Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The End of Isms

Normally, I find New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to be spot on, but, after reading her editorial today, I was left feeling flabbergasted.

In the editorial “Duel of Historical Guilts,” Dowd makes the following statements:

People will have to choose which of America’s sins are greater, and which stain will have to be removed first. Is misogyny worse than racism, or is racism worse than misogyny? As it turns out, making history is actually a way of being imprisoned by history. It’s all about the past. Will America’s racial past be expunged or America’s sexist past be expunged?

Dowd makes these comments in regards to whether or not Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton will win the presidential election. My concern is that Dowd is under the impression that a win by either of the two would somehow wipe out America’s racist and sexist past. Why does Dowd believe that misogyny will evaporate with Hillary Clinton as President or that racism will evaporate with Barack Obama in the role? There is no doubt in my mind that, while women may make some advances under a Hillary Clinton administration, they will continue to earn less than men do, bear the brunt of domestic tasks, be sexually victimized and continue to struggle for reproductive rights. There is no doubt in my mind that black men will continue to make up the largest percentage of imprisoned Americans, die at younger ages than most other groups do, continue to be victimized by violence and be left behind in our schools. There is no doubt that women of color will continue to find themselves on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, earning less than black men and white women, alike, while confronting the same issues they do.

I wholeheartedly embrace Barack Obama’s message of hope, but I also strive to remain rooted in reality. A win for either a white woman or a black man will not mark the end of “isms” in this country. These constructs have been in place for hundreds of years and cannot be undone by the election of one groundbreaking candidate. Despite this, I worry that others will espouse Dowd’s view in light of a Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton election. If such an election transpires, will women and those of color be told to “shut it” when they complain about the very real gender and racial constructs that they encounter in this country?

I also find Dowd’s column problematic because, for the umpteenth time, the public is being asked to choose. Which is worse: misogyny or racism? How about neither? How about we acknowledge that they are interconnected? Men are affected by misogyny and whites are affected by racism, whether or not they recognize this.

By suggesting otherwise, Dowd is engaging in what some have nicknamed the “Oppression Olympics.” Most often, I’ve witnessed the Oppression Olympics play out when slavery and the Holocaust are discussed. Those in support of the Holocaust cite the fact that 6 million Jews were exterminated. In response, those in support of slavery cite that 10 million Africans lost their lives in the Middle Passage alone. But those I admire most, such as Night author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, refuse to partake in the Oppression Olympics. He has argued that it is not conducive to healing to attempt to measure who’s suffered most. What’s important is that we have survived and that we heal.

As suffering goes, though, Hillary Clinton is a complicated symbol for women because she is so entrenched in the establishment. I do acknowledge, however, that she has been a victim of misogyny. She’s been criticized for her physical appearance, for appearing to be cold rather than nurturing, for being power-hungry. And, while I’m none too happy that she won Ohio and Texas, I find it problematic that, before these critical wins, so many newspaper columnists urged her to drop out of the Democratic race when she trailed Sen. Obama by a marginal percentage. Would a man in a close race be told to drop out? This certainly wasn’t the case for Huckabee, who had no chance of winning the Republican nomination but pressed on until yesterday.

Obama, on the other hand, is a complicated male symbol because of his blackness. Since he rose to prominence, he has been sexualized in a manner in which white men aren’t. Mitt Romney is known for being strikingly handsome. One political commentator even nicknamed him “Ken,” as in Barbie’s significant other, but Romney has never been sexualized in the same way that Obama has. I’ve seen television skits in which Obama has been portrayed as a Mandingo warrior who sexually arouses Hillary Clinton. I’ve seen pictures of Obama in his swim trunks circulate the Internet. I’ve witnessed Obama surface as the object of a “Will & Grace” character’s wet dream. Obama himself seems to be hyper aware of how he has been sexualized. Recently, he refused to divulge whether he wears boxers or briefs, dismissing the question as humiliating.

Obama illustrates more than any candidate how much race and sex are entangled. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, illustrates through the sheer amount of power she has alone, that all women aren’t victims by default. Together, they make the case that we should not vote for them as symbols. A vote for Sen. Obama isn’t necessarily a vote for blacks or a vote against women. The fact is, in contrast to Dowd’s remarks, that Obama has never campaigned on the basis that he symbolizes black progress. He’s campaigned on the basis that he symbolizes hope.


Anonymous said...

Melissa McEwan also responded to Maureen Dowd's less-than-brilliant column with some interesting things to say:
Just thought you should know.
Last comment today, I promise.

Nadra said...

Oh, Mandy, don't apologize for commenting. I really appreciate your feedback and encouragement. You're so insightful, and I'm always interested in what you have to say.

Dr. Gordon Patzer said...


Isms are not ending in life or politics. They are instead increasing beyond the most acknowledged “isms” of racism and sexism to now include lookism.

In the world of lookism -- in which we all in the USA live and cannot escape -- people perceive, treat, and vote differently about others based on their looks or, in other words, their level of physical attractiveness. Much more will be made in the coming months about the looks of the current presidential contenders, due in large part because it is a bit more complicated than past presidential elections due to the extra dimensions of race differences and gender differences introduced seriously for the first time year.

Historically, the more physically attractive among the finalists have prevailed to progress to the elected office of president. Most quickly cited can be John F. Kennedy who nearly universally is judged to have possessed far greater physical attractiveness than Richard M Nixon who he defeated. In fact, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article a few years ago that stated, “Some historians have suggested that John F. Kennedy won the presidency because female voters swooned over his looks.”

Dr. Gordon Patzer
author of "Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined"

Nadra said...

Gordon, that's interesting. I remember at one point some politician made headlines by calling Hillary "ugly." I was appalled by that. Rush Limbaugh also made waves when he said that the public wouldn't want Hillary in office because we're not comfortable seeing a woman age. Hmmmm.....
Thanks for the comment!