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My Debate with Gloria Steinem Continues: Race, Gender & the Election

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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 bi-racial 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.

Gloria Steinem's response to Sally Kohn

Click here to read Gloria Steinem's original New York Times op-ed.

Sally Kohn disagrees with me -- but I agree with her.

When I wrote "probably the most restricting force," I meant that gender affected the most people, from the kitchen to the White House, across racial groups, not that it was the most serious in some hierarchy of suffering. On the contrary, I've always argued for the linking of forms of discrimination, not ranking.

Though I would have hoped there was enough evidence of this in the rest of the op-ed, it was my error in seeing what I meant, not what others would see. This was compounded by the Times online use of the first half of the sentence as a pull-quote that characterized the column.

In all future uses of this essay, I will change the words to "a restricting force..." For space, I also cut a sentence from the last paragraph that I restore here: "It's time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. Just as it's possible to say, "I support him because he'll be great president and help us break down our racial barriers," we have to be able to say: "I'm supporting her because she'll be a great president and because she's a woman."

Sally Kohn's Response

As a hero of mine, I'm glad to hear that Gloria Steinem and I don't disagree. But I do worry that as Ms. Steinem suggests, the intent of the piece may have been one thing, but it conveyed something entirely different.

I realize that in words, Ms. Steinem said that she sees racism and sexism as linked, but the piece ends up conveying something opposite. Pointing out that black men got the right to vote before white women and suggesting that voters may favor Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton because the idea of an African American president is somehow more palatable than the idea of a female present along identity lines alone has the effect of suggesting that racism has taken a back seat to sexism in America. Yet from Jena, Louisiana, to Hollywood and everywhere in between, we know it's hard to deny the very real, persistent and painful realities of racism in America. Plus while Ms. Steinem argues that racism and sexism are linked and must be uprooted together, suggesting that one is more deeply embedded than the other as measured by candidate popularity effectively cancels out that point entirely.

Personally, I don't know who I'm voting for. But while I'd be proud to vote for Senator Obama because he's black or Senator Clinton because she's a woman, you can bet that if I chose Senator Obama over Senator Clinton it won't be because I'm sexist. I hope that's not the conclusion Ms. Steinem intended to draw.

Sally Kohn is the Director of the Movement Vision Lab, where grassroots leaders share and debate visionary ideas for the future. Thanks to AlterNet which first published these responses and facilitated this exchange.