Monday, September 1, 2008

Dangerous Thinking


The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.

Anti-racists and feminists would do well to remember those wise words. We won't get the equality we seek, if we simply adopt mainstream beliefs that race and gender alone reveal something of value about a person. If we are not careful about how we frame our arguments, then rather than stamping out bias, we may merely flip the script, enacting the mainstream's biases in reverse.

"Don't you think things will just be different [read: better] if Hillary Clinton is president? Y'know, because she's a woman?"

That's what someone (well, many people) said to me during the long, long 2008 Democratic primary season. My short answer: No.

Women have long fought against conventional "wisdom" that says, among other things, that we are naturally emotional, weak and less intelligent. We loudly proclaim that these stereotypes are wrong, that the notion than someone's gender alone reveals anything about them is ludicrous. How, then, can we turn around and say that some innate female sensibility will make Hillary Clinton a better leader than George Bush?

For the record, I believe that Hillary Clinton would be a far superior president to George Bush. But I believe this based on the Senator's platforms, policies, voting record and rhetoric, not because of she has ovaries.

[Note: Implicit in the hand-wringing over whether Clinton's supporters will rush to John McCain and Sarah Palin come November is the idea that women were merely voting for Clinton because she was a woman and not for her other considerable skills. (Read Ms. Laura's take on this at Daily Kos. For the something lighter, watch Samantha Bee on The Daily Show.) ]

Barack Obama's supporters shouldn't pat themselves on the back too quickly. I have seen the same thought process applied to Obama's race. The thinking goes that the candidate's melanin level will automatically make him a more effective leader committed to social justice.

It really is just lazy thinking and sloppy argument. Intellectually, most supporters of Clinton and/or Obama were voting for more than race and gender. If it was just about gender, then women would have carried Shirley Chisholm or Bella Abzug or Pat Schroeder or Carol Moseley Braun to the White House. If race was so important, then Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would have enjoyed the same support that Obama does today.

Occasionally, though, in the rhetoric of fellow progressives, I hear the idea that it is simply our "turn" to rule. Whose turn--women's or African Americans'--depends on who you are speaking to. There is a hint that just having a female or black male in the Oval Office is all the change we need.

But any argument that Clinton or Obama should be president that does not hinge on policies, intelligence, accomplishments and voting records, is a dangerous one. Femininity and blackness do not automatically equal a better way. The idea that they do undermines the notion--crucial to anti-racism and sexism--that everyone be judged on the "content of their character" and accomplishment, not race or gender.

We live in a culture that makes whiteness and maleness supreme. For more than 200 years, people have been awarded power and success based merely on an accident of birth. Implied in our social structure is the notion that maleness is strong and competent and important and powerful, that whiteness is wholesome and good and beautiful and American and smart. The flip side is clear. Femininity is weak, submissive, incompetent and insignificant. Blackness is dirty, bad, ugly, foreign and stupid. Those of us who are neither white nor male, have struggled against this supremacy and pointed out its fallacy.

So, do gender and race reveal something important about a person or not? If race- and gender-biased thinking is silly and illogical when it results in the unearned elevation of one group and negative stereotypes about others, then it is equally silly and illogical when trying to prove the opposite. If my femininity doesn't automatically make me weak and submissive, then it cannot automatically make me, say, less violent or more nurturing. If my blackness doesn't automatically make me lazy and criminal, neither can it make me more attuned to the needs of the less fortunate.

We can't have it both ways.

9 comments:

Somebodies Friend said...

The thing that isimportant about gender and race is, if you are fighting for your rights because you understand what it is like to not have said rights, because of your gender or race, you have "experience" with the issue, it is one thing.

But along with that, a person must show they are level headed, and they are not asking for anything that everyone isn't entitled to.

and compassion, that is what the ideal candidate must have, and as I said early, the compassion must be to fight for what is fair for all people, not just a select few, the chosen.

Symphony said...

There have been enough Black people in office to know that get the job done any better when it comes to issues Blacks have. And we've had enough examples of women not giving doing a thing for women once they are in office.

This stuff never changes and we as a collective electorate never seem to get it.

Evan Carden said...

One nitpicky little point, as I try to get my brain back in academic gear. You write: "For more than 200 years, people have been awarded power and success based merely on an accident of birth." What was given by accident of birth was the possibility of success and power. With the exception of a tiny minority of the population (AKA the incredibly wealthy) the possibility has been awarded, the power and success itself hasn't been. Of course, the possibility of success and power is a hell of a lot better than the impossibility of them...

