I make it a habit to never question someone’s racial cred. In a world of blended families, interracial families and trans-racial adoptions, none of us has any business questioning someone else’s racial identity. So when I point out the fact that both Barack Obama and Kamala Harris are bi-racial and the fact that none of their parents identified as African American, I do so from a very personal place. I know from my own family that this is a specific and sometimes complicated place to occupy in American racialized culture. It is a place that comes with its own unique challenges and triumphs, many of which most Americans who identify as exclusively white are entirely oblivious to.
I also recognize that this social location (multi-racial…comprising many social locations) is particularly important as the United States grapples with its history of race. I am the son of a light skinned, green eyed Jamaican immigrant who has “good hair” and I have cousins, a nephew and other family who are multi-racial. And I am someone who is the great grandson of a first generation enslaved African. My mother met countless professional and personal barriers in life because she was very dark skinned; an experience I share with her having grown into a relatively dark skin tone as well. I wonder when and how we will really talk about the lethal secret power within racism: colorism. When will we be mature enough to talk about and deal with colorism which is not just about black and white as a binary but about dark and light as a spectrum of acceptance, access and privilege. The poison of colorism that floats in the water of racism is particularly toxic to people of color. In addition, it is colorism expressed among people of color that becomes even more damaging to women who are judged globally according to their proximity to the center of a persistently white color wheel.
I am thrilled that Kamala Harris is in the center of our national consciousness right now. She is uniquely prepared and positioned as Obama was not, to be engaged in the dialogue on race. She is a woman; she is explicit about her racial and cultural identities; her public brand has been more associated with her identities and she is fluent in communicating them. Just recognizing who her parents were and when she was born (in Oakland, CA), I know that she has thought deeply about colorism and that she has had conversations about this issue. These are conversations that are often reserved for the confines of sorority circles or between mothers and daughters and sisters. Too light for some, too dark for others; black on the outside, white on the inside. Just like the conversation black parents have with their children about how to behave with police, this is another conversation that many families of color have that shapes our superhuman sensitivity to the nuances of racism in everyday life. Sen. Harris is the right woman at the right time.
The Black Lives Matter conversation is just beginning. We all need to prepare ourselves for where it is headed, but particularly people of color need to brace ourselves for dealing with colorism. It is the internal struggle with race that we have yet to face. Eventually though, we will need to address this problem that is all too obvious when you look at the complexion of the black people who are killed by police. It is not just a question of black lives matter but which black lives matter…light or dark?
In advance of International Women’s Day on March 8 and in the wake of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s departure from the race for the Presidency, I have to get a few things off my chest. Her departure (as well as the departures of Sen. Klobuchar, Sen. Harris, Sen. Gillibrand and Marianne Williamson…you hang in there Rep. Gabbard for what its worth) bring into high contrast our national expectation of white maleness in leadership. Being white and or male is not a problem. Some of my best friends are white and male and at least half of my ex boyfriends are white as well. The problem is that the American consciousness has learned to assume whiteness and maleness as a general baseline for achievement and normalcy in leadership, particularly in national politics. This assumption and expectation fails women.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I serve a tradition that has been dominated in this country since its founding by the leadership presence, priorities and politics of white men. I face the assumptions and expectations of white maleness every single day. I can only imagine what my female (particularly PoC) colleagues are up against. I am fortunate that my congregation is evolved enough to hear me when I tell them point blank not to expect me to be white or straight and I invite them to challenge and question my authority as a man. Together, we are actively learning the sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle differences and joys of what it means to embrace my queer black leadership while holding me to account as male identified.
But the main point of what I’m sharing here is that I’m also a Democrat and I do not want to vote for either Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders. I think they are both qualified for the job and that they both have great ideas. At the same time, I think they will both keep us in a paradigm of leadership that is globally obsolete and technically no better or worse than Donald Trump. For someone in my position of having to answer to people’s politics-induced anxiety, I live every day right now navigating the wake of Trump’s worst attributes as a leader. He has intentionally manipulated and leveraged the vulnerability among those who identify with him while erasing as myth or enemy those who don’t. His primary tools to achieve his goals have been race and gender (and Twitter.) I am convinced that both Biden and Sanders are fully capable of the same.
