Monday, January 21, 2008
"Iron my Shirt"--how to become a race (and sex) traitor

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.

I just now, for some reason, made the connection between this post and my recent advice to my son in response to a bully at school--to deflect, rather than react, to the bullying. Reacting is acknowledging that they've hurt you. Deflecting refuses to acknowledge the attempt to injure.
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