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Commentary: Race and gender play differently on the political stage

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 29, 2008 - I've been struck by, well, a number of things in the past month. However, the most striking dynamic has been the consistent hypocrisy of Palin supporters crying sexism when McCain supporters have slammed Obama's camp time and time again for even mentioning race. Initially, I laughed ("Oh, now when it's convenient, it's OK to point out inequities.); then I was dumbfounded ("Seriously? You're going to play the gender card after blasting Obama and Clinton for mentioning their identities?"); and now I think I've got it.

It was a common theme post-Palin-announcement. And Cindy McCain, along with others, claimed that Palin was the target of sexism. If talking about all those cracks in the ceiling weren't enough, such a claim certainly "injected" gender into the campaign. I use that verb only because it was used when Obama was accused of injecting race into the campaign after mentioning that he does not look like all of our previous presidents (see a previous column, Want to end debate? Play the race card ).

I, personally, think it's laughable to say that a person is injecting something that is fully a part of who they are. It's like the elephant in the room. Don't talk about the fact that Obama is multi-racial or that Palin is a woman. Ridiculous.

So, I am not suggesting that we ignore Palin's gender. However, I am suggesting that it's hypocritical to criticize Obama for mentioning his race. It's also contradictory to vilify Michelle Obama for lamenting about the missteps of our country and not even blink  or  - better yet - rally behind Cindy McCain when she feels sexism is afoot.

Yet, I should not be surprised.

My observation of these dynamics is that the reactions parallel the stereotypes embedded in the isms (i.e. racism and sexism). We have a stereotype of women as docile, conciliatory and soft; so injecting gender into the campaign does not seem so threatening. We can tame that beast. It can even work to our advantage. Let's talk about gender and then show how Palin takes the beauty queen role and flips it on its head. She's a lady who is also ready to lead. How quaint.

On the other hand, we have a stereotype of Black men as aggressive, dangerous and unruly. Therefore, injecting race into the campaign brings a host of issues. We don't want to engage or even admit to those ideas. If we allow that discussion, we fear it can't be tamed. It will become out of control and dangerous - note the parallel. Pro-Obamas don't want to further tie their candidate to the negative connotation of what it means to be Black in America (especially given the recent polls regarding racial attitudes), and anti-Obamas fear being called racists. Not so quaint.

Let me be clear, I am not in the business of ranking isms. I honestly feel that they are inextricably linked. Both isms are problematic. However, the conversations about race become heated much more quickly and are volatile from the outset, because we have created such a toxic picture of what it is to be Black.

It's all the more interesting to note that Obama is multi-racial and not Black or African American as we have traditionally defined the group. Yet, he is just as entangled in the stereotypes of Black men, which speaks to the larger issue of how we label people.

You might be remembering that Hillary Clinton got a pretty hard time for naming sexism. My analysis is that she was at a disadvantage, because she did not fit our idea of a woman closely enough. She was perceived as harsh and unfeminine in her power suits and told to suck it up and to stop crying fake tears.

Palin is perceived as a caring mother of five, a beauty queen who could pass as a librarian in her frames and skirt suit. With that, she can fight the political status quo without being called unfeminine. It seems that injecting gender into the race might even be to her advantage. Since she fits and fights the female image at the same time, perhaps the hope is that she will be embraced by all for whichever suits their fancy.

So what have we learned?

At the very least it seems that it is much more acceptable to talk about gender if you are female Republican VP candidate than if you are a multi-racial Democratic presidential candidate. It's more acceptable to talk about sexism in our society than it is to talk about racism.

As we race to see which targeted group will go down in history as the first, let's not kid ourselves that we don't see the relevance of Obama's race or Palin's gender.

I don't purport to know why the double-standard exists, but I have certainly seen a great deal of it lately.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks

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