Gender, Race, and the Politics of Identity

In case you didn’t notice, Hillary Clinton is a woman and Barack Obama is black. You knew that? Of course you did, but you don’t see color or gender: Everybody’s a human being, right? Many voters would probably say that they look beyond the veil of color and gender. After all, we’ve moved beyond such surface facts that we’re all color- and gender-blind.

Yet, it seems to me that excluding race and gender from the candidates proves how far we have yet to go when it comes to identity. If we were not so identity conscious then it’d be easy to say “the black candidate” or “the woman candidate.”

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Identity has become politicized to the point that race, gender, religion, class, and other dictates of being have become symbols, inseparable from the prejudices and stereotypes associated with them. They are now used as persuasive tools within and outside of the political arena. Let’s face it: We all have biases, but that does not mean they should rule our thoughts.

It’s a lot to ask of voters to ignore the obvious. Especially considering that the assertion of identity and pride in it is key to the whole concept of being in the United States. For minorities especially, identity remains a precious thing. However, that also means that voters should not resort to identity politics.

Vote Barack to stick it to the white man! Vote Hillary to crush testicular tyranny!

Identity politics only seems to summon up unnecessary tensions, which undermine the focus on more important issues like education and health care reform. Whenever we’re distracted interpreting whether Obama played the race card or Clinton revealed too much cleavage, squander time better spent analyzing their political views; rather than grilling the pair on the racial or gender subtext behind their campaigns.

Then, of course, the pair are forced to make the obligatory “race and gender don’t matter” speeches. Yet, Clinton and Obama should know by now that, unfortunately, they do.

The pair are scrutinized above and beyond the other candidates who have passed the preliminary white and male exam.

Clinton’s been labeled a robot, among other things, several times due to her clinical and controlled appearance in political debates and in public. Obama’s been traversing the high-wire between appeasing black and white voters. Yet, once Hillary cracks a smile or drops a single tear she’s too emotional or fake. And, it’s only one wrong move for Obama to be “pandering to black voters” or “catering to whites.”

It’s the inevitability of double-consciousness, the failure of identity politics, and why it’s unrealistic — at least at the moment — to assume voters are immune to race and gender.

Identity is a fluid concept, dependent upon so many variables that it’s nearly impossible for Clinton or Obama to appease everyone. It seems voters at once want Clinton to be emotional but not too emotional and strong but not too strong. As voters it seems we’re paradoxically requiring Clinton to remain within but transcend age old gender roles.

W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double-consciousness refers to the sense of a minority’s identity as being decided not only by him or herself but by every individual in society. This helps to explain Obama’s varying shades of “blackness” depending on who is asked to evaluate him.

Identity politics invariably fails because of the vague quality of identity. What is it? Who decides it?

It’s importance and meaning varies from person to person. Too much energy is expelled trying to shape Obama and Clinton into one-dimensional images rather than understanding their political views.

All this hubbub about gender and race does nothing for the future of our nation. Even if we do get a female or black president, at the end of the day the federal government is still going to be predominantly white and male.

So how do we counteract the pointless squabbles that spring from identity politics? One of the best answers to this question that I know of comes from Virginia Woolf who writes in Three Guineas:

“Freedom from unreal loyalties

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