I’ve been reading articles about Geraldine Ferraro’s comments on Barack Obama, and I keep thinking the same thought over and over again.
That thought is simple: “Whuh?!”
Here’s the quote:
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she continued. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”
Later she was quoted as follows:
Ferraro, a former congresswoman from New York, said she was “hurt, absolutely hurt, by how they have taken this thing and spun it to sort of imply in any way, in any way, I am a racist.” But she said she was “absolutely not” sorry she had said Obama was benefiting from his status as the first African American perceived as having the chance to win the presidency.
“I was talking about historic candidacies,” she said. “In 1984, if my name were Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would never have been chosen as the vice president.”
What the heck is Ferraro saying here? That she was chosen for her gender rather than her qualifications? Gee, that must really suck. Does she believe that she has no qualifications whatsoever? Or is she just using herself to prove a point?
Because what Ferraro seems to be saying is that Obama has got nothing–in essence, that he’s an affirmative action pick by a gullible U.S. public. Because we all know <snort> that the majority of the United States (which is white) believes strongly in affirmative action.
And because we know that Obama hasn’t got a single qualification of his own. No senate history, no speaking ability, no education, no time as a community organizer, nothing.
More than anything, Ferraro’s comments emphasize to me what white privilege is all about. (Remember John Edwards’ wife making a similar comment?) White privilege is the sour grape ability to believe that if a person of color earned anything you perceive to be rightfully yours, it must have been because of their color. White privilege is the deeply entrenched belief that whites really are superior. There was a research study about this in which white people and black people were asked to estimate each other’s intelligence. Not surprisingly, white people almost never rated black people as being smarter than themselves, even when standard measures indicated this was probably the case.
I’ve gotten into this argument any of a number of times with white people, almost always with the same dispiriting results. A white friend, after being wait-listed for grad school, complained that the selected cohort was 1/4 people of color and how they had taken “her” place. I pointed out that her assumption was predicated on the belief that she was more qualified than any of the students of color and was inherently racist. She didn’t complain about the white students who were admitted before her. She also seemed to have an underlying belief that she was entitled to a spot.
We went round and round on this, and finally I asked her whether or not it was true that I was academically more qualified than she was.
“Yes, but …” she kept saying.
Previously we had taken a class together in which I sensed the professor was racist. Later, an African American woman voiced the same opinion. This friend didn’t believe it.
At one point we compared our examination grades. To her surprise, I received a lower score than she did. So she asked to see my test. And we went over the questions one by one. In particular, on one question I had received 7 of 10 possible points whereas she had received 10. So she read my answer, frowning.
“You must have left out something that I included,” she concluded.
So we went through the points one by one. Not only had I addressed each of the points she had mentioned in her response, but my answer was more thorough and covered several aspects that she had not even considered.
Yet she still continued to try to find some rational reason I had received a lower score.
I felt bad when I directly confronted her about which one of us was more qualified academically. But I could never feel the same way about her again.
Similarly, I had a professor who kept praising my writing. And after publicly doing so, he would then pass my paper to a white guy in the class, who would look at it and then hand it to me. Once he figured out that a white man wasn’t writing the paper, my grades dropped dramatically. (I never did understand how he assumed that I was a white man since you would think the name would be a dead giveaway, but whatever. And it happened at least four times before I started receiving my papers directly.) Unfortunately for that teacher, he gave enough assignments and examinations with objective scoring to keep me at the top of the class.
To my surprise at the end of the quarter, I had the highest grade. This despite the lowered marks on subjective assignments and exam questions.
And I wonder now why I was surprised. But I think it has a little to do with never quite believing that you could be smart, because almost everybody tries to tell you otherwise. I discussed this once with an African American friend, and she said she often felt like an “imposter” in academic settings. Because the truth is that you internalize all the negative stereotypes others believe about you, and one is that you can never be smart. Nothing you have is from your own achievement. It’s been handed to you, simply because you are a person of color.
In reality, the opposite is true. And my parents knew this.
I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but now I think I understand on a much deeper level what it meant when my parents said that I had to work ten times as hard and be ten times as good as the next person. “The next person” meaning the “white person,” of course. That was never verbalized–so why did I know that’s what my parents meant?
My mother used to have a number of ribbons tucked under the frame of her bedroom mirror. Two were first-prize awards in a juried art competition. The rest (and there were at least a dozen of them) were honorable mentions. And one day they all vanished. My mother never talked about them and she never talked about the competitions.
But even as a child I could see that my mother’s work showed immeasurably more talent than any one else’s in our community. It was not even a contest. After the second year, there was some talk about whether the same person should be allowed to win more than once. After that, my mother never won anything other than an honorable mention.
I always wondered if one day she tired of looking at those reminders. But now I wonder if the white people who won first, second and third place really believed they had earned the awards. And I wonder if my mother believes that she did not.
Ultimately, I think that if Obama were a white man, he would have had the nomination by now. Except that if he were a white man, it is quite possible that he would not be the man that he is. Because he never would have had to work ten times as hard.
Random footnote thrown in for interest, don’t feel like writing more about it now: Ferraro apparently made a similar comment about Jesse Jackson. And she was apparently saying the same stuff about Obama a few weeks prior to the most recent incident. And don’t get me started on her “reverse racism” accusations.