A Seat at the Table is Not Enough

I was raised to not rock the boat. It may be on account of the hierarchy-conscious aspects of South Asian culture – my family is from Pakistan and moved to the United States in 1980. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in America during a time of relative prosperity – I was a child of the eighties, and an angsty teen of the nineties worrying more about wearing the right kind of plaid rather than what kind of job I would get. Or maybe it is because I spent the majority of my career as civil servant in the U.S. government, where being risk-averse and ideologically muted comes with professionally benefits.

Today, as I watch the fresh faces of the Democratic party viewed as rocking the boat, I see a striking similarity to myself: they are all women of color. Contrast this with how white progressive men in politics are viewed. Bernie Sanders, for example, is distinctly not rocking the boat – rather, he is leading a global socialist revolution. The line between in-your-face activism and revolution is a fine one based on race and power.

Non-white Americans in the Democratic party can sit at the table but they should not have any preconceived notions of what that means. They are agents of diversity, not the immediate beneficiaries of it. They exist to advance the agenda of a party that remains moored to an antiquated notion of diversity, one rooted in dynamics of race and power where white people with influence have to bring in more diversity to show progress.

I believe that Democratic leaders genuinely want more diverse political representation, but what about the progress? The ugly secret which Congressional leaders like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveil is that to benefit from having a seat at the table, you still have to fight pretty damn hard to convince the world that your issues are basic quality of life issues rather than issues that exist by virtue of your identity. This is why identity politics as an organizing tool has failed.

I don’t want to have a seat at the table because I am a Pakistani-American or was raised Muslim. I want to be there because I’m smart, have good ideas, and share with my fellow citizens an aspiration for a better America. Congresswoman Tlaib nailed it when she said: “They put us in photos when they want to show our party is diverse. However, when we ask to be at the table, or speak up about issues that impact who we are, what we fight for & why we ran in the first place, we are ignored.”

I’ve been in many of those photos during my public service at the U.S. Department of State and at the White House National Security Council during the Obama Administration. I like to think that I got there because I worked hard. I also benefited from the guidance and mentorship of many Democratic political insiders. But, I always felt like the approach to diversity was too deliberative and politically motivated. Furthermore, when I saw who was making the decisions and those in positions in power, there were still too many white men – young and old – to convince me of an easy flight path for the professional success of anyone who wasn’t one.

To the future Democratic political candidates, if you tout diversity, then voters who value it will look for a track record that reflects your verbal commitments. Think twice about who runs your campaigns, gives you advice, and whom you empower. It should not be only white men; unfortunately, this is still the case, even after the growing influence of so many non-white communities in American politics.

If we don’t fix this, any attempts to capture the imaginations and political leanings of non-white progressives and liberals will fail and all of us committed to progress and liberal ideals are in for an even bigger internal reckoning than what Donald J. Trump offered in 2016. To be clear, bringing in minorities – all kinds – demands an appreciation of their personal experiences and diversity – but not a fetishization of them.

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