White Women Who Don’t Get Racism

News anchor Katie Couric has made news of her own recently with her analysis of the male-dominated news business (image from here). Couric didn’t stop there, though. She went on to suggest that there is sexism in the news business and beyond in the larger society, but that “sexism is worse than racism.” Here’s the full quote from Couric, via Politico:

“Unfortunately I have found out that many viewers are afraid of change. The glory days of TV news are over, and the media landscape has been dramatically changed. News is available now for everyone, everywhere, all the time, and everybody fights for the last pieces of the shrinking pie. The corporate pressure and the ratings terror are intensifying all the time, and the situation is not simple. I find myself in the last bastion of male dominance, and realizing what Hillary Clinton might have realized not long ago: that sexism in the American society is more common than racism, and certainly more acceptable or forgivable. In any case, I think my post and Hillary’s race are important steps in the right direction.”

With this assessment, Couric joins a long and growing list of white-women-who-don’t-get-it, when it comes to racism, such as Geraldine Ferraro. As Adia Harvey wrote here back in March, “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.” Couric, like Ferraro, is no doubt speaking from her own experience in which she certainly encounters sexism but doesn’t encounter racism. Why would she? Given her skin-and-class privilege, it’s almost certainly the case that the only kind of inequality Couric faces in gender inequality. And, she’s right to call it out for what it is. But this doesn’t mean that Couric is right about racism, or about sexism’s significance relative to racism.

Instead, Couric’s comments simply reveal that she’s clueless about the pervasiveness of racism in this society because she’s never encountered it herself.

She’s not alone. Another white woman in the news recently who has revealed her lack of recognition about racism is Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a celebrity co-host on the television show “The View.” In an exchange with Whoopi Goldberg last week about the use of the “N-word” and the fact that racism is pervasive in our society, Goldberg asserted that she and Hasselbeck live in “different societies” at which point Hasselbeck broke down in tears. This isn’t the first time that Whoopi and Elisabeth have gotten into in about racism on the show. Back in March of this year, when Hasselbeck said she was “offended” by the fact that Barack Obama referred to his grandmother a “typical white woman” who would be fearful if she saw a group of African-Americans on the street. Elisabeth explained that she is a “typical white woman” herself and would never be afraid of a group of black kids on the street. Whoopi, however, didn’t buy it, and called her on it. At the end of the exchange, Hasselbeck pleaded with Whoopi for a “rule book on racism,” basically admitting that she didn’t get racism.

I think it’s understandable, really, that the privileged white women like Couric, Ferraro and Hasselbeck don’t get racism given how little analysis of it there is in our society.


  1. Tom Volscho

    My mentor, Noel Cazenave, has a concept, “RACISM EVASIVENESS” that is outlined in his (2000) Race & Society article on the struggles surrounding the formation of WHITE RACISM course. The concept explains the denial of the existence and significance of white racism as an organized thought system among social scientists but also among non-academics. I find this concept very useful for framing discussions of racism and as a way to directly explain the subtle ways people use to deny systemic racism.

  2. Tom, I myself will have to take a look at your mentor’s works.

    In response to the piece before us, I think the women are making a logical fallacy for comparing what words are permitted on news and opinion shows with words and actions that are permitted in society at large.

    Also, they’ve been sensitivised to the big NO-NOs, ie n*, b*, c*. And maybe even they know referring to a middle-aged many running for president as “boy” is bad (if they don’t know why). But to the more subtle instances – referring to Obama as an empty suit, or “all speech and no action.” The accusations that he’s naive. Have Pat Buchanan and Bill Bennet on these programs. Every word that came from Ferrarro’s mouth. Most especially her claims that the Obama campaigned called her a racist when no one from his campaign ever did. It’s all racist, even if it doesn’t register for Couric and Clinton.

    Which makes me wonder. Is there a group besides Media Matters that’s working to get folks like Bennet and Buchanan as well as Limbaugh and O’Reilly of the air?

  3. Oh! And that the media (or it could’ve just been online Clinton supporters) acting as though the Clinton campaign complaint that the Obama campaign was purposely making them seem racist, even the Clintons make that claim is racist. Do they really think that black voters have to be told when people are being racist against su? Are black voters supposedly that sheep-minded?

