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Sex And Race: Going Prime Time, Like It Or Not

061128_clinton_obama_hmed5phmedium.thumbnail.jpgOver at DailyKos, Markos makes the observation that in this election "too many unmerited claims of racial insensitivity and sexism have been thrown around carelessly." I’ll agree with that — but I think it’s an observation that deserves some further refinement.

Lately I’ve been told by no small number of men that if I hear something as sexist I’m being "oversensitive" or just plain wrong. When that happens my back goes straight up and all I hear is the patronizing tone of someone who thinks their life experience is superior to mine and that they are therefore entitled to tell me what I hear and when I hear it. Suddenly the discussion gets dragged onto the carpet of who’s "right" and who’s "wrong" and many distinctions that would allow us to have a reasonable conversation about the subject get abandoned.

No wonder people are desperate for liberation from the problems of sexism and racism and are to willing to sweep them under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist any more.

But they do. And Pam Spaulding, writing about race politics, gets to the heart of it:

The subject is too deeply embedded in the American psyche to will it away – remember, Obama doesn’t have to "make a big deal of his blackness." He’s black, but he’s not carrying the perceived "chip on his shoulder" that Jackson or Sharpton have by default. That’s what scares white folks, because J&S have traded on race merchantry in the past – where all forms of racism – benign, ignorant, overt and violent, are seemingly the same. This only drives further discussion into the closet.

What I am saying is that the underlying reason for promoting "post-racial" (note you don’t see many blacks tossing that around) is more about wanting it to be true so badly so that race doesn’t have to be dealt with. It cuts both ways.

Note you will see folks on the right (and the Clinton camp) complaining that they "cannot talk about race" in regards to Obama. No, they feel they cannot successfully use the familiar political dog-whistles that evoke fear without getting called on it.

It all goes back to the fear of being labeled "racist." It’s almost as if we need to come up with another term that doesn’t conjure up visions of Klan Night Riders, lest whites recoil at the mere thought that they can hold ingrained biases through no fault of their own by growing up in this culture.

I’m pretty sure implicit bias is what drives much of The Bradley Effect, because many who change their minds and vote for the non-minority candidate don’t see themselves as racist; they can rationalize their decisions in ways that avoid ownership of that factor.

If this primary has taught us nothing else, it is that people hear things subjectively and view them through a filter of their own life experience. When Michael Eric Dyson said Hillary Clinton was using racist code when she said that she was the best person for the presidency, I was left scratching my head and thinking, "well, that’s what every politician says in every race. How is she supposed to run?" And at the same time, it didn’t invalidate that this is what Dyson and others are hearing — an echo of things they’ve heard their entire lives when people are attempting to be dismissive based on race. Hillary Clinton was just running a political campaign like any other political campaign, but it doesn’t erase people’s feelings or experience that they are bringing to the table.

And that’s where Pam’s call for a different way to discuss these things becomes important. Intent does matter — and to deny that, to lump together the person who just doesn’t know how their words are being perceived with the ones who bomb abortion clinics makes the subject explosive and untouchable. People recoil from it, the conversation gets shut down and teaching moments get lost.

There is a lot of sexism in this race, both overt and unconscious, and as someone who writes about gender a lot it’s been extraordinarily difficult to address it without feeling like you’re just going to make the problem worse. Because the time is coming when we’re going to have to reconcile behind one candidate, and the ability to do that to insure that we don’t wind up with another Alito on the bench is going to become paramount. We don’t live in a time that allows the luxury of going Naderite. And I’m always conscious these days that making the race/gender divide more toxic and polarized is going to leave me poorly equipped to be a voice for that reconciliation, and yet to not address the subjects of sexism and racism when they’re such huge motivational factors in this race makes me feel like I’m abandoning an opportunity to drag these subjects out for some much needed daylight.

I think the first necessary act in having a more healthy conversation is to acknowledge that you don’t always know what someone else is hearing when something is said. When people say "out with the old, in with the new" about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, what I hear is that there is no room for a middle aged woman in a position of political leadership. It takes a long time for a woman to accrue political clout in our society sufficient to rise to the top, as it does in business and many other fields, especially when she’s taken the time to have kids. She’s not allowed to be the young wunderkind that a man is. So she can’t be on top when she’s young, and by the time she’s in a position to make the argument that she deserves to lead everyone is saying "out with the old." In other words, she’s allowed to be in a position of power…never.

Which doesn’t mean that this is what people are intending to say when they say it, and the tendency to throw labels around and attribute motivation and grand conspiracy probably needs a lot more evidence than most are asking for. "Out with the old" means, for a lot of people, and end to Clinton politics and the Clinton era. Fair enough. And anyone who wants to pretend they can look into a crystal ball and know what someone is thinking in that case is a bit presumptuous.

But not so long ago, you couldn’t write anything negative about Bill Clinton online because the "Clinton era" was considered the halcyon days, and the "Clintons" only became toxic and archaic once Hillary started running. So the suspicion that many are hiding some old fashioned lizard-brain sexism behind this new found skepticism towards the Clintons remains.

I don’t know how to repair the situation other than to acknowledge that people’s feelings are legitimate with regard to what they hear no matter the intent, and presuming malicious intent is a great way to make an enemy of someone who probably really wants to be an ally.

Pam is right — the need for new language, for a new way of talking about these things is acute.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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