When a person becomes the first member of their minority group to do something, they carry an extra burden. They don’t just have to do the job – say, lead a nation – they have to do that job knowing that their performance will be considered representative of how every member of that group would fare in that position.
Obviously, the example that comes to mind most quickly is President Obama; he’s not just the President, he’s a Black President. Or, if you’re Australian, Julia Gillard, who carries the extra weight of representing “how women govern.” President Obama’s additional burden was something that Keith Boykin discussed on “Melissa Harris-Perry” last weekend when we were talking about white voters and the 2012 election.
Now, if the token person in question does well in their job, their success won’t be attributed to their minority status. They’ve just done well. But if they do poorly, it’s because they’re a woman, or because they’re African American. If they do poorly – and this is part of the extra weight the token carries – it can have terrible consequences for future generations of that minority group.
Case in point: the GOP’s 2012 veepstakes. An unnamed informal advisor to the Romney campaign said this week that Romney was only considering one woman as a potential running mate. Why? Because of how badly it worked out for the GOP when they picked a woman in 2008. MSNBC reports:
In particular, few women except for New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte – a freshman lawmaker from New England with only scant federal experience – are thought to be under consideration by Romney.
“I think, unfortunately, Palin poisoned the well on that,” said one informal Romney adviser, fretting that any woman selected as VP would draw inevitable comparisons to the former Alaska governor. “I would guess if I were inside the Romney mind that they’re worried that any woman chosen will be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny.”
This is the burden of the first, and of the token. The problem wasn’t that Sarah Palin was unvetted, untested, uninformed, and unqualified. It was that she was a woman. The well has been poisoned not for candidates who are unvetted, untested, uninformed, and unqualified, but for candidates who are women.
And now, we have to live with that poisoned well, the belief that because Sarah Palin wasn’t qualified enough to be a Presidential running mate or a Vice President, no woman is.
It’s not fair to ask anyone – Obama, Gillard, Palin – to carry the extra burden. It’s not fair to them as individuals, it’s not fair to the communities they come from but do not necessarily represent, and it’s not fair to the country. When we treat them as tokens, and take their failures as representative of entire groups, we miss out on great talent in the future. We do ourselves a disservice.
It’s because of our biases, not because of any one individual or the abilities of any minority group, that the well is poisoned. And it’s because of our biases that we could well miss out on a whole generation of American leaders.