Sexism, Chivalry, and POC communities

So one of the things that’s been working my nerves this election cycle has been the rush to paint every single bit of language uttered by Obama that could be gendered as proof of his being sexist. The furor over the word periodically was wacky enough (as was the hype over him saying the claws are coming out) but I think Sweetie-gate has officially taken the cake. Was it the brightest thing to say? No. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was sexist. Like a lot of MOC Obama has been raised to be very polite to women. Almost ridiculously so. Can you guess why? It’s very simple. He’s a MOC and women (especially white women) are being raised to perceive him as a threat. I can’t tell you the number of time black male friends of mine have shifted their body language so as to be perceived as non-threatening even though they weren’t being threatening in the first damned place. Or the the number of times black men I didn’t know have felt the need to tell me they weren’t a threat if I glanced at them as I was walking alone at night. Hell, the number of comments I’ve gotten about my husband “letting” me walk alone at night from other MOC who have clearly been raised the same way he was to think that protecting women is part and parcel of being a man is a story in and of itself.

My husband and his brothers have all been taught a specific way to interact with women. Now that lesson comes from a few places. Some of it is just what’s referred to as good home training, namely that you’re supposed to be polite to women at all times, you’re not supposed to intimidate them with the difference in size or make them think they’re unsafe in your presence. If someone else is making a woman feel unsafe then you’re supposed to step up and put a stop to that behavior. You open her door, you pay for dinner, and you generally follow the script that says that even though you know she’s strong and can take care of herself, you’re showing her respect by being willing to take care of her. Our communities tend to run off a paradigm where the only men that are likely to show us respect and engage in chivalry are MOC. We’re not objecting to it in the same way that white women might because we get enough of being ignored, treated like one of the guys, or disrespected by men outside of our communities, and by the knuckleheads inside our communities. It’s nice to know that I don’t have to deal with that crap at home and it’s exceptionally nice to be treated like a princess when the rest of the world wants to treat me like a pack mule. Do we always agree about his attitude? No. But, I know he doesn’t think I’m less than he is or incapable of taking care of myself so much as he is trying to show me love and respect in the way that he knows best and I love him for that effort.

Some of that aforementioned training is an acknowledgment that MOC (particularly black men) have gone to jail or been lynched behind looking at a white woman the wrong way. My sons are being raised to engage in the same behaviors because I want to protect them from being a statistic. Look up the Ryan Harris case if you’re wondering what can happen to young MOC that the police decide are predators despite all evidence to the contrary. There’s this perception of black men in particular (though it extends to other MOC) that they’re sexual predators at all times. Look at the reaction to hip-hop as though it was the first genre of music with songs bearing misogynistic lyrics to hit the airwaves. Apparently people have forgotten rock and roll, heavy metal, and country music’s contributions to the sexism that is part and parcel of our society. Not to mention the reality that hip hop ≠ sexist any more than every country song is sexist. Somehow sexism is a major problem when MOC are engaging in it even though quite often according to internal cultural standards they aren’t being sexist or their “crime” isn’t particularly egregious. It’s not really a surprise of course. After all it’s par for the course for imperialistic cultures to refuse to consider the validity of other cultural norms or to recognize that their standards are not necessarily the best option. I’ve got no problem with Obama being called out for engaging in overtly sexist behavior (which has yet to happen) but this rush to condemn him for engaging in behavior that is already pretty subjective (periodically as sexism? really?) while ignoring the reality of life as a MOC in America is ridiculous.

Karnythia is a writer, a historian, and occasionally a loud mouth. In between raising hell and raising kids she usually manages to find time to contemplate the meaning of life as a black woman in America. Her posts on any topic can be found at her Livejournal.

64 Responses

  1. Very good post, thanks for saying that!

    I think that if a woman weren’t in the race, no one would’ve made an issue of these things (well obviously, in the case of the ones directed at Clinton).

    And as I pointed out over on my blog, look what we forgave Bill Clinton for.

    I have yet to see anything Obama said as overtly sexist, and more as the kind of stuff people say who haven’t been through a vigorous women’s studies course that teaches them to examine every word for its sexist etymology.

    I’m not picking on people for doing that–hell, I’m a white girl who studies feminist theory–but I am cutting the guy some slack.

  2. I’m a white woman who has been called sweetie by many, many white and black men alike. In most instances, I realize the men intend no harm, and are often just being polite. For instance, my wedding photographer is a black man, and every time I speak to him on the phone, he calls me baby, sweetie, and honey. I don’t object to this because it’s not important in this context–he is not using the terms as an extension of the power he has over me. Also, he is from a southern state, and I’ve noticed large differences in the way men address women in that state than in the northeast state I was born and raised in. So, I attribute a lot of my discomfort to a cultural difference and let it go, in spite of the fact that each time it happens, I am aware that men have used the words to condescend to and infantilize women in the past, and continue to do so.

    I believe Barak Obama intended no harm, and I think your argument is sound in that respect. But the commentary I’ve read on this has not so much decried Obama’s character as it has called out the fact that he is a liberal presidential candidate who should know better. I think the context of the sweetie comment differs from what you describe (though you are absolutely correct that no one seems to have taken into consideration the impact that his race might have on the way he interacts with white women), in that his comment was more of a brush off than a polite way to address someone.

    You are absolutely correct about hip-hop being condemned for its misogyny while “white” music like heavy metal gets a free pass. The hair bands of the 80s were pretty disgusting in the way they treated women and the message they sent to men, but no one seemed to mind.

  3. The furor was less over “periodically” than the rest of the sentence, where he said that Clinton based her campaign decisions on her emotions (specifically, that she OK’d attack ads when she was “feeling down”) rather than on any strategy or polling.

    That said, I agree that all I’ve heard from Obama has only gotten to the level of “should maybe have worded that better.” Was any of it intentional? Maybe, and that would suck. But also totally possible that it was just the subconscious sexism that everyone picks up from the general culture slipped out while he wasn’t looking. That’s annoying, and I would have loved to have seen more awareness of sexism in a Democratic candidate campaigning against a woman, but it doesn’t make me worry about whether or not Obama is going to protect women’s interests as President.

