The Washington Post: Rep. Ayanna Pressley on the isolating experience of being ‘the first,’ plus recently confronting an alopecia diagnosis

March 27, 2020
In The News

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, 46, is a first-term Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts. She previously served on the Boston City Council. Earlier in her career, she was a congressional staffer, first for Rep. Joe Kennedy, then for Sen. John Kerry.

Known as one of “The Squad,” you have been on the other side of a lot of vitriol from the president, who called you all “a very racist group of troublemakers” who should go back to the countries you came from.

Cincinnati? [Laughs.] The Republic of Cincinnati — that’s where I was born.

How do you process that kind of attack?

You know, look. Do you think this is the first time someone has told me to go back to where I came from? Certainly not. He’s nothing if not predictable. I know we’re all exhausted and sort of emotionally rubbernecking from the constant fire hose. But from Frederica Wilson to Maxine Waters to April Ryan, to me, even to what he revealed about himself as early as the 1980s by discriminating in renting to African Americans, to his calling for the capital punishment of what we now know as the Exonerated Five — Central Park — he’s nothing if not consistent. So it’s hard to be disappointed when you’re not surprised. It was confirmation of who we already knew him to be. I felt that it was meant to distract us, and I was appealing to everyone to not take the bait. Because, as harmful as hateful rhetoric is — and I do believe it helped sow the seed for things like what happened in El Paso — I wanted us to remain with our eyes fixed on his hateful and hurtful policies and what we could do to resist these draconian, xenophobic, oppressive, racist policies that seem to be coming out by the hour.

I think, because although I'm new to Congress, I'm not new to governing, that I'm able to keep these things in perspective. It's something that anyone who is a first-something deals with. I dealt with that as the first black woman to serve on the Boston City Council in its 100-year history. And now the first person of color and the first black woman to represent the commonwealth in the House in its 230-year history.

So being a first, is that an isolating thing, a lonely thing?

It absolutely can be. And this is another reason why there's a kinship that's forged with colleagues who are also firsts. The occupier of this Oval Office chose to weaponize our identities in that. But there is a unique blessing and also emotional weight to being a first — anything.

When I was elected to the Boston City Council, everyone was wanting to give me awards. And I told my staff: Tell them I'm not accepting any more awards for being a first. Because I haven't even done anything yet. I was so focused on this head-down, focus on the work, I've been elected, now I need to do something with this platform. And an elder in Roxbury said, "Don't deny us the achievement and the celebration." So the space I'm always holding is the recognition and acknowledgment of the gains realized, the progress made. While also: that isn't enough. So now what do you do with it?

For you, is “The Squad” a positive term, a negative term?

Well, first the Squad, as we define it, is anyone who is building a more equitable and just world. So that is more than four people. The Squad is big. Think of us as representatives of a larger community. The very first one-minute [speech] that I gave on the floor, I said, "I come as one, and I stand as thousands." That's Maya Angelou. That's what the Squad is to me. But it's something that some people have tried to negatively co-opt. And, again, to weaponize.

When people criticize you for identity politics, what do you say to that?

Let me just say this on identity politics: I find that assertion incredibly offensive. One, there’s nothing wrong with identity. Two, I’ve never asked anyone to vote for me because I’m black or a woman. Now, I am black, and I am a woman, and I’m unapologetically both. However, that is not the totality of my identity. I was a caregiver. You know, a daughter. A wife. A mother. A survivor. A thought leader. Policymaker. When John F. Kennedy was elected the first Irish Catholic president, the globe celebrated. That is identity. We decide to celebrate identity when it is convenient. Identity, contrary to the opinion of far too many people for me to be comfortable, including in my own party, is not ruining the country. We didn’t think that with John F. Kennedy, so I don’t think it now. What is ruining the country is an emboldened white supremacy and hate because of this administration.

[Identity] directly impacts how laws are written when people bring the confluence of their lived and professional experiences and those lenses to policymaking tables. Different questions are asked. More-robust legislation is written. And everyone benefits from that.

You came out recently with the big reveal about your alopecia. It seems a very vulnerable moment, especially being in such a public position.

It is. Still.

So how did you make that decision? What were some of the reactions, and do you have regrets?

I felt that I could not authentically lead if I was not transparent about it. Because the secret of it, the shame of it, was weighing very heavily on me. And I was exhausted from it. I wanted to be free. This autoimmune disease I have is alopecia universalis. And so, to be robbed of my hair on the top of my head, my face and my body, in a very short period of time, this was a way of my taking back some agency and controlling my story, my voice, my image. And then the other thing is that I am black. I am a woman in politics. People are very scrutinizing of our presentation. I have colleagues — female colleagues — who were reprimanded for going gray, for not straightening their hair. We are under such a magnifying glass. There was no way, given how vocal I had been about the intentionality of my wearing my hair in an ethno-Afrocentric hairstyle — that was such a big part of my personal identity, my political brand — that I could transition to a wig and there not be questions or whispers.

It is disconcerting, for many, the presentation of a bald woman. It just flies in the face of conventional norms and standards of beauty and what is professional and what is acceptable. But, this feels the most authentically me at this time. There might come a time where I have a unit, a wig, a prosthetic — something that feels consistent. But, for now, this is me. And I've been overwhelmed by the support from the alopecia community and from mothers who have experienced traumatic hair loss, either because of chemotherapy or because of DNA and heredity. And I'm grateful for the love and support, and my husband and our daughter and my staff. This was already something very lonely. It would have been that much lonelier. They wrapped around me. Supported me. And had the cultural humility to understand why it was so profoundly devastating. And also the sensitivity with which we needed to navigate this. So I'm grateful for my whole team. And, yeah, there's some folks that don't say kind things. But my team asks me not to read the mentions and to ignore the trolls. I'm trying to be better at that. But I can't pretend that it's not hurtful.

Someone asked me the other day, what’s it like being a celebrity? I said I have no idea. They were under the impression that I have somewhat of a celebrity profile. I’m not sure that’s true. But if it is, it just means an expanded territory. So it’s less about the profile and more about the expanded platform and the responsibility that I feel to be a responsible steward of that platform. I’m not here just to occupy space; I’m here to create it.

 

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