Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sisterhood: Black Women and Hillary Clinton

This is a great essay by Princeton Professor Melissa Harris Lacewell discussing why many black women would not support Hillary Clinton on the basis of sisterhood.

You can see it also on the "Hillary Clinton's Scarlett O'Hara Act" and her blog where it entitled "Mammy Goes to Washington?".

Mammy Goes to Washington?
by Melissa Harris Lacewell

There’s been a lot of talk about women and their choices since Super Tuesday, when African American women overwhelmingly voted for Sen. Barack Obama, while white women picked Sen. Hillary Clinton. Some pundits automatically concluded that “race trumped gender” among black women. I hate this analysis because it relegates black women to junior-partner status in political struggles. It is not that simple. A lot of people have tried to gently explain the divide, so I’m just going to put this out there: Sister voters have a beef with white women like Clinton that is both racial and gendered. It is not about choosing race; it is about rejecting Hillary’s Scarlett O’Hara act.

Black women voters are rejecting Hillary Clinton because her ascendance is not a liberating symbol. Her tears are not moving. Her voice does not resonate. Throughout history, privileged white women, attached at the hip to their husband’s power and influence, have been complicit in black women’s oppression. Many African American women are simply refusing to play Mammy to Hillary.

The loyal Mammy figure, who toiled in the homes of white people, nursing their babies and cleaning and cooking their food, is the most enduring and dishonest representation of black women. She is a uniquely American icon who first emerged as our young country was trying to put itself back together after the Civil War. The romanticism about this period is a bizarre historical anomaly that underscores America’s deep racism: The defeated traitors of the Confederacy have been allowed to reinterpret the war’s battles, fly the flag of secession over state houses, and raise monuments to those who fought to tear down the country. Southern white secessionists were given the power to rewrite history even as America’s newest citizens were relegated to forced agricultural peonage, grinding urban poverty and new forms segregation and racial terror. Mammy was a central figure in this mythmaking and she was perfect for the role. The Mammy myth allowed Americans in the North and South to ignore the brutality of slavery by claiming that black women were tied to white families through genuine bonds of affection. Mammy justified past enslavement and continuing oppression.

Privileged, Southern white women were central in creating and propagating the Mammy myth. In 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy were nearly successful in lobbying Congress to erect a statue on federal land to honor “the memory of the faithful colored mammies of the South.” The desire to memorialize Mammy reveals how Southern white women reveled in the subordinate role of their darker peers. These black women were vulnerable to the sexual and labor exploitation of slaveholders and household employers. These women masked their true thoughts and personalities in order to gain a modicum of security for themselves and their families.

The Mammy monument was meant to display black women as the faithful, feisty, loyal servants of white domesticity. In the face of the Mammy myth, real black women spoke for themselves against the monument. It was substantial, sustained, opposition from organized African American women and the black press that killed the Mammy monument proposal.

Media have cast the choice in the current election as a simple binary between race and gender. But those who claim that black women are ignoring gender issues by voting for Barack just don’t get it. Hillary cannot have black women’s allegiance for free. Black women will not be relegated to the status of supportive Mammy, easing the way for privileged white women to enter the halls of power.Black feminist politics is not simple identity politics. It is not about letting brothers handle the race stuff or about letting white women dominate the gender stuff.The black women’s fight is on all fronts.

Sisters resist the ways that black male leaders try to silence women’s issues and squash women’s leadership. At the same time, black women challenge white women who want to claim black women’s allegiance without acknowledging the realities of racism. They will not be drawn into any simple allegiance that refuses to account their full humanity and citizenship.Black women want out of the war.Black women need health insurance. Black women need decent schools for their children. Black women need a strong economy that creates jobs. Black women need help caring for their aging parents. Black women want a Democratic win in the fall. Sisters chose Barack on Tuesday because they believe he can deliver these things and that is much more empowering than just having a woman in the White House.

I noticed that those who read her blog and my reaction in comparison to the readers of vary a great deal. You can go ahead and see for yourself. I realized that in the blogosphere and in various media outlets, certain perspective are not always widely accepted or understood. I believe that the disparity in reactions is due to the lack of knowledge and discourse regarding the history, thought and experiences of black women in America. When a middle aged white woman scolded me for not supporting Hillary because I was a female, when the media distorted the identities and motives of black women when thy claimed we had two choices (a woman and a black man), when I read Gloria Steinem’s Op-ed piece in the New York Times, when I heard Oprah being called a gender traitor, when a white female in a lecture class told me that I was a woman and needed “to starting think about that too!”, when I met a firing squad when I brought up black women, feminism and identity politics in a public arena, I realized that our society in general, is very confused about the identities, experience and activism of black women. Black women's history and thought has been suppressed and their contributions to our society are mostly overlooked. Many don't understand intersectionality. They are unaware of the relationships of black women and white women in America. They don't understand black feminist theory.

