First-term Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presents us with a unique opportunity to engage a social experiment. What experiment you might ask? Namely this: one of the beautiful things about hip-hop music lies in its ability to be adapted to any happening imaginable. If you think long enough, there is a hip-hop lyric that suffices to speak to every experience.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is no different.
In putting forth that argument, I draw from The D.O.C.’s 1989 visuals in the song, “It’s Funky Enough.”
I also draw from the release of Onyx’s 1995 “Last Dayz” to invoke the spirit and energy of the search for what’s funky and next, in addition to speaking to the paranoia surrounding the contemporary political moment and what pundits think might happen if the AOCs of the world become the benchmark for progressive legislation and a push towards greater equity in society.
So how does this all apply to Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican woman representing a congressional district covering parts of the Bronx and Queens? It is no secret that the Congresswoman has at some points found herself at the center of some controversy and some deserved props, whether it is challenging the politics as usual approach that mindlessly supports party over substance, or the ability to forcefully hold folks accountable, highlighting loopholes that have been exploited countless times. Ocasio-Cortez has proven herself more than capable of being a leader and a refreshing voice of change, clear-headed and sharp, as a colleague suggested, fearless and unfazed by expectations to bow down to rookie rhetoric on Capitol Hill. However, these stances don’t come without detractors, whether it is a critique of her eating habits or mode of transport, her every decision is picked apart as a reflection of her class, gender, politics, brand, and more importantly, her race.
The recent fallout with Laura Ingraham is no different. Recently dubbed a “phenom” and appearing on the cover of TIME, Ocasio-Cortez has been at the center of Laura Ingraham’s scorn for having “minority privilege” and for deploying that privilege in the most undemocratic of manners by naming and calling out manifestations of white privilege. That being the case, white privilege was on full display as Laura Ingraham recently shared a segment with Joe DiGenova wherein the conversation inexplicably shifted from the devalued standards of journalism to Ocasio-Cortez.
— Jason Campbell (@JasonSCampbell) March 20, 2019
Ingraham suggested that Ocasio-Cortez does the “Obama thing,” adopting (and adapting) accents in an attempt to appease her audience. From there, DiGenova offered his own take on Ingraham’s invocation of Obama, by suggesting that Ocasio-Cortez does the “Latina thing,” where he proceeds to pronounce her name in an exaggerated fashion—an attempt to approximate how a native Spanish-speaker might pronounce their name (to an assumed Spanish-speaking audience). In the process of mucking up Ocasio-Cortez’s name (referring to Alexandria as “Anastasia” in his Italian accent), DiGenova invokes his own performance of the masquerade (offering what we might consider to be a less Americanized pronunciation of his own name, dare we say the “white male thing”), calling attention to his own ethnic origins (and difference), while placating the sentiments of nativism, conservative ideology, and the rhetoric of assimilation (a collective mashup we might call, the white paper bag test!).
The illustration of difference via linguistic practice attempts to highlight the false pretenses that undergird Ocasio-Cortez’s American (success) story. This further reinforces the idea that Ocasio-Cortez’s legislative agenda falls outside the purview of what’s good or right for democracy. Moreover, the comment seeks to assuage feelings that while Ocasio-Cortez is experiencing some popularity and attention, she should be read as a passing fad within democratic, and by extension political circles. Deflecting attempts to find a substantive reason to disagree with difference, DiGenova and Ingraham are informing their core audience that, yes, this too shall pass, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents an exotic brand of the exotic itself—an unassimilable fusion of politics and being. While DiGenova arrogantly assumes that Ocasio-Cortez will like said pronunciation, Ingraham further exoticizes the pronunciation, by not hiding how elated she is at the sound of that exotic pronunciation. It reminded me of this sequence at the opening of the comedy film, Wedding Crashers.
The more disturbing reality here is that the exchange between DiGenova and Ingraham reinforces the very diluted nature of journalism they critique in the moments leading up to AOC’s name. Ingraham infantilizes Ocasio-Cortez by referring to her as a “girl.” She then proceeds to clean that up by suggesting that she means that “in the most mature of ways.” The entire segment is dripping in manifestations of white privilege. By drawing a parallel between AOC and Obama’s diction, cadence, and its performance vis-á-vis audience, there is an allusion to the reality of code-switching, which underscores both the inability (DiGenova and Ingraham) to differentiate between AOC and Obama’s code-switching, and an erasure of the ways in which POCs (that is people of color—minorities) both monitor and modify their relationship to forms of presentation and being depending on the spaces and places they occupy (and those they share with others).
Many a time, these manifestations of code-switching are linguistic markers of difference that exist in tandem with dress (in the political arena), a survival mechanism that effectively disarms audiences (or attempts to momentarily disrupt them) in their gaze, a socially and culturally constructed script of difference that readily lends itself to stereotype, vitriol, and caricature. Minus AOC’s presence or an example illustrating the argument driven by said analysis, Ingraham and her guest proceed to expose and exploit Ocasio-Cortez in her deft efforts to simultaneously speak to and occupy spaces where audiences are undoubtedly coexisting within the temporal boundaries of the local and national.
