Monday, January 21, 2008
The issues of race and sex in the presidential nomination contest, and a recent blog post suggesting we call Barack Obama white, caused me to consider how things might be different if we adopted the approach of the (now only online) magazine "Race Traitor" to both racism ( re Obama) and misogyny (re New Hampshire heckler who yelled "iron my shirt!" at Hillary Clinton.
"Race traitor" has historically meant someone who is black and has in some way betrayed the cause of blacks. The magazine uses it in a different way--to mean someone who rejects being identified as "white"--that is, renounces their white privilege. For example, the magazine has suggested that the best way a white person can respond to another's racist joke is NOT moral outrage or denunciation, but saying to the joke teller, "I guess you're assuming I'm white." For the racist joke is an in-joke, a reinforcement of "you and I are white and privileged and they're not." Responding with outrage says "yes, you and I are white, but I"m morally superior to you." Responding by refusing that racial identity, however, says something else. It denies the seeming safety of (white) racial solidarity. You are claiming not to be one of "us," but one of "them."
Refusing to claim one's status as white tells others that you don't care if other whites think you're black, and therefore "less." It's interesting how much harder this is than just expressing moral outrage. Try it when someone says something that you feel is racist, with the assumption that you will agree. It's much more difficult than just claiming moral superiority. It's easy enough to say "i'm not like you, and therefore superior"-- harder to say "i'm a member of that group you just insulted, which you see as inferior." Can you do it?
Race is not a genetic reality, but a social construct. It's easy to see that with a person who has a white parent and a black parent: why are they then "black"? And why are they still black if they have two white parents, but a black grandparent? Genetically, we are the products of our ancestors' physical environments, but our "race" is the product of our own cultural environments. Our ancestors' physical environment is not meaningful to us today, but our cultural environment is. It shapes how we think of ourselves in relation to others. The racism and sexism that we all have internalized, without realizing it, harms all of us, whether we are black or white, male or female. Race and gender identity, and our attitudes about race and gender, form a large part of our self-concept. Our beliefs about race and gender inform all our interactions with others. Note how uncomfortable we feel in the presence of someone if we can't tell their race or sex (remember "Pat"?) because we don't know their status relative to our own. We don't know if they are "us" or "them."s But houldn't we all be "us"? And how do we get there?
How does this apply to Hillary's misogynist heckler? (I don't think we'll hear a man respond to another man's offensive remark with "I guess you're assuming I'm a man"). But imagine if Hillary, instead of confronting the heckler's sexism, had responded to the heckler in this manner:
"Thank you! This is exactly why I am running for president. Too many people in America, like this man here, cannot afford to buy an iron. When I am president, every American who wants an iron will be able to afford one. Every child in America will learn to use an iron. No American will ever again suffer the indignity of a wrinkled shirt, as this man has suffered. Thank you for bringing this important matter to our national attention."
Yes, it's silly and may seem to be trivializing the issue. But, imagine how the crowd's (and the nation's) perceptions of this man would have changed. Imagine the difference if, instead of confronting, we were to reframe by refusing to acknowledge that someone has attempted to put us "in our place." By refusing to even acknowledge that there is a difference in status for men and women, or for blacks and whites. To operate on the assumption not that the statement was an attack on a woman, but that it was simply a person expressing a need--a need for an unwrinkled shirt--and addressing the statement as such. This would be a refusal to grant that person the power gained through misogyny and racism. What if, instead of fighting racism and sexism, we just refused to allow people to use it to hurt us?
Imagine if men were to renounce their male privilege, and if whites were to renounce theirs, by no longer claiming their status. Imagine if we didn't allow them to claim it, even unknowingly, by refusing to acknowledge it. Imagine if we really were equal, not just pretending to be.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
The anti-sex (read, sex-obsessed) delegate from Prince William, Bob Marshall, has decided to run for the Republican nomination for the US Senate. I guess former repub Gov. Jim Gilmore is not right-wing enough? It would not be completely accurate to call Marshall a one-issue legislator, but his main concern is the control of sex. As far as he's concerned, no one should be able to decide whether or not to have sex except for married men (he thinks married women should submit to their husbands no matter their wishes--the Virginia general assembly debate on the bill to remove the marriage loophole from Virginia's sexual assault laws was pretty interesting, with Bob talking about wives in their nighties).
Keeping birth control out of the hands of college students has been a big priority for Bob. Now he's trying to backtrack on the GA's decision to add HPV vaccine to the list of required vaccines for girls. The reason is not because he's concerned about girls' health, but the right-wing take on the HPV vaccine is that it promotes promiscuity. (I suppose the vaccine for polio must also promote some kind of bad behavior (what? I'm trying to think...) but I'm sure my dad's parents would have wanted to save him the pain of the disease if they'd had the ability to do so, even if it *had* encouraged him to play in the dirt (ah, there we have it)).