Melissa Harris Lacewell's usage of history is a way to explain why many black women would not vote for a white woman on the basis of sisterhood. She chose to look at it from an historical perspective in order to show how deeply ingrained it is. Lacewell is not calling Hillary Clinton a racist. Also keep in mind that Harris is not implying that black women who support Hillary Clinton is a mammy. That's not at all what she is saying nor is it the basis of her essay. It is metaphorical. The mammy in the minds of many black women is a symbol of passivity and subordination amongst other things.

In addition, the comparison of Scarlett O'Hara and Hillary Clinton is almost...classic. Hillary Clinton in this election has managed to play both aggressor and victim very cleverly. This ability to play both "aggressor" and "victim" is not clever in that it is a brilliant tactic; it is clever in that the she is using her white female privilege. Remember sisters, this is a privilege that we as black women do not have! This is due to the construction of white and black womanhood in our society.

The Scarlett O’Hara effect is the idea of black women playing a supportive and even inferior role to that of white women because of white privilege. This is something that cannot be denied and it is the history of our relations. During all waves of feminism, white women have been suppressive of black women and women of color in general. They wanted us to drop our true experience and realities of whole identity in order to support their agenda. When I say whole identity I am speaking to the fact that women of color have to deal with a double jeopardy-race and gender (for many it is also class). A movie that I would chose is Imitation of Life!! The connections are stark and modern. I would prefer for you to look at the 50’s version rather than the original 30’s version. When white feminists were fighting for respect and recognition in society with particular attention to the workplace, black women were the reason why that was possible. Black women stayed in their supportive roles and took care of the children and the household so that they can enter the workplace. White women possess a social mobility that black women do not. Hillary Clinton is my junior senator and I will give her credit where it is due however she would not be where she is if she was not linked to white male patriarchy. This is not Hillary Clinton’s fault; it is a result of our racist, sexist and classist society. Hillary could work as hard as possible but it was her connection to white male patriarchy that has allowed her to get the respect and recognition that she is getting, if she was Hillary Rodham? It would have different story. Now can you imagine a woman who is not connected to white male patriarchy? A woman of color whose male counterparts have been denied the very liberties and opportunities that this country promised its citizens in almost every living document.

I don’t believe that anyone should vote on the basis of identity politics. However when I hear the media’s distortions of black women as having two choices-between a woman and a black man, when I read Gloria Steinem’s point of view in her Op-Ed piece and the views of other white feminists and when I was taken to task by various people for not supporting a women and sisterhood and blah blah blah, I became weary, I felt that I needed to speak up and refuse to have my voice suppressed as the voices of many of my sisters have been for too long.

*I would like to shout out to Hillary Clinton, where was the sisterhood when you supported your husband and betrayed Marian Edelman Wright (Children’s Defense Fund) when your husband implemented welfare reform that effected the poorest children and their disenfranchised mothers. Too many disenfranchised black women do not have access to childcare or a mammy!! to take care of their children when it was/is time to go into the workplace. Therefore they are not able to be socially mobile.

Here is great footage from Democracy Now! with Melissa Harris Lacewell and Gloria Steneim=). It is a great argument!! Lacewell brought it!

Part I


Part III

Part IV

1 comment:

MZ said...

"*I would like to shout out to Hillary Clinton, where was the sisterhood when you supported your husband and betrayed Marian Edelman Wright (Children’s Defense Fund) when your husband implemented welfare reform that effected the poorest children and their disenfranchised mothers."

This point is so crucial.

I just don't get the argument that women should vote for Clinton because she's a woman. She's a woman who voted for the Iraq war, a woman who doesn't stand up for immigrants, a woman who couldn't get a healthcare plan pushed through 16 years ago - but we're supposed to think she can do it now?

I don't agree with her policies and I don't agree with her tactics, but I should support her because we are both women? In that case, why would a man ever vote for HRC? It doesn't make any sense.