Code Switch
9:22 am
Thu May 9, 2013

On Behalf Of [BLANK] People Everywhere ...

Originally published on Thu May 9, 2013 12:23 pm

When Cleveland officials announced charges against Ariel Castro — the suspected kidnapper of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight — prosecutor Victor Perez wanted to make sure people knew where the city's "Puerto Rican community" stood.

"As the chief prosecutor for the city of Cleveland, born and raised in Puerto Rico, I want everyone to know that the acts of the defendant in the criminal case are not a reflection of the rest of the Puerto Rican community here or in Puerto Rico," he said.

Perez wasn't alone. "When the house that the girls were held captive in was shown on the news, I couldn't help but notice the swaying Puerto Rican flag on the porch," Arielle M. Rios wrote in an essay for ABC News. "My father Manuel's reaction was that this could bring a lot of shame to the community. These horrific acts are in no way a reflection of all Puerto Rican men."

It's notable that Perez and Rios felt the need to speak up on behalf of Cleveland's Puerto Rican community. Equally notable is the common sentiment they express: This man does not represent us.

You could see a similar dynamic at play in an ABC News interview with Bill Richardson this past weekend. Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and presidential candidate, was asked his opinion of Ted Cruz, the Republican junior senator from Texas who, like Richardson, is Latino. He took the opportunity not just to say that he didn't care for Cruz but to cast him out of Latino-dom.

"He's anti-immigration," Richardson said. "Almost every Hispanic in the country wants to see immigration reform. I don't think he should be defined as a Hispanic."

There was no Hispanic governing body that vested Richardson with these powers; he was simply sliding into a common role for someone from a minority group — speaking on behalf of that group. Several folks in public life become avatars of their races or ethnicities, either by self-appointment or by popular or media designation. And Cruz, whom Richardson is distancing from the group, is in a familiar position as well.

People who belong to minority groups — not just racial and ethnic groups, but religious, sexual and other minorities as well — routinely get cast in these roles vis-a-vis their racial or ethnic group — speaking on behalf of the group, having their membership in the group questioned, etc. In our observation, there are at least four of these roles:

The Exemplars

These are the folks who become a kind of shorthand for a group's ascendance or growing cultural clout, or the avatars of that group's aspirations. Lines snake around city blocks to hear Justice Sonia Sotomayor talk about her memoir. Family pictures of the Obamas adorn thousands of Facebook walls.

Folks — particularly those who share a racial or ethnic lineage with these individuals — take an active interest in their continued success.

But sometimes the Exemplars are foisted upon us. Tons of Asian-Americans who didn't otherwise care much about basketball were asked and expected to have an opinion about Jeremy Lin during his dizzying, electrifying performance last season. Aren't you so proud??? It's the credit-to-your-race phenomenon.

There's a paradox to Exemplar-dom. Because these Exemplars are the avatars of the condition of Group X, they get dehumanized in the process. They become the subjects of empty, hagiographic biographies. They're not actual people but ideals to be aspired to, superheroes. And you know how it goes with superheroes: with great power comes great responsibility. Their mundane flaws and tics become magnified and are often seen as having some larger cultural significance.

The Officials ("Who died and made you King of the Negroes?")

While the Exemplars ostensibly achieve prominence through organic support, there are other folks who grab the mic and speak on behalf of Group X.

These spokesmen might swoop in during some moment of controversy and let folks know where "the community" stands. Or if some poor soul needed to absolve him/herself of some offense to Group X, he/she could seek out a spokesman as a sort of racial confessor. The spokesman, sufficiently placated after some meeting or whatever, may then turn to the public and say something along the lines of "Everybody can chill, we talked it out and s/he's cool now."

See: Jesse Jackson granting absolution to Michael "Kramer" Richards after his notorious rant at a comedy club. ("I know I've hurt [the African-American community] very, very deeply," Richards said to Jackson. "Now I can say I'm deeply sorry for this and proceed to go to healing.")

Since these (usually self-appointed) spokesmen and institutions aren't necessarily operating with a great consensus, they can be polarizing both outside and within the communities they claim to represent. (And because they're considered "the voice" of their group they can flatten the dynamism and range of opinions that exist inside that group.)

But these spokesmen aren't just attention hounds. One of the trade-offs to being an Exemplar is that Exemplars don't have nearly as much agency to say what they think — they have to be the good guys. Will Smith's Will Smithness, for example, is kind of contingent on his being inoffensive. But the Officials can play it much less safe. They're often good at drumming up media and press attention.

There are groups that act as Officials — like the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund or the NAACP — who function as advocates for the groups they represent. They play a big role in whether some incident remains just an incident or whether it becomes A Thing around which people might mobilize. And while those organizations might at times be on the receiving end of some side-eyes, they often do wield some real legitimacy within Group X.

The Iconoclasts

The Iconoclasts are the folks who fashion themselves as dispensers of unpopular Real Talk and who will speak truth to power even if it flies in the face of the perceived critical mass of the people of Group X. And perhaps understandably, these folks tend to be popular with people who think that Group X, in the aggregate, is lying to itself. Ruben Navarrette, the Latino commentator who argued that the AP should have continued to use the term "illegal immigrant," and Shelby Steele, who has been an outspoken critic of the civil rights establishment and initiatives like affirmative action, are other examples.

Like the Officials, they often get side-eyes from people who suspect that they're shills. And Iconoclasts have neither the robust (if limiting) adoration of the Exemplars or the Officials' ability to raise a ruckus; inside Group X, they might inspire a pronounced, complicated ambivalence. I wish s/he would go sit down somewhere.

Outcasts — "S/he Ain't With Us"

No one is ambivalent about these people. The Outcast has usually done or been accused of doing something grievously, incontrovertibly wrong. These are people who have been cast as a kind of anti-ideal, figures of almost universal disdain within Group X. Think Jayson Blair or Kwame Kilpatrick or Tiger Woods during the very public implosion of his marriage.

These folks are the photo negative of the Exemplars — instead of inspiring pride, they inspire shame, and an impulse to distance them from the group at large. If you're a member of any minority group, you're likely familiar with this: These are the folks who set off the I-hope-this-person-isn't-one-of-us impulse.

A lot of these types overlap, and plenty of people transition out of one and into another as time passes. For example, you could argue that Martin Luther King Jr., a hugely polarizing figure during his lifetime, was an Official who became an Exemplar later in his life (and especially after his death). What each of these stand-in types all share, though, is that if you're a member of a minority group, you can be perceived by others as being linked to these folks, whether or not you feel any connection to them.

If this feels reductive as a framework to view people, it's especially reductive as a framework to view groups of people. We should point out that all of these types are made possible in large part by the continuing paucity of people of color in public spaces and in the media; this isn't a problem that white folks necessarily have. (But more on that later.)

What are the other types we missed?

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