Anonymous said...

I actually do believe that gender is strikingly significant, just as I believe sexual orientation is strikingly different and significant. The bottom line is I never grew up with male privilege, and I know first hand what it's like to be a lesbian in a very bigoted strraight world all the time.

Men and women are not the same, and I don't know why we keep having these discussions. I don't like being in a room full of men, just as I don't like being in a room full of straight people. I can feel the difference.

Lesbian culture is very very different, the energy is different, everything is different. All things being equal, about education and stands on issues, I will always choose a woman over a man in an election. Until women have parity in that department, we'll have these all boys behind closed doors worlds.

It is perfectly logical, all things being equal, for black people to want a black president. Not just for blackness, not JUST because that person is a woman, but all things being equal. It's why 92% of African Americans in America ARE voting for Obama. That is a huge percentage. It is no accident, and anyone who tells you otherwise is not being real. Everyone knows that Obama and Clinton had a real shot at the top job! The world is getting sick of white men.

Obama is a good candidate, of course. Clinton is a good candidate, of course. The point is, I don't want white men running everything, and I want places where I can go that are elegant and lovely so that I don't have to deal with the homophobic garbage that is out there always.

When women get more top jobs, my life is simply easier, then I am automatically given the benefit of the doubt.

Are men and women the same? No, absolutely not! We should know this by now. With all the evil in the world, the wars, the rapes, the mass murders, the genocide, it is men who lead the way here. Straight men in groups are the most violent people on earth; the sports violence, the turned over cars, the trashing of cities after the male monsters win a super bowl.

Why we keep thinking that people are the same is beyond me. And I've never really understood the Audre Lord quote to begin with. She worked as a professor at a major university, she had married a man, had children, and came out as a lesbian. But she certainly worked the system like anyone else.

So you get ahead if your own smart group is in power? You better believe it. Let's not fool ourselves. Let's give the Democratic party some credit for making it possible for both white women and black men to rise in that party. Just look at all the speakers and state leaders and delegates. Even gays and lesbians were 6% of the delegates this year. I'd like to see the Republican party match this.

If you don't believe that women will change the equaltion of the world as they become THE majority in power, well, I think this is something rare in human history.

It took a very long time for the first woman to get to congress, for example. Women were meerly property until they got the right to vote. Blacks were property until white people and black people worked to overthrow slavery.

Now the irony is, McCain actually does take the women's vote very seriously, so seriously that he had the guts to actually choose a woman. Now we can debate whether she is "qualified" or not till the cows come in, but he did do this.

I actually think that as a lesbian, nothing much changes. Our group gained power because we took it for ourselves, we created our own literature, herstory, political groups and social clubs. We got no support from anyone out there for a very long time.

This idea that everyone is the same is truly leveling. No straight woman out there is anything like me. They just aren't. They don't do the things I do, they don't battle men the way I do, they don't have the kind of energy I do. No we are not the same, both conditions of oppression and social status profoundly affect how we are in the world.

I have no illusion that men will ever take women seriously, until we excercize our powers as majority voters, and until men lose when they diss women. When men lose big time for dissing women, then they'll learn to fear angering us. In the end, it really is about who can put someone in office.

Unfortunately, Obama simply didn't have the courage to put a good woman in the VP spot, no he picked a dull white man who has questionable relations with women who challenge the male status quo. Conservatives are not stupid, they can take advantage of liberal men every time, and they do.

Let's all at least be real about this.

junkdrawer67 said...

I agree with and appreciate your very eloquent argument. I only wish I could have made mine so the countless number of times that I felt the need to explain that Obama's race had no more to do with my decision to support him than Hilary's gender would have had to do with my support of her had I chosen to do so. (sorry, that was kind of sloppy sentence)

At some point I simply felt that Obama was the better candidate. But being black had nothing to do with it.

I never thought of him as the black candidate, anymore than I thought of Hilary as the woman candidate. Obama was simply a candidate who happened to be black, as he happened to be male, as Hilary happened to be a woman and happened to be a white. Etc, etc.

What really tipped the scales for me was the fact that he is of a different generation. When he began speaking about that, he spoke to me. The more I learned, the more I liked him.

The more Hilary and her machine attacked Obama, the more I was unwilling to back her.

Tami said...

