Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) has a great voice, and it is her own. She speaks for herself and her constituency, the good people of the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District. No one tells her what to say or how to say it. In a recent speech, excerpts of which were tweeted out, she told a cheering crowd:
We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.
The idea is that a person needs to speak for their group identity. As she says, if you are black, speak for that group, and if you can’t speak for that group, don’t speak. Same goes for Muslims, queers, and presumably for anyone who has an identifiable identity. Pressley must believe that Asians should speak for all Asians, Puerto Ricans should speak for all Puerto Ricans, Haitians should speak for all Haitians. She must believe that any individual who shares characteristics with a larger group can, should, and must speak for the interests of that group at large.
Of course, there are some super-serious problems with that. Let's break it down. This idea that individuals are obligated to speak for their assigned, identified group means that a group of people who share a common identifier all share the same interests. They don't. This shows up over and over again, whether in the form of Log Cabin Republicans or Trump-supporting African Americans or pro-life women or lesbians who want to get the L out of LGBTQ. Is Pressley's take on folks like these, who do not toe the party line of their group identity, that they should not speak? That their individual voices are unwelcome if they do not hold the perceived, progressive line of their identity group?
Her remarks ignore the very real diversity within identity groups, and assume that an identity determines a person’s perspective. It may inform it, but it doesn’t dictate it. Nor should it.
Who or what body is meant to determine what the group thinks? Is there to be a board of some kind that comes up with a list of perspectives that are acceptable for the group to agree? Who gets to decide what group thoughts the group should think?
Does Pressley believe she is only talking about marginalized group identities, or does this directive apply to those who are from majority identity groups as well? Should heterosexuals go out there and presume to speak for all heterosexuals? Should men speak for all men?
And that most disturbing of questions, given what we know about history, should white people be going out there and speaking for all white people? Do all white people have the same interests? As a white person, the answer is absolutely not, and obviously that’s for the best.
What equality means is not that individuals are beholden to their identity group, but to their own hearts and minds. In the case of intersectional identities, who gets to decide which group an individual must speak for? Is it the most marginalized? The one that's more visible?
The inherent demand in Pressley's remarks is that an individual must put their group identity ahead of their own wants, interests or ideas. It turns individuals into mouthpieces for ideology instead of people with their own agency, desires and concerns. Writers are hit with this kind of thing all the time.
When a black writer writes, they are asked more often than not their perspective on black identity politics. Same goes for Asian, Muslim, and Latinx writers. As a woman writer myself, I am asked to write on issues concerning women, even though my interests and research areas are broad, and extend well beyond feminism, women's issues, or female identity issues.
Each person must speak for themselves, and not feel a pull to represent anyone they were not elected to represent.
Pressley was one of four congresswomen recently targeted by Trump in tweets, though not by name:
In response, she held a press conference with her fellow freshmen reps, Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). In this press conference, she said that "despite the occupant of the White House attempts to marginalize us and to silence us, please know: we are more than four people. We ran on a mandate to advocate for and represent those left out and left behind. Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world."
Those are words for the big tent, but digging into Pressley's views on individuals' responsibility to put group interests ahead of their own is divisive. It is a way to control the public narrative as a battle between identity groups, instead of what it is: an ongoing attempt by a vast and diverse citizenry to maintain a society of equals.