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.


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