White men. I have to give it to them (and by extension, myself): they’re cunning bastards.
Ten years ago the idea that a woman could be president of the US was an idea reserved for science-fiction novels and the more tedious seasons of 24. Likewise the idea that a black man could become President. It was unthinkable, and yet the stage had been set for the unthinkable to happen.
As we all know, in 2008 Barack Obama (who is technically only half black, but we’ll let that slide) became president. Racists all over the world grumbled into their copies of Mein Kampf. Obama went on to be a good, possibly even great, President; smart, caring and determined. He got re-elected, and in the main played the Washington political game the same as his predecessors.
In short, his skin colour had nothing to do with his performance, and giving him the Nobel Peace Prize a week after he was elected was probably a little hasty.
However, the fact that he is black and the fact that he became president changed the world. There was a day in 2008 when black people could only dream of racial stereotypes having changed enough to be electable to the most powerful political position in the world; and then there was a day it was a reality.
Fast-forward to now and we are faced with a similarly revolutionary moment: the possible election of a woman to the US Presidency. In some ways this is even more radical than the election of a black man – because the prejudice against women is older, more pernicious and more readily accepted than against any other group on Earth.
What is notable, then, is the almost complete absence of this astounding fact from the political dialogue. Commentators and the public alike focus on Hillary’s policies and problems; and pause, now and again, to point out that the fact that she’s a woman should not be the reason to vote her into power.
Recently Madeleine Albright, the former UN representative, said there was a “special place in hell” reserved for women who don’t support other women, referring to Hillary. This led to outrage from women who support Bernie Sanders, Hillary’s opponent for the Democratic nomination. How could Albright suggest that women should support someone just because she’s a woman? That’s the ultimate in prejudice.
Or is it?
I think this is the sneakiest trick that a male-dominated world has pulled off in the fight for gender equality. It’s a shift from discrimination to discrimination denialism.
I believe there is a pattern evident in discriminatory practices. The first stage is discrimination itself – obvious, clear, blatant. Think apartheid or the many centuries during which women couldn’t vote or work. The second is the fight against discrimination – the anti-apartheid movement or the suffragettes. And, finally, after this victory is won, is not freedom but a form of internalised discrimination in which the discriminated-against can be relied upon to help re-enforce the stereotype and keep themselves in a position of weakness.
And in which society as a whole commends itself for how open and liberated it is, all the while keeping power in more or less the same place. This place, by and large, is white men. Okay, sometimes they’re not white.
Like taking the training wheels off a bicycle, by the time liberation comes the reality is that people who have been systematically held down and held back do not have the resources, self-esteem, networks and context to actually take control.
This is why revolutions often fail; and why some form of affirmative action is required to reset the balance of power. But, as we have seen here, it is probably not enough.
The truth is many black people in South Africa still believe themselves to be inferior. Worse still, what they strive toward are the same prizes defined by white, euro-centric societies. Money, and all its trappings, are at the top of this list. This striving often benefits the very people they sought to outmanoeuvre.
Which brings us back to Hillary. The reframing of Hillary as a “normal” presidential candidate, who should be evaluated and voted for as such, is the final stage in the resistance to feminism. It removes from her the one thing that would be truly threatening to the male power elite. It is the opposite of accepting that women can be equal to men: instead it is an attempt to defeat her radicalism and repaint it as conventional.
Perhaps this insidious project will fail and she will win anyway. And if she does she will represent to women around the world a fundamental shift in the belief about what a woman can do, and how much power she can have. She will unfortunately have had to win on male terms and thus will be unlikely to transform the discourse or method of politics. But she will have done enough.
Anyone who cares about gender equality in the US should be voting for Hillary Clinton, irrespective of her policies and irrespective of whether Donald Trump is the alternative. Her symbolism is more powerful than her presidency ever will be. And it is the one thing that those who hold power really fear: the demise of women’s internalised belief that they are the weaker, less powerful sex.
And that is a moment whose time has come. DM
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Jarred Cinman is a digital native and CEO of VML South Africa, a leading digital agency network. He is a former chair of IAB South Africa. In 2013 he was awarded Best Individual Contribution to SA Digital Media & Marketing at the Bookmark Awards. Jarred sits on the Loeries Committee, was a Board Member of SA Audience Research Foundation (SAARF) and The Creative Circle, and is a Board Member of Dramatic Arts and Literary Rights Organisation (DALRO)
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon