Monday, February 4, 2008

the sexism thing and the racism thing

I've been getting really down about the sneaky, sneaky ways sexism gets naturalized when people talk about the Clinton campaign. American political discourse in the past several months has provided a stunning example of how differently racism and sexism operate, how deeply underground sexist sentiments can be buried and how often they can come to sound inevitable, even 'reasonable', when spoken.

(well shit, I'd been gearing up for a race-and-gender post, but as soon as I plan what to say the discourse shifts and it becomes dated. here goes!)

[E.T.A. The formidable Bitch, Ph.D. posted this intelligent post about her primary indecision the same day I wrote this. It addresses many of the same issues I've been pondering here: the sexist roots of objections to Hillary's nomination, women's historical paths to political office, and the criteria by which people decide on candidates and what relation those criteria might or might not have to identities... I don't talk about the substance of my actual political decisions so much in this post, as it's more about how I think racism and sexism have been at work in the campaign. See the comments, which put more pressure on how these are or aren't different issues...]

A few people are addressing what I'm talking about: Rebecca Traister, thinking aloud in this piece in Salon about Clinton v. Obama -- I find her indecision fascinating and kind of (heh) mind-boggling in what may be an annoying/cliched generational way-- phrases the conflict thus: that Clinton might actually have a harder time overcoming her '-ism,' sexism, to get elected, because the great many well-intentioned default-racist white voters can regard Obama as an 'exceptional' black man, 'not like the rest of them,' whereas for a great many men Clinton very much embodies all the uppity bitches coming to claim their entitled places in the male-dominated power structure.

Which kind of adds up to: yes, it might in fact be easier to get A black man elected President, one who embodied this kind of special-ness or exceptionalism (and could play into the concurrent imagery, also born out of American racism, of the saintly/heroic black male savior-figure - what gives us all those liberal-fantasy black male TV presidents: see 24, Deep Impact). In short, that they could see him as not the sign of a substantive sea-change in which a new class of people are going to come and claim their rights of representation and access to power, whereas they can't not see her that way.

This is also, as Traister points out, because of who this woman candidate is, i.e. NOT some tool-of-the-patriarchy Thatcherite but a real feminist, a real liberal, a real baby-boomer beneficiary of the women's movement, a real Second-Waver. Barack Obama's unusual family background, his rather one-of-a-kind position vis-a-vis race in America as a black man whose parents are a white American and a Kenyan, helps with this more than anything else. (I do NOT agree with critiques calling him a 'sell-out' or a black-exceptionalist figure based on his politics. I think he's done a pretty amazing job of articulating a position within, and a vision for, African American political life in this country despite not being African American by descent.) You could phrase it in more abstract terms and say: 'it might be easier to get candidates elected whom prejudiced voters can think of in exceptionalist terms, than candidates who solidly embody racist/sexist American stereotypes.'

This blogger, too, points out, in a way I had never really considered before, the "familiar stench" of sexism underlying the hysterical 'OMG we can't nominate Hillary because she'll bring out the conservative base to vote against her!' arguments that are so prevalent right now -- because the reasons imputed to this 'base' for their pathological Hillary-hatred are precisely that she is an unapologetically ambitious woman playing hardball to attain a position of great power, and the argument then frequently becomes that this 'base' feels this way, so end of story, we shouldn't nominate her, Q.E.D. I actually think that PLENTY of these anti-nominating-Clinton arguments from Democratic men (hi baby!) conveniently use this 'conservative base' as a cipher to ventriloquize their own sexist objections to her persona and her candidacy. (The comment on the linked post is mine though, arguing that descriptively speculating on what the unjust-but-real political effects of nominating Hillary Clinton might be, because of her history with the 1st Clinton administration more than anything else, can have some function other than re-iterating sexism's inevitable triumph.)

It's scary, though, how unquestionable, even how reasonable, arguments like this can sound to us, to me -- I'm writing a dissertation on the weird play of resistances to power available in the performance of gender and sexuality, in a period when things like heteronormativity and women's separate sphere are first solidifying -- and the way patriarchal oppression is taken-for-granted escaped me here.

The root issue, which no one is really going down to -- and which I have been thinking for a couple of months now -- is that women are not a minority. Sexism is kind of a special case because it is levied by about HALF the population against another HALF the population. It's everywhere, and it's so naturalized largely -- chillingly -- because so MANY men feel that it's not wrong. You don't have to look far on the internets or in the world to see how many men feel that they do, in some sense, have legitimate grievances against women; how many men feel that they are in some essential way better than women just by virtue of their being men.

