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Confronting Identity Politics, Until We Are No Longer Damned BY Johanna Gusman

This month marked exactly one year since I first filed to run for state office in Virginia, unwittingly becoming part of the record number of women running for office after Trump’s election. Unfortunately, it also marks the beginning of my unemployment after my former boss, Elizabeth Warren, left the presidential race following Super Tuesday. There is just so much to unpack and process—not to mention all of this is happening amidst a global pandemic, a fact that makes my inner turmoil match the world’s outer chaos. As I come to terms with the exclusionary nature of our political system and digest my campaign experiences, I thought it best to share this process on the very platform that helped me confront the general unease I felt (and still feel) about the state of our democracy: The Brown Girls Guide to Politics.

My entrance into politics, like many women of color, was a non-traditional one. I come from a mixed family. My father is Filipino-Hawaiian and my mother of German descent, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. You cannot tell she is my mother unless you see my father. In fact, family folklore has it that when I got my baby photos—you know, those cheesy, circa 1980s Sear’s portraits with the face weirdly superimposed above another—the photographer commented on how lovely it was to see an adopted child receive such fanfare. My mom promptly picked me up and left in protest to such an assumption. We all laugh recounting it. Less humorous is the reality that those assumptions of where I did and did not belong ran deep. The white side of my family never really accepted my father until I was born and they could see the beauty that comes from mixing not only genes but cultures, traditions, and worldviews; the ultimate superimposition that gave my partly brown family its identity.

For better or for worse, confronting identity is an integral part of running for office, especially for women of color. And like most of my life, how I present myself and how I am perceived are two entirely different things. While I view myself as an accomplished human rights lawyer, Fulbright scholar and public health expert (before deciding to run for office, I had only been home for a few months after a five-year stint abroad working with the United Nations in places like Manila, Cairo, and Geneva), people viewed me as this little brown girl, a complete political newcomer, entering a race to which I was not invited. The Party was not happy, and neither were the men against whom I was running.

But at the beginning of 2019, when my Governor, Ralph Northam, and my Attorney General, Mark Herring, were outed for blackface alongside a #MeToo incident with Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, I concluded that Virginia had a crisis of male leadership at its top. I didn’t need an invitation to enter politics—gender parity seemed reason enough. No woman was running for this open seat in my home district, so I became that woman. With a little push from a wonderful organization called Emerge (shout out to A’shanti Gholar), paired with a burning desire to ‘think globally, act locally’, I ran as a Democratic Nominee for Representative of the 87th District in the Virginia General Assembly. I entered the race at the filing deadline with about 90 days to make my campaign viable. Thanks to endorsements from EMILY’s List, People Power Virginia and Virginia’s List, I raised the necessary monies I needed without ascending into debt. I did not make it past my primary, but I did end up with about 20% of the vote despite my all-male opponents being in the race for almost a year. It wasn’t a win, but it’s something.

The reason my campaign was able to get so much attention in such little time was that I tried to make it about people and the progressive issues that they cared about, not solely my identity. Considering my background, my sensitivity to the societal calibrations needed to address acute injustices (talk to any mixed child and they will have a similar receptivity to inequities because it’s our lived experience); it is no wonder that I ran on the platform I did. I became known for wearing a jean jacket adorned with dozens of buttons—things like ‘Virginia is for Lovers NOT for Pipelines’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Keep Families Together’, ‘VA Green New Deal’, etc.— that spoke to the ‘progressive’ values of a diverse community. It felt raw, real, and transformative. At least to me.

But naturally, my perception from others may have been something else entirely. Take for example an earned media faux pas my campaign encountered. I reached out to various media outlets knowing that I was part of one of the most diverse primaries in Virginia’s history, wanting this notable story to be covered. I organized for all the primary candidates to be interviewed and shared my family’s story, my educational background, and my inspiring run as a progressive seeking office. But in the lead up to the primary, what was the dominant headline in the race? The Washington Post read: ‘In this suburban Democratic primary, all 4 candidates are first-generation Americans’. Certainly inspiring, but the trouble is that I am not a first-generation American. I was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia. People saw four brown people running and fit the narrative to the stereotypes they knew. Another presentation of myself that did not match my perception. I felt fraudulent for being labeled with an identity that did not belong to me.

After losing my primary, I felt a bit lost and thought I’d leave the political realm and return to my international career, but fortunately, the Warren Campaign recruited me to be a statewide community organizer. Apparently, they caught wind of my brief yet effective campaign and knowing the importance of Virginia being a democratic stronghold in the presidential run, offered me a role that kept me at the frontlines of making history—helping elect our first woman president. I had the opportunity to work in my home state with the most diverse campaign I have ever seen, for one of the most competent, qualified women to ever run for our highest office. There was just no question that I would organize for her and follow her to the White House.

Obviously, that dream did not come true, and upon reflection, I cannot help but compare my own experience to Warren’s. Of course, my run was nowhere near the scale of a presidential campaign and I can hardly compare myself to a Senator, but the issue of confronting identity remains salient. Warren presented herself as a well-planned, compassionate, selfie-loving, progressive leader, but no matter how hard the campaign tried to avoid it, Warren was simply perceived as another white woman who would lose to Trump. There will be many takes on ‘what went wrong’ for the Warren Campaign, but I want to simply say this: when the vague notion of ‘electability’ is what people decide to vote on, it is no wonder that we are left with two old white men at the top. Every person of color and every woman is now out of the race. Our current power structure, particularly in politics, was simply not meant to empower either of those two groups.

And that is precisely why it is so important for brown women to run. An old white man is still what identifies as power and it’s more a reflection of America than it is of the quality of candidates. Until the default identity for ‘electable’ directly includes women of color, our job is not finished. It’s not fair and it’s certainly not timely, but it is what I am left with at the end of my year’s jaunt in politics. It is the proverbial ‘so close yet so far away’ paradox. Women will always be damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Until we are no longer damned.

Johanna is a human rights lawyer and activist with a background in global health based in Washington, DC. Her proudest political moment was getting arrested outside of Susan Collin’s office during the Kavanaugh confirmation. She’s been in politics ever since.

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