  4. Just because you can think of worse examples of sexism doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexist.

    Just because it was taught from childhood from well-intentioned people doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexist.

    Just because some people catch more flack for being sexist than others doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexist.

    The tests for sexism are clear enough that I feel silly repeating them here:
    *It was dismissive and demeaning
    *It was overly personal
    *It wasn’t something he would have said to a man
    *He wouldn’t have even said a similar phrase to a man (“Hold on one second, my son, my boy, my little man? We’ll do a press avail, thanks.”?)

    I’m an Obama supporter, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have flaws. It only means that all politicians have flaws, and that I’m more concerned about some issues than others.

  5. Regarding the “periodically” remark, the question is whether he would have said the same thing about McCain. “Periodically, when he’s feeling down, he launches an attack.” That doesn’t seem like a crazy statement he could never have made. I suppose we’ll see in the general election. The notion that he was referring to her period is ridiculous.

    I agree that the sweetie thing was an error in judgment. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s mildly sexist, in the way that just about anyone, including feminists, can be when you’re not thinking carefully. Has anyone writing or commenting on this blog *not* caught themselves in a sexist assumption at one point or another? If so, my hat’s off to you, but I can’t say the same. Whether it’s worth making a major issue of is another matter. To compare this to “hardworking Americans, white Americans” seems like a very long stretch to me, but that’s exactly what’s being done.

    I also agree that he’s a hair too chivalrous. I saw him being interviewed with his wife, and when a question was asked of her, he stepped in and intercepted it in a protective way. That’s a natural thing to do under the circumstances, since he’s the reason she’s in the headlights, but he needs to stop doing that if he doesn’t want to raise hackles. I firmly believe that none of this has anything to do with what kind of policies he would espouse or support as President. But he’s going to be held to a tough standard, and while that’s not entirely fair, I think he’s more than capable of pulling it off, with some good advice from women in his campaign.

  6. while i’ve heard words like “sugar,” “honey,” and “sweetie” used in a sort of habitually polite and friendly way by some old-timers, too … those words can also be used in a way that is condescending and dismissive. that’s the tone i hear in the clip, and i think that’s the tone that a lot of people are responding to.

    but being a little bit sexist puts obama in common with exactly all americans and most of the rest of the world, so i don’t really see what the big deal is. we live in a sexist age – and anyone we elect is bound to reflect that. do we think that john mccain has never accidentally or purposefully condescended to a woman before?

    the thing is — any sexism is worthy of criticism. but it’s not like he’s calling for the end of women’s suffrage or of annexing every female citizen’s uterus. he’s clearly a thoughtful, rational man who just happens to have the same ugly cultural baggage that the rest of us have. i think he can still be a force for social justice for everyone, despite the fact that he one condescended to a female TV news reporter in a vaguely but identifiably sexist way.

  7. I simply think that he is being protective of his wife because, as a POC and as a MOC, he has faced the juggernaut that is dominant culture. After all, we are in the midst of a zeitgeist in which white people finally get to see their treachery all in the public eye–especially when it has to do with the racist behavior of white women. So, knowing that they both have had to deal with this pressure of racism privately and publicly, I believe that Mr. Obama is circling the wagons.

    I think any POC would do the same especially if they have to face a hostile and rather unforgiving public who makes derogatory and denigrating remarks about their person and their family (and especially attach it to subtle racial slurs).

    The “Sweetie Issue”: I think that is mild compared to what he could have called the reporter. It is much to do about nothing. A lot of people use “sweetie”, “honey”, “dear” and other endearments for in situations in which they don’t know the name of the person they are referring to. And in Mr. Obama’s case, it wasn’t used in a derogatory fashion, like “Sweetie, get me a coffee” or “Bend down, Sweetie.”

    Now, if he had said something like that, the white feminists (if not all women) would have a case.

    I think this is more down the line of the Hill/Gerraldine antics of using “sexism” to hide their own bad behavior. I truly hate it when someone sayings one is “playing the victim” (especially when some blowhard uses this phrase against women, gays, lesbians, transgendered folk and people of color), but call it what it is.

    I think that the things that Mr. Obama has been saying are mild compared to what Mrs. Clinton had said in terms of the “white working class”. Now that was something no one could miss, even if they tried. She knew what she was doing and was unapologetic for it–just like her husband in SC.

    Take care,

    Ceci

  8. I absolutely love that Obama is protective of his wife (and children). As for the “sweetie” comment, it’s all a bunch of nonsense. He didn’t mean anything by it, and from the way he said it, there was nothing “sexist” about it.

    Meanwhile, Clinton, ex man-whore, screwed every and anything he could get his hands on, and people didn’t make nearly as big a deal about that, as they are over Obama’s “sweetie” comment.

  9. I am appalled at the over-the-top rhetoric employed by both dem camps.

    But this ‘sweetie’ flap? How in the world does that compare to claiming to have been under sniper fire in Bosnia?

    I call people ‘sweetie,’ ‘sweetheart,’ ‘honey,’ and ‘dear one,’ all the time — though usually these are people I know fairly well within some context or another. Also I am usually older or of the same age, and women who are older are usually, around this part of the world anyway, given a pass to use affectionate diminutives even with people they don’t know well.

    Experience is what has gotten me into the ‘sweetie’ habit — online or in the real world, people often are more willing to ‘hear’ you when addressed at the top with an affectionate diminutive. Online it signals strongly that what you are saying is in no way intended to be hurtful or pulling rank or a barb (at least when and how I employ the address).

    I’m really tired of being yelled at, lectured, etc. by women who insist upon Obama’s elitism and sense of entitlement, that his people have been sexist and cruel, that they/we all owe Clinton big apologies — when Clinton’s campaign has been nothing but screams of entitlement and elitism (what street activist organizing did she ever do?), and then silly claims that more people have voted for her than have ever voted for any candidate in the history of the world, when she’s played the race card over and over — and so has her husband and her campaign people.

    I’m sick of her. Period. And as she’s supposedly my senator, I was sick of her before this primary season. Way back I inisisted, “Anyone but Clinton.” Obama wasn’t my first choice, but my first choice chose him too, so, well, I don’t know where I’m going with this so I’ll just stop.