Many white people can be quite easily made to feel guilty about being racist (which is different from making them not be racist). Like I said, running concurrently with America's racist narrative is a narrative of strongly-desired redemption from that racism -- Obama's smart to play on that. Saying things that are overtly racist, being regarded as a racist... these are things that are openly condemned as socially unacceptable in wide swaths of the culture.

In uncritical, moderately-conservative to moderately-liberal cultural venues -- like mainstream media and electoral politics -- objections pointing out racism are frequently better-received and given more credence as legitimate criticisms (people have to apologize for their comments) than objections pointing out sexism, which are too often still heard as the degraded, shameful, simultaneously unjustified AND futile ranting of the feminist harpy.

Many whites understand that black people are justified in a legitimate struggle against their own oppression (however problematically they might think about it); many men (and some women) do not think that women's struggles against patriarchy are so justified. I'd wager there are lots more people who'd tell you that sexism no longer exists than that racism doesn't.

It's a perverse paradox -- at the same time I DO think, as Rebecca Traister does, that race presents a bigger barrier to success than gender in this country. There are way more privileged women, by almost every measure, than there are privileged black people of any gender. I don't go where Traister goes, though, with this: she asks, "If Hillary's success is less exceptional, does she deserve my vote as much as Barack?" (First of all, um, no... like I said in the last post, this is a PRIMARY, not an oppression beauty pageant.) No. Because of the different way sexism works in this country, the relative un-exceptional-ness of her success is one reason her candidacy may actually force a bigger confrontation between voters and their prejudices.

The dark side of this analysis, unfortunately, is the problematic way in which white feminists have talked about it. Princeton prof. Melissa Harris-Lacewell referenced this back during the Democratic Race and Gender Shitstorm 2008(TM) in her Slate piece on black Americans rallying for Obama. She brought up Clinton supporters, incl. Bill, complaining that the media was "hard" on Hillary and "soft" on Obama, and pointed out how not only is that complaint not substantively true ("there are no public tears shed for the strain Obama must feel as a result of death threats, which caused the doubling of his Secret Service detail"), it recapitulates "a familiar American narrative of race and gender."

She means the narrative I've heard white baby-boomer feminists recount time and again, the one I've heard my own mother recount: 'Everyone always talks about racism and race, how hard African Americans have it, well what about women, don't WE have it hard? You never hear about how hard WE have it; anyone can say sexist things and nobody bats an eye, but let someone say a racist thing and all hell breaks loose...' and so on and so on. My god, this is so destructive! (Like Gloria Steinem's op-ed in the Times back in Jan., the most unintelligent thing I've ever read of hers.)

Dr. Harris-Lacewell is right: what has happened with Clinton and Obama and the whole media circus is a familiar narrative. White women have played on racism's being less socially-acceptable to plead oppression-under-estimation. At the same time, white women are diminutivized, patronized, emotionalized -- which means there's a cultural value on our being protected, not respected. The whole culture has a freaking crisis when white women are the targets of violence (witness the endless hit parade of missing-murdered-pregnant-blonde-women on FOX News; witness, in a rarified electoral-politics way, the backlash against the backlash against Clinton).

At the same time black men, conversely, can be respected, and even idolized as per the sacrificial myth, but not protected. Fact is, we as a culture do not care when black people are the targets of violence in this country; we show it every day, and we show it when there's no media outcry over the death threats Obama has received.

I'm posting all this tonight because there is *literally no telling* what tomorrow will bring -- something exciting, almost certainly nothing we expected, and something that makes history.

Yay, history!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

why I *heart* NY

I absolutely love my neighborhood come election time. Just walking down the street you encounter this overwhelming outpouring of civic feeling. I live on a golden meridian of liberal politics, at the confluence of three distinct political cultures: the privileged-but-bossily-liberal-Jewish tradition on the Upper West Side, the community-activist-get-out-the-vote-rank-and-file tradition in Harlem, and the kind-of-naive-but-earnest-and-brainy tradition on the Columbia campus in Morningside Heights.

Today I walked out of my house and every corner on Broadway had Obama canvassers on it, handing out buttons and leaflets and engaging people in conversation. People stopped with their strollers and their dogs on leashes and talked for a few minutes each with the Obama-pluggers: I heard people discussing their healthcare plans and their worries about global warming on Broadway. (This happens a fair bit -- I have enjoyed getting into spirited discussions with canvassers about who they think could best beat the Republicans for a couple of years now.)

