Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Is this Liberal America's nasty little secret: We're still bigots?

I guess none of us were prepared for the intense examination of prejudice in America that this Democratic primary has brought with it. We have such an ugly history of being one of the last civilized nations to allow slavery, and then even when that was abolished we continued to have legal (and socially accepted) discrimination against women and people of color for several more generations. My mother — not some ancient ancestor — had very few places she could lunch with her best friend in Washington DC in the early 1950s: her friend was black, my mother is white. But in DC now? Neighborhoods are mixed, the faces in the restaurants are mixed. People of all shapes and colors intermingle daily.

So it has come as a shock that in this supposedly enlightened time in which we live, blatant discrimination still exists. Look, I'm not naive. I grew up in 1960s Virginia and have spent a lot of time in the South. And I'm a professional woman who also happens to be gay. So I know discrimination exists in America, 'k?

What I didn't know, however, was how much discrimination exists within the progressive, liberal population of this country.

With our choices narrowed down to 2 candidates, it's as if some in the Democratic party feel free to criticize and attack at the most vile and base level. And yes, it's happening with both Obama and Clinton supporters.

We seem to have a perfect storm for our underlying prejudices to be exposed. At the same time that we have a public forum as powerful as the internet, we also have the incredibly emotional and historical firsts of a person of color and a woman within reach of the White House. It has all come together to produce a sense of righteousness and anonymity among some bloggers and commentors, who say things online that I cannot believe they would say in person.

I keep thinking back to an online discussion I had a few months ago with an Obama-supporting blogger who had criticized Hillary Clinton. I took issue with his comments about her "cackle" and her appearance in general. I said look, criticize her policies all you want, but these are extremely sexist comments you're making. He was furious. He said that he is a "bigger feminist than Alan Alda" and how dare I call him "sexist." We went back and forth a bit before I realized what the problem was.

This blogger — and many many others just like him on both sides of this campaign — have a disconnect between what they say and what they value. In this case, I took a step back, and said look, I'm not calling you sexist. I'm saying the words you use are sexist. He still resisted, taking this as a personal attack. So I gave him this example: if I say a phrase, and a person of color tells me they find it racist, do I say "no it's not — I'm not racist!" or do I say, "I'm sorry, I didn't know. Can you tell me why that is racist?"

When I was a corporate trainer, I taught a course on diversity. The bottom line in that course was, view your interactions with other people as a learning opportunity. Ask questions. Ask for clarification. But don't get defensive.

This campaign season has certainly tested my abilities to stay calm, and in the end I decided to simply avoid certain blogs that seem to have gone off the deep end in their attacks of Hillary Clinton. When I try to point out how a comment is sexist, I'm labeled "a Clinton operative" or my comment is simply ignored. I see no point in reading comments posted by people with closed minds. It defeats the whole purpose of having a comments section.

While many fellow Democrats are worried about "the party" coming together once a nominee is chosen, I will be honest with you: I am much more worried about my fellow Democrats themselves and the state of our country. The insidious discrimination and prejudices of so many liberals may well be much harder to fight than even the legally segregated lunch counters my mother and her friends faced.


Morgan said...

I totally agree with you. I have even felt it on a personal level in remarks made by friends. What do you do in addressing the "hidden discriminations" that are raising their ugly heads when voiced by friends? When I say something, I get this blank look back. I can feel my perspective changing concerning people I felt I knew well.

Mary Ellen said...

What a great post, sue, and you actually taught me something (see, you can teach an old gal new tricks!) I should try to stay more calm when discussing the issues of this primary. The problem I have is that many of my friends are Obama supporters and I hate to avoid their blogs because eventually this whole thing is going to be over and I was hoping to remain friends.

You're correct, oftentimes we aren't seeing the disconnect between what we say and what we feel. Being called a racist by a blogger early on in this election was a wake up call as to where this election was headed. What blew me away was that I had said nothing about race that should have afforded that comment, I think that's why I was so shocked when it happened.

I think one of the problems is that sexist remarks have been so accepted by our society that many can't see the similarity between that and racism. It reminds me of when my parents were young and they said that referring to a black person with the "n" word was socially acceptable then. It looks to me that our society has a long way to go in the evolution of women in society.

I'll take your suggestions on how to handle this seriously and try to employ a calmer attitude in the future.

Thanks, kiddo!

Sue J said...

All I can figure is that for some people it's "o.k." to say those comments about Clinton or Obama because they are almost more like some fictional characters than like real people.

Do I make any sense? It's hard to articulate, but it has something to do with our "everything's funny" culture in America. I call it "The Jack Ass-ing of America."

Sue J said...

Mary Ellen, re: try to employ a calmer attitude in the future.

'tis easier said than done, for sure!

krazy kat said...

You're gay?

Sue J said...

Krazy Kat, uh, yeah. You know my "room mate" ...?

krazy kat said...

just being a smartass!

Sue J said...

But ... that's so UNLIKE you!