Anon,

I disagree. It sounds as if you are saying that judging people by gender, race and sexuality is okay. It's just not okay that you and I are on the losing side of society's bias.

I'm not saying that women and men, white people and people of color, homosexuals ans heterosexuals are not different. I'm saying that those differences are not deficiencies, and that none of these groups have the lock of being good and worthy.

I understand the need to have sanctuary from mainstream culture. I was thinking about that just this weekend. I live and work in a fairly homogenous environment--white, small town/suburban and Republican/conservative. Thank God for the Internets and my cell phone or I would never be able to speak to people like me. People for whom I don't have to mask some part of who I am. A couple weeks ago, I was at a public event and within three hours an older white man made an absolutely vile racial joke to me and a white woman petted my natural hair. Being "othered" is stressful as hell--especially when it happens every blessed minute of every blessed day. Having privilege does not strip people of their humanity.

I don't want white men running everything either, but tokenism is offensive to me. There are enough qualified women and black people out there that anyone can vote on merit and STILL get a historic candidacy. Republicans adding Sarah Palin to the ticket is as much about caring for women as Republicans running Alan Keyes against Barack Obama during his Senate campaign was about caring for black people--and by that I mean NOT AT ALL. Women ought to know that.

And please, please, please...black people are not voting for Obama because he is black. 1) Hillary Clinton had vastly more support that Obama when the primary election began. Look back at the media. The narrative was all about why isn't Barack black enough. Clinton LOST the black vote by allowing her surrogates to race bait and then beginning to do it herself. The tide began to shift in South Carolina. 2) No other black candidate--even ones more well known than Obama--have enjoyed the level of support that he is getting from black folks. 3) Black people have consistently voted for Dems in large percentages for the last 40-some years. I believe Al Gore got 90 percent of the black vote in the general election. After all the years that black people have voted for white candidates, have voted for white candidates over black ones, I don't understand why people are determined to think that we lack intelligence to vote on issues. That is infuriating to me, as is the idea that women will be so mesmerized by Sarah Palin's womanhood that we will forget that both she and McCain would have us lose the ability to make decisions about our bodies, and woudl have us being paid less than men.

I don't need to hate men or think that white people are inherently evil to support the success of people of color and women.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tami for the thoughtful reply. Isn't it sad that there is even a need for sanctuary from an oppressive mainstream culture?

I wouldn't say exactly that I hate men, but I'm awfully sick of their general sexist stupidity out in the world.

And I most certainly am not talking about tokenism in politics, I'm talking about such large numbers of women in office that this becomes irrelevant.

I don't believe that women govern or even act the same way that men do, and I see this striking difference all the time when I compare mixed groups to women only groups. It's very obvious when you are observing straight people with detachment.

So no, I am not the same as everyone else, and I think what I want in the world is different as well.

I'm even indifferent to feminists being held hostage to reproductive everything. But that puts me somewhere between Jupiter and Pluto I guess :-)

yet another black guy said...

I'll admit to wanting ANYONE but another straight white male in a position of power. Then i realized that it's the PERSON and not the demographic that determines the competencies and biases that person will exhibit during tenure (see Thomas, Clarence). While i still look at the 'other' candidate first when given a choice; i then compare my hopes and ideologies with their platforms and track records.

And thanks for the lesson on Audre Lorde. I was previously unaware of her.

Anonymous said...

yet another black guy's comments were interesting.

What we need to focus on I think is what goes with being from a certain group. If you are black you GET racism in a big way. No one has to explain it, and you'll see things the majority in this country can't see.

It's not really about a male candidate or a female one per se, it's about the life experience one brings to the job living the life as a person of either gender.

It's why I vote for women in the first place; they're the ones who took me seriously politically, opened up job opportunites and NEVER make sexist comments or tell dirty jokes that make me cringe.

Can men treat women as equals? No, they have no idea what equality is.

We can all pretend that we vote on "the issues" but really, I've found very few male politicians who really care about what women have to say, and certainly their egos are ever present.

The Clarence Thomas example I think is a little bit over used. I'm far from conservative, but I understand what Thomas stands for, and reading about his life has been an inspiration to me.

Women really are trained to care for others besides themselves. It doesn't mean that men don't do this, it's that they interpret caring for others as "defending" the country against small poor countries, for example.

As for Audre Lord, wow, everyone needs to read her. Her poetry is also amazing as well.

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