The Bob Marshalls of the world cloak their attempts to control others in "caring." You can see through that by noting the logical inconsistencies--obviously, anyone who really cared about reducing the rate of abortions would favor birth control, because that's logical. Wanting to restrict access to BOTH birth control and abortion is ideological (not to mention idiotic).
It's been pointed out before that Bob Marshall and others like him in the Virginia legislature like to peer into the bedroom windows of Virginians. I don't think we have to worry about him taking his window-peeping crusade national, because he's too wacky even for the Virginia GOP to pick him (at least George Allen *looks* normal, even tho he's too stupid to act it for long). It would be kinda nice to see him trounced. But, Virginia politics can be a little wacky too, so he might make it farther than I think!
Thursday, January 03, 2008
(and is Obama drinking that kool-aid?)
Many years ago, I subscribed to the idea that race hatred was promulgated by the powers-that-be in order to prevent poor whites and blacks from gaining political power--ie, so that they'd keep fighting with each other rather than turning around to see the common enemy--the military-industrial complex.
Now I have a more nuanced view, which is that, first of all, race hatred is not something that corporate America needs to promulgate--why should they exert themselves, when we play so readily into their hands?--but that it functions to the same effect. Second, that the chains of slavery still exist inside the minds of far too many African-Americans (something common to most oppressed persons, the internalization of oppression) and, with the victim culture of America (note, NOT unique to African-Americans--most whites view themselves as victims of some kind of "reverse racism"), this internalized oppression becomes part of one's identity, and thus, nearly impossible to escape.
Witness Justice Clarence Thomas' recent autobiography. A man who has reached the pinnacle of the legal profession, from the most humble of beginnings. Is he able to take pride or satisfaction in, or even feel vindicated by his success? No, he just feels bitter, angry and resentful. One can see the pain written on his face. And his anger and hurt play themselves out in his votes and opinions, which all too often perpetuate the racial imbalances our society is based upon.
This summer, an intern tried to tell me that rights for blacks had gone too far--why, they even had their own television channel! Why wasn't there any WET? She didn't get that every television channel is white entertainment television. Nor could she see that BET was catering to an entertainment interest market, like the golf channel or ESPN. No, it was just evidence of the special favors African-Americans get. She felt herself to be a victim of racial preferences--why should a white student not be able to go to the school of their choice because of admission policies that place a value on diversity? I tried to explain that many different values in our society are promoted in all kinds of situations that may be invisible until one looks for them. As examples, I pointed out that school admission policies also weight hardship, unique perspectives or experiences, and as always, legacy admissions. She didn't want to hear me, but as with some other discussions we had, I hope that something permeated into her subconscious somewhere.
Unfortunately, she is like far too many Americans, feeling victimized, and focusing her lens narrowly on one issue that allows her to continue to feel a victim, despite her many privileges of which she is unaware. She doesn't realize she's harming herself with her attitude. Nor do African-Americans, as a whole, seem to realize that victimhood is self-destructive. By buying into the oppression, one prevents oneself from escaping it.
Many political commentators have noted that Obama seems to not have fallen into this American culture of victimhood (ah, finally getting to the point). There is some disagreement about whether Obama, while not embodying it, still panders to it. For instance, the Washington Post presents evidence that refutes Obama's claim that there are more black men in prison than in college. Turns out, there are more than twice as many black men in college than in prison or jail.
Now, one could say this is just campaign-trail hyperbole, and of course, it is. But it's not harmless. It's buying into the victimhood. It's saying that Barack Obama is an anomaly, not an exemplary. It's saying to young black boys, you're more likely to end up in prison than college--it's what happens to you when you're a young black man. It's affirming, in a left-handed way, the truth, the rightness of this supposed state of affairs. Yes, there are too many black men in prison. Yes, there should be more black men in college. But does focusing on the victimhood inspire, or just instill hopelessness? Doesn't it just create its own reality?
How much more inspiring, if not as neat a soundbite, if Obama had said in Harlem: "I went to Harvard. You can, too. I want to see that every young black boy and girl aspires to get a great education and go to a great college or university. And I want to make it possible for every black child who wants to go to college to be able to go to college. In 2007, more black men than ever before went to college. In fact, there are twice as many young black men in college than in prison. But we can do better. We can inspire our children to achieve great things, to stretch their minds, and to soar..." well, you get the idea. (I'm afraid I get carried away sometimes).
Why is Obama pandering to our nation's victimhood culture? Maybe he's bought into it. Maybe he lacks the willpower to stay above it. Maybe he thinks it will make him our next president. I hope it's not the last, because I'd hate to think he was that cynical. I admire Obama greatly, and I want him to be our President after Hillary. But I want him to do what he says he wants to do, and change American politics, not fall into its traps. We'll see.