Catherine Prendergast is Professor of English and Co-Director of the Ethnography of the University Initiative at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. She is the author of Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education, a book Gloria Ladson-Billings called "a breath of fresh air in what has been a very stale atmosphere.” As I think you'll agree after reading Cathy's post here, she's also one of the freshest thinkers on the much-blogged topic of race in this race around. On top of that, she's a dear friend of mine from graduate school and can twirl a mehttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifan pirouette. Here's Cathy:
Breaking up with Bill
Out of the ashes of the South Carolina Democratic debate, uninspiring in so many ways, I saw a glimmer of hope. It wasn't in the CNN debate itself or the punditry afterwards, but rather in a related article on CNN's website which saw the media monolith scarfing down a little humble pie. It seems that within minutes of running a story in which it was speculated whether black women in South Carolina would vote their race or vote their gender, CNN was barraged with angry emails decrying the characterization of black women and their "unique" dilemma. Black women weighed in with the obvious (though apparently not obvious to CNN) point that they might also have other options, including voting on (gasp!) the issues. Did CNN really imagine black women so dumb that they would only perceive two choices in front of them? "Pull this racist crap off" one angry reader responded. But perhaps the most revealing comment came from a white man who wrote "Since Edwards no longer officially exists, as a white male I face the same choice - either I vote my race (Clinton) or my gender (Obama)."
What did this man reveal? Whiteness, plain and simple. That state of being that is invisible and somehow transcendant, allowed to be raceless because it takes place against a continually racialized other. People have been quick lately to recall Toni Morrison's description of Bill Clinton as our first black president. They've been less apt to recall her more substantial observation that white people have always resisted shifting the racializing gaze to themselves. Morrison, for a related reason, refuses to don the mantle of feminist writer just because she writes about women. She finds such labels suspicious: "No one says Solzhenitsyn is writing only about those Russians, I mean, what is the matter with him? Why doesn't he write about Vermont?"
So when Bill Clinton, in speech the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, assured listeners that he could well understand why African-Americans would want to vote for the first "intelligent" African American presidential candidate they've ever had the chance to vote for, I cringed. Clinton may have been called our first black president, but he certainly was never called our first "intelligent" black president, which is why, of course, he never was black, and was never called white.
Since this is a blog honoring women writers, let me quote one of my favorites, whose words have been bouncing around in my head ever since this primary season began: Susan Sontag in the days after 9/11, when surrounded by those who asked "why us," famously answered, "Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together." What is going to make this current election different, if it is going to be different, is not the presence of a black (male) or (white) female candidate as front-runners for the first time. It will be the continued presence of all the extraordinary people who wrote speedily back to CNN, and in so many words, said, "Let's by all means vote together. But let's not be stupid together." Here's to those people. They point the way ahead.