Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sexism v. Racism: A Response

My friend Adrienne sent me a response to my latest posts on sexism and racism in America and naturally makes some points I hadn't really thought about. Here's the text of her email and my response follows below:

re: that, I think you should try again in comparing American racism and American sexism in your own head. I'm NOT SAYING that you were wrong to "choose" the former as ultimately worse than the latter, I'm just wondering if you're able to see that there is, perhaps, a case that they're potentially equal, or even that sexism might be worse? "Rape and harassment and abuse" is not the full extent of it, just as "slavery and lynching" isn't the full extent of the black American experience throughout history [although, are you really thinking about how the very existence of rape and harassment constricts womens' ability to live and act freely? I mean, this is no small thing].

Think of segregation, of the lack of opportunities and acceptable life roles and choices; think of the increased burden that women have had to carry due to having children and a career, or due to their potential partners being in prison (i.e., factor in the Drug War). Factor in how you're treated on the street and in your own house, emotional manipulation subtle and not-so-subtle, forced (implicitly or explicitly) child-bearing (or hidden abortions), the glass ceiling, the cruel inner-city living experience. Of being told that you are less capable of achieving than a white man because of your biology (again, women and blacks got this message for a loooong time). These are a few of the things to consider in the context of the black American experience and the female American experience. There's a lot more.

I'm just saying, I don't think it's as clear cut as you want it to be.
Unfortunately, Adrienne is right to say that the differences in sexism and racism are not as clear cut as I make them out as. They are a difference of degree, not in kind. And to add an extra layer of nuance, racism tends to run tandem with class issues as the Jim Crow laws affected not only blacks in the South but poor whites as well. My issue with the way sexism has been talked about throughout this year's electoral campaign is that many of the old guard feminists have attempted to make sexism morally equivalent to racism at the cost of those who are still fighting against racism. It isn't that women have had it easier than blacks or other minority, but they have faced less physical and mental violence, particularly white women. Moreover, women who understand where second-wave feminism went wrong look more towards gender equality versus biological equality. The issue is not so much proving that women can physically do what men can but realigning gender roles that impose certain expectations on men to act a certain way towards women as much as women are expected to accept such treatment.
What has happened is the turning of the feminist movement in the direction that the civil rights movement took once their great leaders fell. Americans don't like to talk about sexism, hate to talk about racism and class issues are almost anathema in our current political discourse. So we (especially white males) ignore these issues as much as we can. And the generation leaders after the initial movement in the 60s and 70s have become as, if not more, concerned with their influence as they are with advancing their causes. Women, just as blacks do, need new leaders not of the previous victimized baby boomers. Women no longer need leaders like Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan for the simple reason that third-wave feminists have rejected the radicalism of Steinem or Friedan. Perhaps if someone like the late Ann Richards were to take the lead, the feminist movement might shed it's radical aura that conservatives have saddled it with.
Another problem with the old guard of feminism is that they still maintain a caucasian-centric middle class perspective when feminism itself must move beyond that. Those women who suffer the most from sexism are generally poor, less educated and often are of a different color. The kind of elitism second-wave feminism brought, while advancing the consciousness of the nation, did not aid in bringing black women into the movement nor advocating for the end of the culture among black communities that so often see single mothers whose fathers are either jailed, dead or allowed to shirk their responsibilities. For second-wave feminists to cry foul at the treatment of a white woman in today's media makes them look less like responsible leaders and more like the knee-jerk black 'leaders' who do little but show up when a scandal happens (think the opportunistic Al Sharpton and the dumb as a bag of hammered dog shit Don Imus).
This is the key difference I see between Sen. Clinton's brand of feminism and Sen. Obama's brand of civil rights. Where Sen. Clinton remains locked in this radicalized form of feminism that younger generations no longer buy into, Sen. Obama has sought to transcend the issues of race but acknowledges that both sides, black and white, must start talking about race before such transcendence can occur. The same conversation must occur between men and women for true gender equality can rise. Men need to know what their gender role is within a gender equal society. Much like the whites who complained that blacks were getting a leg up while they were left behind, the men who witnessed second-wave feminism (particularly those of a conservative cultural-warrior bent) were convinced that second-wave feminists sought the emasculation of masculinity. People tend to operate by inertia and much like Newton's 3rd law of motion, every action is met by an equal and opposite reaction. So while radicalism is sometimes necessary don't act all surprised when you see an equally strong reactionary movement.
Such is the problem the Clinton campaign faces when their supporters cry "sexism". It's true that the Chris Matthews of the world have and will continue to make sexist remarks about Sen. Clinton but to argue that such remarks are against all women ignores the context of Sen. Clinton herself. While not responsible for even half of what is believed about her, Sen. Clinton has given little to sway those who do believe she is an egocentric, self-serving sociopath (as Andrew Sullivan would argue). And her surrogates only worsen the problem by repeating the claims of sexism, becoming increasingly shrill and polemical. Meanwhile, Sen. Obama and his campaign have deftly dealt with accusations of sexism and racism by actually talking about it versus writing an invective op-ed to the Washington Post or the New York Times. It's a case of action versus words and a contemporary man versus a woman of the past.