The Trouble With “Looks Like Me”

Amid all the horrible language of the woke left, probably the most damaging single phrase is “looks like me.”

You hear and read it often, especially on left leaning sites, like NPR, the New York Times and PBS. What the speaker usually means is simply that he or she likes to see people in positions that they aspire to who share their gender or their skin color.

Nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Diversity is a good thing. The problem is that “looks like me” is such a low bar. Is that what’s most important, that the person literally look like you? What about qualifications and experience?

It also implies that racism is okay. After all, if “looks like me” is an acceptable standard, then why shouldn’t white people vote exclusively for white candidates because they look like them? Why shouldn’t white employers hire only white workers because they look the same? Of course, that’s absurd and so it points up just how ill-advised this phrase is.

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., pushed back ever so gently on this idea and its cousin, “cultural appropriation,” though he never used those words.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. accepting the PEN award.

Gates’ essay was a partial transcript of his acceptance speech when he received the PEN award recently. It was a strong defense of the freedom of writers to express themselves as they see fit.

He started out, appropriately enough, chastising the right for trying to shut down ideas like Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project. (For the record, I don’t like either, but I’ve also made it clear that neither should be banned. I trust that bad ideas will eventually fall of their own weight.)

But then Gates went on. “But we must not exempt ourselves from scrutiny; whenever we treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination,” Gates said in a clear reference to cultural appropriation. (New York Times columnist John McWhorter made this same point in an essay that appeared on October 8th titled, “Cultural Appropriation Can Be Beautiful”.)

And he concluded with these thoughts:

“What I owe to my teachers — and to my students — is a shared sense of wonder and awe as we contemplate works of the human imagination across space and time, works created by people who don’t look like us and who, in so many cases, would be astonished that we know their work and their names. Social identities can connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries. The freedom to write can thrive only if we protect the freedom to read — and to learn. And perhaps the first thing to learn, in these storm-battered days, is that we could all do with more humility, and more humanity.” (My emphasis added.)

Gates seems to be saying, gently, that we suffer as a culture when we wall ourselves off from one another, when we restrict ourselves to living in a world where everyone “looks like us.” That’s not diversity. It’s just the opposite.

Welcome to the 250th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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