Race or gender? How about neither?

Every now and then someone asks whether it’s worse to be a woman or a person of color. Usually, they phrase it just that way, defining the whole term “woman” to mean “white woman”, which gives you a great opportunity to shut down the discussion by pointing out that they just ignored the existence of women of color, so let’s just say “both” and be done with it. (That’s not a very serious reply – for one thing, it doesn’t shut down the “suffering Olympics“, of which there are no winners – but it does shut down an awkward conversation at soundbyte speed when you’re out with friends, not all of whom read blogs about privilege and -isms and stuff.)

Other times you’re just forced to realize people aren’t even debating the topic: they assume being a man of color is tougher than being a white woman, and women of color don’t even enter the equation (which speaks volumes). For example, someone will point out that whites have it easier than people of color, and then white men will jump up to say how hard things are for them, and suddenly no women are in this equation at all (which speaks a few more volumes).

Or you get something really lovely like this gem from a Chicago minister:

“Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single parent home. Barack was,” Wright says in a video of the sermon posted on YouTube. “Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary! Hillary ain’t never been called a ‘n—–!’ Hillary has never had her people defined as a non-person.”

With the bolded comment, I assume he’s referring to the outrageous 1787 agreement to count African-Americans as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of deciding how many Representatives a state could send to Washington, even though said African-Americans got zero-fifths of a vote. This was definitely one of the most shameful moments in US history, and definitive a one in shaping my belief that the US was no more an enlightened bastion of liberty than it was a magical land of chocolate.

But his argument that “her people” were never in US history defined as non-persons* relies on the precarious assumption that Clinton identifies with white men more than she identifies with women of color. Because if she identifies with other women, then his statement is invalidated by the existence of African-American women, who suffered every indignity African-American men did (and then some). The very fact he made this assumption is evidence of his male privilege.

Yes, men of color have male privilege even though it doesn’t do much for them, just like poor white people still have white privilege even though it doesn’t do much for them. No matter what race a man is, when he assumes the system that works for the gander must also work fine for the goose, that’s male privilege at work. The minister is assuming Clinton’s white privilege somehow insulates her from bigotry because race privilege is the one he’s had to deal with; he’s never experienced misogyny and doesn’t know what it’s like.

I don’t know what being a black man in America is like, but I don’t assume the minister’s male privilege fixes that trivial problem of racism right up just because gender privilege is the one I’ve had to deal with.

For there ever to be equality or anything close to it, we are all going to have to recognize that there are layers of privilege. When white feminists talk about “reproductive freedom” with no clue what a different set of problems that term invokes for women of color, we do a disservice to feminism. When men of color talk about race in terms that suggest they’ve forgotten women have their own separate burden to bear, they do a disservice to their cause.

*ETA: There’s plenty of room for the argument that even white women have been non-persons in US history, given that we couldn’t vote (until about 55 years after black men), own property, get an education or work in most industries. I suppose it is technically correct to say the US never “defined” white women as non-persons, but only because it was already a given, thanks to the Bible and its vast collection of stories about men bartering their daughters and wives. But that’s a whole other rant.


  1. SunlessNick says

    Hillary ain’t never been called a ‘n—–!’

    That may be so, but as long as that game’s bein’ played no one has said “How do we beat the n—–,” at a major Republican conference and had it garner a big laugh.

  2. Mea says

    “Hillary has never had her people defined as a non-person” The historian in me can’t handle this statement. Under coverture women in America have historically had zero rights and have been defined as non-human. Just to be pedantic.


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