    Love, C.

  10. I simply think that he is being protective of his wife because, as a POC and as a MOC, he has faced the juggernaut that is dominant culture.

    I understand that, and I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with it. For that matter, I’d imagine any politician would feel protective of a non-politician spouse, whatever their respective genders were; there’s the sense that “I signed up for this, you didn’t, if there’s heat to be taken I want it to be taken by me.” I guess I’m just wanting him to try to avoid gestures that are easily misread or made more of than they should be, although that may be impossible.

    I’m really tired of being yelled at, lectured, etc. by women who insist upon Obama’s elitism and sense of entitlement, that his people have been sexist and cruel, that they/we all owe Clinton big apologies — when Clinton’s campaign has been nothing but screams of entitlement and elitism (what street activist organizing did she ever do?), and then silly claims that more people have voted for her than have ever voted for any candidate in the history of the world, when she’s played the race card over and over — and so has her husband and her campaign people.

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

  11. I say this as someone who generally leans Hillary — the sweetie thing is TOTALLY grasping for something to be outraged over. If the worst thing we can say about Obama is that he chose a mildly infantilizing term to address a young reporter in an effort to stave her question off without being rude, then he’s going to do well this year.

    You’ve really hit the nail on the head regarding the training of black men to be as non-threatening as possible to women, particularly white women. I’ve noticed this sort of behavior even as I struggle to overcome the sort of conditioning that I’ve received to be afraid. Finally it clicked that if I was going to be afraid of anyone on my walk home in the evening (I spent a while after college living at the border of a wealthy college area and a ghetto), I should be afraid of the wealthy white college boys who thought they could get away with anything because of their wealth and privilege. In fact, the police were so busy trying to make these students feel safe from the big scary black people that the white students were pretty much turned loose to do whatever the hell they liked.

  12. “Apparently people have forgotten rock and roll, heavy metal, and country music’s contributions to the sexism that is part and parcel of our society. Not to mention the reality that hip hop ≠ sexist any more than every country song is sexist.”

    I’m new to this blog, and RingSurf in general. Could someone point me to an article that explores the hip-hop vs rock/country sexism issue in a little more depth? Maybe an analysis that quotes lyrics from artists of various races? The above quote is a new concept to me, and I’d like to read more.

  13. Interesting posting. That’s how a lot of older women that I talk to read Obama whether they are plan to vote for him or not.

    Irritated over sweetie, not outraged. Her denial of racism in her own campaign while talking about sexism bothered me much more. And if you bring that up to some White feminists, it’s like you’re a traitor to the cause. It’s not that it isn’t exciting to see women run (and actually there’s other women in the presidential race) but it’s very disappointing in how she’s conducted herself and even more so in some of the ways feminists have defended her behavior.

  14. Jeffrey St. Clair at Counterpunch has described very well what I am feeling about Clinton, why I don’t like her, why I am convinced she’s the elitist, and how little she really cares about the poor working person.

    You can find it here..

    A pull:

    [

    Another example. Hillary came to Oregon last week. She didn’t draw 75,000 people for a speech on the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, as Obama did. Instead she headed to Beaverton, the posh suburb of Portland that is home to Nike, where she held a press conference in an empty subdivision of new upscale homes that had sat unsold for the past year. Most of the people who voted for her in West Virginia don’t earn enough in ten years of hard labor to pay for one of these houses. She communed with the developer, commiserating over the hard times of the real estate industry.

    In recent weeks, the growing ranks of the homeless had camped out in front of the Portland mayor Tom Potter’s office, demanding more humane treatment. It apparently didn’t occur to Hillary to ask her developer pals to open up those vacant houses to shelter the economic refugees of the Bush era.

    ]

    Love, C.

  15. I want to thank you for the explanation about welcoming chivalry. Although white folks always tell me I’m white (technically, no, but I guess I look it), I get the pack mule treatment too. And I have never been able to explain this…

    “…open her door, you pay for dinner, and you generally follow the script that says that even though you know she’s strong and can take care of herself, you’re showing her respect by being willing to take care of her.”

    So – thanks.

  16. i winced when i heard about the “sweetie” comments, and it did feel sexist to me, but i also do feel like it has been blown up to the point where you’ld think he used the b-word.

    i struggle with chivalry and dating women… i am used to dating women who prefer more equalized gender codes… ie, we will open the door for each other (whoever gets there first), go halvsies on dinner (treats for special occassions), etc. my first dates can be sloppy/nervous making for me, cuz these women mite be waiting for me to perform these chivalrous acts, while at the same time they are usually very politically active women so i just dunno sometimes.

    one woman i dated once framed the “men paying for dinner” through a feminist lens, that since men are paid more than women, that men should compensate. that was definitely food for thought, i could see where she was coming from. But when coupled with all the chivalrous things that became expected everytime without flexibility, it began to hamper our actual flow into romance. i also gel better with women who are are between the andro to femme range, and she was pretty femme, which i believe may have influenced her stances. i myself am a somewhere between andro to femme, or soft butch.

    would women here ascribe a preference to chivalry to where one might be on the butch femme scale?

  17. oh yeah, i’m a black hetero bio-dude of Jamaican descent.

  18. Karnythia,

    I am not going to address the Obama matter as that has been well address by others. Without derailing this conversation, I would like to respond to a few statements you made that resonated with me.

    You stated: …”we get enough of being ignored, treated like one of the guys, or disrespected by men outside of our communities…”

    This social reality continues to really bother me. When I consider the wonderful (and powerful) personal impact that only a handful of black women have had in my life, I have thought more and more about how/why many of my fellow white male generally do not consider black women as potential candidates for courtship and marriage. I recently chided another white male a friend of mine who began dating again. I said, “So, you went white again, huh Brian?” He responded by saying, “What?”….uh…wow…Adam, I never considered dating a woman of color…” Black woman and white men are probably the most segregagted groups in our society still.

    You stated: “…It’s nice to know that I don’t have to deal with that crap at home and it’s exceptionally nice to be treated like a princess when the rest of the world wants to treat me like a pack mule….”