A tiny girl walking with her parents and sister was holding a sign she had scrawled and yelling "Red, White, and Blue, We Need You, to Vote For Obama! Every Vote Counts!" in this amazing little singsong voice. A dad and his son in an Obama t-shirt that hung down to his knees saw my button and stopped me just to say "Hey! An Obama supporter!" A white-haired old lady pushing her metal-frame shopping basket had a magic-markered nametag pinned to her shirt that said "Women for Obama."

Since I got my button just today, I'm getting these little "Obama!" nods and looks everywhere in New York, though, not just in my neighborhood: a guy with dreads in Penn Station, an old lady on the subway on the East Side. Since today, the first day I've been consciously noticing such things, I have seen one (1) Hillary sticker -- it was pinned to a coat near mine on the rack in the coat check at the Met.

I came home and tried to find out who was doing the canvassing that was so visible in my neighborhood today -- it was a group that organized through (yep, modeled on a social networking site!! I just joined!).

I'm also on the mailing list for my neighborhood's Democratic "club," what's left of the NY Democratic machine -- every neighborhood is under the jurisdiction of a party club that holds events and sends out a newsletter and coordinates volunteer opportunities. The Obama canvassing effort appears to have nothing to do with this local-level instantiation of the Democratic party establishment. In fact, the 50-something Upper West Siders who send out the club newsletter are some of the only people I've run across who are really, ardently FOR Hillary Clinton. You don't see people out on the street getting all *jazzed up* with partisan feeling and solidarity over Clinton.

[Confidential to the Republicans who are hoping that that will translate into any liberals staying home if she does win the nomination, or who would take heart in her "weakness in her home state" if she only gets half of NY's delegates but then wins -- THIS IS NOT THAT. It would be hard to find another neighborhood in the country where people identify as DEMOCRATS as strongly as we do. I can guarantee you that every single person I've seen canvassing for Obama or wearing a button will be at the polls voting for the Democratic nominee in November; many of them will be knocking themselves out just as hard no matter who the candidate is. This is a PRIMARY, and it was so refreshing today to see people who actually understand what that means and who take our responsibility as Democrats, to press hard for the Democrat we would actually most like to see as President, seriously.]

I am full of wild, frightened optimism tonight; optimism so cautious that as soon as I voice it to myself or to my friend M., who's sitting next to me on the couch, it instantly turns into its opposite: abject terror of this thing going the wrong way, again, and the possibility (which would seem unthinkable but somehow isn't?!!), of things getting MUCH, MUCH WORSE if it does.

But! I can't wait for Tuesday. My neighborhood's at its very best on election day; it's like a distinctly New York-flavored dream of America. The neighborhood is actually very economically mixed; I vote on a poor residential street at a school in an old building with mostly Spanish-speaking kids. Schoolkids from the richer schools are usually out on the medians yelling at people to "Go and Vote! Every Vote Counts!" with hand-lettered signs. Folks from those Democratic clubs have tables the regulation distance from the polling places and are chatting up other activisty-types. The little old ladies who actually work the polls are sweet as pie but practically blind and they need help finding my name (which is on the books twice, spelled once correctly and once incorrectly - no I'm not going to take advantage of this; I actually discouraged someone from committing voter fraud earlier this week!), and the younger poll workers are using their high-school Spanish to explain the whole process to some of the people on line. The kids who go to the school are in the cafeteria with their moms and teachers selling baked goods -- cookies decorated red, white, and blue. You line up to vote by address; you literally vote with everyone who lives on your block and the next, at the machine dedicated to that purpose. Perhaps best of all, there's no dithering about what some computer has decided to do with your vote -- you flip those little switches (vote for the candidate of your choice on the Democratic party line or, better yet, on the Working Families Party line!), pull that big lever, and there's such a big THUNK that you KNOW your ass has voted.

My new Obama button says "BELIEVE." I want to believe the button, but I'm f*cking scared -- I believed last time, and the time before that. I'm, like, an emotional wreck from the intensity of belief and pessimism oscillating wildly in my head about this election. But my neighborhood, especially on election day, could almost convince me to believe.

Just a warning about what will probably be the next post -- I get choked up every time I go to vote. When I step into that booth and the HISTORY hits me, I am going to lose it. Stay tuned!