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Gender, Race and the Presidential Election: A Response to Gloria Steinem

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Sally Kohn Writer, progressive activist, Fox News contributor

Recently in the New York Times, Gloria Steinem argued that if Barack Obama was a woman, he wouldn't be elected. That's probably true. Ms. Steinem then concludes that gender "is probably the most restricting force in American life." That's definitely false. Or, rather, a false choice. The reality is that racism and sexism are both profound and pervasive throughout our society. Ranking different forms of oppression is a ridiculous waste of time. We should be working to eradicate all forms of oppression, not deciding which one takes precedence.

In other words, just because Senator Obama was (at the time of Ms. Steinem's op-ed) surging above Hillary Clinton doesn't mean that racism has taken a back seat to sexism in the American body politic. Voter preferences may actually have to do with perceived differences on the candidate's positions. Or they may have to do with how each candidate USES their identity: Senator Clinton highlighting her uniqueness as a woman in appealing to women voters, Senator Obama emphasizing how his experiences as an African American give him a more universal insight on unity and solidarity that applies across race. It's not to say one approach is right or wrong but merely different TAKES on their marginalized identities not merely different identities between these two candidates.

Nonetheless, it's probably true that if Barack Obama were a biracial and a woman, he might not be where he is today. But Ms. Steinem neglected to note that if Hillary Clinton were an African American woman, she probably wouldn't be either. It goes to show not that one form of oppression is more persistent than the other but that both run deep and strong in our country, as witnessed most powerfully where they intersect.

Strict gender roles and norms still pervade our society. Glass ceilings and double standards are all still too common. And racial profiling and lack of meaningful access to equal opportunity in education, jobs, lending and more still plagues African American communities. These are real problems, and I hope that whomever we elect -- white or black, male or female -- they can use their own experience of privilege in life -- or lack thereof -- to breakdown the barriers of discrimination and create an America that truly values all of us. That deeply American ideal of community values, that all people are inherently equal and interconnected, is what we need to be reminded of, regardless of the messenger.

The roots of racism and sexism are the same -- the desire to maintain power and privilege for some at the expense of everyone else . Our only hope of addressing EITHER racism or sexism is to address them BOTH together. Rooting racism AND sexism from every facet of our social, economic and political institutions and practices to create a better America is far more worthwhile than debating which form of oppression is faring worse.

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