Friday, February 22, 2008

Two Scandals: What do Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds have to do with Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton?

I'll give you a clue to the question that is the title of this post, and the clue has to do with the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas scandal.

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I hope you're not too confused already, because although nearly all of my readers have heard of Hillary and Barack and their battle to be the heir to all the history that the 2008 Presidential race will make, I'm sure very few of you know who Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds are.

But the point I'd like to try to make in this post, is precisely about the history this election is going to make, and the simplistic way the media and most of the people in the United States understand political identities. In Ethnic Studies, we talk often about intersectionality in order to understand the complexity of society. So for instance, oppression and identities aren't defined in singular ways, even though this is often how we discuss them. It is not simply that Hillary Clinton is a woman, or even just a white woman, but she instead represents a nexus of number of different intersections, different ways of defining or locating people in social/political ways. Common intersections are race, class, gender, sex, sexuality, nation, religion, etc.

The media seems determined to turn this race into a battle royale or death match between two intersections, race and sex. Over the next few months, they will lock horns and duel, and eventually for the Democratic party, on or the other (inattelong pat pinalao'an) will triumph. Then whichever wins, will move onto the next stage of the battle, and against the Republican nominee another battle will take place, between sex (linahi kontra pinalao'an) or race (inattelong kontra inapa'ka).

As Jon Stewart points out in his interview a few days ago on Larry King Live, this match will be decided through the intersection which America is most ready for, or which one they can handle the most effectively without freakin out.

Naturally these sorts of conflicts or debates are felt to be natural. For the Democrats each of these intersections represents groups which have been historically kept out of power, and so they seem to battle on a level playing field against each other. Part of the reason for this illusion of parity, is that both candidates, Clinton and Obama, seem determined to reap the spoils of the particular intersection they are stuck carrying the banner of progress for, without ever wanting to seem as if they are invoking in any constructive way the injustice that that intersection represents. Both Obama and Clinton are building huge popular support because of the way they might seem to represent a sort of resolution of the history of oppression or injustice that their intersection represents.

To put it in overly simplistic terms, if you want to end racism or sexism, vote for either of these people. Gary Younge from The Nation has written several excellent pieces on the national acceptance of Obama. As a black person from Britain, Younge writes that white people from the United States are often initially uncomfortable around him, until they hear his British accent. Once they hear that he is from somewhere else, and not an African American, they seem to relax, to ease up, because his existence (contemporary or historical) is not something they are responsible for, and if either existence is or has been unjust, it is not something that they can be blamed for. Obama, as an African American whose father is from Africa, represents a similar sort of racial shortcut. He has the look of a black man in the United States, but while he is a forced heir to the history of racial injustice in the United States, it is not his legacy, but one which he is shouldered with because of the color of his skin.

I noted that the terms I was using earlier were overly simplistic. Obviously there is more to Obama than simply this desire for racial harmony, but I still think that this should be thrown into the mix of why he is such an attractive candidate for so many different types of people in the United States. He does represent a change, many different types of change, but one type of change which is supposedly taking place through his acceptance, isn't actually taking place, and thats a shift in race thinking in America. This could also be said in terms of Clinton and thinking about gender and sex in America.

Both Clinton and Obama have received incredible amounts of criticism the moment they bring up the idea that race or sexism play any substaintive role in the way they have been treated or mistreated. If a huge shift in the consciousness of America is taking place with the possible election of its first black male or white female president, then shouldn't the country be opening up in terms of discussing the role of racism and sexism in structuring daily life? I can understand the hope associated with electing either of these candidates, but if people aren't willing to open up about why it is so "historic" that these two can be elected, then so what? What is the point if the histories and contemporary realities of racism and sexism can only be integrated into national narratives, through the form of terribly things that happened in the past, but thankfully today can now be overcome through a simple vote?!

I think there is something more to this. That there is something productive in terms of why these two candidates and their positions and identities are played against each other like this.

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This is where Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh come in. Because race and sex aren't simply equally opposed opponents which fight while the people of a nation sit on the sidelines waiting for one to emerge the victor. They are ideas which can be used to subvert each other, against each other, they can be the solution to the problem of the other, or that acceptance of one can lead to the erasure or forgetting of the other.

In January of this year, during the Gavaskar-Border Test Tournament between Australia and India, an incident took place between Andre Symonds, an Australian all rounder and Harbhajan Singh, an Indian bowler. The umpiring in the 2nd Test up to this point had clearly been in favor of Australia, and so tensions were very high. While Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh were batting, a brief exchange took place between Symonds and Singh, where Singh reportedly called Symonds a "monkey." This led to a month long scandal where India threatened to pull out of the entire series, and Harbhajan was threatened with a 2-5 test match ban for his conduct. When the charges were eventually dismissed and downgraded to a fine, Australian players responded with outrage at the power that India has over cricket and the rules of cricket because of the incredible economy it represents.

