Even those of us who were disappointed with Hillary Clinton’s campaign can agree with CBS News anchor, Katie Couric: “Like her or not, one of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media.”
But getting into arguments as to whether sexism or racism is worse in this country is, frankly, tacky. It colludes with those who deny, but benefit from, the existence of either.
We all have a chance to assess the subtle and not-so-subtle expression of the state of both sexism and racism in the USA in 2008 by paying attention to how media pundits and editors who choose the slant they take treat Michelle Obama. Get ready to observe a woman of color treated in ways that no man and no white person in the political arena will be treated.
Maureen Dowd in her June 11 column predicts: “Now Republicans can turn their full attention to demonizing Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama is the new, unwilling contestant in Round Two of the sulfurous national game of “Kill the witch.”
While the GOP has begun to play this game, watch the mainstream media enable them, repeating and analyzing it as if sexism and racism represent another valid viewpoint in fair and balanced coverage.
Like Hillary, the issues Michelle will face will include criticisms of a woman who doesn’t know “her place” and, when she conforms, demeaning it as a “make-over.” The political panderers to right-wing people who know how to play the “uppity” woman, “feminist,” and worse epithet cards know that the way to do this isn’t only with words but through images and symbols.
Remember Hillary donning an apron to prove she could bake cookies like a good little housewife, or criticized for using Rodham in her professional life during Bill’s 1962 campaign. Remember the response to anything public she did to help Bill: “she’s out for her own good.”
The unpaid, doomed task of trying to lead healthcare reform in this country was one more example. The more she looked more competent than those white men challenging her, the more she was pictured as a man-hater or even (Horrors!) having lesbian affairs.
Any man would be praised for such leadership no matter how it furthered his career. Yet wouldn’t Hillary just be satisfied to stand by her man? Or at least keep her real power and financial influence hidden from the public like Nancy did, or multi-millionaire beer-distributor baroness Cindy McCain or Laura Bush do.
Everyone knows that Laura gave her husband an ultimatum years ago to sober up or get lost. But as a public helpmate she’s just a good librarian promoting children’s reading. There’s no discussion of Laura’s intelligence or shrewdness, no matter how we all suspect they exceed her husband’s.
Even when Hillary chose the role of the famous Tammy Wynette “Stand By Your Man” throughout Bill’s sexual shenanigans, there was little praise for her from the pro-family crowd for keeping her family together and practicing forgiveness. The assumption continued that Hillary was doing it for those reasons praised in men — thinking primarily of self and career.
Why wouldn’t she just stand quietly behind her man like a beaten puppy in that now infamous pose where family-values politician husbands deny or explain affairs, prostitutes, and romps in the hay to the press? Doesn’t she realize that her true worth as a lady is as a publicly gushing, subordinate beneficiary of her man’s success?
Keep an eye out for all that. But Michelle has to face racism’s addition to the mix. And that means playing to white fears of angry, out-of-control black people.
It didn’t matter how many white, right-wing preachers damned America over and over again for Rove v. Wade, its growing acceptance of LGBT people, or women’s equality. It was the image of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s twenty-seconds of preacherly rhetoric that conservative racism knew played into fears of the angry black man in the same way that the GOP used the image of Willie Horton to scare white people into voting for George Bush I.
It’s already begun under the new guise of her own “racism” with downright lies about Michelle Obama. Right-wing websites picture her as an angry, threatening female version of Wright. Some even ask if she is “more black” than her husband.
Conservative blogs repeat the false rumor that a tape of Michelle denouncing “whitey” exists. But these are the same people who have no problem with white Trent Lott in 2002 congratulating white Strom Thurmond’s unsuccessful 1948 bid for president as a segregationist with only slightly coded words: “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
Then there was the celebrated fist pump between Michelle and Barack on the night of his victory. Every young person knows it means no more than a high five or a victory hug. Fox News anchor E.D. Hill leaped in to play the scary black (Muslim?) card, calling it a “terrorist fist jab.” Someone made him apologize later.
Then conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg reached back to question Michelle’s 1985 college senior thesis, “Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” as if that too would scare us white people. “Why is Princeton restricting access to it?” The blogs went crazy with what they didn’t know.
Was any professor who listens to students shocked when she wrote in its introduction: “Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”
How we react to this depends upon whether our goal is really to end sexism and racism.
Will everyone who complained about sexism during Hillary’s campaign continue their fight to end sexism by protesting every time it rears its ugly head toward Michelle Obama? Or was that just temporary politics?
Will we white people now recognize and stand against racism hidden or open in the treatment of Michelle as well as Barack Obama?
For all our sake, I hope so.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.