    How black women and Hispanic women have been (and continue) to be depicted as work horses, baby machines, etc…really burns me up. On occasion, I will ask my own wife (who is a woman of color), “Do you still consider yourself a better woman as a result of marrying me? Do you still feel loved and appreciated?” I am indebted to the Christian minister who advised to do this in marriage! In fact, it has been sometime since I have asked her that!

    You stated: “I can’t tell you the number of time black male friends of mine have shifted their body language so as to be perceived as non-threatening even though they weren’t being threatening in the first damned place.”

    This reminds me of story Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune told his readers about his grandparents warning him, “Now, don’t go showing your color around them white folks.” I often wonder how tiring my place of work (among many other places) is for my fellow male coworkers of color.

    You stated: “Or the the number of times black men I didn’t know have felt the need to tell me they weren’t a threat if I glanced at them as I was walking alone at night. ”

    Would you believe black men have told me the same thing? One man even apologized to me! Want to know what I said: “Are you kidding me, come on in man, you want something to drink, what can I do for you.” I took him off guard! (Note: I am husky a 6’1 265 pound white man who can take care of himself fairly well.)

  19. Just want to say thanks for all this discussion, very valuable.

    ABW, you put things into excellent context.

    Ultimately, I agree with whoever said that this is total contrivance, turning a non-issue into fodder since the press is obsessed with the petty, and refuses to really, critically examine any of the candidates.

  20. K — thank you for opening the topic — these discussions are so important.

    Word to about 87.5% of your post.

    IMHO: In this context, from me “sweetie” gets a pass for

    1) campaign season hyperscrutiny combined with lapsing back into what’s comfortable when overfatigued (it is the man’s first Presidential run);

    2) not (to the best of my recollection) being directed at a peer/candidate;

    3) d*mned if you do/don’t ethos (he generally orates as opposed to speaking Ebonics; he’s being taken seriously as a candidate; his opponents have to think of something to eviscerate him over)

    That said —

    “overtly sexist behavior (which has yet to happen)”

    Call me cynical from working on national campaigns, but just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t. And just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. As you know, much of the dark mess (PFP) in American life goes down behind closed doors, not on camera. Ivy League educated MOC are some of the WORST when it comes to dismissing concepts just because they came out of the mouth of a woman of color.

    Why?

    (And none of what I’m about to say even has to be a conscious attitude. Frequently it’s not.)

    Possibly because they fear what they say could be diminished. Or because they — like many white men — feel they’re the only ones who “should” be allowed to speak. Who “should” be allowed to have an opinion. Who “should” be allowed to make significant contributions to public discourse.

    I’ve already called a lot of brothers out on that mess in policy discussions leading up to this point. I don’t think it’s going to get better; I think it’s going to get worse. (What stories did your mama tell you about what happens “when men start to smell themselves”?) Do you value your voice less about the directions in which you think things should go, just because MOC might be in charge?

    (And here I’m talking less about the candidate in question than men like his advisers. And before anyone jumps on me, I DIDN’T say “his advisers”; I said “men LIKE his advisers”. )

    How many times have you heard “Support us. Let us be the man” when that REALLY means “Sit down and be quiet and let me talk even though you happen to be making more sense than I am right now”??

    How many times have you heard “Women of color have an attitude” when that mess REALLY means “I prefer women who don’t challenge my opinions because I don’t like to be challenged even when I’m DEAD-A** WRONG?”

    Now. Given that:

    Since you opened the evidentiary door in question — NOT trying to hear “Not MY Nigel” when it comes to Hip Hop.

    “Not to mention the reality that hip hop ≠ sexist any more than every country song is sexist. “

    Sorry. Does NOT excuse Bitchez and Hos. There’s no way what came out of Don Imus’ mouth would have gotten on the air if he hadn’t absorbed it out of the air from Snoop and 50 (and Russell, Too Short, Tip Drill Nelly, etc. etc. etc.) FIRST that it was culturally permissible to go there.

    In this 24-hour-video culture, any given race of men — yes, I’m generalizing; hear me out — is going to take its cues about how to treat you in great part from how men of your own race treat you.

    You talk about country and rock — you didn’t hear him calling Faith Hill or Wynona Judd or Chrissy Hynde — or Tawny Kitaen, for that matter — out of THEIR names on his show.

    Hip hop can be about “our culture” and “our vision” and “what I see on the streetz err day” WITHOUT having to be “shake that butt in the camera”.

    (I work in the industry. I know there are complicating factors. We’ll talk about demographics and white male suburbia being where the primary consumers are right now and industry pressures to produce sexist crap and how underground music doesn’t sell and all that in another post.)

    It’s apologist to let that go when it affects

    1) how our own brothers see and treat us

    2) how the rest of the world sees us (you know, that “pack mule” thing you were talking about — and much much worse?)

    “Bitchez and Hos”? Just. Say. No.

    It doesn’t have to go down that way to be good hip hop.

    PE? Dead Prez? Roots? Talib? Jill? Erykah?
    Anyone? Bueller??

    Oh, and Sara J?

    “look what we forgave Bill Clinton for”

    I wouldn’t throw that “we” around in such a carefree manner if I were you. Let’s all speak for ourselves, mmmkay?

  21. Whew. Long rant. Sorry. Sensitive subject.

  22. I agree with Shae.

    If he’d said something like that to me I’d have felt belittled and dismissed and trivialized. There is no excuse for treating her that way. He would NEVER have given such a response to a man. Ever.

    I did not vote in the primary because of Hillary’s racism. But this kind of shit is exactly the reason I dislike Obama. Regardless I will vote for the Democratic candidate in the general election; but I hope he shapes up. And soon.

  23. Excellent post!

    This “sweetie gate” mess is just too extra special for words…Not for nothing, Obama is not perfect and there are times where he says things that he really shouldn’t as a politician, but that is mostly due to his youth and naivete more so than maliciousness…. I’ve heard much worse coming from the mouths of the other candidates…It’s just unfortunate that everything he does @ this point is looked @ w/a magnifying glass and overanalysed…

    He realised the error of his words, called the woman personally and apologised. What else more can he do at this point, kiss the reporter’s feet? I am sure the reporter has probably moved on w/her life while people are making a wankfest out of this a week later…

  24. Didn’t Obama say something about letting women “have some control over their bodies”? Isn’t that overtly sexist? Frankly, I respect Obama’s oratorical skill too much to let that slide as a slip of the tongue.

