With the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!
Hillary Clinton is an emotional and political lightning rod. Of this there is absolutely no doubt. If you do a Google search for why people dislike Hillary Clinton, you get over a million entries with titles such as, ”Our Love/Hate Relationship with Hillary Clinton Will Never End,” “The Jarring Reasons People Don’t Want Hillary Clinton to Be President” and “Why Do Young People Have Such Visceral Dislike for Hillary?” Her own advocates are willing to stipulate that liking her is not even necessary to vote for her.
Clearly, there is more to this question of likability that needs to be interrogated. Likability is not gender neutral. Neither are most of the decisions we make, despite our desire to be prejudice-free. The 2016 presidential election is awash in explicit expressions of racism, sexism and xenophobia, leaving me wondering about the ways in which race and gender are implicitly shaping ordinary citizens’ views of the campaign.
Implicit messages are more insidious because they are consumed and deployed beyond the realm of consciousness. We need not think deeply to identify the racism in Donald Trump’s depiction of Mexican immigrants as rapists or the sexism of his asking if Megyn Kelly’s tough questions were due to her being on her period. Identifying subtler racist and sexist cues is more challenging, however, because no one is immune to these subtleties, even those among us who have engaged in personal and public anti-racist and anti-sexist work.
There is a concept in the study of racial prejudice, called aversive racism, which is particularly instructive in helping to explain the visceral nature of some responses to Hillary Clinton. According to research published in Psychological Science,
…many people who explicitly support egalitarian principles and believe themselves to be nonprejudiced also unconsciously harbor negative feelings and beliefs about blacks and other historically disadvantaged groups. Aversive racists thus experience ambivalence between their egalitarian beliefs and their negative feelings toward blacks.
Because people understand that equality is optimal, behavior and perspectives that support unequal outcomes for blacks are to be avoided, and are damaging to how people think of themselves. As a result, prejudicial behavior will emerge as “often unintentional, when their behavior can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race.” This allows aversive racists to continue to see themselves as nonracist while simultaneously engaging in racially prejudicial behavior. Simply put, when there is no doubt that one’s behavior will be seen as racist, aversive racists avoid that behavior.
Alternatively, when there are other reasons beyond race that can be used to justify discriminatory behavior, racism will rear its ugly head. For example, an aversive racist might say that it’s not that they have a problem with blacks, they just want to live in a safe neighborhood. Thus, crime and safety become the explanations for refusals to live among blacks, even those of their own income class.
In recent months, I have thought often about whether a similar process is happening with Clinton—a form of aversive sexism. Let me be clear: Disliking or refraining from voting for Clinton does not make you a sexist, aversive or otherwise. There are legitimate reasons for not supporting her White House bid, reasons that have accumulated due to her long history of public service and the open fault lines that remain from the Clinton ‘90s. However, I suspect that there is some form of aversive sexism happening among Democrats and the political left.
It’s not enough to suggest that there may be a form of aversive sexism at play in judgements of Clinton though, so here are three practical ways to help judge for yourself.
1. If you dislike Hillary Clinton because of the policies and problems of the Clinton years but still love Bill Clinton, you might be an aversive sexist.
Any scenario that involves holding the spouse of the person in power to a harsher account than the person elected to do the job should give you pause. Bill Clinton was the president, and it was his job to serve the American people. Hillary was an engaged spouse who took the lead on several initiatives, for sure. But hating a heavily involved wife and not the primary decision-maker who occupies the seat of power is a view worthy of examination. There are people who look at Bill with a school boy wink, but cannot abide Hillary.
2. If you decided you hated Hillary Clinton first and then collected substantive policy reasons as justification, you might be an aversive sexist.
There are many people who have well-developed and evidence-based arguments for being anti-Hillary. There are many good reasons, and I have my own. They wax poetic about her vote for this bill, her claims made in that interview or other past indiscretions, but have only learned about these items on Clinton’s resume after they had a serious hate on for her. What looks like legitimate ire, in this case, is just pretense.
3. If you’re holding things against Hillary Clinton for which you have forgiven other politicians, particularly men, you might be an aversive sexist.
I see this process working specifically in legislative discussions. People often criticize her for using the term super-predator and connect this to the passage of Bill Clinton’s deeply damaging and racially targeted crime bill. (And she should be roundly criticized for it. There is no excuse. None.) Incidentally, those who are anti-Hillary also point out that Bernie Sanders spoke out against the bill as a sign of Sanders’ integrity. In the end though, Sanders, along with many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted for the crime bill. In the intervening years, these same critics have voted repeatedly for elected officials who voted for this bill; however, Hillary is disqualified based on her verbal support, albeit problematic. Both Sanders’ and Clinton’s actions demonstrated support for a bill that helped to incarcerate more African Americans than any other legislation in American history. Why is Sanders being given space to move beyond this position while Clinton is not?
It may be possible that someone could answer yes to one or more of these questions and still not be an aversive sexist. This is simply a call for all of us to pause and take stock of how and why we are making choices this election season. We are exposed to so many messages that equate good leadership with masculinity that it is potentially easier for us to see political leadership as the purview of men.
This election season, I want us to be attentive to those inputs and consistently check in with ourselves to ask, “Am I judging this woman candidate in ways that no candidate could ever measure up?” If we find that we are engaging in gender discrimination, then we still have an opportunity to course correct. Halting those discriminatory impulses does not guarantee a vote for Hillary Clinton, but it will mean that she is judged fairly, not based solely on our ingrained and implicit gender biases.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user fmcabezadevaca licensed under Creative Commons 2.0
Melanye Price is assistant professor of Africana studies and political science at Rutgers University—New Brunswick.