The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Race and Gender and NPR

I almost got the following piece on NPR today. The sudden "make nice" last night made it obsolete.

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 Romney, 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.


Daniel Keys Moran said...

Been thinking about this on and off for some months, since you and I first talked about it, well before the Obama/Hillary thing hit -- I suspect that, for the average black woman, being black has been more of a hardship than being female, and that you are correct at that level --

-- which doesn't really change my opinion about the severity (as opposed to the frequency) of the suffering involved. The average black person I've known is less damaged than the average woman who got abused/raped/molested -- to such a degree that it's hard for me to compare them. Or to come at it from a different direction, I've known a lot of really high-functioning blacks -- I haven't known a lot of really high-functioning women who were molested as children. (And I've known eight or nine women who that describes, over the years. I've known a lot more black people han that, to be sure, so the statistical groups don't really line up neatly -- but then, none of this does.)

"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."

Sure. This is practically the definition of "teenager." But certainly many people do grow out of it. In any event, accurately understanding what's happening in the world around you -- which I think you describe as:

It's sad so many people need to quantify the pain of others.

Really comes close to ticking me off, if I understand what you mean by it. It reminds me very specifically of the arguments used by conservatives who want a "race-blind society" ... by which they mean a society in which there are literally no statistics that take race into account. All the metrics you mention as your markers for a healthy society, from child mortality rates on upward -- I've had heated arguments with conservatives who believe that no race-based data should ever even be collected, period -- so as to prevent even the conversation about whether some races (or groups) are treated differently than others.

It's not a competition. Acknowledging one person's experience doesn't negate someone else's. I'm glad to see Obama and Clinton got that right, if only at the last moment.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

OK, ten minutes after posting the "ticking me off" comment, I regret it. Shouldn't post when annoyed. Please accept my apology. Rest of the post stands.

Steven Barnes said...

Dan: your intention is golden. I honor you as a man and a human being, truly. But please note what you said:
"The average black person I've known is less damaged than the average woman who got abused/raped/molested -- to such a degree that it's hard for me to compare them."
Wow. That is so true. And loaded. That would be just like saying: "the average woman is less damaged than the average black person who got lynched." What? That's not what you mean, I know. But you have to compare apples to apples. My statements relate to the AVERAGE American black to the AVERAGE American woman in the 21st or 20th century. If you want to make another comparison (women in 17th Century compared to blacks in the 21st? American blacks compared to women in Afghanistan?) you have to label the argument clearly. You feel deeply for raped and abused women. I feel you. I have known many black people so traumatized by institutionalized poverty and racism that they barely function as human beings. My only point is that neither you nor I are qualified to judge this one. And neither are white women. Just my opinion.

Steven Barnes said...

By the way...curiously enough I think that White men might have a more accurate assessment than either white women OR black men. Being a member of neither group has a clarity of its own.

Frank said...

Interestingly, Red State Democrats (especially governors of Red States) deem Obama more electable than Clinton.

It is unfortunate, but not surprising to me, to see the teams of the first Black Candidate and first female candidate split the democratic party along race and gender lines when the discussion should be about policy and ideas.

I am sure that I am not the only one to find this to be ironic.

Steven Barnes said...

Oh, the "race/gender" thing will die down because it's a conversation with no end, and only the screaming me-me's at both ends will spend time asserting that the unquantifiable can be quantified. My guess is that the DNC told both camps to shut the @#$$ up. I'll be VERY disappointed to be wrong about this.

Anonymous said...

-- "But rather bizarrely, not only do human beings want to believe that they are best, they also want to believe their wounds are deepest..." --

That's just our inner spoiled brats coming out. We want attention, we want sympathy and if anyone thinks someone else hurts worse we might not get our share.

Anonymous said...

Categorizing all conservatives as racist because some conservatives are racist, has about as much validity as casting all blacks as criminals because some blacks are criminals. I am conservative and I want a race blind society. But my definitions of a race blind society and my motivation for being against programs aimed specifically towards minorities is quite different than the one you put forth. Here is where I am coming from. My goal is a society where not only is everybody treated equally, but nobody even cares about the next person’s race. To get this state we have to eliminate the “us versus them” syndrome. Now while blacks are over represented in the lowest income quintile and whites underrepresented, whites still make up 75% of the lowest income households. If I were white and in that income bracket and saw black families in that bracket getting benefits that I didn’t get it would make me mad and up my “us versus them” inclinations. Thus programs which target low income minorities are likely to annoy 15% of the population and work against the eventual goal of an “all of us are one” society. Therefore I support rational programs to help the poor, but want them to be race blind. This seems reasonable to me. If you agree then you as a liberal and I as a conservative can in an atmosphere of mutual respect argue furiously over what constitutes a rational program

Audie said...

(this is completely unrelated to the post I'm commenting on, but I didn't see an email address for you to send directly)

I just wanted to send a quick note of appreciation - years and years ago I stumbled across Kundalini Equation in a bookstore and picked it up, because I remembered your name from Heorot. I loved it - and made the mistake of loaning it to a friend. Who loaned it to his roommate, who liked it so much he loaned it. . .you get the idea. Since then I've kept it in the back of my mind whenever I'm at a used bookstore (since I don't think it's been in print since?) and so about 6 months ago I again stumbled across it. I didn't expect it would be as good as my memory said, but it was just as good, in fact on re-reading it was even better - some scenes and descriptions were completely familliar, burned in, even though it's 'just' a paperback I read once, at least 12 years ago. Anyway, I've read more of your works since, and googled, saw you have a blog, and now your blog is in my top, 'daily must reads' on my feedreader.

Anyway, long story short - I enjoy your work, thank you for writing it!

Steven Barnes said...

Just a note: my conservative friends are very much like Marty. I'm of dual mind: I would love programs that help blacks selectively, but also "get" that many whites would be upset by this--enough to undo some of the positive effects. Sigh. I don't expect human beings to be fair. I don't even know if such programs WOULD be fair. Just that I'd like it. Sigh. Oh, well...I won't spend energy wishing for what I can't (and perhaps shouldn't) have.

Anonymous said...

I had a discussion with my wife and got one white woman's view on the race versus gender question. She thinks blacks have it worse than women. She says: both may have to face discrimination in the work place, but women don't have to face hate, and blacks have to face hate as well as discrimination.

Unknown said...

Actually, FWIW, which isn't much, my intuition has long been that being black would generally involve more hardship than being female. But: A) none of us actually knows, as you say, B) race and gender operate in such different ways that there are probably some situations in which one is a bigger disadvantage and some the other, C) actually choosing between Clinton and Obama based on which group I think has it harder would be taking identity politics farther than I'm willing to take it, and D) we don't really need to figure out whether sexism or racism is the worse hardship to fight both of them. On the whole, not one of Gloria Steinem's more compelling columns.

I'm glad to see Clinton and Obama both making nice now.

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