  25. [...] talked about the way in which Women of Color view acts of chivalry today. The gist of her insightful post, at least in my humble opinion, is that WoC are rarely, if [...]

  26. Just thinking with my fingers here, but I think white women are gonna find offense with terms like “sweetie” because part of how they’ve been oppressed is by being treated as weak and childish. Whereas a good part of how WoC have been oppressed is by not allowing them weakness, traditional trappings of “femininity” and the type of respect that chivalry is supposed to show. So to a PoC, there isn’t the disrespect inherent in that kind of term, because “sweetie” is a goddamn kindness, not a slur.

  27. Well, I blogged about it. I hope I conveyed your thoughts and mine accurately and distinguished well enough between the two, K. Great post!

    http://www.multiracialmuse.com/2008/05/obama-sexism-chivalry-in-the-poc-community/

  28. I agree with every single point that you made in this post. I don’t believe him to be an overtly sexist man. When his wife was being attacked by the GOP recently he spoke very highly of her. It is the kind of respect that I have yet to see the Clintons offer each other.

  29. It was interesting to see a different take on this subject–you made me look at it in a different light than I’d seen before. I cringed at the “sweetie” comment, personally, and it was clear that he or someone on his staff felt it was a big enough deal that he apologized to the reporter the same day I believe, but I think it was more of a reflexive thing he did rather than intentionally demeaning.

    I was reminded of some video of Obama when he told a guy who’d been pestering him for a picture something like “brother you are working me” or something similar, which said to me that in times when he feels a little overwhelmed, he resorts to euphemisms. It’s human. He’s not a robot. That makes me like him more. I mean, it’s not like he’s comparing the DNC’s stripping of Florida’s delegates to the struggle for the abolition of slavery, or the civil rights movement, or the election problems in Zimbabwe. That would be uncouth.

  30. I agree with Ico and Shae.

    I would be less offended by someone calling me “Sweetie” if it was in a casual setting. This wouldn’t be one of those times.

  31. For me it’s context too, since I’m called that several times a week as are other women in the workplace.

    What’s interesting is that yes, Michelle Obama has been subjected to racist misogyny but there’s not nearly as much said about that among White feminists who used to defend Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady.

    And what bothers me is when people say that both racism and sexism are bad (yes!) but and there’s always that big “but”, the sexism is REAL and the racism, well we’ll worry about it when it actually happens. The dismissiveness of the racism makes me a bit suspicious of the claims that both are wrong. And what is a concern too is that this attitude is going to be reflected in a more entrenched way when carrying out policies if elected that might be racist, sexist or misogynist or all of the above as many have been by both Republican and Democratic presidents.

  32. What’s interesting is that yes, Michelle Obama has been subjected to racist misogyny but there’s not nearly as much said about that among White feminists who used to defend Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady.

    Among the things that saddens me about what we’ve been seeing lately from a lot of white feminists (oh, god, that was almost an excellent typo — I originally wrote “shite feminists”, and that would have worked, too) makes me think that for them, “The personal is political” has come to mean, “What affects me personally is political. The rest of you, not so much.”

  33. I am a (fairly white-lookin’) man of color who was raised with some of the chivalrous norms that are mentioned in the OP.
    I understand very well that some of my language and behavior that is generally considered simply respectful in some communities (Af-Am, Arab-Am) would be considered sexist in, say, some upper-middle-class white circles. I get it.

    But…

    A) Obama was raised mostly by white people. He went to Harvard. He didn’t have to code-switch to do it, either.

    B) He’s YOUNG! If he was an older MOC talking to a woman twenty years younger than him, then maybe he’d get a pass…but he damn well knows better.

    and

    B) It’s still a disgusting term to use for a grown woman.
    Hard to think of a more patronizing word. Functionally, it’s the same thing as calling a grown Black man ‘boy’.

    At least he apologized to the reporter — and I’ll give credit that it wasn’t a ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ apology, but an ‘It’s a problem of mine’ apology. Well done, there. But what ever happened with the FACTORY WORKER he called ‘sweetie’?! That’s what really annoyed me. My aunt worked on the line for many years — the thought of some ten-years-younger Ivy leaguer that’s never had to do a day of manual labor in his fucking life coming into her factory, giving some stupid speech and then calling her SWEETIE!?

    Yeah, we woulda had to fight. And Secret Service woulda had to kick my ass…

    But here’s the funniest thing to me: no one has actually made much of a big deal about this. The mainstream media did a blip and moved on. So I think some of these impassioned defenses of Obama are aimed at straw men. It was obnoxious and sexist. Why can’t we just say that? It’s not going to ruin everything if we do. No one’s remotely posing this as a derailing issue. Most everyone that was going to vote for him still will. But let’s at least call this it what it is.

    In general, I feel like too many people think Obama is uncriticizable. The man is a moderately liberal politician. He’s sold out to all the same suspects that buy off EVERY viable presidential candidate. Yes, he has a chance at becoming the first Black president of the US. But he’s sure as HELL not the next Dr. King, though a lot of supporters are acting like it…

  34. ^^^^^
    Err, of course I meant A, B, and C!

  35. This whole campaign would have worked a lot better if Hillary Clinton had been out there everyday denouncing the cheap racist attacks on Barack Obama and Barack Obama had been out there everyday denouncing the cheap sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton.

    This campaign is a historic first though: A Black man, a white woman, a Hispanic man and a couple of fire-breathing white working class populist types.

    We’ve had a national conversation about race, gender and class as a result. It wasn’t the conversation I was hoping for, but at least we’re having one.

    As one friend of mine says,”This is the campaign I’ve worked for my whole life”.

    Let’s use the experience we’ve gained in 2008 to run a better campaign next time around.

