Privileged, anxious: Let’s not talk about who’s got it worse

Mark Halperin’s comments yesterday that the Hillary campaign was presenting Obama’s race as an argument to superdelegates to get them to cross sides into her camp left me confused: is sexism worse than racism, so we need to vote for Hillary because things would change more, or is racism worse than sexism, so we need to vote for Hillary because Obama can’t win in the general?

Because we’ve definitely heard both. I don’t know how many Clinton supporters have made the former, from Gloria Steinem to Geraldine Ferraro, and for those of us sitting on the sidelines of these two profoundly complex and privileged people getting caricatured as their race and sex, it’s annoying. And such comments are definitely not moving the discussion forward.

As I’ve said time and time again, to say flatly that one is worse than the other erases the intersections of race and gender, rendering black women invisible and white men normal, denies the way factors such as ability and class play into the lives of the candidates, and ignores the multiple narratives on race and gender that work differently to prevent people from reaching various aspects of their potential.

(It’s the same thing as when a gay person says something about how we’re the last civil rights movement” or the most only minority that it’s still OK to discriminate against. There’s a world out there, Maries!)

But back to Halperin’s comments. I’m not going to pretend like her argument is going to be universally ignored – I’m sure that there are many white people in the country who simply won’t vote for a black man. It sucks, but let’s at least have the decency to admit that white privilege exists.

What should be the flip-side to what she’s saying, though, is that there are “sensitive areas” that would cause “white male voters” to “turn against Obama Clinton” that are “politically incorrect to talk about it in polite company sometimes.” If racism and sexism act the same, and sexism is stronger, then the argument that superdelegates should move from Clinton’s column to Obama’s makes more sense.

Of course, we’re not hearing that because the two simply aren’t the same. While women have historically been kept out of positions of power because of stereotypes ascribed to their gender, patriarchal power structures, and male privilege, white men have sympathized with white women in ways that Black men simply don’t have access to.

In other words, To Kill a Mockingbird may have been fiction, but Harper Lee wasn’t writing in a vacuum.

The idea of a racial minority in the most powerful office in this country brings up feelings of resentment as someone who’s not “us” is challenging “our” authority. Just look at Chris Matthews’s most recent comments about who’s a regular person and who’s not:

Discussing Sen. Barack Obama on the April 1 edition of MSNBC’s Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO): “Let me ask you about how he — how’s he connect with regular people? Does he? Or does he only appeal to people who come from the African-American community and from the people who have college or advanced degrees?”

Or look at the comments that Pam found on Free Republic in response to Sec. Rice’s remarks on race. Here’s one:

Maybe she should go back to Africa, where she could get a “founding” experience.

Jasmyne Cannick may have joked about how Obama was portrayed by conservatives as a Muslim only to be accused of having an unpatriotic Black pastor at a Christian church when that imagery seemed like a more efficient way to achieve their goals, but the subtext is the same: Obama’s not a real American. Real Americans are white, Anglo, and like bowling. Barack Hussein Obama’s one of them, not us.

Consider this from Linda Burnham (via Sara Whitman):

But, interestingly, Clinton can and does directly associate her campaign with a potential blow against gender discrimination. Obama cannot do the same with regard to race. Clinton regularly posits winning the presidency, breaking through that highest and hardest glass ceiling, as she puts it, as an historic win for women, more than 50 percent of the population.Obama, meanwhile, does not have the latitude to explicitly associate his campaign with the interests of African Americans or an anti-racist agenda. Part of this is simply about the numbers. But there’s much more at work here. While Clinton has been walking her tightrope, Obama has been busy threading the very narrowest of needles. […]

There’s a bargain that white voters have struck with Obama, and here, in brief, is what it is:

“You can be black, and we’re happy to congratulate ourselves on voting for a black man, as long as you’re black in a way that doesn’t upset us, scare us, make us feel guilty, or make us feel too white.” Obama is holding up his side of the bargain, either because he’s temperamentally inclined to do so or because he’s carefully calculated what it takes to win over white voters, or some combination of the two. But the quality of his blackness is nonetheless an issue. This is the meaning of the insistence that Obama distance himself from his pastor, Reverend Wright, and from Minister Farrakhan. Way too many chips and scars. Way too little regard for what white folks think. And way too much attachment to the African American community. So, if Obama himself can’t be tagged as too black for prime time, maybe he’s too black by association.

The reason becomes clear if you look at the common reaction from the right with regards to Obama’s speech on race:

On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh said that Barack Obama was now “the candidate of race.”He said Obama “is not an agent of racial healing, he is a product of it.”

He accuses of Obama of wanting to be the nation’s racial-healer-in-chief, rather than its commander-in-chief.

Sure, it’s Rush, but that mentality is a lot more common than people think. It’s an anxiety around having too many outsiders around and not wanting them to be in positions of power, much stronger than mere “stereotypes,” and it’s pretty well-ingrained in our political discourse.

None of this is to say that electing Clinton or Obama wouldn’t be blows to racism or sexism or that we should give up because it’s too hard (not that it matters since all the white boys dropped out except Mr. 100 Years). Nor am I saying that sexism doesn’t exist, that racism is worse, or that Hillary Clinton is an awful human being.

But if we’re going to have that elusive Conversation About Racism and Sexism, we need to keep it nuanced enough to recognize the multiple ways these biases present themselves. And we ought to recognize what we’re working against here: people with power who don’t want to give it to a group of people they see as foreign who they’re worried won’t give it back.

Or we can reduce this election to another caricature: Harvard vs. Yale. Who do you all think will win?

8 comments

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    • pico on April 3, 2008 at 8:43 am

    The readership here’s a little smaller, but the community tends to be a little more intimate for that reason.  Thanks for coming over here to post!

  1. Hey great essay & I think you’ll fit right in here.  

    The welcoming committee says welcome… and smile! Don’t be sad. 🙁

  2. I think the candidacies of Clinton and Obama show more than anything else how feeble our national discourse is when it comes to both sexism and racism.

    I guess it’s a positive that it’s even being brought up in the general conversation.  We have to start somewhere.

    Sounds so good to me … a “national conversation,” a real dialogue.  It doesn’t take everyone to make that happen — just enough folks to set the tone.

    I think this essay does a good job in that direction.

  3. Great essay as always, and……..Thanks for coming!

    • Robyn on April 3, 2008 at 8:10 pm

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