Sunday, January 20, 2008

Breaking the Ties that Double-Bind Us

It sounds as though the Democratic candidates are trying to move beyond the race vs. gender sniping that threatened to mire the race in muck (though the media tried mightily to drag it there).

That's a relief. Not just because it's a mighty long time until November, and no one outside the media has the stomach for that much ugliness. And not just because the Dems only stand a chance if they can avoid eating each other alive.

I'm glad mainly because the candidates' truce reopens a chance to talk about race and gender in more substantial and fruitful terms. One such way is to look at how race and gender impose double binds on people - create "choices" where no matter what one chooses, it's a lose-lose proposition.

Matthew Yglesias of the Atlantic has suggested that a black candidate is less subject to double binds than a female one because all he needs to do is avoid confirming stereotypes, while a woman who avoids the trap of appearing too girly will quickly be labeled heartless and calculating.

Leaving aside his assumption (which pervades most of the commentary) that one is either black or a woman but not both, he's right about women. Clinton has been called ruthless and robotic, yet as soon as her voice cracked in New Hampshire, the punditry pounced on this flash of humanity and called it weakness. As Jon Stewart hilariously pointed out, she didn't even shed any actual tears. Ironically, we've reached an age where it may actually be more acceptable for male candidates to cry than for women, so long as they don't totally lose it. Maybe this is because by the time a male politician attains national prominence, he's already proven his masculine bona fides.

Women also face more pressure than men to prove they're ballsy enough to be commander-in-chief. Now, for purely anatomical reasons, this is tricky any day of the week. But in this election cycle, it's a true double bind: Clinton's macho posturing on foreign policy will never be enough to persuade voters who think women are too hormonal to deal with war and peace, but it surely will cost her a heap of votes, mine included.

For a black candidate, though, the situation is more complicated than Yglesias allows. Yes, Obama will have to dismantle straightforward stereotypes, such as the manufactured story that he's really a closet Muslim. But he also faces some true lose-lose choices.

Last week in my classes, my students had some perceptive things to say about precisely how Barack Obama is constrained by racialized double binds. For one, they noted that his bi-racial status can function in this way. Obama can lay claim to being black and thus fit cleanly into our pre-established categories but deny an important part of his own personal history. Or he can acknowledge his dual heritage, which however might imply he's trying to pass as white and deny his connection to the African-American community.

In my own view, the most important double bind that Obama faces is that he's criticized - often by fellow Democrats - for trafficking too much in the rhetoric of hope and unity. He's seen as not aggressive enough. He appears too nice. But let's imagine an aggressive black man. What image does that call up: A polished politician who knows how to win an election? Or a cocky pimp from the 'hood?

And so this particular double bind condemns Obama to take the high road. On the one hand, I'm afraid that this double bind will tie his hands if he wins the nomination and the Republicans try to Swift-boat him into oblivion. On the other, I'm grateful for his rhetoric of hope. We could all use some.

For this Martin Luther King Day, Obama delivered a beautiful and gutsy speech (via Pam Spaulding at Pandagon, who has great commentary on it). In calling for the black community to rid itself of homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, Obama said:
So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.

Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.
Let us begin to bind those wounds and break those double binds.

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