  36. Maevele:
    Just thinking with my fingers here, but I think white women are gonna find offense with terms like “sweetie” because part of how they’ve been oppressed is by being treated as weak and childish.
    And that is an odd observation I’ve made about this. Its mostly the white feminists that are up on arms about this when, in my experience, its been older white women who have used terms like “honey” and “sweetie” more than anyone else. Perhaps the generational gap as something to do with that though.

    Radfem:
    And what bothers me is when people say that both racism and sexism are bad (yes!) but and there’s always that big “but”, the sexism is REAL and the racism, well we’ll worry about it when it actually happens.
    Most definitely agree. Different advocates fight for different causes. Its real easy to keep ones eye on the prize when there is a clear “us” and “them”. But woe is thee should two different “us” groups meet on the same battlefield. There are some on both sides that will agree and join forces. There are some on both sides that will respect the other’s space. But unfortunately you have plenty on both sides that will any bit of ammunition they can find to prove that their side are the true victims.

    And something else that bothers me about this racial gender divide. People go on and on about identity politics and how voters will lean towards own. Well if women are leaning to Clinton and blacks are leaning to Obama then who are black women (Obama’s race and Clinton’s gender) and white men (Obama’s gender and Clinton’s race) supporting in this oh so neat package of deciding who will vote for who? I’ve asked this question several times and I have yet to get an answer out of anyone. In other words identity politics is nonsense.

    There’s this perception of black men in particular (though it extends to other MOC) that they’re sexual predators at all times.
    That one does aggrevate me to no end. I would really appreciate it if my sexual prowess weren’t being judged by my skin color. Thats just as dumb going by shoe size to calculate “endowment”.

    littlem:
    It doesn’t have to go down that way to be good hip hop.

    PE? Dead Prez? Roots? Talib? Jill? Erykah?
    Anyone? Bueller??

    Can I add Lupe Fiasco to that list?

    Sorry for the long post.

  37. Saladin,

    B) It’s still a disgusting term to use for a grown woman.
    Hard to think of a more patronizing word. Functionally, it’s the same thing as calling a grown Black man ‘boy’.

    Apologies in advance, then, because I call people “sweetie” all the time, and I’m likely to apply it to you at some point in the future. I spent my formative years in Alabama; down there it’s a fairly universal term applied to men and women of all races, and is mostly meant to convey comfort and camaraderie. Right along with “child” (rarely used on children, and rarely meant as a diminutive), “sugar” (mostly used by white Southern women, but still nondenominational in its application), and “honey” (mostly used by black Southern women, ditto).

    That said, I’m aware that context matters, and because of the historical power imbalances a man saying “sweetie” to a woman has much uglier inherent sexist connotations than a woman saying sweetie to a man. But I’m not sure I’d still attach those same connotations to a black man saying it to a white woman, because the historical imbalances between these two groups have been on the side of white women, not black men, until very recently. As Karnythia points out, just one generation ago (Michael Donald was in 1981) Obama could’ve been lynched for saying that shit. Quite frankly, I think if he’d been raised by a black woman, he never would’ve said it — most black women teach their sons to be extremely careful in what they say to white women. It’s a necessity for the boys’ survival.

  38. People go on and on about identity politics and how voters will lean towards own. Well if women are leaning to Clinton…

    That’s an if, even for white women. Some certainly are, but I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with other white women along the lines of “stop making middle-aged white women look bad, HRC, you dumbass”. Plenty of us are tired of her. I’m particularly tired of a woman who’s stayed handcuffed to her husband’s privilege for 30 years no matter how badly he betrayed her or abused other women being portrayed as a feminist icon and a working-class hero.

  39. Word to everything you said, Saladin.

  40. I honestly don’t get the “zomg SEXISM” response to the sweetie comment. I think it’s just a regional thing; most of the folks I know who’re (almost forgot the apostrophe there, wouldn’t that have been amusing) from the Midwest use words like sugar, sweetie, honey, darlin’, etc. as a way to be polite to just about everyone. And yes, we direct them to both men and women – or at least, I do, and most folks in my experience also do.

    I mean, yes, I understand how sweetie could be demeaning and condescending and therefore sexist. But given your analysis re: race and knowing your way around regional language differences … I’m just not convinced.

  41. I applaud you for writing this piece. I believe Obama’s opponents are nitpicking his every move because it’s getting down to the wire and it’s highly likely that he will be the dem. nominee. Unless someone intends to be condescending, there is nothing sexist about calling a woman or anyone else sweetie. It IS very common in the south for someone–man or woman– to be referred to as sweetie,honey,baby or sugar.

  42. Well if women are leaning to Clinton and blacks are leaning to Obama then who are black women (Obama’s race and Clinton’s gender) and white men (Obama’s gender and Clinton’s race) supporting in this oh so neat package of deciding who will vote for who?

    It’s interesting because I read an article about women getting involved in an unprecedented number in the presidential race but it was all to Clinton’s candidacy which is largely supported by White women, whereas buried in the article, was a statement that Black women were getting more involved in unprecedented numbers because of Obama’s campaign yet the attention of the article on the “women” attributed it all to Clinton. When a good thing and much more accurate is that Black women and White women were involved in the presidential campaign in unprecedented numbers.

  43. Nojojo –

    As usual, your points are well taken. I’m from Detroit, which in a number of dialect aspects may as well be the deep south. Grown men still call each other ‘Baby’ — not something you hear so much in NYC. Language is funny and I know that every use of the word sweetie is not demeaning. But I do think that any instance of a male politician — even a politician of color, especially a politician under the age of fifty — using it toward a *stranger* who is a grown woman while she is working IS demeaning. Particularly in the case a VIP US Senator deflecting a valid question from a female reporter.

    And really, so what if this sort of BS was los gringos’ exclusive, violently-guarded province for a long time?

    And as to others who are saying he meant it nicely, again: so what? ‘Oh, you people are so good at math!’ is nicely patronizing, too.

    As to the regional thing, again, Obama was raised by a grad-schooled white woman in 1960s-70s Hawaii. This was not darlin’ country…

    Is this an issue to melt down over? No. But in discussions with friends I’m finding the defensiveness to be a slightly creepy reminder of the cult of personality that is keeping supporters from calling Obama out on ANYTHING. A bad trend. There hasn’t been a leader in history who hasn’t been corrupted by his/her followers’ inability to freely criticize them.

