Friday, October 17, 2008

Oprah Just Honored Gloria Steinem: Why Am I So Mad?

So I was watching Thursday's Oprah episode where she featured Maria Shriver. Maria has an annual conference for women and this year Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem are amongst the honorees. Now Steinem might be an ally of Oprah but is she an ally of mine? What about Laquisha from the hood? Or Monique from a small town? So many people are ignored not only by corporate media but by us when they don't easily fit into our vision of what an ally is or we dismiss others without giving them an opportunity to prove themselves from the get-go.

Blogger Host Lisa at Black Women Blow the Trumpet posted a discussion about how Black women needed to vet their potential allies back in June. When I go through the criteria I find key elements lacking for matters that are important to me. How did I come to such a conclusion?

Well I looked back at Ms. Steinem's behavior during the Democratic primary. Per her Op-Ed article in the New York Times back in January: her charge was that sexism is worse than racism. I was outraged by that assessment and to me it signaled the same white male supremacist power structure Black people have been fighting against since we helped found this country with our blood, sweat and tears. I also looked at the historical interactions from previous generations of white feminists, black feminists and civil rights activists.

If there's any one authority of the ravages of sexism it is Black women. We were uniquely affected by it as well as racism when our female ancestors were forced to breed and lived with being raped on a daily basis. Our bodies were never our own. Being enslaved required 18-20 hours day of skull-crushing, back breaking labor while white people fought for 'freedom' and built their wealth. Now to be certain, there was the slave owner but there was also the slave owner's wife who benefitted from this practice and had an equally vested interest in keeping the status quo. 

That violation of Black women continued after slavery, through Jim Crow and still resides today. Do you think the brouhaha over Janet Jackson being exposed had to do with indecency or a reaction to the historical image distortion of Black women as being wanton and having no morals? 

White women = the definition of "woman" in this country. White. Blonde. Thin. Young. Pure. Wife material. Innocent. Worthy of protection. American.

Ms. Steinem made a point of mentioning she ran as a delegate for Shirley Chisholm and praised her contribution to feminism. Nice, but that was 1972. Then there's the fact that she was also supporting George McGovern's run (in states where Chisholm wasn't running). Now color me stupid but I'm thinking of two words right now. Divided loyalty. Hedging bets. Not Sincere? 

What has she done for Black women since then?

Watch the documentary Unbought & Unbossed. Note that Mrs. Chisholm didn't get a whole lot of support from the Black (male) politicians of the day but she was definitely abandoned by the so-called leaders of the (white) feminist movement at a crucial moment when they could have gone for broke and supported her candidacy.  For a white male candidate no less. So I am rightfully incensed with Steinem and a host of other white women (Geraldine Ferraro, Joan Walsh, et al) who were given media access and were carping about how 'unfair' it all was that they were victims of a vast Black (male) conspiracy (and not getting their way)! Their sense of entitlement was palpable. Otherwise why title your Op-Ed piece, "Women Are Never Front-Runners" when you had the chance to support a female candidate more than 30 years prior and decided to choose white?

Furthermore, where were the BLACK WOMEN in this equation? Yeah Hillary Clinton had Sheila Jackson-Lee and Stephanie Tubbs-Jones in her corner but was that from a position of power? Or was this standard water-carrier activity? How was the average Black woman benefitting from this discourse? Then....and now? If you have no idea what I'm talking about now's the time to do a little historical research, compare it to the coverage last Spring and connect the dots as to why I've drawn this conclusion. You don't have to agree of course.

Then there's the very telling debate between Steinem and Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Democracy Now a week after the Op-Ed was published. Steinem had this paternalistic attitude of how 'grateful' Black women should be. This is the ongoing indicator of how some people are not our allies, including other Black women and Black men. Watch and judge for yourself.

Oprah referring to Steinem as the "Mother of Feminism" is really giving her far more credit than she deserves. A key contributor - sure -  because a path was created for her to do so. This is when I see why some people are critical of Oprah for seeming to fawn over some white people too much. I can't quite agree with the charge of the 'selling out' of Blacks by Oprah but I do see the distinction of money, access and celebrity. Besides, those part of the elite classes and those with access to them are not interested in opening their doors to the masses. 

First of all Steinem is in her 70's and part of the 2nd wave of feminism. We're in the 3rd wave now and believe me there's a reason why so many young girls don't know anything about feminism other than having a vague sense of the word. Most women under 35 don't consider themselves feminists at all.  At times it is an exercise in privilege because there is so much 'choice' involved. When there are systematic barriers in place that prevent some women from being able to make certain choices or have equal opportunities then there is no choice! It is just white woman privilege under the construct of white male supremacy.

