Oppression, alas, is not a zero sum game. The fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton
has been subjected to outrageous displays of sexism throughout this campaign
doesn't mean racism has been defeated. Both forms of injustice are alive and
well in American institutions and sensibility.
That's why feminists must repudiate remarks from Geraldine Ferraro implying
Barack Obama is "lucky" to be a black man and wouldn't be a presidential
candidate otherwise. We've heard far too many comments implying racism somehow
resides in the past. This dangerously underestimates the daily accrual of
indignities and injustice experienced by people of color, including women of
color, throughout our society.
Public displays of male supremacy and white supremacy often take different
forms. The Big Boys, those who control power and wealth in this country, are
more likely to minimize and trivialize gender (demeaning comments about
appearance and emotions, sexual innuendos) and demonize race (Willie Horton ads
implying big black men will rape nice white daughters.) Whenever necessary, of
course, the Big Boys demonize women as well, especially when race and gender
intersect on issues such as welfare (lazy, irresponsible -- read "black"--
freeloading women who refuse to work.)
It's true that appalling sexist Hillary artifacts can be sold in airports while
KKK paraphernalia would not be. We must all object, formally, in groups and
individually, to each instance of such behavior.
Still, that doesn't mean that racism has been silenced. In this election,
blatant forms of racism persist (comments about needing to "rename the White
House" if Obama wins, those white voters who say they simply won't vote for an
African-American). More common, however, and in some ways even more insidious
are the code words used about race. Today's 'n-word' are the 'M-word' for
Muslim or 'H-word' for Hussein, hints of preferential treatment, photos of a
candidate wearing African garb. Translation: this person is the inferior
other, the danger to our (read "white") way of life.
We can't win justice for women without justice for ALL women, and all others who
experience unfair treatment at the hands of the Big Boys. Oppression on the
basis of race, or class or sexual orientation or any other marker, affects some
group of women. But that's not all. Downplaying the enormous obstacles created
by racism in this country only strengthens the very forces which maintain and
profit from obstacles for women overall.
There's also collateral damage. Many people pay lip service to the need for
liberation movements to band together in the general election, whoever the
candidate is. But calls for unity can't be based on rhetoric. Every instance of
belittling the realities of racism and the accomplishments of this particular
African-American candidate undermines the trust needed for such an alliance to
What we need is less defensiveness and more willingness on everyone's part to
recognize and oppose every form of offensive and divisive behavior. Because the
code words for disunity are very easy to identify: Four more years of
occupation in Iraq. Another Supreme Court justice to undo Roe and weaken
protections against discrimination. Free rein for the Big Boys.