Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sexism on the Trail (oh, and Racism, too)

Today in the Washington Post, this cogent opinion piece that pins down the persistence of sexism in the democratic nomination.

No matter whom you support in this primary season, the discourses of race and gender both have been downright disheartening. As Marie Cocco posits here, the kind of casual sexism used to characterize Hillary Clinton is not just a differentiation of male and female gender types, but active bile that strikes at the heart of the notion of a woman in power.

What this continues to underscore, I think, is the prevailing notion that to be female or feminine is to be weak, and that "strong women" are either not really strong, or not really women. This, I think remains part of the problem: that our terminology has (dis)empowerment deeply embedded. That to be masculine is to be strong, whereas to be feminine (not necessarily female) is to be submissive.

Interestingly, this is an argument that has been made about race in America as well. In her brilliant Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartmann astutely locates the performative nature of race in the re-enactment of subjection and domination (Go read Hartman now, if you don't her work. That's ok. I'll wait). But while the raising-to-power of Obama (itself not a bad thing) has allowed too many of us to congratulate ourselves for this illusion of a post-racial society, the unwillingness to reverse those terms on gender is striking.

Now, illusion is a key word there, for Obama's now-almost inevitable nomination does not mean we live in anything like a post-racist society. But I think that this election cycle has told us that it's less ok to be obviously racist than before. The racism persists (see the villification of Rev. Wright and other African-American religious leaders...eta: and the link below), and in some cases has been displaced onto islamophobia. Nonetheless, we can't seem racist: hence the tut-tutting important outcry over the influence of race in WV's recent landslide victory for Clinton. Little such finger wagging about gender anywhere beyond editorials such as the one above, and much belittling pro-Hillary women as "voting emotionally."

I am not saying that Obama has had it easier, or that he's here because he's black. Far from it. His path here has been extraordinary, and I think he's among the most exciting presidential candidates in my voting lifetime.

All I am trying to say here is that this election has taught me that as a body we still think it's far more ok to be sexist than it is to be racist it's still ok to be sexist and racist--and it should not be ok to be either.

We can call Hillary a ball-breaker, but similar racist insinuations like the earlier gaffe by Biden are (justifiably) called out early and often. [eta: forget the comparison. wouldn't it be nice if we called out all of it more diligently? The only safe way to talk about race is to discuss this as an historic opportunity to mark the end of racism, an idea that is itself downright dangerous.

Let me reiterate here. I think both politicians are excellent potential presidents (as I thought about Edwards before he dropped out). I think both represent opportunities to change the tenor of identity politics. I also think that the "noooooo, that's not racism/sexism" of the campaign dangerously elides the very real and ongoing contours of a racialized and gendered America, and that if we think that electing a Black president marks an end to racism, or that electing a woman president marks an end to sexism, we're only kidding ourselves.

I'll end now, with the realization that I am in dangerous waters here, and that I have tried to tread carefully. Please feel free to weigh in.

ETA: Ugh. So apparently, as this excellent post points out, the racism's just as bad.


GeekLove said...

I helped create the “Mad is Hell”
video (re. media bias against HIllary Clinton) along with IndyRobin.

I created a NEW VIDEO: “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”

It’s about Obama’s silence on sexism against Hillary Clinton and his own sexist remarks.

If you approve of the video, I’d appreciate your help in spreading the video by creating a post on the video and ask that you and your readers go to youtube to RATE, COMMENT & mark FAVORITE the video.


Dr. Crazy said...

I think we're both in the same place with all of this. I'm not sure how much that helps, but I thought you'd like to know that somebody out there is thinking in your terms.

Horace said...

Thanks, Dr. C. I think a lot of people are, but the discourse is so convoluted right now. We want to pretend that race and gender don't matter (as if it's not too simple to say that they shouldn't), that we're not talking about how it is functioning.

The kind of language policing that's going on is hardly misguided, but I wonder if it's stifling close examination of the undercurrents.

Flavia said...

I had a long conversation with a couple of my female colleagues/friends on this issue some months ago, and we came to much the same conclusion. It's not that sexism is more of a problem than racism, but that the manifestations of the latter are more obvious, and more immediately condemnable. White liberals, anyway, are much more prepared to be outraged about (indeed, to recognize) racism than sexism, probably because that leaves them/us in a position of superiority: my goodness! racism still exists! how awful! (i.e., I'm not that kind of white person.)

It's a lot more uncomfortable when one has to take seriously the prospect that one (or the people around one)--with all their advantages!--might be discriminated against. Surely this is all just whining and playing victim when there are other genuinely oppressed groups we should worry about.