Election 08: What's Great and What We're Getting Wrong, Time and Again...
Election time always makes me feel like it's Christmas: I can hardly wait to find out who's going to take over the White House on Election Day. There's so much preparation that must be done ahead of time: you have to research the candidate platforms, banter with your friend about their candidate of choice while you watch debates, and get real excited (or horrified) at media coverage of candidate responses. And this year, the fact that there's a diversity of candidates from different genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds vying for the Democratic presidential nomination is the most exciting part of this year's primary. This is the first time we're seeing a White woman and a Black man compete as front-runner candidates in a major party primary.
In previous elections the media talks about how demographics by gender, race, and age will vote for the amazing selection of (White heterosexual male) candidates, but never how the gender or race of the candidate impacts how these demographics will vote. Now that the media is talking about these issues it's slowly becoming the most disappointing part of the election. It's not the fact that we're having this discussion about race and gender in our society that frustrates me, but how this discussion is played out. For those who aren't sure what I'm referring to yet, it's a new buzz topic in the blogosphere known as the "Oppression Olympics": which is the more subjugated identity, race or gender?
Last week Gloria Steinem, a leader in the second-wave of feminism in the '60s, wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called "Women Are Never Front-Runners" about the issue of race and gender in presidential primary. Just given the title, you can see the position she's taken on the issue. (Funny how she doesn't consider that, if women are never front-runners, how did Hillary win New Hampshire or maintain a front-runner status?)
Steinem argues that gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, and her argument is compelling. Compared to other democratic nations, we have a pretty low rate of electing women into office. Female voters in Iowa were seen as needing to support Clinton, but male voters are supposedly gender-free in how they vote. Women have tough barriers to face to enter into political office. And she also states that she's "not advocating a competition for who has it toughest".
But Gloria. Yes you are. And what's most disturbing is how your analysis of race and gender perpetuates such divisions in the social movement.
In the opening of her article, Steinem claims that a fictional female official with all of Obama's traits (from political qualifications, marital status, and even racial background) would not be considered a front-runner candidate for political office solely on the basis because she is a woman. She may be right that if Obama was a woman, then her political career and even opportunities may be more limited as a woman. But so would Hillary's, if she was Black. Her oversimplified analysis ignores those who are disadvantaged by both race and gender, wondering which "box" do they fit in. Personally as a woman of color, am I suppose to be a woman or a racial minority first? And how do I know I'm not discriminated against because of one and not the other? Or both at the same time?
What makes her analysis of oppression and marginalization so dangerous is because it asks us to compare oppressions of racism and sexism when it is manifested in very different ways that have various historical, political, and social contexts. How I'm oppressed as a second-generation Asian American woman is different from how a Black man experiences oppression, which is different from how a working-class White woman experiences oppression. Oppression is wrong, but playing the game of "who's been bleeding or suffering harder and longer" is far more wrong and does nothing to change any situation.
Don't get me wrong; Steinem is correct that sexism is a real part of society, one that plays a very big role in how we perceive Clinton's candidacy and electability. But her broad sweeping justification that because Blacks got to vote before women did, and how Blacks in general "have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women" paints an unfair picture that racism is an issue long-resolved. Regardless of where you grow up and where you live, racism is prevalent: in the choices that Black men face to either become an athlete or in jail; how Native Americans are denied adequate health care or educational opportunities at disproportional rates; or racial profiling towards Asian and Latino immigrants who are constantly seen as "foreign" or "illegal"?
The race versus gender debate presupposes an already existing alliance between those who members of that identity group based on race and gender. It also insists that one oppression is more important than another. A major limitation of this kind of identity politics enables a divisive pull between marginalized groups causes us to fight over scraps instead of demanding equal seats at the table. The tendency for second-wave feminists from Gloria Steinem's generation to universalize the experience of gender without understanding how power and privilege operate around to race, gender, age, class, sexuality, history, or even location is becoming a topic of major criticism for many subsequent feminists such as bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, or Audre Lorde.*
Steinem's analysis is disingenuous to what real social change is about. Through her article, she seems to support the idea we should vote based on our identities, or for those who aren't Black or a woman, vote based on who you think is 'most oppressed'. She doesn't give any consideration to the issues and causes Clinton supports, doesn't support, and what she refuses to take position on. According to Steinem, the women in their 50s or 60s who came out overwhelmingly in support of Clinton and her centrist political positions surely prove that women get more "radical" with age. Her definition of 'radical' scares me as someone who identifies with that term as part of my social practice and political belief. As an activist, what I have grown to know as radical politics doesn't just mean a fundamental political and cultural change, it means being smart and strategic to how that change can be brought about... To know that your struggle for either racial or gender justice is tied into the struggles against all injustice. Steinem's call for support for Clinton to fight the sex barrier, places a hierarchy of one issue over another. It may break a glass ceiling for women in the U.S., lacks any kind of strategy to developing comprehensive social change for all women or marginalized groups.
This is an exciting time where the Left has a chance to reframe the debate around fundamental quality of life issues, yet we're constantly facing messaging left and right about how we should vote between race or gender. Steinem's Op-Ed certainly isn't representative of the views of many feminists I know, but it's reflective of how gender and race issues are viewed in our society. She reaffirms many of the issues people involved in social movements have struggled to change in how we organize: the universalizing of oppression, the invisibility of women of color, and the race discussion as being only about Black and White. But come the next crucial months, we need to keep our momentum to have our voices heard loud and clear to shift the political discussion towards creation of equitable policies supporting universal health care, funding for higher education, worker's rights, the Iraq war, the environment. The next president is only going to be as good as the policies they put forward, and the leadership to unify. Real change doesn't come from breaking glass ceilings, but through the steps we take so everyone has the opportunity to break them, no matter what gender, race, class, or background they have.
* Some suggested reading about third-wave feminism that I like: "This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color" ed. Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, "Feminism: From Margin to Center" by bell hooks, "Sister Outsider" by Audre Lorde, "All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Brave" by Barbara Smith.