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 work.
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.