The problem lies with Ingraham and DiGenova. Not only are they (intentionally) revelling in the cheeky nature of their white privilege, defined by partial humor, cultural criticism, and political commentary, they are doing so defying the cardinal rules of code-switching (namely, that you do not point out when it is happening, nor exploit said person for doing so). Thus, what is unwritten and unspoken, yet readily understood to be a norm (amongst communities of color) —particularly within spaces and institutions where whiteness, its approximation, cultural norms, and mannerisms go unquestioned (often demarcated/masked as “middle-class”)— exists as yet another added layer of ridicule, demonization, and the default position of self-anointed othering.
Such a stance ignores the emotional, psychological, cultural, and arguably, physical labor involved in cultivating a know-how that functions as both arms (in the sense of being equipped with a tool/skillset) and armor, a means of deflecting so as to be empowered and further the existence of a “safe space” from which other others can be enabled in their own being within knowing. Furthermore, the exchange between Ingraham and DiGenova reinforces the idea that Ocasio-Cortez not only looks like a language (Spanish), but sounds like a race (Latina? Hispanic? Other? Pick your exotic nationality of the moment…or just lazily conflate notions of language, nationality, and race by referring to AOC. as “Spanish”), to riff on the brilliant and groundbreaking work of Stanford anthropologist Jonathan Rosa.
All of this collectively highlights the erasures of these competencies (cultural, social, emotional, and linguistic) within the actual labor of legislating. That is to suggest, that rhetoric and thinly veiled references to professionalism effectively glosses over the very practices employed by politicians ALL ACROSS THE COUNTRY irrespective of political party! Moreover, the comments and fetishization of AOC and her linguistic practices (not even accounting for whether or not Ocasio-Cortez actually speaks Spanish, or the realities faced by Spanish-speakers given the generations they’ve spent in this country) implicates the kinds of concerns and outrage minorities are taxed with in their quest to be their authentic and ideal selves, let alone doing so while attempting to bring forth social change.
The exchange further reinvigorates conversations around the unfair burdens placed upon those “privileged minorities,” whom Ingraham identified as those who would dare call out white supremacy, a tax whose brunt is bore by those same bodies. Min Jin Lee poignantly addresses these disparate taxes through a dialogue in her second novel, Pachinko. The exchange between Solomon and Kazu is worth quoting at length:
Kazu: “Okay, tough guy…listen, there is a tax, you know, on success.”
Kazu: “If you do well at anything, you gotta pay up to all those people who did worse. On the other hand, if you do badly, life makes you pay a shit tax, too. Everybody pays something.”
Kazu looked at him soberly.
“Of course, the worst one is the tax on the mediocre. Now that one’s a bitch.”
“Pay attention: the ones who pay the shit tax are mostly people who were born in the wrong place and the wrong time and are hanging on to the planet by their broken fingernails. They don’t even know the fucking rules of the game. You can’t even get mad at ‘em when they lose. Life just fucks and fucks and fucks bastards like that.” Kazu wrinkled his brow in resignation, like he was somewhat concerned about life’s inequities but not very. He took a deep breath. “So, those losers have to climb Mount Everest to get out of hell, and maybe one or two in five hundred thousand break out, but the rest pay the shit tax all their lives, then they die. If God exists and if He’s fair, then it makes sense that in the afterlife, those guys should get better seats.”
Solomon nodded, not understanding where this was going.
Kazu’s stare remained unbroken. “But all those able-bodied middle-class people who are scared of their shadows, well, they pay the mediocre tax in regular quarterly installments with compounding interest. When you play it safe, that’s what happens, my friend. So if I were you, I wouldn’t throw any games. I’d use every fucking advantage. Beat anyone who fucks with you to a fucking pulp.
Show no mercy to chumps, especially if they don’t deserve it. Make the pussies cry.”
“So then the success tax comes from envy, and the shit tax comes from exploitation. Okay.” Solomon nodded like he was starting to get it. “Then what’s the mediocre tax? How can it be wrong to–?”
“Good question young Jedi. The tax for being mediocre comes from you and everyone else knowing that you are mediocre. It’s a heavier tax than you’d think.”
Minorities must represent (silently and unconsciously as per Ingraham’s and DiGenova’s comments) and be above being reprehensible. Ingraham and DiGenova are making Ocasio-Cortez pay the “success tax,” glossing over the societal conditions that contribute to a “shit tax,” all the while upholding what seems like a “mediocre tax.”
In showing their receipts for said “mediocre tax,” Ingraham and DiGenova grossly underestimate that which is privileged within whiteness. White folks (not a homogenous identity) neither ask one another to perform their nationality, nor do they hold one another accountable for not upholding a consciousness about their heritage.
This inaction, an approximation and performance of “Americanness” or rather whiteness, is in fact a pillar of their white privilege. In exercising that privilege, they reinforce Ocasio-Cortez’s othered body, while essentially questioning her ability or inability to fundamentally own and perform whiteness as an ontological and epistemological fact of American identity (and democracy). A failure to do so, not only reinforces AOC’s exotic body, it effectively places her outside democracy’s scope of credibility and legitimacy. In the current state of a fragile democracy, Ingraham and DiGenova’s inability to meet Ocasio-Cortez where she is at all points to a failure to do better given the troubled history of whiteness in this country.
That particular brand of mediocre whiteness… well… it’s funky enough…