Sunday, May 31, 2009

Identity Politics

At first I was amused but now I've grown downright annoyed at the attention paid to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's comment about being a Latina. Specifically, in a speech delivered in 2001 at U.C. Berkeley, she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Immediately, the chattering classes began to debate what this meant. Though I'll admit that her comment was inelegant and imprecise, something that happens to regular people when they speak, I suspect that what she meant is that her identity and her experiences inform her life and her viewpoint; her way of understanding the world.

Well, of course it does.

My life is shaped by my identity. In things big and small, the way I understand the world is shaped by the identities in which I find meaning. The list is long and it changes. I'm a woman, a mother, a teacher, I'm a 41 year old, I grew up in California but live in New Jersey now, I've lived in the Midwest and the South, I'm a political scientist and an historian, I'm a white protestant; I'm gay, I'm a single parent. I'm a cook, a gardener and a reader.

And now I will stop because that's a long list and nowhere close to complete. The political scientist in me remembers a phrase used to understand bureaucracies and the ways in which institutions shape our world view. That phrase is "where you sit is where you stand." In short, it means that the identities you have shape your view. I explain it to my students by noting that if they came to class one day as a teacher instead of a student, they would act as the teacher (or how they believe the teacher would act). And that behavior would be shaped by the teachers they know, especially those who have influenced them the most.

In so many ways, as my identity has grown and changed, I have become a different person. I was a teacher before I was a mother, and that transition made me see things from a whole other viewpoint. I'm a better teacher for becoming a mama. Does that mean that teachers who aren't parents aren't as understanding and as capable? Of course not. That means what it means: being a parent changed my identity and consequently changed my world view. I think it's made me a better teacher. I know it's made me a different teacher.

At the founding of our nation, James Madison recommended that our government officials have "an intimate sympathy" with the people whom they represented and governed. Thoughtful people, and that includes Judge Sotomayor, understand that the ways in which we view the world are a function of our experiences and the ways in which we have come to understand those experiences. That doesn't make her biased. It makes her human. And in my estimation, thinking humans with a diversity of experiences are exactly what we need on the Supreme Court.

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