Geraldine Ferraro’s recent comments about Barack Obama underscore just how far we haven’t come in America in understanding issues of race and gender. Ferraro said:
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”
Ferraro’s inference is quite clear: that sexism is a bigger problem in America than racism, and that as a Black man Obama “has it easier” than Hillary Clinton because racism is not quite as oppressive, fundamental, and entrenched in society as sexism. Ferraro is not alone in making this claim. These sorts of statements have been made recently by other white feminists such as Gloria Steinem, generally arguing that media coverage is biased in favor of Barack Obama and against Hillary Clinton, and that this is evidence of the primacy of sexism over other “isms.”
Feminists who are making these statements are rehashing the same tired, clichéd arguments that alienated working-class and racial minority women from the feminist movement back in the 1970s and 1980s. The debates over whether gender is more of an oppressive factor than race are self-defeating and miss the point. Privileged white women can be, and are, disadvantaged by virtue of being women in a patriarchal society. Simultaneously, they are also advantaged by virtue of being white in a racist society and because they are wealthy in a capitalist society. Attempting to pit gender against race sets up a false dichotomy between the two, and it draws attention away from the interlocking systems of inequality that exist in this country. Simplistically declaring that “sexism is worse than racism” obscures the way the two systems exist together in an interlocking, complementary fashion. And since both sexism and racism utilize the same basic tools—domination of others, oppression, stereotypes to legitimize unequal opportunity—feminists and other activists would all be better served by eradicating all forms of structural inequality rather than futilely attempting to rank them.
You would think Ferraro would know this. She’s no stranger to feminism and ought to be well aware of the numerous critiques that mainstream, liberal feminism undermines its cause when the attempt is made to address sexism without simultaneously denouncing—and working to end–racism, capitalism and heterosexism.
[edited at 1:42pmEST to add:] Making the case that sexism is worse than racism or even that it is the primary source of women’s oppression ignores the experiences of minority and working-class women (who simultaneously contend with racism and capitalist exploitation) and ultimately alienates these women from feminism and feminist causes. Ferraro’s statement that if “he were a woman of any color he wouldn’t be in this position” does not demonstrate an awareness of the particular challenges faced by minority women; in fact, it smacks of tokenistic attempts made by privileged white women to invite minority women to join “their” movement. Were Ferraro truly attentive to the ways racism and sexism doubly disadvantage minority women, she would recognize that suggesting that they can be hierarchically ranked marginalizes minority women’s experiences and continues to distance them from feminism by reinforcing the (erroneous) idea that feminism isn’t for them.
Further, Ferraro’s ludicrous response that “she is being attacked because she’s white,” demonstrates how completely out of touch she is with the racial realities of
“Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says, ‘Let’s address reality and the problems we’re facing in this world,’ you’re accused of being racist, so you have to shut up. Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”
Contrary to Ferraro’s ridiculous claims, racism does not work in two different directions. Whites, as a group, are advantaged by virtue of racial privilege that affords them unjust enrichment in terms of housing, health, education, political power and representation, legal treatment, and many other areas that have been documented by a plethora of sociologists and other researchers. For racism to work both ways, racial minorities, at minimum, would have to be in the position of enjoying the accumulation of centuries of advantage in these areas, and they would enjoy these advantages as a consequence of centuries-old, institutionalized policies that deny the same opportunity to whites. Racism does not work both ways because Geraldine Ferraro gets criticized for minimizing its existence.
Geraldine Ferraro and many other women who make claims similar to hers have been involved with the feminist movement for longer than I’ve been alive. But it’s really sobering to realize that despite their lengthy commitment to the movement, they still haven’t learned that it can’t succeed when they deny their own racial privilege and narcissistically attempt to tailor feminist messages, rhetoric, and ideals only to their own experiences.