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Paradox of Representation Politics

Paradox of Representation Politics

When deciding what kind of writer I wanted to be at 18, leaving home for the first time to move from Orlando to Los Angeles, I didn’t much take into account what kinds of writers made money and what kinds didn’t. I wanted to be a journalist, an essayist, a novelist. The first article I ever published was for Blavity, a black millenial news site that did not pay me. I wrote about identity politics in the burgeoning Trump age with scarce research, under the moniker Andrea Lorde because I was closeted and hiding from my parents. In that article, I wrote that “the refusal to acknowledge the impact of your identity on your political views is a pretty strong indicator of how your identity is socialized.” I wrote this in reference to white people who don’t seem to understand that identification is inherently political whether or not you’re aware of it. In the same article I also wrote about how seldom conservative reactionaries look inward and that line about how identities are socialized made me wonder how much inward looking I was doing.

I sunk my teeth into representation politics in my writing as soon as I started writing to be published. The second and last piece I wrote for Blavity opens with “As a Black person in America.” Granted the piece was about the schism between Black and White Hollywood after the release of Girl’s Trip (2017) so that contextualization was fairly warranted. Still, re-reading that now, only two years later, it feels cringey. I’m perpetually embarrassed about everything I’ve ever written and shown to anyone. But never as much as when I read some of the political hot takes and cultural criticism essays I wrote during my years as a journalism major. The two that haunt me the most however, are the ones I wrote about Lena Waithe. One of which is no longer available online due to the fact that Into, the Grindr funded gay news site that published it, completely erased the intellectual property of every queer person that ever contributed to it while “pivoting to video.”

“The downfall of representation politics however, is that it mistakes visibility with control.”

When Waithe won her Emmy, I was just making the shift from journalism to film and television. I transferred to USC because the Cinema School was what brought me to California in the first place. I was recently out and meeting a whole new community of gay women who were cool and fun and crazy but they got me. I was in a contentious relationship with my parents who had just changed their minds about disowning me. Then I saw this tall dream of a Black butch get an Emmy for writing comedy. It felt like a culmination of my own personal aspirations, a thought that retrospectively sounds insane. I’m not really sure what it feels like to be a straight white guy and to constantly see reflections of your body projected as the ideal but that moment felt like something big. I wrote about it for AfterEllen, a site that once was a bustling hub for gay women and is now a TERF graveyard. In an email from Memoree Joelle, Editor in Chief at the time, I was told that they “encourage strong and witty opinions” but preferred writers used “mainstream, traditional language like ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’ rather than queer, etc. whenever possible (which is most of the time).” The essay I wrote about Waithe was published and sent to her directly by Joelle. Waithe then retweeted and followed me. She thanked me for my words and for existing.

Reading that essay, I don’t recognize myself as a writer until the very end when I mention that her win won’t change the structures that exist that made this feel so important to me, but that still she was keeping me alive by herself surviving. This is the conundrum of representation politics. Representation politics being how the people in charge of media allow us to derive and create meaning from the images we see. So by heralding the first Black athlete or musician or actor to achieve something, the heterosexist white gate keepers reframe decades if not centuries of oppression as a victory by using one individual success story as a representation of the entire institution.

“It sells the lie of exceptionalism that is rooted in the very notion of Americanness itself…”

The need for representation is a need for control. It is in fact a blatant expression of lack of control. The very American idiom of “no taxation without representation” illustrates this. I found Waithe at a time where I was not in control of anything because I was outed to my parents. The identification I felt with her winning that award was earnest and based on the real social conditions of having been raised in a homophobic environment, something Waithe also experienced. The downfall of representation politics, however, is that it mistakes visibility with control. This means that the way we’re used to talking about diversity functions to posit visibility as a solution for the documented history of lack of control by a specific population. This is effective in 2020 because marginalized identities are socialized, often through social media, to view visibility in most cases as meaning explicit representation of trauma. This is then denoted as the end goal of diversity. At the risk of sounding like a Hegelian historicist, there’s a reason why so much of the work that uses representation as a mode of writing keeps coming back to this need to just exist, free of the burden of representation.

In an interview with Asymptote, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen was asked about the language used to discuss “minority” writers. He said, “we are subjected to all kinds of easy, sentimental, stereotypical ways of reading our work and our being, which includes that whole trope of being ‘the voice for the voiceless.’ And so there has to be a constant, exhausting effort at pushing back against these notions—and it’s constant and it’s exhausting because we don’t own the means of representation.” 

The internalization by Black artists of representation politics and the socialization of their identities as walking grounds for trauma porn—when it doesn’t completely debilitate—creates ego. It sells the lie of exceptionalism that is rooted in the very notion of Americanness itself, something that 13 year old me so earnestly wanted to be when I moved to this country. This heightened exceptionalism is why people can claim that Barack Obama’s presidency ended racism. This leads to an understanding of representation more true than the shallowness of visibility as an end goal, the creation of communal identification by means of the highly individualized self. I did it with my writing and Waithe is doing the same with hers. And it’s part cultivation of talent and skill and passion, but also part internalization of how our identities are socialized to represent ourselves. It’s in this crossfire that Black creators have to flourish.

In the aftermath of the release of Waithe’s new film, Queen and Slim (2019), which quickly garnered negative reviews from Black critics because of how it sensationalizes black trauma for white audiences, she gave an interview in which she touted the “not like other Blacks” attitude that is leveled as a criticism to other Black celebrities like Issa Rae. She said that she’s different from other Black creators in that she “stud[ies] Sorkin.” And as I read that, I realized how goofy it is to place the entire weight of your own humanity on the shoulders of a reflection of yourself. Because reflections aren’t real, they disappear when you do. I also realized how morbid it is that the realities of our social world have conditioned so many of us to think that the reflection is enough.

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