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What We're Missing About Sex and Race from Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano

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2014-06-01-sterling_stiviano.jpg

V. Stiviano: "People call you and tell you that I have black people on my Instagram, and it bothers you."

Donald Sterling: "Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to... broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?"


These are some of the words that condemned Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling to a lifetime ban from the NBA, a $2.5 million fine, and forced the sale of his team. The public outcry over this privately recorded conversation has shown that overt forms of racism are becoming less acceptable, a promising sign of U.S. progress.

Still, systematic forms of racism continue to exist. For example, some have rightly argued that Sterling's past court settlements for housing discrimination against Latinos and African Americans were actually more damaging to people's lives than his racist words.

While far fewer people have responded to Sterling's views concerning V. Stiviano and other women, his sexism here is deeply intertwined with his racist beliefs. These interrelated views on sex and race not only persist in the U.S. today, but they go largely unnoticed and find widespread acceptance within our society.

Sterling's sexism is just as bad as his racism
Donald Sterling's recorded sentiments and actions towards women certainly have not inspired the same type of counterblast as his views on race, yet they are equally disturbing. On the original audiotape Sterling argues with V. Stiviano: "If my girl can't do what I want, I don't want the girl. I'll find a girl that will do what I want. Believe me."

The Sterling-Stiviano relationship is problematic on many levels; not least of them being that he's 50 years her senior and that he has a wife. Though Stiviano claims that she was not Sterling's mistress and that she loves him simply "like a father figure," it appears as if they had a romantic relationship. Both Sterling and his wife Rochelle "Shelly" Sterling have claimed in legal documents that Stiviano was his lover.

In their recorded conversation, Sterling and Stiviano declare their love for one another, yet when the young woman questions Sterling's racism he becomes frustrated and threatens to cancel their upcoming trip to Europe. Previous gifts to Stiviano reportedly included a $1.8 million home, two Bentleys, a Range Rover, and a Ferrari - along with $240,000 in spending cash (Shelly Sterling has accused Stiviano of seducing her husband and is suing for the return of over $2 million to compensate for these gifts given by her husband).

Sterling has claimed his racist rant was fueled by jealously and that he didn't want his mistress to be sexually involved "with other black guys." In a separate phone recording, Sterling attempted to excuse his words, saying that he was simply "trying to have sex with her (Stiviano)" and that "you may say anything in the world" to get a woman in bed.

Sterling's sexism is directly connected with his racism
At one point on the original tape Sterling yells at Stiviano: "You're supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl." She defiantly responds: "I'm a mixed girl, and you're in love with me. And I'm black and Mexican, whether you like it or not." For Sterling, it's acceptable to privately have a "mixed girl" or woman of color as your mistress as long as she's not perceived as being "black" in public.

This type of white-man-with-colored-woman/jungle fever drama has deep roots in U.S. history (see Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings). Screenwriters couldn't create a better plot today (no wait, see Scandal). The story gets even juicier when the man in the relationship is a racist and has an illicit affair with a woman of color (go back to Jefferson-Hemings, then see Strom Thurmond, Carrie Butler, and their daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams).

Stiviano was not Sterling's only Latina extra-marital relationship. According to court records from 2002-2003, Sterling had an affair with Alexandra Castro and bought her a $1 million home in Beverly Hills. Sterling sued Castro to get the house back after their relationship ended, she countersued, and the two settled out of court.

In legal documents Sterling claimed that Castro was a sex-crazed prostitute who he paid $500 for each time they had sex. Castro fired back that she had a caring relationship with Sterling, though he was extremely demanding and had her attending to household chores, among other services. For example, Sterling purportedly would instruct Castro on how to remove his socks. If she didn't follow his instructions exactly, Sterling would have her put the socks back on and then had Castro repeat the process all over again.

This is the type of subservience Donald Sterling seeks in a "delicate Latina." It should be noted that Sterling is not the only man out there supplying cash and expensive gifts in exchange for sex and companionship from women of color who are seen as exotic, yet passive and obedient. Racism, paternalism and womanizing are all connected here.

Latinos and people of mixed heritage do not need to take the racial bribe of whiteness
On the audiotape, Sterling offers Stiviano the bribe of racial whiteness when he comments that despite her Mexican and African American ancestry, she could racially pass "as either a Latina or white girl." Furthermore, Sterling describes Mexicans and African Americans as "enemies" and followed this up by telling Stiviano "you're an enemy to me" because she defiantly acknowledged her heritage.

Stiviano has had personal problems with her ethnic identity in the past. She was born Maria Vanessa Pérez and legally changed her name to V. Stiviano in 2010, noting that she had yet to be "fully accepted because of her race." Though it's unclear who specifically did not accept the young Ms. Pérez, it is possible that Vanessa changed her Latin surname of Pérez to the more ambiguous or Italian-influenced last name of Stiviano in an attempt to distance herself from her African and Mexican roots -- thus reaching closer towards whiteness.

What's clear is that as an adult the newly branded V. Stiviano was not fully accepted by Sterling, who encouraged her to be "white." He didn't want people associating Stiviano with "black people" like Magic Johnson, who is relatively dark-skinned. Stiviano removed this picture from her Instagram page at Sterling's request, yet interestingly she kept up her photo with LA Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, who is of mixed ancestry. "He's lighter and whiter than me," Stiviano told Sterling on the recording. Sterling agreed that the photo with Kemp was okay because it didn't connect her as strongly to blackness.

Many of us today find these comments abhorrent and would openly denounce such bigoted remarks. Still, how often do we speak out about the outright lack of dark-skinned women of color in leading roles on TV, in movies, and in other forms of U.S. media?

The majority of prominent women of color in popular society physically appear much like Stiviano does today: light-skinned, European features, and/or of mixed ethnic ancestry. Stiviano is only one of many well-known African American and Latin American women who have possibly lightened their skin, thinned their noses, or altered other aspects of their bodies through cosmetic surgery. Without judging those who have felt pressure to change their appearance in this way, why aren't we more critical about the social pressures put on women of color to alter themselves?

These views go well beyond Hollywood and what's happening in Los Angeles. In terms of race and gender there are widespread underlying beliefs that dark skin, broad noses, and hair that's too curly or kinky are less attractive features for women in many African American and Latino communities.

Certainly the remnants of Spanish, English, and U.S. colonization are still with us in the 21st century. However, perhaps more damaging are today's popular movies, magazines and other forms of media that continue to photoshop and airbrush our ideas of feminine beauty towards a European or "white" image. Ideal beauty is often implicitly defined as European and is therefore especially damaging to young women of color (simply google "beauty" and click on images for a quick visual reference).

Uprooting racism and sexism in our lives and in society
Over the past several weeks Donald Sterling's banishment from the NBA along with multi-million dollar fines and associated lawsuits have made big news. Most recently the LA Clippers are being sold for $2 billion and Sterling is suing the NBA for $1 billion.

However, what we're largely missing in the headlines is how all of this started with racial sentiments that were inseparably connected with gender stereotypes, many of which are still socially acceptable today. Perhaps this is why it's easy for us to knock Sterling for his racist comments while leaving his sexism unchecked.

Moving past Sterling, when will we as individuals, and collectively as a society, attack sexism and other prejudices to the same extent as we do racism? All of us can start among our friends and family when racist, sexist, and other discriminatory comments are made within the privacy of our own homes.