Are Women or Blacks More Disadvantaged?

Posted by: Steven Barnes

Recently, a question has been bandied about the airwaves and internet. Which causes more pain: Being black or being female?

There is only one group who can answer that question, and I’m not a member.

Only African-American women have personal experience with both femininity and blackness.

I’ve asked this question of five black women, who agreed to be referenced so long as I didn’t use their names. Four of five said that race was more problematic, and the one who chose “gender” warned me that, due to her very light skin, her experiences might not be typical. She mentioned gender as a problem largely because of cultural expectations about child care, and pay discrepancies at work.

On the “race” side, I heard stories of being denied entrance to a private school. Of lacking networking opportunities that benefited white students at university. One lady said race was hurtful from the day her schoolmates and teachers first saw her. Another that race has been more painful by a margin of three to one, and described a childhood attempt to lighten her skin with baby powder.

In truth, my sample was small, and skewed. I don’t take the results seriously. If you’d like an answer, I suggest you perform the experiment for yourself.

The subject of race versus gender has raised its ugly head at parties, and I’ve proposed this same challenge. The most consistent comment I’ve gotten back is: “I don’t know any black women to ask.” I find that interesting, but rather admire the mind that can form an opinion about black people without actually knowing any.

It’s sad so many people need to quantify the pain of others. I suppose that the “winner” of the Pain Game gets to take the moral high-ground. The logic of Victim Politics suggests that if women are the most disadvantaged group, then women, and the men who love them, should naturally gravitate toward Hillary. If Blacks are most disadvantaged, then blacks and non-blacks who believe in social justice should gravitate toward Obama.

Pioneering Science Fiction author Octavia E. Butler once told me that the two tendencies placing us at greatest risk as a species were hierarchicalism and the tendency to place ourselves above others on that hierarchy.

But rather bizarrely, not only do human beings want to believe that they are best, they also want to believe their wounds are deepest, the knives that have worried their flesh the most cruel. In some minds, being the greatest victim is almost as good as being the champion.

This is a momentous election, in which the stakes are stratospheric. Potentially, change is not merely on the agenda or the stump, but in the Oval Office itself. Vote for Hillary, or for Barack, or for McCain, or the candidate of your choice. But if you vote for them primarily BECAUSE they are black, or white, or male, or female…then you are a part of the problem, not the solution. More importantly, you are yesterday’s news, rather than tomorrow’s revelation.

Steven Barnes is a fiction, television and movie writer. His career has spanned over 25 years and produced dozens of books and teleplays as well as nominations for the Hugo and Cable Ace awards. He blogs about his passions: writing, martial arts, writing (again), his family, race, and politics.

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11 Responses

  1. The thing I’m continually incensed by in this whole “my disadvantage trumps your disadvantage” BS game is that white men should be equally “torn” between voting their gender or their race, yet no one ever mentions them. They’re so quick to play the Pain Game everywhere else (OMG, Edwards had to drop out because he was a white male! OMG, men are the new women!), you’d think they’d use it to the hilt here. I find the silence conspicuous; it makes me wonder who stands to benefit from oversimplifying and framing the Obama/Clinton contest as a black men vs. white women deathmatch.

    Thought-provoking post, Steven; thanks. =)

  2. “The most consistent comment I’ve gotten back is: ‘I don’t know any black women to ask.’”

    I would like to believe that maybe what at least some of those respondents meant was “I don’t know a black woman well enough that I would feel comfortable enough to open up this particularly personal conversation with”. By which I mean, maybe it’s not “not knowing any black women” as much as not having that tight of a relationship with any black women. But I don’t know if that is really even better… A part of me says “how the heck can you not know any black women???” and another part says “maybe you just aren’t that close to black women”… but if you don’t have one single black woman that you are close to, maybe that is the same as “not knowing” any black women really. At least women (maybe non-Black men wouldn’t necessarily be that tight with Black women because of differing gender interactions) should be able to say they have at least one genuine friend or semi-close acquaintence that they could discuss these kinds of things with.

    And yes, as nojojojo says, the “I have it worse than you” mentality seriously needs to go…

  3. Depending on what part of the country you live/work in, the “I don’t know any black women” comment sadly doesn’t surprise me. At my high school there was one (one!) male black student, and no black teachers. College was only a little better. Many of my white students seem to suffer a deplorable lack of exposure to diversity, which out here in the midwest isn’t all that surprising unfortunately.

  4. rather admire the mind that can form an opinion about black people without actually knowing any.

    Well with TV and all, they dont really have to know any of us. The media does a bang up job of explaining us for them.

    Oh, wait…

  5. There are also times where racism and sexism can smear together to make other difficult and/or annoying situations, imho. I think there were times that things have happened because I was both black and a woman, that maybe would not have occured if I was just one of those things.

  6. People playing Oppression Olympics makes me angry, because you can’t eradicate oppression by creating yet another hierarchy. Octavia Butler was right, and I only wish more people could hear and understand that message.

    I do disagree with you on one point, though:

    But if you vote for them primarily BECAUSE they are black, or white, or male, or female…then you are a part of the problem, not the solution.

    I’m sorry, but that kind of assertion reinforces sexism and racism.

    Melissa McEwan has pointed out the problem of focusing on “Vagina Voting” (ie. voting for Clinton primarily because she’s a woman). In her post, For the Record, she says:

    When a woman, as Kate did here, talks about Hillary’s femaleness as a potentially deciding factor in whether to support her, it has nothing to do with “Vagina Voting.” There’s absolutely no reason to presume that an intelligent, rational, progressive woman who says she’s leaning toward Hillary because she’s a woman hasn’t already taken into consideration all the political implications of that decision.

