Thursday, May 8, 2008

Putting race and gender front and center

I'm a little bit of a political junkie, which I'm sure you have gleaned if you have been following this blog over the last year. And I mean political junkie not just Obama fan (although I'm sure that the two are often confused nowadays). But in the last primary I voted in, I also paid attention to who was running in local elections, and even attended a few precinct meetings, because I figured that I shouldn't just say I want change, I should try to make change (although I recognize that volunteering a few hours to canvass for Obama and going to a few meetings isn't really revolutionary).

At any rate, I've been hearing and reading a lot of politicos and talking heads go on about whether the extended primaries for the Democratic nominee is a good or a bad thing for the party and for the chances of a Democratic contender taking back the White House in November. Some say it's good because this gives a chance to educate people on the electoral process and more first time voters have gotten involved in the political process (for both Obama and Clinton) than ever before. Some say it's bad because it's dividing the party and draining resources and letting Obama and Clinton attack one another in the primaries only helps McCain's machine gear up for the real race post-Denver.

But I think one great thing to emerge from the extended Democratic primaries are the conversations in the public sphere over race and gender. Because lets face it, no matter who gets the nod it's going to be historic: the country's first female presidential candidate or first African American/mixed-race candidate*.

[aside: I put a little asterisk (*) when alluding to Obama because race being what it is, that slippery, flexible category, there very well may have been a President or Presidential candidate with African American heritage and certainly with a mixed-race background--but Obama is the first openly mixed-race and African American candidate, so I still think it's appropriate to think about him under these parameters.]

And because of the historical precedent and because race and gender are issues that Americans are fascinated by, there have been many conversations about race and gender, about racism and sexism, about white Americans and African Americans and all other racial categories, about mixed-race Americans, about a history of sexism and gender discrimination against women in public life, about a history of racism and race discrimination. And by and large, I think this has all been to the good.

I don't mean that all of the discussions have been good. I think that there have been very heated exchanges, editorials that have been anger producing, and comments from various bloggers, talking heads, media figures, newscasters, journalists, academics, politicians, public figures, celebrities, and average Americans that suggests that we are not getting along when it comes to gender and racial issues.

And that's what I think has been good. Because when's the last time you had SO MUCH ATTENTION focused on issues of gender and race and SO MUCH DEBATE, DISCUSSION, DISSENT, DISAGREEMENT, DISATISFACTION openly expressed in newspaper editorials, magazine articles, blog posts, television talk shows, radio call-in shows, and just general water cooler conversation about race and gender?

I had been thinking about writing a post about the various conversations I've seen going on in the blogosphere alone that have been inspired by Obama and Clinton. There are too many to mention, but I have to acknowledge first and foremost Lesboprof's excellent post that spurred me to finally write the one you're reading. Her post, "Good Racial Conversations" also has a link to the Atlanta Journal Constitution's article about a former white Southern roommate of Michelle Obama and the woman's revelation of her own racism (you can go to Lesboprof's post linked above or to the link here). The Wall Street Journal recently did an article about race and politics and college campuses, noting the disconnect between white students who support Obama but who don't have any black friends and who remain largely ignorant of African American culture and history (click here). And as other bloggers such as What Tami Said and Racialicious have already chimed in about, there was an article in The Nation, "Race to the Bottom," by Besty Reed that very eloquently and forcefully talks about entwined and twinned issues of race and gender, of racism and sexism, and of how we have seen these issues play out in the Democratic primaries and the campaigns and the spin camps of both Clinton and Obama, as well as the mainstream media outlets and the blogosphere.

There's so much else I could write about--there has certainly been a fair amount of discouraging things to comment on, regarding the divide I've been seeing in the blogosphere among women of color and white feminists. And I continue to be amazed by the ignorant things that come out of people's mouths, in terms of race and gender, but also class and sexuality and region. And I continue to amaze myself with my own naivete over others' ignorance and anger and my own biases and prejudices, which I struggle with (I was recently called out by some folks over anti-Southern things I had said or stereotypes I had made that I didn't think were stereotypes or anti-Southern--but in hindsight I can see why a Southerner would have taken my remarks in an anti-Southern way and seen me as a "Yankee elitist"--because my own prejudices against "The South" are ones I'm still blind to and working out).

But like Obama, let me end on a message of hope--that I think it IS possible for us to try to come together. That dissent and disagreement do not have to be bad things--in fact, we need to have a certain amount of tension around issues of race and gender to have things move forward. We have to be ready to live with a certain amount of discomfort and to work through our defense mechanisms and pride in order to try to hear one another and to be allies for each other.

So with that note, I'm leaving you with one final link to Latoya Peterson's series in Racialicious "On facing your bias, owning your prejudice, and allies" -- this is the link to Part II, and the post includes the link to Part I (and Peterson alludes to a Part III, which I'm looking forward to). I find her series to be thoughtful and thought provoking--I hope you do too. And I am glad that America is finally talking about race and gender in the public sphere. While some of the discussions are discouraging and draining and makes you want to hit your head against a brick wall, there are also moments when I've been astounded at the level of discourse--the high level of discourse and self-reflection and candor that people are engaging in over these very tough and complex subjects.

Lets keep the conversation flowing.

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