Navigating Identity and Politics
In the midst of an intense election season, studying remotely has driven me to engage politically with my family in ways I never have before. I distinctly remember being in high school during the last election, speaking daily with my father of my looming pessimism for the state of this country and eagerness to be old enough and more equipped to impact the world. To my surprise, the work began for me far before this election, almost immediately after entering college. Through different workshops and courses, I was introduced to the works of great thinkers and revolutionaries, like Assata Shakur and Thomas Sankara, who catalyzed systemic change inside and outside the confines of the political office. Inspired by their activism, and the work of so many more radical theorists, I was able to de-center the oval office as a vehicle for institutional change and begin with the work, however little, that was tangible to me. Now, my father and I speak about voting in a very different context, and not from a bystander’s perspective. The 2020 presidential election will be the first in which we both will be eligible to cast a ballot. After immigrating to the US in 1994, he finally became a citizen earlier this year and has been intently awaiting this opportunity to make his voice heard. I can sense the longing in his voice as we talk about voting methods and try to be as supportive as possible, given his 26-year long anticipation to exercise this right. Unfortunately for me, I have been dreading every mention of this election. Every post, article, and debate I see drives me further into my cynicism and truthfully speaking, I wasn’t going to vote. I registered on the very last day permitted in my state.
I must admit, I did not miraculously fall in love with one of the candidates and their proposed policies on the last day of registration and I’m not entirely sure of my decision to vote for a presidential candidate either. I registered for the sake of my local community; to show my support by voting for congressmen and members of the Board of Education. As a student activist, the intergenerational and intercultural dynamics of my household have brought me face to face with my personal belief system and how my actions expose the loyalty I have to it. Being the Co-Chair of the Political Education Committee of my Black Students’ Union, I am responsible for raising awareness for the injustices faced by Black people, in and around our college, as well as internationally. The fight against police brutality in Poughkeepsie and the rest of the US, as well as Brazil and Nigeria, in the midst of a health crisis has been the center of our organizing as a collective this year. Following the lockdown and massive wave of exposure to communities plagued by police brutality, a couple friends and I decided to start Vassar Political Education Wealth Redistribution. The organization is dedicated to giving funds to other organizations, such as South Side Harm Reduction and Life After Release, working to aid victims of police violence. Concurrently, the nation started experiencing an unemployment crisis in which working class Black people were glaringly suffering disproportionately. We began a sub-chapter of our org, centering Black LGBTQ+ folks, to grant individuals aid for living expenses and put money on the books of inmates in some California jails. Collectively, we were able to redistribute over $85,000 to people in need throughout the summer and are continuing the work less intensely during this school year. More recently, the Political Education Committee has teamed up with Gradient, an org for men of color on campus, and VPI (Vassar Prison Initiative) to begin a Prison Divestment campaign to urge our trustees to refrain from investing the school’s endowment in corporations that fund the prison industrial complex and reinvest in companies that well for our communities and the environment.
In these short years of being a college student, I’ve begun to find my identity in multiple aspects, but most relevantly, as an activist. Navigating what that label means to me, not wanting to slip into performativity, has been my balancing act of this season. My family members have been through a lot to be able to claim the right to vote as their own and I especially appreciate the Black people who fought tirelessly for my parents to be able to even immigrate to this country, let alone vote in it. I acknowledge the tenuous years of struggle faced by my ancestors to afford me this right, however it comes down to this. If I want to call myself an abolitionist, a womanist, pro-Black, and anti-colonialist, it will not be integrous of me to not vote like it. The fact of the matter is, the American political system, as it stands, is the antithesis of Black liberation and any effort to address this is met with animosity.
Notable activists and academics like Kimberly Crenshaw have come out in support of Biden and believe he is the viable option. Many neoliberal voters have even begun to use the words of Angela Davis to justify selecting the “lesser of two evils”, which if I may point out is still evil, to shame people like me into casting a ballot. This never has and never will be an effective way to appease the concerns of marginalized peoples because it does nothing to address the institutional violences that we face. In the words of Davis, you are essentially asking the oppressed to “come inside of the institution and participate in the same process that led precisely to their marginalization.” By his flamboyant displays of support for white supremacy, misogyny, and homophobia, Democrats and left leaning people are already well aware of the damage another term Trump will do to the country. I fear, however, nobody wants to actually solve the problems that make people sick and poor, but rather go back to pretending that those problems do not exist. With a Black woman as his running mate, people have championed Biden as much more anti-racist than his actions have proven to be. If he wins, people will be so glad to not have Trump that we will revert back to a state of complacency, similar to that of the Obama era.
