●The first openly transgender state senator.
●The first woman of color to be elected to Congress from Missouri.
●The first openly gay Black member of Congress AND the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress.
The first. The first. The first.
In the days since the election, those two words have appeared repeatedly on news sites and in social media posts, often followed by uplifting sentiments and exclamation points. Sometimes multiple exclamation points.
“So much good has already happened in this election. A lot of firsts. Representation matters!!” says a post on Twitter.
“Even with the chaos and confusion around the Presidential Election many firsts are to be celebrated!” says another.
And another: “The amount of firsts happening with this election is truly incredible. Now if Biden could just get to 270 we’ll also have the first female VP and she’s black!”
This has been an exhaustingly divisive year that has seen both a virus too small for the unaided eye to detect and brutality too large to ignore take, and then take some more, from communities of color and people who identify as LGBTQ+. But the year also saw many people from those groups compelled to push back. To protest injustices and inequalities. To feed neighbors who risked going hungry because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. To step out of shadows that had been made comfortable over generations.
Against that backdrop, those election “firsts” are reason for celebration. They are societal victories that take us closer to making sure the people who speak for us more closely represent us. That they get us.
In a photo Cori Bush posted on social media, she stands with her arms crossed and a single finger pointed upward. Just two words appear above the image: “The First.”
Bush, an activist who protested the police killing of Michael Brown, will become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress. In a powerful speech she gave following the election, she addressed the uniqueness of the voice she brings to that position.
She described herself as having been “that person running for my life across a parking lot, . . . that uninsured person, hoping my health-care provider wouldn’t embarrass me by asking me if I had insurance, . . . that single parent struggling paycheck to paycheck, . . . that covid-19 patient, gasping for breath. . . . ”
“I’m still that same person,” Bush said. She added: “We have been surviving and grinding, just scraping by for so long, and now this is our moment to finally, finally start living. Let’s finally start living. Let’s finally start growing. Let’s finally start thriving. So, as the first Black woman, and also the first nurse and single mother, to have the honor to represent Missouri in the United States Congress, let me say this: To the Black women. The Black girls. The nurses. The essential workers. The single mothers. This is our moment.”
In a statement Mondaire Jones released after New York voters made him the first Black openly gay congressman, he thanked the volunteers who “worked tirelessly for months to elect someone the political establishment counted out.”
“Growing up, I never imagined someone like me could run for Congress, let alone get elected,” his statement began. “To grow up poor, Black, and gay is to not see yourself anywhere.”
To not see yourself anywhere. Anyone who has ever sat in a room and been expected to speak for an entire racial, ethnic or other type of group knows exactly what those words mean. They mean code switching and fighting impostor syndrome and sitting with a joke on the tip of your tongue, not knowing if it will produce laughter that will help you forge connections with people who grew up differently from you, or blank stares that will make you feel even more disconnected.
●The first South Asians to represent the lower house of New York’s state legislature.
●The first openly nonbinary state lawmaker in the country who is also the first Muslim lawmaker in Oklahoma.
●The first Korean American woman elected to Congress who is also the first Black Congress member from Washington state.
The list goes on. And if we look at elections in cities and towns, it expands to include titles such as “the first female mayor” and “the first Latino sheriff.”
Many of those were Democratic candidates, but the issue behind these firsts goes beyond blue vs. red. The election also saw the first Republican Native American woman elected to Congress. It is about representation. And what the volume of those firsts shows is just how far we were from a government that truly represents the people it serves.
They show the slow pace of progress in a country that remains in many ways socially and economically segregated, because, in 2020, when technology makes it possible for us to look up anything about any culture at any time, here we are still applauding sentences that begin with, “The first woman,” “The first openly gay,” and “The first Black man.”
Those election firsts should bring us joy. But they should also bother us and push us to not let the conversation end with those exclamation points.
While sifting through responses to the election results in different races, I found mentions of another type of first that offers hope: people caring for the first time about the roles they play in elections.
“I have a confession to make,” reads a tweet from a D.C. educator. “This election led to many ‘firsts’ for me. It’s the first where I spent actual time looking up DC candidates . . . and tried to convince many of my Latinx family to vote. . . . Many of my family did not want to vote because they didn’t feel their vote mattered or they were busy with real life things. Fortunately, many of them did!”
The post was written while ballots were still being counted in the presidential election, and before it was announced Kamala D. Harris would be the first female vice president, but already he was thinking past those results.
The last line: “I plan to keep this up in future elections!”
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