  44. I have to admit I’m too tired right now to read all the great points made both here and in the comments, so I’m sorry if I massively misunderstand anything or cover something already covered etc. etc.

    But Obama made a genuine ‘it’s a problem of mine’ apology that accepted more responsibility than most politicians I’ve ever seen admitting to a wrong. And for me that’s sort of all it takes. He has a thousand meetings, demographics, people, and issues to keep track of. If he can swiftly and mostly unprompted own up to any latent tendencies that might show up in that kind of language, then I don’t mind that he made the mistake if he knows it’s a problem and he’s working to correct it.

  45. I don’t think he should have called a reporter “sweetie,” but it’s extremely common–especially among MOC–and this sort of thing, plus hip-hop, represents one more way that upper-class white feminists can attack non-whites with impunity under the banner of protecting women, i.e. protecting white women.

    I’m also pretty sure that every president in history has called someone “sweetie” or the equivalent inappropriately, and the only reason Obama is getting singled out on it is because he’s a black man. Period. I mean, let’s get real here.

  46. I said MOC; I should have said “among the black men I’ve been around.” Obviously this is not true of black men in general, never mind MOC as a whole.

  47. I agree with Kim and also with Saladin.

    To look at this from Obama’s perspective, he said something and then later realized that it may have offended some people. Who among us hasn’t done that? So he made a sincere apology to the reporter in question. Regardless of his intent in saying “sweetie” in the first place, he took responsibility for possibly causing offense. That’s a big deal to me. Most politicians operate by trying to talk their way around their mistakes or by issuing BS non-apologies.

    It’s an uncomfortable situation for us all because it’s obvious that Obama is being singled out for nitpicky treatment in the media because he’s black and we want to speak up for him against that.

  48. Radfem:
    …yet the attention of the article on the “women” attributed it all to Clinton.
    Yeah as if women need a woman in the running to take an election seriously.

    Sara no H:
    I honestly don’t get the “zomg SEXISM” response to the sweetie comment.
    Really. I can see if people were offended by it but goodness you would think he told her to “Get back in the kitchen where you belong.” or something. But that is the catch-22 of some feminists (and other activists). They blow small things way out of proportion (and they have on this one) but when you call them on it they will accuse you of trying to sweep it under the rug.

    I don’t think he had sexist intent behind it but the fact that he owned up to it and apologized means alot and unless he does it again (and you can bet they’ll be watching and listening) that apology should have been the end of this situation.

  49. so it’s OK for Obama cause he was raised like that?

    wow
    c’mon now.

    be objective for a moment and look at the first paragraph as if it was written about a god ol’ boy from Mississippi.

    I don’t think he’ll fight as hard for womens rights as I’d like him to. His wife is not coming off as a feminist at all- let’s not fight about the word, let’s talk about the behaviour and what she is accepting. The role of woman behind the man- when she started out as his mentor. Some of them may be against his conditioning (especially from within the Black church- hello)
    It just wreaks of the same old BS Christian belief that a woman is to obey and follow her husbands lead- it wreaks badly of that.

    Be objective- you can still vote for him, promote him, but, do not compromise yourself into believing what isn’t there. He has not done as much for gay rights or womens rights as many others have (not just speaking of his immediate opponent here)
    he could do better- encourage him to do better in the realm of equality for the sexes. I hope you’ll encourage his other fellow supporters to encourage him to do better. If I hear one more man tell me, “well, it’s a man’s world…Don’t worry, when he makes it better for us, we’ll make it better for you” I will scream.

  50. p.s. I don’t think he was raised like that. I don’t think he was raised liek your brothers, husband, father. I think he was raised by a white
    woman.

    I’ve raised children in New Orleans, Detroit and L.A.
    They do behave differently, but, there is a difference between showing respect and being condescending. If one of the boys I
    raised grows
    up and hears the woman he is with described as the woman behind the man- I will consider it a crisis of character if he does not immediately do something to change that perception. I (hopefully) raised them better than that stereotype perpetuating BS (whether it’s for votes or not). Also, for those raised to show respect, it is disrespectful to call a Senator “sweetie” or any other endearing name, she is a political figure (even if she does not have a penis).

  51. Hara:

    Please keep in mind: What you call “BS”, is what I use as the basis for my beliefs. Also, it is possible to be a Christian and a feminist.

    Just sayin’.

  52. Hara, I’m sorry Obama doesn’t impress you as much of a feminist as Hillary Clinton, who helped destroy the lives of her husband’s employees when they alleged rape and sexual harassment. But the truth of the matter is that Obama would be the most feminist president in history, if elected, and the fact that so many white feminists have a “get a rope” reaction the first time he calls someone “sweetie,” when they turned a blind eye to Bill Clinton’s serious personal conduct problems, only underlines how racist the white feminist movement is.

    Good old boy from Mississippi right here, by the way, Hara. But even this good old boy from Mississippi knows a racist double standard when he sees one.

  53. ABW’s post is right on, by the way. The fact that Obama called a reporter “sweetie” is rendered less sinister, to me, by the cultural context of that remark. It’s a no-brainer. “Sweetie” is not an objectively sexist label. It’s rendered sexist by the context in which it is spoken.

    But even if he’d actually told the reporter “go iron my shirt,” he’d still be miles ahead of Bill Clinton, and his enabling wife, in the feminism department.

  54. By the way, #3, I wouldn’t call a stranger “sweetie” (which was Obama’s mistake from where I sit), but there are definitely some women I call sweetie. It’s not like it’s a pejorative. Obviously if he’d called his wife or daughter that, fewer people would consider it sexist. So the issue is more familiarity than anything else, and I’ve found that in black communities where I’ve socialized, there is usually much more of an implicit familiarity than in white communities. I’ve walked up to black women (and men) I’ve never met before and immediately gotten a hug. That pretty much never happens with whites. So, yes, the racial context is important.

  55. McCain called his wife as a c*nt, in one of his common temper explosions , in the presence of his staff, the public and journalists.

    There was no consequent feminist outrage or discussion, or so it seemed.

    Love, C.