    And, I think this may be as good a place to ask as any. But is McCain running sort of a racist public relations campaign? Would he be challenging Obama about going oversees AND about not agreed on McCain’s terms to the townhall meetings AND cackle that Obama’s “naive.” Maybe it’s because I’m reading . But it seems like he’s free to boss Obama around and chastise him for not doing what Boss said. And the cackle Obama’s “naive” sounds like both always seen adult black men as boys AND blacks as less intelligent and less able to adapt to new information intellectually. Don’t get me wrong. I know some of it’s just politics, but it sure is rubbing me the wrong way.

  4. Kai

    you are so on point with this. OUr society does precious little to help anyone understand racism, and I’d submit, from a Marxist perspective that that is no accident. Racism, sexism, ethnocentrism and all of the other backwards idealogies serve the purpose of dividing the working class against itself. It would seem obvious to me that all public school education would include a section on race which explains in scientific terms that it does not exist, and has only meaning which society has given to it.
    A man can dream can’t he?

  5. I would not be able to say from personal experience whether or not sexism is any worse than racism or if sexism is more common than racism. My first instinct is to think that they are both prevalent and many times are occurring simultaneously.
    Speaking from the point of view as a person of privilege (so if I am wrong about this please correct me), I have the perception that sexism is more acceptable than racism, or at least it does not carry the same stigma if a person is accused of sexism as if they where accused of racism.

  6. Jessie Author

    Hey there Tom, no1, Kai, GDAWG and Liberaltexan! Nice to see there’s still someone in the blogosphere even in midsummer. 😉 Tom, I’ll definitely take a look at Noel’s article. no1, you raise several points – not sure how to respond to all of them, but there are some other folks working on media issues – more about that in another post. Kai, excellent analysis – and I suspect you are correct, that it’s no accident. Liberaltexan the question you pose about your perception that ‘sexism is more acceptable than racism’ still assumes and either/or model (sexism or racism) rather than a both/and model. As Adia mentioned, such a model “ignores the experiences of minority and working-class women (who simultaneously contend with racism and capitalist exploitation)” and sexism.

  7. mgs

    Disregarding for a moment the experiences of African American women and focusing on the either/or model I can see how frame of reference would bias beliefs concerning which “-ism” is worse. I think for a person in a position of power and influence (like Clinton and Couric) the glass ceiling might seem more impenetrable for white women than for black men. For the vast majority who are not in a position of power, however, racism is a more significant obstacle.

    I have no empirical evidence to back this up, but I find it entirely plausible that black men face relatively more systemic hardship at low and middle income levels and white women face a greater barrier to reaching the absolute pinnacle of hierarchies.

    So in short, I agree that Couric and Clinton don’t get it. For the vast majority of the population racism is probably worse and the combination of the two is clearly worse. It is only the extremely privileged and powerful woman who will encounter systemic prejudice which might equal or even surpass that of racism.

  8. I don’t know, mgs. It’s not like there’re a lot of black male CEOs. We have more white women in Congress than black men. We have a female Speaker, and the highest a black man has come is majority whip.

    I think these women’s perspective isn’t just scewed by their positions relative other Americans, but also their privilege and white racial frame reference. By that I mean if a white female co-worker doesn’t get a promotion/raise, the red flag may immediately go up. If a black male co-worker doesn’t get a promotion/raise, they may be more ready to accept that he had some flaw. Does that make sense?

    • module-d

      To reply to something in response to somebody else, it makes sense but I don’t agree with it. Of course there are more white women in Congress than black men, there are more white women in the US, period. Perhaps I’m missing something. I’m from Europe, not the US, but the House of Representatives has 9% African Americans as opposed to 12% of the population. It also has only 16% women as opposed to 50% of the population. So it certainly seems that statistically speaking African Americans are far better proportionally represented in the House of Representatives than women are. In fact, black women specifically are better proportionally represented than white women are.
      But don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a minute suggesting that sexism is worse than racism (or that white women face more discrimination than black women. Culturally, as an outsider looking in on the US it seems black women genuinely have the toughest time of all), surely it isn’t useful to try and quantify the impact of certain types of social discrimination. I would absolutely reject the idea that somehow, as you seem to be suggesting, racism is ‘worse’ than sexism. It certainly effects different people in different ways, and to contradict you, white females often do not get promotions in favour of their male colleagues, and it is a ridiculous suggestion that when this occours a “red flag” goes up. On the contrary, I imagine it almost always goes completely unnoticed. Where have you got the idea that’s it is otherwise?

