President Obama recently referred to Kamala Harris as the “best looking” attorney general, and people are debating whether this was bad, bad-bad, bad-bad-bad or just not a big deal. It’s really not that hard to sort out.
First, the full quote in its original context in a speech at a fund-raiser:
“You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here.”
So it’s more than just the “best-looking” line. It’s the way he couches her qualifications in a clause. He doesn’t say flat out that she is brilliant and so on. He says “You have to be careful to, first of all, say…” how qualified she is. As if someone has forced him to say it. As if maybe it’s not even true, but you know, if you don’t feign interest in a broad’s brain, the FemiNazi Police swarm on you and give you rug burn with their unshaven legs.
This is a real headdesk moment. Obama apologized to Harris for the “distraction” his remark caused, which is a bit like saying, “I’m sorry you took it the wrong way” rather than admitting how wrong he was. And make no mistake: he was wrong. Even wrong-wrong. Possibly wrong-wrong-wrong. Anytime you bring up someone’s looks in a context where looks are not relevant, you are causing a distraction from their actual qualifications. You are derailing the conversation, as we say in the blogosphere. But Obama went a step further, and undercut her qualifications by saying that “you” had to “be careful to… say” them. He doesn’t even say “I have to be careful…” He puts her qualifications as far away from himself as he can. And then he mentions she’s hot.
Not okay. So not okay. Obama apparently doesn’t get why it’s so wrong, and this is why people are confused. Obama seems to get a lot of women’s issues and support the right side of them, so you may tend to assume someone like that can’t be sexist in other ways. But human beings are complicated, and sadly, yes we can have internal bits of bigotry even when we position ourselves against bigotry. I don’t know if this is latent sexism or stupidity, but take your pick because it has to be one or the other. You just can’t give a free pass to a man as intelligent and worldly as Obama on a remark like this. He should have known how it would sound.
And he should know now that it was much more than a distraction; it was a way of undermining any discussion of her actual qualifications for the job. Let’s imagine Obama was introducing a man, and he said:
“You have to be careful to, first of all, say he is brilliant and he is dedicated and he is tough, and he is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. He also happens to have by far the biggest collection of Star Wars action figures in the country — Jimbob Harris is here.”
Did you actually feel the moment where you completely forgot Jimbob even had a noggin on top of his neck, and your heart sank as you thought: huh? The Attorney General spends considerable time and energy amassing action figures??? Shit, the country is doomed! We’ll have matters of real justice that need addressing, and Jimbob will be too busy sweating out the last six hours of a hot eBay auction to address them. Or, in the case of mentioning a woman’s looks, you are implying that when we really need Harris, she may be too busy getting her mani-pedi to respond immediately. Broads are like that, you know, especially the hot ones because they’re so high-maintenance and stuff.
The problem isn’t just that he called her good-looking in a context where looks aren’t important (which is bad enough). It’s also that he phrased it in a way that made her qualifications sound like lip service. Like something a guy mutters in feigned sincerity after his date expresses her hope that he appreciates her for her mind as well as her body, which of course he doesn’t, because hello have you seen her body? Yowza!
Right now, Obama seems less like a young egalitarian on a mission and a whole lot more like a sexist Baby Boomer throwback to the seventies. I wish he would speak publicly about this and make it a teachable moment.