In terms of the cricket rules, calling Symonds a monkey potentially merited a Level III offense under the rules of conduct for the International Cricket Council, because players are prohibited from ""using language or gestures that offends, insults, humiliates, intimidates, threatens, disparages or vilifies another person on the basis of that person's race, religion, gender, colour, descent, or national or ethic origin". What Singh was eventually slapped with was a Level 2.8 offense for using "obscene, offensive or seriously insulting language."

While perhaps not the most craven or depraved insult ever spoken on a cricket field, there are two reasons why this was significant. First during a ODI series the previous year in India, Singh and another Indian bowler Sreesanth, had taunted Symonds calling him something similar, which was then taken up by the crowd in Mumbai, who then began yelling racial insults such as "monkey" at Symonds. Second, although Australia is known for being i mas apa'ka na team in cricket today, Andrew Symonds is their only non-white player, and so although if Harbhajan had yelled "monkey" at Adam Gilchrist it might not have resulted in this sort of firestorm.

Response from commentators was universal, in that if this sort of remark was made than it should be punished. These sorts of kinasse' atdet are not sportsmanlike, not appropriate and racist. These insults have no place in cricket. People should not be denigrated based on the color of their skin or their ethnicity.

I think that we can all applaud this, and accept this as true or important. But, as anyone who knows about sports trash talking or what sort of insults opponents hurl at each other during games, this consensus around the undesirability of invoking race, is built upon a tacit acceptance of invoking sex or gender.

Eventually the issue was determined to be far more complex than Singh simply yelling at Symonds (there was a possibility that Symonds had provoked it). But in terms of what Singh actually said, Sachin Tendulkar who was the closest to hearing it, claimed that he had said in his language, which absolutely meant to disparage Andrew Symond's mother. This sort of thing happens all the time, in fact what Singh said is an equivalent of the "MF" word in English or close to chada nana-mu in Chamorro.

Take for instance this exchange between Shahid Afridi and Gautam Gambhir from the 3rd ODI in Kanpur from their series last year.



Although Singh did receive a fine for this sort of language, one has to wonder if all this fuss and drama would have been created if from the onset the accusation was that he had used "offensive sexist language" instead of "racist language." But thats the point isn't it? To invoke gender and sexuality in these terms isn't considered to be an exceptional case, in the way use of a "racist" term is. In fact to attack one's mother or to feminize someone in an "insulting" way isn't even called a "sexist" offense, it is simply called an offense or offensive.

In this scandal then, although both forms of comments are considered to be inappropriate or offensive, there is one which is appalling and absolutely unacceptable, while there is the other which is offensive yes, but all in all, acceptable.

Here, sex and race aren't simply fighting over which is more offensive, or in the case of Clinton and Obama, which is more appealing to Americans. But rather, they are two intersections, two tropes, two social axises through which the world and people are structured, whereby one is chosen and the other isn't just forgotten or dismissed, but that which is chosen in such a way that the other can be dismissed or diminished.

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To make this point more clearly, let me bring in the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas scandal from more than 17 years ago.

I hope that everyone has some sense of what the scandal between these two is, but for those who don't I'll give a little bit of background. In 1991, Bush the First nominates Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court Bench. As part of the nominating process an FBI investigation takes place, and eventually allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas years earlier were leaked to the media. During her testimony, Hill described numerous inappropriate and sexually charged statements, comments and overtures made by Thomas to her,

"He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes....On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess....Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office, he got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, 'Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?'."

Allegations of sexual harassment also came from another former subordinate of Clarence Thomas, Angela Wright, who was fired by Thomas when he worked at the EEOC.

Naturally, Thomas flatly rejected and denied all these claims, and against the assertion of Hill as a victim of sexual harassment, or sexism, Thomas articulated himself as a clear victim of racism. As Thomas was being questioned/interrogated by white liberal senators and was being attacked by white liberal groups (such as NOW), and through all of this being characterized as a sexist, aggressive pig, used the claim of racism to defend himself or deflect these criticisms (a quick note, the NAACP was also against the confirmation of Thomas):

This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.

Now here, we see those familiar enemies of race and sex once again locked in a battle over supremacy, which matters more, which is more offensive, which is worse to invoke or use to oppress someone? The logic here might seem obvious, since I've already alluded to it. Thomas is eventually confirmed by a narrow 52-48 vote, whereby 11 Democrats crossed party lines to affirm and 2 Republicans crossed to reject. Thomas uses race as a tactical strategy in order to defend himself and absolve himself of the sexual crimes he may have committed.