There can be no truthful acknowledgment of Steinem's contributions without discussing her privilege as a white woman, her class status and appearance. She was single with no children, educated and is still attractive and articulate. She was not a poor woman from Appalachia with a GED. Sorry Glo, I am still not convinced. There is a blogger whose interests lie in deconstructing and dismantling this privilege.

Now as a member of the (in)famous X generation perhaps I am missing something. This could a generational difference. Just like the Civil Rights Industrial Complex the old guard wants to keep their status and accolades. Where is the grooming and nurturing of future leaders? More women would make a concerted effort to align themselves with the Feminist Industrial Complex IF they felt it spoke to them and addressed their needs.  There are women who are anti-racist activists trying to form valuable alliances with each other. We need to have more than one declared leader of the FIC anyway. Women, like Blacks are not a monolith. So many are quick to object to blind support for Obama and not make him into a Messiah. Well we don't need a "Mother" either. We need to be on equal footing with a seat at the table.

For too many there is a huge socio-economic barrier at play. If you have to address more immediate needs such as affordable housing or even personal safety as a result of racist/sexist policies negatively impacting your sphere of the world being ignored by these pillars of the movement won't encourage your participation. Another example of this is the current fight against Proposition 8. The Gay Rights groups seeking support for its opposition approach communities color during an election year but ignore them otherwise. 

Steinem now claims to have been in support of Obama all along - she just wanted Hillary Clinton in the White House first.  Remember those calls for Obama to "wait his turn"? As if he had to make it easier for the white women (and those that support their agendas) to deal with playing on a level field. Isn't that what equality means? See where white privilege demands deference? Obama has already capitulated to white people to make them feel at ease enough!! Look how close we are to election day and you can read numerous reports of how whites are calling Obama a terrorist or dressing up monkey stuffed animals and all the ways they are making their displeasure known. 

The convenient fall back position is to claim they didn't know they were being offensive, or because they have a Black friend/lover/neighbor/co-worker they can't be racist. Not correctly labeling their actions means there can be no progress. Without respect there can be no real relationship. Standing by and doing nothing to hold people accountable will never resolve these conflicts. Until white people like Steinem take up the charge of first acknowledging then letting go of white privilege and all its benefits she can NEVER truly be an ally in my opinion. It must always about RECIPROCITY.

You can also go the Democracy Now! site for a stream and transcript.



Hey there!

This is a good discussion for us to have!

Thanks for sharing the videos!

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Thanks Lisa. Reciprocity is my new motto in life!!!

Unknown said...

I agree. OPrah should have put on Dr. bell hooks, a woman who has done much for feminism and race relations. (hooks is a woman who has made me rethink my sexist ways...everyday)

Anonymous said...

Hi, I wandered over here from Womanist-Musings. I really enjoyed reading your post. I'm a 20-year-old white feminist, but I do feel this estrangement from second wave feminism. It's frustrating for me because so many girls my age (and color) aren't willing to call themselves feminists because they see no need for it in a "post-feminist" world or they think feminism is the same as misandry.

Here's where the problems come in for me: as an antiracist ally, I'd like to be able to point to second wave feminism to them and talk about the hard work of feminists, but I'm *NOT* proud of women like Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro. They *don't* represent me as a feminist, and I certainly don't want modern day feminists to look at them as role models. They screwed up more than they succeeded, and the biggest way they screwed up (and are still screwing up) is by ignoring the important voices and contributions of WOC (like Shirley Chisholm, who you mentioned). Even in my politics class the other day, our professor called Gloria Steinem the "Mother of Feminism" by creating Ms. Magazine, and I was like WTF? No, she's not.

But when I say it, then older white feminists get pissed with me. They see a generation of (I'm assuming white) women who don't call themselves feminists and actually (IMO) contribute to the perpetuating systems of sexism in our country. I agree with them on the latter point, but I just can't say I'm all that proud of second wave feminism. It was too exclusive. So, on the one hand I fight to get women my age to pay attention today, and on the other hand I fight with my elders because they think I'm disrespecting all their hard work.

It's a tug-of-war. I think as a white feminist, it would be much easier to reach out to WOCs. Like you also mentioned in the article, I think they may have a *better* understanding of sexism than white women given how terribly discriminated they have been in this country. I look at Womanism, and I see so many more women that I could be proud of to call my feminist foremothers. I'll second Brother OMi: bell hooks. Totally awesome feminist woman. Audre Lorde. Alice Walker. Paricia Hill Collins. And those are just the voices of black women.

I strongly think that if feminism is going to survive in the next century, it's gotta have the voices of WOCs. White women aren't getting it; those of us that are fighting have to play tug-of-war; those who aren't are too complacent sexism, too passive when it comes to their own subjugation. I'll still keep trying to get my white sisters to hear, but I'd rather work harder at getting WOCs as a majority voice in the movement (as they do make up a majority of the world!) If that means facing some discomfort and privilege, so be it.