How many times have you heard a commentator refer to Barack Obama as “African American candidate for the Democratic nomination Obama?” How about “woman candidate Hillary” or just “Hillary?” Or “Republican nominee John McCain” (or just “McCain”)? How often does the press pat us on the back as US citizens, (read “white citizens”) for running an African American or a woman for the highest office in the land? How often do we refer to the candidates by using this same language?
As others before me have pointed out, our public discourse reflects and shapes both our values and our practices; it shows us whether we are living up to the beliefs we publicly profess. These rhetorical practices provide a mirror of our actual practices, not only in terms of what we do say, but also, most tellingly, in regard to what we don’t say. Within this public context, during this election year, I see in the mirror that African American women in particular and women of color in general are noticeably absent. When the term African American is used to indicate Obama (when people say “African American candidate Obama”), it is as if he is defining the term “African American” as much as it is defining him. In rhetorical terms there is no longer any space for another kind of African American—a woman, for instance. And if Hillary is the “woman candidate” the same rhetorical principle applies; Hillary, with her particular qualities, defines the label “woman” as much as it defines her. It is only the Republican candidate who seems to need no racial or gender marking, because, after all is said and done, white and male remain the normative measure for presidential candidates.
Am I just being fussy and urging us to clean up our language as a quick fix? Am I making too big of a deal out of trivial matters? No. I think this is a golden opportunity for meditation, a chance to think long and hard about where we still are as a society, even while we congratulate ourselves on how far we have come.
With respect to residual white racism, note that Barack Obama’s father is an African, not an African American, and his mother is a white or Anglo woman from this country. As a society based to this day on the assumption of clear-cut racial markers, we don’t even begin to know how to handle this social transaction. We seem to default, unknowingly, to the “one-drop” law of a slave-holding past (namely that one drop of blood from African origin makes a person black, or what we now designate as African American).
How the press construes Hillary Clinton as “Hillary” in relation to the other candidates (generally referred to by their last names or their full names) reveals our still-embedded sexist attitudes. The candidate herself uses campaign paraphernalia marked simply “Hillary.” To me this reflects a return once again to the historic practice of using the familiar, first-name designation for women, while addressing men more formally by their full names; a practice that served to reinforce the subordination and trivialization of women’s work in relation to men’s. Intended or unintended, it feminizes the candidate, softens her. Are we ready yet for a tough white woman with a last name to serve in the White House?
So what about John McCain? Where does he fit in this meditation? He is THE candidate, or THE Republican candidate. That he requires no marking by race or gender, that he requires only his political party designation, that he is often referred to simply by his last name, speaks volumes about what remains normative in American culture and society, about who still runs the show. We know from his first name that he is a male, but then he is often referred to only as “McCain.” More tellingly we know without having to think about it that he is white. A white, male candidate is to be assumed. We mark only the different, the unusual, the surprising.
I understand full well that it would be extraordinarily cumbersome to refer to each candidate by the full slate of possible characteristics. Do we have the time or desire to say “African Anglo male candidate Barack Obama running for the Democratic nomination against white Anglo female candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of whom will run as the Democratic nominee against white Anglo male Republican candidate John McCain…”? Surely this is far too cumbersome. Besides, it still does not really tell us about who the candidates are, what their respective records and substantive positions are, what social policies they propose to address severe economic and environmental problems and the war in Iraq (or if things continue at their present pace, the looming war in Iran). And, of course, even with these designations socioeconomic class still remains the elephant in the room.
I, a white beneficiary of racism, a female whose mother, as a rural woman, would never had access to my job as academic and theologian, am living proof that some, even if way too few, can still move upward in affluence and social status in this country. I, so burdened by such tragedies and triumphs of American history, yearn for that day when women of color are no longer invisible to the public eye and poverty is no longer an issue. However far we have come, we have quite a distance still to go. For the time being, I’ll have to settle for designating our candidates as Senators Obama, Clinton, and McCain.