In spite of the fact she skimmed the chapters about Sarah Palin, Mia did learn something from our latest book club selection about the 2008 presidential election.

There’s an excellent section in the middle of Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry about a 2008 op-ed piece by feminist icon Gloria Steinem. In “Women Are Never Front-Runners,” Steinem argued that a woman with the same biography as Barack Obama could never become a presidential candidate. She claimed, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life…” In voicing her support for Hillary Clinton, Steinem noted that “[Obama] is seen as unifying by his race while [Clinton] is seen as divisive by her sex,” concluding, “It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: ‘I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.'”

The piece is well-written and passionate – as a woman, I get what she’s saying about the restrictiveness of gender, and I probably would have been content to leave my assessment at that. What’s more, Steinem insisted she wasn’t pitting race against gender, that the two “are interdependent and can only be uprooted together.” Sounded good to me.

Except, as Traister learned, it didn’t sound good to a lot of women. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton professor who would debate this very article with Steinem on Democracy Now!, gave Traister her impression of Steinem’s message: “‘Oh, you silly black women who are supporting Barack Obama, don’t you see he means nothing to you because you are a woman, like me, and like Hillary Clinton, and your relevant issue is your gender, not your race?'”

As I read quote after quote from women of color who were offended by Steinem’s article, it became clear to me that I hadn’t been thinking of the whole picture, that I had been “blithely presuming [women of color] to have the same perspective as the white women,” as Traister characterized Steinem’s piece.

I know I’m not saying anything new, but I think this bears repeating: as a white women, I have the privilege of compartmentalizing race and gender into two neat boxes; they may intersect for other people, but not for me. If I wanted to vote “as a woman,” I don’t have to worry about what it means to vote as a black woman. (Or as any number of women – I focus on black women in this post to reflect the false dichotomy of “female candidate versus black candidate” Traister discussed.) I’ll even admit – because, you know what, white people: we need to confront our racism, even when it comes in the form of apathy – that, for as interested as I was in this section of the book, I found myself thinking, “For a book that’s supposed to be about gender, Traister’s going off on a pretty long tangent about race.”

I know, I know. And the thing is, as I’ve mentioned before, my feminist education comes primarily from new sources, primarily from the Internet, where intersectionality, if not always practiced, is at least given a lot of lip service. I should know better. In fact, as I was reading Big Girls Don’t Cry, I was incredulous that a largely older contingent of white feminists were actually trying to pit race against gender during the 2008 election. They were saying, “Ladies, we’ve waited long enough. Let’s put gender first.” And I was cringing, because I know that’s not how it works. I know that, for as much as I can compartmentalize in my head, most every person is a combination of privileged and non-privileged backgrounds and characteristics that are interwoven in complex ways.

Unlearning racism and unlearning apathy is a process. Just like with unlearning (internalized) sexism, it’s requiring me to admit the many times I’ve been wrong or unfair or illogical. But, while confronting sexism has given me a voice – it’s made me realize that, hey, I can speak about my experiences as a woman with authority – as I confront racism, I need to let other people tell their stories.

Or, as Latoya Peterson said to Traister:

“The biggest thing when you’re trying to be in solidarity with other people who are different from you, the first thing you have to acknowledge is that there is so much that you don’t know and that you will never know. A lot of people don’t do that. They feel like because they’ve read something, because they’re talked to a few people, they can say ‘Oh I understand the black experience. Oh, I get it.’ You don’t get it. You miss all the nuances because it doesn’t happen to you.”

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