rung on the ladder of cultural acceptance? What about those who suffer as social outcasts not as a choice, but as a function of their birth, mental health, or just plain ol' bad luck? I think of the homeless man who walks down the streets of an affluent neighborhood to averted eyes and downward stares. I think of the woman who is blamed for her own sexual assault because her very existence is defined as being only the object of an action, rather than the subject of her own beautiful, painful story. I think of the Native American Indian reservations I drove through as I roamed the deserts of New Mexico, and the flattened tableau of indigenous cultures that Native American Indians can't seem to escape.

I think of Trayvon Martin, who was shot for being a black man in a hoodie, and I imagine being so type-caste that I can only be a bad guy. I think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is called a bimbo simply because she is an outspoken hispanic woman, and I imagine being so stereotyped that I can only be a trashy woman. I think of my friend Tim, a Native American Indian himself, who explained to me that Native Americans struggle to be perceived as three-dimensional people, with all the good and the bad that this depth brings. I imagine being so flattened that even the bad guys, who exist in every culture, can't just be bad guys. Rather, they must be bad as a function of their spiritual victimization, the color of their skin, or the anger as a result of their oppression. Imagine being so flattened under the heel of "the other" that you spend your life fighting for your culture's right to produce shitty people, devoid of any motive other than the motive to be a shitty person. On one of my favorite podcasts, the hosts often joke they are ready for a really good female serial killer. They are comediennes, and they are joking, but the punchline hits. Equality is just that. Equal opportunity to be both great and terrible.

Six months ago, I would have lectured anyone that would listen about the importance of identity politics - I would have told you that our identities matter when it comes to how we are represented at all levels of government. I would have pointed to the Obama years, and to my twenties, a time when I had the privilege that so many Americans don't: I spent over a decade living in a place where people looked and thought differently from me. I had thirteen years to grow into the realization that differences should be celebrated, not feared. As a vocal progressive and a social issues voter, I would have confidently asserted that a black woman would do a better job representing any people, all people, than a white man.

And then, I went to Boulder, Colorado, a place that is largely white and well-off, where people are so accustomed to interacting with people who look so much like them that they have the luxury to differentiate themselves by the color of their auras. I went to Elko, Nevada and met a gun-toting, tiny-house living, Tennessee-raised, diversity loving, universal-healthcare supporting park ranger. He defied ALL stereotypes, and spoke with many identities.

If identity is all that matters, if being black, white, male, female, gay, straight, Democratic or Republican, represents both the base and the peak of our political identities, how can we possibly survive in a world where one particular identity cannot be trusted to speak for any other identity?

And what, then, do we do with the "baskets of deplorables," the huge swaths of white people that voted for Trump exactly because they have never interacted closely with people that don't look like them? How do we account for the people that have never had to think about their identity because, in their sheltered reality, their identity is the only one that exists, or at least, the only one that matters to them? It doesn't matter if you are white or black, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, clinging to our identities is not a political solution. It is a trap.

The truth is, a black woman may do a worse job representing the interests of a white man than a white man. Some may argue that this is a good thing, that for far too long, the interests of white men have been the only interests represented at any level of government. And I would likely agree with them. But that doesn't negate the fact that if we base our politics on identity alone, a black woman cannot possibly do a better job representing the interests of a white man, or anyone else whose identity she doesn't share. And here, we find the hard limits of identity politics. As long as we assume that only people who look like us can represent us, we are stuck. Stuck being spiritually motivated Native American criminals. Stuck being emotionally driven, hysterical women. Stuck being violent, lazy black men. Stuck being selfish, self-motivated, racist white men.

The only remedy to this that I can see is not the end of identity politics, which is a common argument of the right and an irrational fear of the left; rather, we must develop a better understanding of its limitations. Identity is important - it gives us words to describe our past and our present. It gives us the power tell our stories. It gives us the ability to position ourselves away from others, but it only works as a net positive if telling our stories allows us to grow closer to people whose identities we do not share. Unfortunately, identity does not give us the skills required to empathize, or be empathetic. Only empathy can do that. Only connection can do that.

As a writer, I am comfortable with the idea that to properly describe a character in a story, I may need a page, a chapter, or even an entire novel. One of my favorite characters in modern writing is that of Walter White, from Breaking Bad, a television series that details the transformation of a timid high school chemistry teacher into one of the most disturbing villains of all time. I could tell you in a few words that he is a good guy turned bad, but without forcing you to watch hours of the show, I could not properly describe the complex character that he was, nor could I properly describe the conflicting emotions I felt about him over the arc of the show - the satisfaction I felt watching him grow into his power over time; the subsequent horror I felt as I watched him succumb to the corruptibility of this power in a way that rendered his character nearly unrecognizable.

To all of our detriment, we have become comfortable with the idea that describing individuals based on one or two words - black; gay; transgender; old; young - is somehow sufficient for our understanding of an individual and all their nuance, let alone an entire culture or community of people. Like Walter White, the growing power of identity politics is as satisfying to watch for those of us who have felt powerless because of our identities as it is corruptible by the very power it promises to deliver to us. In the words of comedienne Hannah Gatsby in her Netflix Special Nanette: "I believe women are just as corruptible by power as men." Her point? That if they women had the chance, they could prove to be just as shitty at leading as men. We just haven't had the chance. So we're stuck here, in a place where people assume women are either automatically great leaders or automatically shitty ones, when the truth is, we're both.

Identity politics is no different. White men may be the villain du jour, but only because they have been the ones holding the power. If we continue to rely solely on identity politics to drive our conversations, there is no reason why we won't supplant one old white villain with another villain who looks more like us but is just as corruptible by power. There is no logical reason why an old white man who has put in the proper amount of time to understand his privilege, empathize with the socially invisible, recognize the nuances inherent in all people, and stand up for the powerless, couldn't make a better political representative than anyone else. In fact, he may be even more effective at teaching the folks that look like him, who still happen to be the majority of voters in this country, why it is important to see, listen to, and properly represent those who have been socially invisible for far too long: black and indigenous people of color, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill.

As the 2020 presidential race heats up, we should resist the urge to entrench ourselves in our identities and our identity politics. We should instead learn to value candidates who can separate themselves from their own identities to the greatest effect. We should learn to support candidates not because of their historical powerlessness, but because of their ability to take on the enormous responsibility of power.