The shirts were the tipping point. After the 2020 election was finally called, they started trickling, then flooding, onto Etsy and other sites. At this point, a Google search for “t shirt” and the rhyming words on the item below yields about 45,000 hits.
Before the phrase was on people’s torsos, some version of it was in their mouths. A lot. To cite a handful of hundreds of published examples, all uttered within a few days of the election:
- “I’m especially thinking about the little girls of all colors, but in particular, Black and brown girls, because there’s so much power in seeing someone who looks like you.”—ABS News anchor Linsey Davis
- “So many little girls are waking up across the country saying it is possible. I can be anything I want to be because she looks like me.”—Howard University alumna Wendy Howard
- “I’m so glad happy to finally have someone in the White House that looks like me.”—Lakhia Day, an official with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority
Leslé Honoré adapted one of her poems so that the opening lines read:
Brown girl brown girl
What do you see
I see a Vice President
That looks like me
Then videos of little girls reciting it, like this one, made their way across the internet.
Far from springing up out of nowhere, the “looks like me” trope, in reference to racial identity, has been building momentum for years. In past decades, it was a once-in-a-while thing, as when a Spelman University student told Essence magazine in 1993, “I think this environment is kind of a utopia in terms of race and gender. Everybody here looks like me. We’re all just Black women, and that really gives us a unique experience.”
The phrase picked up speed with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In fact, he inspired two similarly titled books: The President Looks Like Me & Other Poems, by Tony Medina, and Somebody in the White House Looks Like Me, by Rosetta L. Hopkins. Obama himself memorably invoked the trope in his remarks in 2012 after the killing of Trayvon Martin: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
But as with much else, it was probably Michelle Obama who cemented the phrase in the national consciousness. At the opening of the Whitney Museum in 2015, she said: “You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.”
At the 2019 Oscar awards, Phil Lord, the director of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—in which the superhero’s secret identity is teenaged Miles Morales—said, “When we hear that somebody’s kid was watching the movie and turned to them and said, ‘He looks like me,’ or ‘They speak Spanish like us,’ we feel like we already won.”
Later that year, while facing impeachment hearings, Donald Trump tweeted: “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here—a lynching.” Rep. Karen Bass responded: “You are comparing a constitutional process to the PREVALENT and SYSTEMATIC brutal torture of people in THIS COUNTRY that looked like me?” And Rep. Bobby Rush: “Do you know how many people who look like me have been lynched, since the inception of this country, by people who look like you.”
And then came Kamala Harris. A few weeks after the election, she doubled down on—and broadened—the phrase, lauding President-elect Joe Biden for his “commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America.” Biden himself invoked the phrase (mangling the syntax a bit) while swearing in staffers on Inauguration Day: “We ran on a promise that this administration would look like America looks.”
As I write, a Google News search of the phrase “looks like me” yields 122 hits in the last week, from an Ohio professor who said, ““As a woman of color myself, specifically South Asian, I cannot express what it means to have someone who looks like me and has had similar life experiences to me in this position” (seven days ago), to a Missouri student’s comment on Harris’s swearing-in: “It felt good because I saw somebody that looks like me and anything is possible” (19 minutes ago). And that of course doesn’t count variations including “looks like them,” “looks like America,” and many more.
“…who looks like me” belongs to a long history of American terms for racial minorities (itself one of the terms). You could almost distill a history of the country from a list of them: colored, Negro, black, African-American, people of color, black and brown people, Black, BIPOC. And those are only the printable ones. Especially for people who are part of the racial majority, as I am, all the terms are problematic, or at least complicated and not-quite-adequate, in ways that don’t need to be rehearsed here.
And maybe the most appealing thing about “looks like me” is that it’s not problematic. In fact, it’s immune to the usual carping and criticism—it’s pretty much indisputable.
I’ve referred to “looks like me” and its variations as a trope, in other words, a figure of speech. This particular figure is a form of synecdoche, or the part standing for the whole, as in saying “the postal worker is having a tough year,” when you mean all postal workers. This terminology comes from literary criticism, which suggests another element of the power of “looks like me”: it’s poetry, not a prosaic and reductive label. It powerfully and economically particularizes a clunkier word, “representation.” Good poetry makes us see what we perhaps hadn’t seen before, and so it is here.
A final attribute of the phrase is that it makes a rather brilliantly concise statement against racial essentialism. That is, it implicitly argues that our differences are a matter of looks, appearances, not something ingrained.
The only potential pitfall I see in “looks like me” is overuse. That wasn’t a worry in the nouns and adjectives that came before, but figures of speech can become cliches at warp speed (to use a cliché). So it might make sense to go easy on using “looks like me.” But maybe that isn’t for someone who looks like me to say.