Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement


BACKTALK | spring 2008

Black. Woman.
Time to end the media-generated divisiveness of the presidential campaign

WHO AMONG US IS SURPRISED TO LEARN that the news media can be both misogynistic and racist when handling issues of gender and race? For one long year now, media folks have asked seemingly every voter in the land if the U.S. is ready to elect its first woman, first Mormon, first Hispanic or first black president. As the competitive contest for the Democratic presidential nomination enters its final phase, the focus has sharpened onto Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but the media lenses remain stained with misogynistic views of women’s leadership abilities and deepseated concerns about whether white people will allow a black man to represent them in the Oval Office.

Coverage of the primary season has been fraught with blatant and inexcusable misogyny as it relates to Sen. Clinton, and the explicit and implicit public attacks on her allow the expression of such thoughts to be more socially acceptable. Hillary-shaped nutcrackers with spikes between the thighs; T-shirts with the slogan “I Wish Hillary Had Married O.J.”; the coyly acronymed anti- Hillary group “Citizens United Not Timid”—all have been dismissed as humorous, rather than rejected as violently anti-woman.

The topic of race has been treated with equal toxicity, reopening the wounds—still healing from 400 years of slavery, lynching and segregation—that have left blacks and other minorities lagging in educational attainment, health care and quality-of-life issues. “Barack Obama walks a…line,” write Cornell law student Gregory S. Parks and Cornell law professor Jeffrey J. Rachlinski in their recent paper “Unconscious Bias and the 2008 Presidential Election,” “between being ‘black enough’ for the black community while avoiding issues and statements that might trigger racial stereotypes, fears and resentment that some whites harbor against blacks.” The fact that the question of being “black enough” is even asked, much less repeated ad nauseam, lends credence to the idea that there even is such a thing as “being black.” It’s a state of birth, not of character or action.

“Each campaign has had to face subtle forms of racism and sexism in the electorate, which have boxed the campaigns into fairly narrow scripts,” add Parks and Rachlinski. “Clinton walks a tightrope between convincing voters that being a woman [means she] is attuned to issues that concern Democratic women (e.g., abortion, child care, health care) [and] avoiding implicit concerns that a woman lacks leadership qualities.” And what about when gender and race overlap, as they do for women of color such as myself? “Woman” and “black” have been treated as mutually exclusive categories, further marginalizing an oppressed group by ignoring our existence. I am proud to be black and proud to be a woman. Because I am black, am I not also a woman? As black women deciding our votes for the presidency, we face being called either a traitor to our gender or to our race depending on our vote—but it’s a false dichotomy.

We shouldn’t fall for this divisiveness. Now is the time for feminists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to come together. First, we need to celebrate this already historic election season. Second, we must demand that the news media treat Clinton and Obama as they would any other candidates—not merely as representatives of a gender or a race. Finally, we must be careful not to attribute all criticism of either candidate to base motives, or blame the media when one of the candidates falls behind in votes or polls. No matter how much we might criticize the media, not every attack on Clinton is misogynistic, nor every attack on Obama racist. We weaken our position as proponents of equality when we cannot distinguish between valid criticism and baseless prejudice.

Let’s take these steps now to make it easier for the second woman, second black man, first Asian or first homosexual to run as a serious candidate for president. With enough pressure, maybe next time the media will treat them as candidates, not stereotypes.

DONNA BRAZILE is adjunct assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University and chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. She is the author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).