The year identity politics went mainstream

Princess Nokia

Johanna Toruño’s Unapologetically Brown initiative, which advocates representation and pride for women of colour, has attracted a lot of attention this year. In 2017, identity politics have become part of mainstream media in an unprecedented way.

The cultural drivers are deeply political. Brexit, Trump’s wall, the proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the US and #BlackLivesMatter have all brought the question of who we are and where we belong into daily headlines. It has prompted some deep questioning, which heavyweight cultural influencers are responding to.

In 2017, Teen Vogue appointed Elaine Welteroth as its editor-in-chief, making her the second African-American, and youngest ever, leader of the publication. Since then her team has promoted diverse models on its front pages and spearheaded the most political content in Teen Vogue’s history; its most-read article of the past year was a critique of the president: Donald Trump is Gaslighting America, closely followed by an article entitled: How to Apply Glitter Nail Polish. This juxtaposition reflects how, for today’s teens, beauty practices and politics sit side-by-side.

This year a number of female artists have used their bodies to make political statements that challenge long-established white beauty aspirations. For Unapologetically Brown, Toruño pastes posters celebrating Hispanic culture and beauty throughout New York in a direct effort to “combat the whiteness of the streets, to combat the lack of representation on the streets”. Also in New York, this year Princess Nokia, a “Jewish, Puerto Rican, and a little bit Italian” rapper with low-slung jeans and a confident swagger, released an album (1992 Deluxe) on which she raps: “With my little titties and my phat belly [….] My body little, my soul is heavy [….] that girl is a tomboy!”

Colombian band Bomba Estéreo is worth singling out for two very distinctive music videos. In Soy Yo, a seemingly nerdy Hispanic girl parades through the streets in spite of judgemental glances from other gangs, brandishing her indigenous flute with attitude. In Internacionales, a middle-aged Hispanic woman -- wearing no make up and feeling embarrassed that she hasn’t travelled anywhere as exotic as her wealthy white customers -- is shown acquiring roller skates and speeding on a round-theworld tour.

These artists address two political issues at once: feminism and ethnicity. They place women with diverse body types, ages, and attitudes to beauty centre stage, and in doing so, challenge assumptions on how women should look and behave. They promote people of mixed race and immigrants; people who defy labels. A piece of popular culture that illustrates perfectly the challenges of this is the 2017 Netflix Originals series Dear White People. A satire of race relations on an imaginary US college campus, the mixed-race protagonist, Sam, battles with how her blackness sets her apart from white people, but at the same time, how her ‘light-skinned privilege’ can also alienate her from the black community.

Where previously the conversation around ethnicity focused on simply representing more people of colour, 2017 has seen a change in the complexity of identities at stake and the depth and nuance with which these are discussed, largely due to the sheer number of voices in the conversation. In today’s culture, this is no longer a white establishment conversation about how to integrate others; it is a debate among a diverse collection of others about how they want to represent themselves.

Xenia Elsaesser, Flamingo