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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Playing Cards


posted by Silvana
By now, everyone's already blogged about this horrible op-ed in the Boston Globe by Geraldine Ferraro (see, for example, Jill at Feministe, Ta-Nehisi at Matthew Yglesias, and Megan Carpentier at Jezebel). Most have zeroed in on the most ridiculous sentence in the piece, where she says:
They're not upset with Obama because he's black; they're upset because they don't expect to be treated fairly because they're white. It's not racism that is driving them, it's racial resentment.
Because obviously racism and racial resentment are totally different things, the latter of which being justified, and the former being A Very Bad Thing That We Can All Agree Is Evil. Her framing it this way demonstrates two things: that racists are trying valiantly to come up with new words to describe their feelings toward black people, and that the word 'racism' has lost much of its usefulness in public discourse.

But I want to go a little deeper. Like Geraldine Ferraro, I'm about to make comparisons between racism and sexism. Luckily, I'm not an idiot, and I'm not going to say which is worse (for the record, I think doing so is like trying to compare apples and oranges). Instead, I want to think about these two concepts as analytical constructs to describe the world around us. We use 'racism' and 'sexism' to describe things as small as a single word ('nigger' or 'bitch') and as large as entire institutions, laws, governments, cultures, bodies of literature or eras of history. We might say that a joke is racist or a comment is sexist. Or we might just say that some particular individual (say, your old grandpa, your boss, or Geraldine Ferraro) is sexist/racist.

But when we use these words, we also make value judgments. Strong ones. You will find few people in the United States who will declare their belief that racism is a good thing or sexism is right. No, these concepts have become very heavily laden with condemnation. So people balk when you try to apply the concepts to anything they've done. "How dare you call me racist?" "I didn't mean to be sexist, why do you have to go there?"

Bringing up sexism or racism has become, in the minds of those outraged by accusations that they might be sexist or racist, "playing the gender card" or "playing the race card." Ferraro herself uses this formulation in her op-ed, although she fails to notice how the very same "card" rhetoric is used against her and her fellow feminists. Compare:
They see Obama's playing the race card throughout the campaign and no one calling him for it as frightening.
with
The reaction to the questions being raised has been not to listen to the message and try to find out how to deal with the problem, but rather to denigrate the messenger. Sore loser, petty, silly, vengeful are words that have dominated the headlines.
Those very same people who brush off and dismiss complaints about sexism call what the Hillary campaign does "playing the gender card." Yet Ferraro uses the very same rhetoric with respect to race.

I've been astonished at the degree to which "playing the race/gender" card has flourished as a phrase and concept in the conversation about this primary race. I've heard it from so many bloggers, pundits, straight-up newscasters, and even some of my personal friends. I want to be as absolutely clear as I can: it's a bogus concept, and using it makes you part of the problem.

Race and gender are not "cards" that you play, like laying out trump in bridge and winning the hand. Because when you have to bring up racism or sexism to explain what is happening around you, that means you're already losing. "Playing the _______ card" has become a way to refer to conversations about racism/sexism while not-so-subtly implying that whoever is playing the card is whiny, not playing by the rules, petulant and, ultimately way off-base.

But I've never understood what's so unfair about bringing up race and gender. It's like those who decry it as card-playing are annoyed by the fact that we all won't play by their rules of pretending that everything is equal now, since we can all vote and everyone will pay lip service to racism and sexism being Bad. But now that we've placated you by agreeing that they're Bad, how dare you accuse anyone of being racist or sexist? Especially someone who is supposed to be your political ally/friend/co-worker/acquaintance?

Racism and sexism have become far, far too loaded as concepts, and have come to be associated in the public consciousness only with Evil People. I think we need to take back those words, and own them, because denying that you think about men and women, white people and black people, in culturally-sanction insidious ways is doing no one any favors.

So I'm going to play cards against myself.

I'm racist. I'm not precisely sure why, since I grew up in an environment with virtually no black population, and I've never had any particularly negative experiences with any actual black people. But I know that I am fear black men more than I fear white men. I know that when someone I don't know is mentioned to me, I automatically assume that person is white unless there are clues that the person might be black. If I find out that someone I've never seen who I believed to be white is actually black, I find it jarring. I have assumed things about black people that I am less likely to assume about white people, like that they have been arrested or have tried drugs. I privately apply unpleasant cultural assumptions to black women: I am surprised when I interview a black woman in her thirties who has no children, although I would not have the same surprise if the woman were white. I have considered whether people I went to school with got scholarships or special consideration because they were black. And I could go on. I have thought about all these things, wondered why I think this way, make these assumptions, and I can not answer. They trouble me deeply.

I'm sexist. On this one, I'm much more sure why. Because I'm a woman, I see all the sexism directed at me even as I'm directing it at others. So it's easier to name. I prefer having male friends to having female friends. I enjoy being told that I'm like "one of the guys." When people tell me that I have masculine qualities, I feel a sense of pride. I feel somewhat less pride when people tell me I am caring, emotionally open or self-sacrificing because I associate those qualities with femininity and they are thus denigrated. I have disdain for the idea of being a 'stay-at-home-mom'. I have privately assumed that women who have lots of sexual partners must have emotional issues. I internally criticize women for dressing too provocatively or not provocatively enough. I have been disdainful of movies and books that are associated with women. Like above, I could go on. These are only some of th things I have thought about, and am self-critical of.

I'm certain there's a whole other list of things I think and feel that I haven't even examined yet. At that's why it's important that we stop reserving "racist" and "sexist" only for the bad guys and start being able to applying it to anything that fits the bill.

I challenge you to play cards in the comments.

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