Famous Firsts

And the Power of Invisibility. Mainstream. Ordinary People. Common Sense. Silent Majority.

Family. Friends. Loved ones.

We humans are a herding species; we live in groups, and the power of belonging and fitting in comes naturally to us. But what is our group? Who’s in, and who’s out? What does fitting in look like?

This year, we witnessed the historic confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black female Supreme Court Justice. She joins other famous firsts, like Roger Taney, Louis Brandeis, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Sonia Sotomayor. But what does this growing list tell us?

Famous firsts show us the power of the group that they have broken into. Mix in race and gender, and the power of the status quo becomes visible. Roger Taney and Louis Brandeis were the first Catholic and Jewish justices respectively. The group had been entirely Protestant. Thurgood Marshall broke into a group that had been entirely white. Sandra Day O’Connor broke into a group that was entirely male, and Sonia Sotomayor broke into a group that was entirely non-Hispanic. Add the breached groups together, and we get a clear picture of whose power represents the status quo; the people who seem to belong in power.

The summer of 2020 and the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd seemed to herald a moment of reckoning for the status quo. The mainstream seemed to undergo an existential shift towards visibility for everyone, and an honest look at the history of the mainstream. We are now witnessing a backlash, as the status quo is trying to reassert its authority, trying to return to the power of the invisible.

When power structures are invisible, they retain their power through norms that everyone is expected to adhere to and to enforce. But who benefits? Does it serve everyone? Asking these questions is part of what we need to do, in order to take the first steps towards understanding each other.

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