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!


Timothy said...

"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."

Can men have legitimate grievances against women?

It's an important question, and I can't really conceive of a social position where they could articulate them effectively without being dismissed out of hand. I think the reason the Che boys slant so strongly towards class is a fear of 1. personal guilt for patriarchy and 2. feeling shut out of the conversation completely.
It's like the narrative where a white, hetero male goes to a women's studies class and is transformed into a "yes, dear" 50's housewife. At least that seems to be the consensus of a lot of guys who have never been to one ;).

Along the same lines, half the population against the other half? I thought the numbers ran a little higher than that. Isn't it more like everyone against one half? (where's my che shirt?)

a grad student said...

Yay, a comment!!

Actually, I would argue that when there's A man who feels that HE has legitimate grievances against WOMEN as a class, that women as a group are wronging him or oppressing him in some way, it is, by definition, sexism. Of course indiv. men can have legit. grievances against indiv. women or even subgroups within the category of women, but if someone feels that WOMEN as a group are harming him -- that sounds to me like anger that ought to be directed at the patriarchal gender system which is oppressing him, too; but instead of being able/willing to see that, he's blaming women, the class at whose expense his class benefits.

You're totally right I think that the Che boys gravitate towards class analysis because most of them are white and hetero and male -- their position is one shot through with guilt; they go around alternately feeling shut out of other conversations and dismissing them as less-relevant forms of oppression, due to the fact that (even if this is an unconscious reason) they personally benefit from sexism, heteronormativity, default-white supremacy, etc.

Not sure who says the narrative about the boy getting transformed into a 50s housewife -- boys who are afraid that if they go into WST classes their weewee will fall off? I've actually never really heard a narrative that endowed WST classes with this kind of real transformative power; I've more heard one where they go in and spend a semester "feeling attacked" by "feminists who take everything personally"...

Which is why I'm actually not quite willing to agree with you and say sexism is everyone against 1/2. While there sure are a lot of women with false consciousness who keep sexism going, there are also a shitload who actively struggle against it, the vast majority of the time against men and male-normative institutions, ideologies, myths, conventions, etc. Maybe 3/4 of the population against 1/2? I am not quite willing to disarticulate the fault for sexism from MEN as a privileged class invested in, well, not being blamed for sexism at the same time as they're not doing anything to undo it.

Like, sure there's internalized inferiority complexes in various cultures of people of color too, but that doesn't mean the fault for racism doesn't lie with white people and our unwillingness to dismantle the privilege we've grown so accustomed to...

lex said...

I find her [Traister's] indecision fascinating and kind of (heh) mind-boggling in what may be an annoying/cliched generational way

As my law school professors would say in an annoying, post-Socratic way: Say more. Which is to say that I find that Traister's indecision has great pull and I wonder what you see in it in that is particularly generational. Or, perhaps, which community's generations are in question. (What wave of feminism is it now, anyway?)

I think what rings most true for me in Traister's account is her honest desire to be able to distill the identity politics from the issue politics and her frustration at the impossibility of so doing. Yes, there's a narrative that can be constructed about their interconnectedness or their indistinguishableness; and at some level I think that anyone's who has thought much about the world in the last forty years has to concede that the personal is political and etc. But there's a second layer of this, which is the one you're addressing, the essentialist layer that is mostly constructed at second-hand by journalists and wonks and, yes, activists from either (all) sides. It is the narrative that reduces their construction of the identity politics of the candidate you choose not to your identity but to your politics. Not: black men vote for Obama and women for Hillary; but something more insidious. It's particularly insidious, I think, because it so effectively obscures the actual positions each candidate has taken.

Now, I'm not arguing that this is new, or particular to this election, or even to this country, perhaps. It may even be inevitable in a political landscape that is designed to instantiate a two-party system. I am saying that I think a desire to avoid that sort of reductionist approach makes completely comprehensible not only her indecision (how to see the trees when everyone only wants you to see the forest?) but also the slight revulsion she conveys when it comes to publicizing the content of her choice. Especially since the candidates themselves have bought into the rhetoric, often because their substantive positions are nearly indistinguishable.

