Calling Obama a woman is racist as well as sexist
- Published: 10 July 2010
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A Washington Post reporter’s labelling of Obama as a ‘woman’ is horrendously sexist. But, as usual, the racist overtones have all but been ignored by mainstream commentators, writes Lorraine Berry.
Sometimes, I find myself wishing that ‘journalists’ were required to take courses in history, semiotics, theory, and things other than how to write a lede, how to boil down a complicated issue to a sound bite so that your average American, with his/her average reading level can understand.
If journalists had a better understanding of history and theory, for instance, they'd understand exactly why the following sentence by Kathleen Parker is so unbelievably racist and misogynist:
“No, I'm not calling Obama a girlie president. But . . . he may be suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises, with which he has been richly endowed.”
Let's take apart the sentence, shall we?
"Obama...has been richly endowed."
Parker, without explicitly stating it, has just repeated the Mandingo myth. That is, that all African-American men have large penises.
It was also understood, both in common parlance and scientific studies, that black men were oversexed, not unlike animals, so in the South, for example, this was one of many reasons why white men didn't want African-American men going near white women.
Such "knowledge," frequently got black men lynched, as in the case of the boy, Emmitt Till, who was beaten and lynched for whistling at a white woman.
"Obama may be suffering from a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises"
In other words, just like women, Obama talks too much. Rather than keeping it simple, and speaking in simple declarative sentences, Obama speaks in sentences that make clear that a lot of thought is going into his decision-making process when faced with a crisis.
Personally, I like the fact that we have an intellectual in the White House who feels the need to think about things before whipping out his gun and declaring an easy answer to the problem.
Jamie Kapalko, a writer for Salon's Broadsheet, examines Parker's column by looking through the same lens that Parker had used. The theory was popularized by intellectuals such as Carol Gilligan, who argued that men and women have different means of communicating.
Parker is arguing that, using Gilligan's terms, Obama communicates like a woman and not a man. As Kapalko points out, Parker's entire argument for calling the POTUS a girlie-man is his communication style.
First, Parker says that "Obama displays many tropes of femaleness," but goes on to name just one: his communication style. Obama doesn’t talk like an Alpha male, she says. He is "a chatterbox," like all those ladies who love to babble and prattle and jabber and yak. On top of that, after the Gulf oil spill, he spent time "weighing" and "considering" what to do instead of immediately grunting like a caveman and head-butting Tony Hayward.
Parker acknowledges that she's talking about femininity and masculinity "in the normative sense," which means that she's oversimplifying everything. Shouldn't we all strive to communicate well, regardless of whether a particular strategy is associated with a particular gender? Is anyone's behavior ever 100 percent aligned with gender norms, anyway? No, but Parker shrugs and says that it’s just too hard to separate stereotype from reality. We want our leaders to be "normal." No girlie men in the Oval Office.
As Kapalko says, Parker manages to insult women and men, arguing that men speak like cavemen and use only the lizard part of their brains, and she insults women by saying that women can't make up their minds quickly enough to be good leaders.
I agree with Kapalko, but I think she needs to take the argument further.
Parker is not just making a sexist argument. This really is barely covered racism. One of the interesting things about having studied theory is the tools it has given me for dismantling speech, and while admitting that not all theory is applicable in "real life," I do think that theory is correct about certain aspects of gender.
Femininity is understood, in theories such as those of Joan Scott, as the less powerful half of a binary. The binary of masculine-feminine separates the world so that one can look at most relations and see how the less powerful group in the relationship is frequently also seen as more feminine. (Or, to be really crude about it, more likely to get called a "pussy." )
For example, back in the Middle Ages, Jews were seen much as black males were: sexually out of control, they were a threat to Christian women. But, because they were less powerful than Christian men, it was thought that Jewish men menstruated. Jewish men's bodies were seen as more feminine than those of Christians.
The late Edward Said argued in Orientalism that Muslim men--what we call "the East" in general--was the same. Full of sexually profligate men who were also so feminine that homosexuality was rampant. Western men saw themselves as more powerful than these men, and saw the "Oriental" as more feminine, because they were willing to sleep with men.
Women themselves have been feared in thousands of years of literature. On one hand, they are clearly the "weaker" sex. But on the other, they were seen as sexually insatiable, and capable of stealing a man's sexual power if he was not aware of how cunning a woman could be. Her seductive behaviour was all about attempting to steal a man's power, and thus needed to be guarded against.
So, what I'm saying is that these tropes have not gone away. Even though Barack Obama is President of the United States, he is still an African-American man. In coded language, Kathleen Parker has said he is "well-endowed," and "weak like a woman."
What do we do when we still insist that our President is the ‘Other’?
Not only do they insist he wasn't born here, worships a different God than ‘we’ do, and does not have America's best interests at heart, now we're really getting down to the heart of the matter: Barack Obama is an African-American man who cannot be trusted sexually.
Like women, he uses words to seduce, to exploit, to draw us into his ideology, which somehow has the work of the devil involved.
By calling Obama womanish, Parker has sent a coded message that his words are not meant to lead, but to seduce.
Lorraine Berry is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and articles for various trade magazines. She teaches creative writing and is grateful to live in gorgeous countryside, have two daughters whom she adores, and to love and be loved by a great man. Yes, she knows how lucky she is. She blogs here.