But there is more to this than Thomas simply getting himself off the hook. The impact of the Anita Hill testimony had a far greater reach than simply the hearings itself. It resonated across offices across the United States, and gave the issue of sexual harassment and appropriate behavior in offices amongst men and women a whole new character. This hearing helped open up the issue of sexism in the workplace, it in a way threatened to reveal a rupture which was always already there, a problem with the existing comfort zone of so many offices and so many men. It threatened to problematize the positions that women in certain occupations or offices are forced into, the ways they are treated which are often so naturalized, that both men and women may seem them as unfortunate, but don't see them as anything which could or should ever really change.

It is not so much that Thomas use of race allowed just himself to escape the charge of sexism, but in the way it was accepted by the Senate itself and by people across the country as something which rang true, it potentially allowed everyone to escape the charge of sexism. By accepted Thomas' claim that this was a indeed a matter that was "about race" they could take the intersectional aspect out of it, they could erase the sexism part.

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Although I am far more of an Obama supporter than a Clinton supporter for the Democratic nomination, with these issues I've discussed in mind, I have to pause. Is the widespread support for Obama another instance of a willingness to take up the issue of race, because it will forestall dealing with the issue of sex or gender?

2 comments:

Rashné Limki said...

in terms of intersectional analysis... what about the supposed exchange between zidane and materazzi?

CarbonDate said...

It is possible. I'll use my own experience as an example.

Both my immediate supervisor and my commander are women. I am a man. My commander has a jar in her office with dollar bills in it and a sticky note that says simply, "Sir?" The implication is clear: call her "sir" and you place a dollar in the jar. While vacuuming her office one day (just to give you an idea of where I stand in the social order of the military), I saw the jar and decided that I would quietly place two dollars in the jar as I had, on two occasions, called her "sir". Now, I've never made that mistake with my supervisor. I've always called her "ma'am". Why would that be, I wonder?

For that, I look back to my upbringing. One with the religion I was raised on, and the other with my parents. As Catholics, we were taught to honor the Virgin Mary, but we worshiped Jesus and God the father. Of note is the reason we honored Mary: not for who she was, but for who she gave birth to. And we didn't worship Jesus for who his mother was: we worshiped him for who his father was. The dynamic is clear: honor women, obey men. Then there's my parents: when I got in trouble with my mother, the words "wait until your father gets home" always followed shortly thereafter. Message: women may be in positions of authority, but the ultimate authority belongs to the man. Hence: secondary authority is feminine, primary authority is masculine. Hence people's comfort with a black man in charge rather than a white woman (and it's also worth noting that Obama is, himself, half white; but then there's the "one drop rule" in the U.S. dating back to the days of slavery: if a person had any African ancestry, they were black for legal purposes.)

But as you say, there is much more to it than that. All things being equal, the black man has an advantage over the white woman. But all things are not equal in this campaign. Obama is a new-comer who made it where he is on his own steam, while Hillary is where she is because of who she's married to. Yes, one can argue that Bill would not have gotten as far as he did without her, but that is true of almost every great man in our history: they have always had a great woman standing behind them. But this is not the case of a great woman with a great man standing behind her. Hillary helped Bill get where he is, then proceeded to step in front of him and say, "Excuse me, it's my turn." Bravo. Women need to have their turn, but to many who don't necessarily see the role she played in getting him where he is, such a move looks presumptuous.

Had it been a female candidate whose husband had always been in the background while she stood in the forefront, I think public perception would be very different. We can look to a Barbara Boxer or Nancy Pelosi as an example; does anybody even know Nancy Pelosi's husband's name? But yet, she's the most powerful member of the legislative branch. People don't have a problem with this (except Republicans, obviously), but they have a hard time accepting Hillary. In a way, she's a victim of her husband's success. But then again, I would venture to say that she's also a victim of second-wave feminism. She has gotten into the "boys' club" by acting like one of the boys, but that in of itself does nothing to diminish the perception that primary authority is masculine. If she feels that she has to convey masculinity in order to ascend to power, then that doesn't advance her gender; it only advances herself. A true sign of advancement for women would be a woman who exhibits feminine traits advancing into power (such as Pelosi).

The same can be said of the question of race: if a black man has to "act white" in order to advance to power, then that's a fairly limited advancement for his race... or at least one of them.

I could go on, but I've gone through half a bottle of wine, so I'll stop before I become completely incoherent. Suffice to say that issues of race and gender in America are complex enough that they won't be resolved in my single comment.

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