Two women standing behind a lectern at the White House Press Room.
Image Source: @KJP46 / Twitter

The Value of Visual Representation in Politics

On May 5, President Biden announced that Karine Jean-Pierre would become the new White House press secretary, making her the first Black woman and openly queer person to hold the position (White House). Previously, she hit other first milestones, including being the first LGBTQ+ person to serve as the chief of staff for a presidential candidate, the first queer person to lead a White House press briefing, and the first Black woman to address the White House press corps in 30 years (them, Advocate).

The daughter of Haitian immigrants, she succeeds current press secretary Jen Psaki, who, in congratulating Jean-Pierre, said: “she will be the first Black woman, the first out LGBTQ+ person to serve in this role, which is amazing because representation matters and she is going to, she will give a voice to so many and allow and show so many what is truly possible when you work hard, and dream big and that matters, and […] we should celebrate that.”

Much of the announcement rollout has been focused on who and what Jean-Pierre represents. During the GLAAD’s 33rd Media Awards, she used herself as an example to show that “visibility matters” and highlighted how “representation matters for all marginalized communities at every intersection” (The Grio).

TAKE ACTION

• Support organizations like the Haitian Bridge and Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project helping to empower and support Haitian and other Black migrants.

• Investigate legislation in your state and support the fight for reproductive justice.

• Donate to organizations Vote Mamas and Represent Women working to level the gender parity in politics by getting more women in office.

• Donate to Social Equity and Education Initiative fighting against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. If you are a graduating senior in the state, fill out this form to receive a free “Say Gay” sticker to wear for graduation in protest of queer censorship.

In a February interview, Jean-Pierre talked about overcoming the barriers—the odds of being a queer, Black woman of Haitian descent—to get where she is. 

“I am one of those people…where statistically I am not supposed to be where I am today,” she said (The Grio). “I am not supposed to be in the space having an office in the West Wing […] going in and out every day through the White House gates and being able to be part of this administration because of what I grew up with.”

Jean-Pierre is reflective of the shifting of American visual politics that prides itself in its growing diversity. She is a change of pace from the stuffy, older white men of yore that have dominated politics and the media. Yet, parts of her identity are currently at stake, from an institution regressing to exclusive, conservative fundamentals despite accepting diversity within its ranks. They stand staunchly against everything Jean-Pierre represents. On a legislative level, her mere existence is an assault on American values. And they are set on erasing and silencing the parts of her identity that are rightfully celebrated.

Jean-Pierre’s appointment comes after a leaked draft ruling by the Supreme Court indicated the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade and statewide efforts to criminalize abortion, a barrage of anti-trans and LGBTQ+ legislation, and the exclusion and resuming of deportations of immigrants, specifically Haitian migrants, despite the U.S. playing a hand in the political and economic destabilization of the country (Vox). The reversal and attacks on identity aim to negate the progress lauded back in 2020 when the country witnessed “history-making moments for diversity and representation” (Business Insider, ABC).

While the U.S. has elected the first openly transgender senator and lawmakers, openly gay Black congressmen, and Korean American congresswoman, the country is still run mainly by white males (The Guardian). They have a minority rule throughout the U.S., representing 30% of the population but are 62% of officeholders (Reflective Democracy Campaign). However, women and people of color comprise 51% and 40% of the population but are just 31% and 13% of officeholders. 

This speaks nothing to the lack of queer, disabled, and other underrepresented backgrounds largely missing in the political realm. 

At a surface level, political representation that better reflects the  U.S. is a step in the right direction, albeit two centuries overdue since the nation’s founding. However, representation in a rapidly shifting conservative world is far from progress and inclusive. It’s a double bind. Without it, marginalized people remain invisible and unheard in a country at war with their existence. But being visibly represented doesn’t mean your voice is being heard since white men still maintain a majority. It does, however, allow the government to use it as an example of American democracy at work.

Any representation is not always good representation. 

Look no further than Roe v. Wade, where Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett voted to strike down the 1973 decision in opposition of their respective gender and racial identities. Despite touting herself as a police reform advocate, Vice President Kamala Harris has supported pro-police legislation harmful to Black and Brown people (Vox).

​​Back in March, so much weight was put behind the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and how her appointment would not only help ensure more liberal representation and perspective on important issues but would unabashedly be a win for Black women (The ARD). And while a big part of politics is wishful thinking that politicians have our best interests in mind, there is no guarantee that they will always represent us in the way we see fit.

A lot of emphasis is put behind leaders being our saviors and defenders of our fundamental rights, often because we see ourselves in them. We wager away so much of our liberties and democracy in hopes that they have our best interest in mind, and it’s alarmingly clear that that’s not always the case. Something as loose as a similar identity or commonality is not worth losing your rights or voice. That’s why it’s vital to look within our own local and grassroots communities and mobilize for a world that does more than just visibly uplifts us but protects our rights and identities. 

Representation is fundamentally vital to see across different industries and media. It allows marginalized people to imagine a future outside of their reality and consider new possibilities that have been systematically out of reach. Every day, society bombards us with rhetoric and media that tell us what can and cannot be achieved. And who can and cannot achieve it. So seeing the first Indigenous or queer or disabled or woman etc. is paramount on an individual, societal, and political level. But being beholden to the visual representation in politics is futile when all our rights are stripped away.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Despite striving for diversity and representation, white men still hold a majority of political offices. 

• Visual representation in politics doesn’t ensure that marginalized people or their needs will be addressed.

• An onslaught of conservative legislation throughout the country aims to strip away the rights of marginalized people.

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