The question of identity has weighed heavily on me when it comes to seeing my morals in candidates for office and I would be naive to believe there will be a perfect fit. As a Christian, I always sense judgement from the church because I do not submit to their traditional way of thinking when it comes to law making. How can I say I believe in the God who created us to have free will and be anti-choice? How can I believe “blessed are the poor” and “the profit of the earth is for all” and support a party that repeatedly cuts funding for governmental assistance to poor Americans? On the other hand, how can I chant Black Lives Matter and support the politician who was key in the decisions to drone strike East African countries and destabilize the Libyan government during Obama’s presidency? How can I call for the abolition of the carceral state and vote for the person who helped write the Crime Bill, along with a former prosecutor who put mothers in jail for trying to send their children to safer, more funded schools? How can I speak out against ICE and its atrocities against undocumented families and advocate for either candidate? It’s simply dishonest. Trump has been very forthcoming about his disdain for undocumented individuals and we have been made aware of the violent sexual and physical assaults happening in ICE camps under his presidency. But notwithstanding this, let us not overlook the fact that the Obama-Biden administration is responsible for the largest number of deportations than any other president and laid the framework for the concentration camps to be what they are today. Undoubtedly there is not a perfect candidate, but there are certain things to me that are uncompromisable. I can debate about government funding and allotment of taxes all day if you let me. However, when we put into question whether innocent Black and Brown children should live freely, and justify it based on loyalty to a party or president, we have entered a grossly inhumane slippery slope. Being actively pro-Black is much more than being satisfied with representation or simply seeing Black people in positions of power. We must not deify our leaders, but demand that they act in our best interest, not succumbing to the corruption and anti-Blackness of the state. I am glad some women of color have been proud to see a little bit of themselves represented in the Kamala Harris, but Black women deserve more than visibility. We deserve liberation. If we keep being appeased with representation politics from our “feminist” leaders, we will have nothing more than what Rachel Cargle calls “white supremacy in heels”. Our lack of options also inadvertently points to the tragic flaw of our two-party system.
Thinking on the feminist, anti-colonial work of Ama Ata Aidoo, a Ghanaian woman play-write and academic, my confidence in the ability to enact systemic changes without being heavily involved in government politics has significantly increased. That is not to deny that this movement to see a better future for our country will be very gradual and involve some support from governmental entities, but I will not allow a politician who proposes my distrust in him means I “ain’t really Black” to be my saving grace. As I write this, I am still having internal strife as to whether or not I am ready to select a candidate because he’s “anything but Trump”. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say Biden ends up winning the election. When, not if, the police continue to abuse their power, I cannot expect him to step in and radically change the policing institution. He was made it very clear it is not in his desire to defund, but rather increase funding, for the police. The response then will be another surge of protests only this time, I actually would have voted for the conditions under which I am protesting against.
If and when I vote, it will not be my check-the-box American duty for the next four years. Given that the popular vote in the last election did not win the presidency, and voter suppression has been plaguing the early-voting season, my confidence is not in our current democracy. My confidence is in the ability of young people to learn and be inspired by the change-makers of previous generations and turn that inspiration into effective action. Voting is not activism. It is a right. Activism begins when we take those issues we so passionately vote for, and create spaces for political education and the implementation of policies to protect those values and interests.
As the election day draws nearer and my day to day involvement in my orgs increases, I am giving myself the grace to be uncertain. Oftentimes, the onus is on Black women to solve the woes of the world. We speak up on behalf of everyone's problems, protest and organize for everyone’s issues, guide people through the heaviness of their oppression while carrying the weight of our own, and in turn, receive occasional, conditional support. I have learned from older Black women professors who engage in political organizing in my community that we are not here to save the universe. In my meetings with people like Councilwoman Edina Brown from my hometown, I am reminded that simply using your voice to mobilize people and officials in your community is a significant act of resistance. Today, and through this election season, I will show myself mercy, knowing that my decision will not stop nor discredit the work I do with my student-led organizations and beyond them. It’s probably not what you want to hear, but I am not going to tell anyone whether to vote or not to vote. I am going to ask you to organize. Get involved in local grassroots organizations and mutual aid funds. Support political educators and educate yourselves. Read more Bell Hooks and Françoise Vèrges! Redistribute your wealth to low-income households. Your political involvement should go far beyond arguing with strangers under social media posts every few years and blindly supporting candidates because they put their pronouns in their instagram bios. I believe we can do much more to improve the material conditions of average American lives when we look to people power to grant us the world we want to see.
Chelsea Quayenortey is a Junior at Vassar College majoring in Economics. Her leadership is present throughout her life including as a co-founder of the Black Students' Union Political Education Committee Wealth Redistribution Organization.