Monday, September 8, 2008

The Oppression Sweepstakes

Well, here we go again. During the Democratic Presidential Primary, lots of people got caught up in what came to be known as the “Oppression Sweepstakes,” a fight over which was more historically significant and barrier-breaking: the nomination of an African American or a woman. The nomination of Sara Palin by the GOP for vice president is sure to revive this debate.

Personally, I am not comfortable with the way such a conversation usually goes.

First, the totality of the people involved is often ignored. When people talk about the hurdles a Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin have had to jump and compare them to Barack Obama, they make a woman-man comparison. Such a comparison overlooks the fact that the women involved are not just women, but white women, and the man involved is not just a man, but a black man. So, conservatively speaking (little-c conservative), for all the struggles that Clinton or Palin face as women, they also enjoy many advantages as white women. Some would argue, logically so, that for all the struggles Obama faces as an African American, he enjoys many advantages as a man.

However, I would argue that while the latter claim is true to some extent, Obama's blackness prevents him from fully partaking in male-privilege. From what I can tell, all men enjoy some aspects of male privilege, but they way we typically think about such privilege really only applies to white men. Furthermore, we often overlook the fact that the combination of Obama's blackness and his maleness leads to unique set of challenges. African American men are perhaps the most vilified subset of the population in our nation's history. It doesn't help that he's running against at ticket that contains a white female. Black male-white female combinations don't usually go well in American history (what comes immediately to mind: any slave and his master's wife, the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, O.J. Simpson, Terrel Owens, miscegenation laws, segregated proms, I think you get the point).

It's also important to remember that racism and sexism aren't parallels. They don't operate in the same way, and you can't compare them in a 1:1 relationship. Racism and sexism don't manifest themselves in the same way. One very visible sign of sexism during the Democratic Primary was seen at Hillary Clinton rallies, where attendees would show up with shirts and bearing “iron my shirt” and other sexist and objectionable comments. Now, does this mean that if there were no racist signs at Obama rallies that there was also no racism during the race? Certainly not. It just means that racism manifested itself in quieter but equally – if not more – pervasive and destructive ways.

Yet, in the wake of Palin's nomination and inappropriate reactions to it, the media has shown a knack for pointing out instances of sexism, while at they same time marginalizing or even ignoring the impact of race on the election. It seams that the mainstream media has selective amnesia, forgetting the many smears (he's a Muslim, he's socialist, he's a terrorist, he's trying to infiltrate America, he's the anti-Christ) and threats of violence that have been hurled at Obama, and choosing to ignore the role that race has played in making these smears and Republican lies possible.

Personally, I don't understand how the media can take it as it's journalistic duty to hold Obama and Joe Biden accountable for criticism, issues-based or otherwise, of Governor Palin in the name of stopping sexism, while at the same time they stand silently while Palin and other extreme right-wing lunatics mock Obama, distort his record, and lie about him with a smile on their faces.

Listen, both white privilege and male privilege are topics that are in play in this election and deserve more serious discussion. However, it is clear to me that the term “oppression sweepstakes” is a misnomer, because with the current behavior of the media there's no contest.

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