As many Virginians involved in politics, I received an invitation to the inauguration of Ralph Northam a few weeks ago. It was addressed to me. But in hindsight, I see that the weekend of celebrating a win for Northam was not really intended for a gal like me.
After having almost two weeks to ponder these mysteries, let me tell you why.
No matter what demographic, everyone loves a celebration. And no matter how you identify, most folks I know love a good party. So maybe the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA) did think of me, with their “message” of welcoming all. Perhaps, I was just being jaded, so I planned my weekend accordingly.
Right away, I wasn’t thrilled about being outside; tons of people, and a speech that was emblematic of Northam not including words such as “Black”, “African American” or “People of Color”. Simply speaking of a “unique” history when referring to the organized genocide and treasonous acts against our African ancestors is not enough in the former Capital of the Confederacy. Maintaining this traditional white-washed, colorblind, political speech repeatedly fails to recognize the lives that are continuing to be lost due to the systemic oppression the Civil War and slave trade historically caused.
Knowing this was Northam’s MO, I decided to skip the ceremony.
After the inauguration was the ball, I considered going for the Princess Tiana style (“The Princess and the Frog”), and represent the first black royalty of Disney. As with any princess story, I would want a plus one, so two tickets for the ball please: that’ll be a total of $500.
Wypipo translation: Wait a minute. To someone in my demographic, this seems like a problem. There are many establishments, events, and even zip codes I know are not for me; so why does the most distinguished inauguration event translate to the most expensive and the most inaccessible to the true progressive base – the same one that ushered in a Northam victory.
If Virginia is aiming to move away from toxic politics, shouldn’t our top Democrats have to display the courage to refuse the influence poison that travels from their pockets to our policy?
As I continued to look at inaugural events I continued to notice ticket prices that cost $50 and up. The Metro Richmond Young Democrats (MRAYD) were hosting their second annual Millennial Toast and that was only $35. You know, a price that addresses the millennial economic reality… thanks, guys.
I was gifted a ticket to the First Lady’s Brunch from a local advocate, who knows what that ticket would have cost had I bought it. I’m a policy junkie, not a fashionista, therefore I’ve run out of items to wear to these political events and had to purchase a $35 dress and new tights that won’t run and will keep me warm – another $10.
The separation between how I see my total spend of $80 on inaugural events versus something even higher now has to also be viewed through the lens of class. I can see $80 as difficult, but to some, it is impossible. Yet to the inauguration committee, their audience would not have thought twice over an $80 or higher weekend of events.
Which asks the next question. Why shouldn’t I have been the intended audience for the entire weekend inauguration celebration? Black women, young people, and the progressive coalition ensured Northam’s victory. Was he the best Democratic candidate? Debatable. But we vote for survival in today’s political climate – more on this later. Nonetheless, I got to participate without having to withstand the frigid cold of his swearing in.
Speaking of the cold, how are those Richmond public housing residents who still don’t have heat? This stinging sense of irony was not lost on me, after just touring the freezing homes of our low-income residents who were less than a mile away from the inaugural ceremonies. That fact that the only free celebratory event put on by the inauguration – was also outside – in the cold – was not lost on me.
Low-income Virginia voters were obviously not the intended audience for such a weekend based on the cost of tickets. But, I’ll ask again. What about me? I’m a person of color. I’m middle class. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a master of clinical social work. I’m a cis-het female. I’m a millennial. I’m a mother and I’m a registered voter. In these political situations, I usually identify as a black woman first. But I noticed within the black folks in attendance, it was my lack of discretionary income that kept me feeling like an outsider; it was my economic class.
And just like that, it hit me. My anxiety triggered because I know the complications that can come from balancing intersecting needs in politics, such as race and class. I recognize it from the 2017 campaign trail when the Democrats said Northam would make 2018 the year of women. As I supported his campaign, I was still yelling for the word “black” to be added as a prefix to my womanhood. “Say Black Women Ralph!,” but per usual, I did not feel fully represented. The time it would take to include the words “women of color” would only be a few seconds, but the addition to his support would be exponential.
This was something also on display at the First Lady’s Brunch at – you guessed it – the Jefferson Hotel where the average weekend stay is $285 per night. Angela Patton is the CEO for Girls for Change, which is a non-profit that provides programming for inspiring vision within black girls and other girls of color. She gave an amazing introduction to the brunch and when she said, ‘Girls for a Change, starts with the most powerful and wasted resource on the planet- girls,’ everyone erupted in cheers and applause.
She then added, “specifically girls of color,” and surprisingly to me, I was the only person to clap raucously. The crowd, in typical awkwardness, joined me in applauding, but the message was clear. The words “girls of color” were not valued in a speech within the context of this audience. This was further validated as race, ethnicity, or any recognition of color was never spoken about during the rest of the event – not even by the First Lady as she spoke about children in need.
After the brunch, I asked the First Lady why she didn’t use the words “black”, “brown”, or “of color”. Her response included a three-course meal of political doublespeak. The appetizer was the line of needing more “studies” to see who was actually in need, the entrée was a very large portion of “concern” for not wanting to use words that label people, and finally, for dessert, a slice of how such words can be “divisive”.
I looked around in confusion upon hearing Pam Northam’s words. I had to make sure that I hadn’t stumbled into a Republican event given this is their talking point. The First Lady had said this to me with such ease, not appearing to realize the disconnect of inviting Girls for a Change to be the face of her event, while at the same time, not using her platform to recognize them fully in her words. This took me back to my experiences with her husband on the campaign trail and attempting to be seen and heard as a woman of color.
Luckily, I have interacted with Governor Northam during the campaign trail and have witnessed a genuine desire to listen to his constituents. Now it is the voters turn to wait and listen to the messages being sent in words and policy, as well as the non-verbal messages, such as pricing for these inaugural events. We must protect those still experiencing intersectional oppression in Virginia, while at the same time, advocating around economic injustices.
The themes being sent by Virginia’s new administration are quiet in nature, but heavy in impact. The price points during the inaugural weekend sent a message that those with political influence or those with enough money to have influence are the ones who should be appreciated or celebrated. The lack of color in Northam’s speeches sends the message that the policies will lack equity to address historically disenfranchised communities. Yet in this political climate, it is up to us to assess, recognize, and call out these messages to protect justice for all of us. Uncovering toxic politics allows us to recognize when a three-letter word like “all” has been historic in dividing us while leading with the illusion of inclusivity.
All men are created equal, All lives matter; Virginians should no longer trust the word “all” from any politician without specific intersections being addressed. That way the community can in unison say we are excited about #TheWayAhead, but we must first demand that there be #OneVA as well.