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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Defends Identity Politics, Gives Powerful Advice to Young Women of Color

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) defended identity politics at this weekend’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festival, and delivered powerful advice to a Girl Scout in the audience who asked about getting into politics: “Start building your own power.”

AOC was interviewed Saturday at the festival by The Intercept Senior Politics Editor Briahna Gray, who asked about critiques of so-called “identity politics” from both the left and the right.

“How do you negotiate the balance between a genuine desire for representation and a desire also to have substantive politics that don’t always mod map onto politicians who possess marginalized identities?” Gray asked.

Ocasio-Cortez said that it took effort to get people in her community to vote because “they’ve been burned by politicians that look like them,” and that “there’s all this cynicism that resulted from electing people that ethnically matched the community, but once they got into power advanced the same agenda that was marginalizing the community to begin with.”

“The thing that creates hope about the situation is the joining of the two things, is that you can have someone from the community that understands the experience actually advocate for the policies and the positions that can change our future,” she added. “So they’re not separable things. I don’t think that if I truly cannot believe that if I ran on a platform that was more moderate, I would not have won my election.”

AOC went on to discuss the importance of her identity, saying that “my identity and my experiences with my community inform and add different perspective to the positions that I hold, and to the policy that I hold. Because it goes the other way, because you can’t have just a progressive position like medicare-for-all without an understanding of race, because then you do get back to that position that you were talking about earlier where communities say ‘Oh this isn’t for me. This is for somebody else.'”

The issue of identity came up more powerfully later in the program when a young woman in a Girl Scout uniform asked “What advice would you give to young girls of color who want to get into politics?”

“The advice that I give is stop trying to navigate systems of power, and start building your own power,” Ocasio-Cortez said, and explained how that relates to girls and women of color.

I represent queens, and I was recently doing a town hall with Girls Who Code, and what I told them was that there’s so many subconscious forces that make us try to act like somebody else, and that’s why it was important for me to wear hoop earrings to my swearing-in, because we are taught that when you’re a woman of color, there are just so many things about you that is just non-conforming, you know? Like, I happen to have been born with straight hair, but my nieces have, like, ‘fros, right? And so down to that, there are places where you have to make more space.

And we’re talk to put our hair back and be small and articulate in a certain way and be square, and essentially try to do an impression of power, which really are subconscious signals to try to act like white men. And so it’s down to how you are forced or encouraged to speak, the idea that some ways of speaking are less legitimate. The idea that some ways of dressing are less legitimate — except we don’t say legitimate, we say unprofessional. And so that if you say ‘ain’t’ or if you say ‘my mama’ or whatever, it’s ‘unprofessional,’ even if you’re producing the same results with the same quality of work, you are somehow seen as less than. So stop trying to navigate those systems, because they weren’t built for you, and we need to build our own systems, and recognize the other.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) recently observed that the term “identity politics” is used to “try to silence you or shut you up” when “you talk about issues that are about race, about sexual orientation, about religion.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), on the other hand, has spent years deriding “identity politics,” which he characterizes as voting for a candidate simply because they belong to a particular marginalized group, unless that group is “white working class.”

Sanders supported Ocasio-Cortez in the midterms, but did not invite her to his campaign kickoff rally in Brooklyn, and Ocasio-Cortez has yet to commit to supporting Sanders’ candidacy.

Watch the clips above, from SXSW.

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