Friday, April 5, 2013

Check Your Privilege, Mr. Obama...a Country Full of Boys is Watching

Last night I caught Zerlina Maxwell schooling the heck out of Politico's Dylan Byers for tweeting, "How did it become so difficult to call a woman good-looking in public?" I learned that this comment was in response to President Obama saying that Kamala Harris is California's best looking attorney general, and the backlash against those comments.

Among the many things Maxwell tweeted were:
  • Men wondering why it's not ok to comment on a woman's looks whenever/whereever they want need to google "male privilege." Now. 
  •  It's crucial to set standards, especially w/ someone as influential as POTUS. He's an ally but made a messed up here. 
  •  Is POTUS sexist? No. He's an ally to us feminists but it's ok to call him out when he makes a mistake.
I, of course, wholeheartedly agree with her. It doesn't take a doctoral level social scientist to show how discussing a woman's looks in relation to her job is incredibly sexist. Any man who might have the impulse to try to fight for the ability to do this really, really needs to do what Maxwell said and Google male privilege. You can read a full piece on her views about this situation at The Grio.

Irin Carmon at Salon also shared her thoughts on this topic.  She wrote,
Almost as obnoxious as the men talking about how put-upon they are by p.c. harpies who aren’t interested in the unsolicited feedback — positive or negative — were the supposed liberals talking about how we should all just chill out. This was the position of the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, who pointed out that Obama and Harris are friends, that this wasn’t tantamount to “luridly cat-calling a woman he doesn’t know,” and who finished up with an exhortation to “lighten up, people.” (Pissed-off people love to be told to lighten up.) 
I want to just scream at Jonathan Capehart, but I'll refrain and try to form coherent sentences instead...This would be a great time to draw our collective attention to the term "benevolent sexism." I have no idea if it's related to this story, but a friend shared this good overview/101 primer of it on my Facebook wall yesterday. As the article shares, the terms means:
We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure)
[Emphasis mine.]

In lay terms that means, it's possible to make "nice" statements that are also sexist. Obama's words are a great example. It's so, so important to understand: these comments can come from our friends just as easily as they can from a douche bag in the street. However, when they come from a friend, there can actually be more pressure to let it slide. We, as women, are often socialized to be non-confrontational and added to that is the fact that it's just human nature to not want to piss of a friend. But when we don't address things like this, stereotypes about women are reinforced. (In this example the stereotypes are that Harris's looks are somehow important to her job and more generally that women's looks are the most noteworthy things about them.)

I would be annoyed by this even if I just heard in my group of friends, but President Obama isn't some guy hanging out in my apartment  He's the President, and his behavior is observed by most people in our country and many people around the world. Like Maxwell said, he is typically an ally...but that doesn't give him a pass. Real allies listen to women. In fact, I would argue that as an ally, it makes it even more relevant for him to check his male privilege because that's what allies do. I never expect Rush Limbaugh to examine this privilege. I don't care about him. He's not where progress can be made. He routinely says things a million times worse, so if he made these same comments, it might not even make the news.

But Obama has both the ability and opportunity to show how someone who truly respects women can recover from a sexist blunder and admit he was wrong.

We still operate in a world where a rape victim is blamed for drinking to the point of unconsciousness, so apologizing for publicly saying a woman is good looking seems like small potatoes. But the fact of the matter is that all of these "little things" normalize sexism and lay the foundation for systematic oppression. If Obama can play a role in reversing that trend, I would hope he would take it.

[Image text shows a pyramid of increasing oppressions. The foundation is "acts of subtle bias" followed by "acts of prejudice and bigotry," then "acts of discrimination," "acts of violence," "acts of extreme violence to the individual," and at the top "genocide."]

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