So. Which generation does that make me?

a grad student said...

Hey! What I meant by that comment is that I've seen a ton of writing over the past several days by really smart political and academic and feminist bloggers, people who really think like I do on most things, who have expressed this same thing: that they will feel slightly queasy and dissatisfied whether they vote for Clinton or Obama. Many of these bloggers have been even just slightly older than me, like 10 years, late 30s to early 40s (experiencing the generational differences I do with my freshmen, who are 10 years younger than me, I think micro-generations like this do matter). What I don't identify with is the indecision and the angst -- it seems to me that we have an embarrassment of riches, almost a win/win situation here. I am stoked to have decided to support Obama, and if I had decided to support Clinton I would be stoked about that too.

And what I think that might come out of, which actually might be generational, is that in this arena I might feel ever-so-slightly less oppressed by the demands of identity politics than Traister et al. do. Don't get me wrong; I LOVE identity politics. You've read the blog! I think it's super-important for everyone to develop sophisticated and responsible analyses of race, gender, class, etc. etc. to the utmost of our abilities.

But I don't actually really experience much pain or trouble with the connection between those analyses of race and gender and my opinions on policy issues/ conceptualizations of the office of the Presidency/ rhetorical styles/ ideological temperaments -- aka all the (other) things that are making up my mind about which candidate I like best. The race-and-gender thoughts are there, and they're not. Of course they're present, forming my background understanding of the world, but they're not what I'm consciously basing my decision on. The thinking I've done about identity politics has been super interesting (to me!), but it hasn't thrown me into a tizzy about whom to support or what that might say about me.

I guess that I, for some reason, am able to not think that I 'am' (or that my vote is) my analysis of race and gender in current American political culture. In a way that some of these slightly older feminists are not. Which I guess is what you mean by ppl's "reducing their construction of the identity politics of the candidate you choose not to your identity but to your politics" -- as in 'you voted for Clinton, you must think sexism is worse than racism' or 'you voted for Obama, you must think black men have it harder than white women.' Obviously such bullshit! I found Traister's worrying about which of these two messages she was sending to be pretty incorrect and beside the point.

Also I think the mainstream media is probably more to blame than the candidates for this dumb shit, with the exception of the shameful race-baiting the Clinton campaign deployed just before and after the SC primary. (And Edwards' petty comment about HRC's tears!) Actually, one thing I like about Obama is that he doesn't really play the GENDER card...

Katy said...

Hey, obviously it's been a while since you posted this but YOU HAVEN'T POSTED IN A WHILE! :) So I guess I have to reply to an old post.

I agree with you (and lex?) that a vote for one or the other does not signal your taking a stand in the "whose oppression is worse" game. We're picking a President, not judging their moral standings. However, I have told you this before, I say the same thing you do as far as not feeling like my identity as a woman makes me compelled to vote for Hillary or feel guilty as a result.

What DOES make me feel guilty and angsty is the reaction I have to seeing her on TV. I haven't been able to even watch her speak lately because that thing she does with the smiling while she talks is so disturbing to me. I truly can't separate out what part of my negative response to her is sexist - i.e. women don't somehow "fit" on a national debate stage, therefore she is kind of grotesque and I identify the smiling thing as a way to justify my repulsion - and what part is that I think she needs a new speech trainer. I can articulate my reasons for being for Obama, I can't really articulate why I am not for Clinton (except for the smiling thing, and the thing of liking Obama).

And as much as I do not believe that I would vote for any candidate simply because they are a woman or black (witness Condi - the ultimate "I would never vote for"), I have to admit that it IS a dream I've had for a long time to live to see a black president, and you can tell by the phrasing that I was definitely not expecting it so soon, and so I'm excited. I guess I feel the same way about a female president but I don't express it so often. Given my job and my politically oriented outlook on life, I have a strong sense of why I want a black president in office, and what that would mean to me/people I work with. And really, what it would mean to the large conspiracy theory that I have developed about civics education in this country.

Post more! Post more!