      • No1KState

        The point I was trying to make, however inarticulately, is that for the Clintons and Courics, their skewed frame of reference is no excuse for thinking that sexism is worse than racism. I get your point about proportionality; my point was that for white women in Congress an “eyeball test” shows they’re not in a worse position than people of color. If you look at just the Senate, which may be more useful in way of making an analogy, white women have it better.

        The analogy follows this line – in the workplace and academics, black Americans face race and gender demographics that look more like the demographics of their particular state at large, which is how senators are elected in the US, as opposed to the smaller districts by which representatives are elected. These districts are not only numerically smaller, they’re also gerrymandered to meet certain political needs, sometimes race and sometimes political party. Any one senator has more power than any one representative. So the fact that overall, blacks have better representation in Congress says more about sexism in white America than racism in the country at large. Again, I get your point about proportionality; but it’s sort of besides the point I was initially trying to make.

        As for the red flag – It’s my opinion that if a white woman starts making waves about being passed over for a job, she will be more readily believed by the nation at large than any black person. So, I don’t just mean if some white woman or some black person gets passed over; I mean if they’re passed over and their situation gets some attention. I’m not sure how familiar you are with US Supreme Court cases and public discussion here; but in Lilly Ledbetter’s case, everyone agreed she was discriminated against. People who’re essentially okay with pay discrimination argued her timing was late; they didn’t argue against the system. To the contrary, in the case of the New Haven firefighters, even the union sided with the white firefighters and some argue its bylaws demand the union stayed neutral. Outside of academians, activists, and the 4 liberal justices, most of mainstream America didn’t even think about the ways in which the nature of the beast favored the white firefighters and New Haven was just in nullifying the test scores. If you heard about the black Harvard professor who was arrested in his home, again, most of the talk in mainstream America sided with the white arresting officer.

        So, quite honestly, I do think racism is a bigger hinderance to black men than sexism is to white women; and of course, we black women get the double whammy. For example, if you take a look at income, even holding for education and experience, both white men and white women earn more than black men and black women.

        That said, I would agree that playing oppression Olympics is unhelpful in the larger construct. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere and none are free until we’re all free.

        So, I hope now that my initial arguments are at least clearer even if you still disagree. I was thinking of some caveats I maybe should’ve outlined from the outset.

        • No1KState

          Also, oppression olymipics obscures the issue, which is that some type of discrimination, sometimes multiple types, face a very significant part of the population. As you mentioned, not less than half the population faces some type of discrimination.

  9. adia

    I love how white women like Couric and Ferraro, who are not and never will be disadvantaged by racism, can say that it’s less severe than sexism. It is equally frustrating when black men who are never disadvantaged by sexism dismiss feminism as irrelevant and secondary. Narcissism and self-absorption of any color is so not cute. And really, shouldn’t only minority women should get to say whether racism or sexism is worse, since we’re the only ones who encounter both? I’m being sarcastic here–my real point is that minority women’s voices are so overlooked on a topic where we really are the ultimate authorities, because this is our lived experience. If we did take minority women’s lives more seriously, we might learn that in some cases racism is an obvious barrier, in other cases sexism is, and in most cases they both intersect to
    structure our daily realities. Privileging one oppression is a useless solution because it leaves the others in place. The only effective stance is to work to eliminate ALL forms of oppression.

  10. Joe

    One key question to ask when someone tries the foolish question of which is more acceptable than the other, is simply to ask: more acceptable to whom?? One can start by identifying the “whom.” White commentators in the media? or Whom?

  11. Chelsea L.

    I don’t think that Katie Couric has a right to say that sexism in the American society is more common than racisim. I’m currently taking a Race and Ethnic Relations class and it is very diverse. The other day an African American woman raised her hand when we were talking about how people still feel racism. She asked the class, “how many of you wake up every morning and consider yourself a colored person and dread the stereotypes your going to hear all day?” Many people don’t realize that just because our country has come a long way since slavery and everything that people still hear and feel those stereotypes that we are trying so hard to get rid of. When it comes to sexism that is a whole different story. Many woman don’t get the opportunities in the workforce as men because they aren’t as strong or people feel they won’t be able to contribute as much. Our society puts this idea that the man is the one with power and the woman should be the stay at home wife cooking and cleaning. Growing up and seeing shows such as Leave it to Beaver or I Love Lucy those are the stereotypes that children grow up learning. Statistics even show that woman may have the same job as a male but will be paid less for it. Why should a woman get less money than a male when they are working just as hard or harder at the same job? Both sexism and racism are an ongoing struggle in everyday life but in no way should anyone try to compare the two because they don’t relate to each other.


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