    And if you are making that presumption—if you hear a woman you know to be politically astute saying, “I’m leaning toward Hillary now because she’s a woman,” and you say, “Well, choose her because she’s got the best policies, not because she’s got ovaries!”—you need to stop and ask yourself why you feel compelled to issue that caveat, despite its manifest insult to the intelligence of any woman at whom it is directed.

    It’s absolutely legitimate for Hillary’s sex to be one’s deciding factor, and no less legitimate than citing John Edwards being a millworker’s son who knows what it’s like to be working class as one’s deciding factor. Though, strangely, no one accuses anyone of overlooking all his policies if they honor his background thusly.

    And she talks about the importance of identity politics here:

    We don’t vote with our vaginas! It’s insulting to assume women will vote for her just because she’s a woman! All true, don’t get me wrong. And yet, I’ve still always kind of wanted to vote for her.

    And that’s mostly because she’s a woman. And so am I.

    As Jeff said, it is indeed identity politics — but it’s not necessarily misguided. The sexist shitstorm that’s been raging around Hillary for the last week (let alone the last year, the last 15 years) just reinforces what I’ve felt in my gut all along: electing a woman president would be a radical, transgressive, transformative act, even if she’s a relatively conservative candidate. Watching the stunned looks on the pundits’ faces last night, hearing all the, “My god! How could we have gotten it so wrong?”s, was like Christmas for me, quite frankly.

    The same arguments can be applied to Obama and his campaign. Electing a black man to office would be a transformative act regardless of his policies. And it’s not like we’re talking Clinton and Obama having radically different policies; they’re both Democrats and, frankly, in the grand scheme of things their policies really aren’t all that different.

    And, if we’re going to be totally honest here, having lived in Canada for 5 years (my formative ones in terms of becoming aware of politics) I don’t really think there’s a huge difference between Democrats and Republicans anyway. They’re all too conservative for my taste; Republicans are just a little moreso than Democrats.

    So, for me, things like the idea that children could finally be given a woman or a black role model for the presidency become important. Having someone besides the typical white male in office would be the first step towards putting to rest the sexist and racist questions of “Is America ready for a [insert non-privileged group here] to be president?” Simply put, it would be one more step in the direction of equality.

    And to call that line of thinking “being part of the problem” is just insulting.

  7. There are also times where racism and sexism can smear together to make other difficult and/or annoying situations, imho. I think there were times that things have happened because I was both black and a woman, that maybe would not have occured if I was just one of those things.

    This is exactly why I have come to see racism as a characteristic of sexism, rather than its own separate entity. Racism is the result of the sexism of the dominant white male against the subordinate nonwhite female. The discrimination against nonwhite men, like gay men, for example, is a function of nonwhite men’s relationship to women in general or a specific class of women in particular.

    I think that thinking of sexism as uni-dimensional, as something that only happens between men and women of otherwise like station is too simplistic. I see much more value in recognizing that sexism itself is racist (ageist, classist, ableist, sizeist, etc), stratified on the basis of race, and that the women at each level are accorded a different treatment by the dominant male (and, subsequently, by the subordinate ones too).

  8. I think the question is silly and stupid. Sorry. I am a woman, whose race is “black.” I am not dividing myself into two separate oppressed camps. I grew up in a mostly black to mixed neighborhood and I’ve traveled overseas: sexism is what makes the world go around. Racism is a class, income, social, blah, blah bit of nonsense.

    The only group that doesn’t get a REAL shellacking with regards to sexism are white women.That’s just a fact. Hearing Hillary Clinton and her supporters try to make her an empowered victim are annoying. She won’t be heading for the White House for the first time, it’d be a revisit. Hasn’t her “experience” been bandied about because she was supposedly a co-President?

    That’s what kills me about this country: only women are white and only blacks are men. What am I? Chopped liver? I am a human being, a woman. I’m not playing the “divided loyalties” game, it’s idiotic.

  9. Off topic and in fangirl mode: I really like your writing. Any new books coming out…(Ok, back to the discussion everyone. I’m just acting silly at the opportunity to “talk” to someone whose books I’ve read and reread like 1000x.)

  10. Back on topic: I don’t know whether racism or sexism is “worse.” They’re different but it’s not clear to me which is more innate or severe. I’m a “passing as white” (I can’t help it: I look white) mixed race person and therefore have experienced virtually no direct racial discrimination. However, I do hear the jokes white people tell when they think that they’re “alone” and they sometimes scare me: I don’t want to be lynched for “pretending” to be white. So I know that racism can be a factor even for someone who is barely affected by it and can only imagine what it is like for people who face it every day. On the other hand, sexism (yes, I am female, as my screenname suggests) is pretty nasty and pervasive too. They’re different and one may be predominant in one situation, the other in another. I don’t know how one could even determine which is worse.

    Because of this I think that, between Clinton and Obama, we’re really in a situation where we can’t lose. Both are probably much more competent than anyone gives them credit for, because of racism in one case and sexism in the other. Either would be groundbreaking as a symbol and probably competent, if not revolutionary, as a president. Vote for whoever strikes your fancy but don’t get too upset if the other guy/gal wins. S/he is almost certainly going to be pretty good too.

  11. Great question!

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