  56. I am confused. I was directed to your site some months ago when I made a comment on a blog that some perceived as racist. I had every reason to make the remark, and truely meant no harm by it, and yet I was told it didn’t matter what I “meant”. I explained my reasoning behind it, and that did not matter either. So in an effort to gain knowledge that I was clearly lacking, I began to frequent this, and other sites, about race.
    From what I have learned in my very little time sitting and listening is that it doesn’t matter what the intent was, if it was offensive to someone, I should take that into account.
    If Obama said something that was perceived as sexist to some women, wouldn’t that make his remarks sexist, the intent behind them is irrelevent? I am just currious, if perhaps I am not understanding the situation correctly.

  57. Hara, are you absolutely POSITIVE that Hillary Clinton will do anything for women as well? She’s proven time and time again that she’s not always in the best interest of Americans in general.

  58. Hi, I’m late to the party, but…I thought that the “sweetie” comment was mildly obnoxious, particularly given that the context was Obama avoiding a reporter’s question. But, good lord, he apologized. He called her to apologize personally and did so in a way that suggests that he is thinking about what he did and sincerely wants to avoid accidently insulting anyone. In other words, it seems to me that he’s doing all the right things. I didn’t like the remark in particular, but I like his response to the criticism and “responds reasonably when criticized” is an excellent characteristic for a president to have. (And neither McCain nor Clinton have it.)

  59. Good point, Foxessa. But then McCain’s a white guy, so…

  60. Wonderful post! As someone who has worked with families of colour for the past 15 years I find it heinous truth that MOC are so often viewed as aggressors, even in the most innocuous of situations, such as simply walking down the street.

    Therefore, it is easy to see how ones family of origin would attempt to innoculate them via manners, etc., from being falsely perceived and accused.

    I can also see the point made that to use “sweetie,” to dismiss a woman, as Obama did remains sexist and annoying.

    Yet it is a forgiveable sin, especially tempered by his seemingly sincere and thoughtful apology.

    Instances such as these will likely remain talking points in various conversations for years to come. There is no dichotomy in life and most issues worth discussing appear in varying shades of grey. Semantics are often loaded, even when we don’t intend our words to be and I would imagine there are very few amongst us who have consistently, without misstep, been able to carry ourselves with the integrity that we internally hold to. Racism and sexism are simply too ingrained in this society and those of us who deem to live completely without…well…we do falter at times in our language, even without intent.

    I’m a white woman, who will be voting for Obama for President. Hillary was never a viable option for me. I’ve never been comfortable with her handling of CumStainGate. I don’t feel that I need to endorse or even like her, simply because she is a woman, any more than I would endorse Obama simply because he is a black man. We are all free (or at least should be) to choose a candidate based on their record, their stances on issues for which we are personally concerned, etc. etc. etc.

    That said though, as a woman, a mother and a feminist…if both candidates had been almost equal in integrity (they haven’t) and issue alignment, I would vote for Obama. For I do believe that whether those of us with paler skin loathe it or not, white entitlement exists. Putting a good man in the White House, a man that also happens to be black, is, in my opinion, going to be a watershed event for the cultural construct of this age. I have nothing but disgust for those who claim feminism and yet rant that they shall vote McCain if Clinton doesn’t run. I abhor Clinton for evoking sexism in her own case, when it is painfully clear that ALL of those oppressed which she so easily references are women of colour.

    She doesn’t stand for THEM.

    Therefore she doesn’t stand for US.

  61. I would say he has to realize that in his position what is exceptable for a person on the street calling the lady behind the counter sweetie or vice versa as I’ve been called sweetie by countless women over the years, is not acceptable for a Presidential Candidate. He just needs to be careful. Between his minister going crazy upsettin’ the white folk, and Clinton stirrin’ up women his favorable margin over McCain has fallen the past few months.

    He just needs to realize everybody is watching him at all times. Then he’ll be fine. Should he be branded as sexist? I don’t think so. Should he be branded as careless? Probably. He must remember the running for President in the country is putting youself in the crosshairs of a scrutiny nobody should have to go through.

  62. Sorry for resuscitating this issue, but I guess this conversation is thought provoking. For me, Obama was exercising some male privilege here, but it would also be interesting to see whether he makes a regular habit of calling any of his following press contingent “buddy”, or “brother”, or “dear” when he’s trying to let them down gently. The “sweetie” was intended to brush her off as nicely but as quickly as possible, and I think the reporter was right in being more offended that he dismissed her question than his use of the word. I get ired when older white women (and sometimes white men) use the word for me, but I also realize that I’m a young-ish looking Asian American woman and that, in various ways, I must look young and easily set aside if need be. (I’ll speak up if I need to in most cases, of course, if, like the woman, I don’t get the respect I deserve.) Obama was right to apologize, but that effectively put the matter to bed for me and I see no reason to police this guy like he’s about call everyone the b-word if we’re not careful.

    On a slightly more extreme case of foot-in-mouth, John McCain used the word “gooks” and has yet to apologize, despite the fact that many Vietnamese Americans support him because of his war hero status. I accept that he can be used to thinking that way, esp. as a former POW, and also because of his age. I dislike the fact that he hasn’t admitted that it was wrong, but I also don’t think that this incident is reason enough to vote against him (luckily, McCain provides other reasons) and that Asian Americans can still reasonably see his policies as being beneficial despite whatever leftover of bigotry resides in his heart.

  63. Of course, I should add to that last sentence, IF his policies otherwise reflect a conscientious understanding of issues that affect Asian Americans, which doesn’t seem likely right now.

  64. Jen, not to offend, the candidates may have a point. I have noticed to my annoyance that supporters of Clinton have not called out themselves on their own racism either not to excuse Obama. Also, even if they are not impressed with Obama, why the rush to endorse McCain instead of another candidate including Cynthia McKinney-who is both black and a woman. I got an idea why this isn’t so. I say all this because even though I admire the success and “symbolism” I have my reservations as to electing him because I have as AS MUCH reservations about his policies and demeanor as I do Hillary Clinton’s(I respect her torchbearing role) but this annoys me too. Anyway, I am not here to be an anti- or -pro Obama fan! This is just my take.

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