Trump policies are bad enough. A Muslim ban, a literal wall to keep out people from Mexico and Central America, misinterpreting black and Latino employment numbers, dismissing his own and the sexual oppressions and assaults of others, comments about “shit-hole countries”, pandering to religious groups and now the coup-de-grace as his court appointments work to dismantle women’s rights to their own bodies. And there is an underlying assumption to this project that seems to say “I know what you need, better than you do.” This assumption is born of a social location and privilege that for better or worse, is uniquely accessible to white men in this country. I’m concerned that Sanders and Biden will be, albeit marginally less pugnacious than Trump and with a different and more palatable agenda, more of the same set of assumptions and expectations of entitlement to leadership.
And, I have to acknowledge that the younger white men in the Democratic race showed potential for the coming evolution in their leadership styles and priorities. In particular Rep. Eric Swallwell, Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigeig. They are all keenly aware of the white male privilege they bring with them into any arena and they have language to name it. I am grateful for the example they and others coming up through the ranks set. Still, I must echo Sen. Klobuchar who questioned whether or not a woman would have been able to get as far on the national stage as Mayor Pete Buttigeig particularly as a historic first openly gay candidate. The golden ticket of white maleness is also a well documented fast-pass in LGBTQ circles and I believe it bought him a lot of good graces. I’d like to hear him acknowledge this more. White gay men frequently leapfrog past women and people of color in social, economic, corporate and political access and achievement. A black lesbian of similar background could never compete today and go on to win the Iowa caucus, let alone get away with passing as straight so that a voter wouldn’t even know she was gay…let alone pass for anything but black. A level playing field doesn’t matter if you can’t find the park.
Pondering this makes me nostalgic. Looking back at the Obama administration, I think President Obama’s leadership was poorly received by the establishment because his style and priorities were outside of the traditional white male norms expected in D.C. You have every right to challenge the concept of “white” leadership versus “non-white” leadership, “male” or “female” leadership. I would absolutely agree that there are leadership attributes that are universal and that have nothing to do with race or gender: communication, collaboration, goal setting, accountability, etc. Yet, in my 30+ years of leadership and training leaders, I have also learned that how we lead is always shaped in some way by how we live. If your lived experience is one of having been openly marginalized for how you are physically embodied, your concept and priorities of leadership will be different than if you have never had that experience. If your experience is one where you have ignored or denied part of yourself to adhere to the norms of the dominant culture, your leadership will also reflect that.
In addition to the universal leadership baselines, Obama led from his lived experience of being at the intersection of embodying a non-dominant race and being raised in a dominant race family; from the place of being the child of an immigrant and being a minority among minorities in an island culture. As President, “Barry”/Barack Obama brought with him his unique journey as a perpetual “other” and his leadership felt entirely new, particularly to people who exist outside of the dominant political culture. Even if he didn’t always respond, he very clearly heard the voices on the margins, because he had been there. He was not the product of a “dynasty” or even “small town America” and even with Ivy League credentials, he sat on the fringe of that world. Obama’s leadership was and continues to be remarkable and transformative…and it scares the living be-jesus out of the likes of Mitch McConnell and other traditionalists, both Republican and Democrat. It will be many years before we truly begin to understand and appreciate just how important his leadership was.
Obviously, we are not ready as a nation for the leadership of a woman. This is a heartbreaking loss. Obama seems to have spooked the dominant mono-sex culture and it has retrenched. Out of the recent slate of Democratic candidates, the women were significantly more qualified, experienced, measured and prepared to lead than the men. This was the same with Secy. Hillary Clinton in 2016. Yet, with the exception of her physical gender, I think Clinton would have been a step backward. She would have been a return to many of the uniquely white male oriented political norms established before Obama. We would have had four years of Hillary basically in “man drag” before hopefully getting to a second term where she would have been more at liberty to openly promote a woman centered leadership agenda. In the odyssey of the Clinton saga, Hillary’s greatest achievement will always be having bested men at their own game…guaranteeing her own defeat.
And so, for Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Marianne Williamson, Kirsten Gillibrand and Tulsi Gabbard, I am deeply sorry for how we failed you. Yes, we know you are strong and qualified and that none of you are done fighting. But like dismantling racism, the real change in our gendered political expectations will not happen until the dominant culture is willing to carry some of the burden of transformation. The Civil Rights Movement for all of its powerful black leaders, wasn’t codified until a white southerner, President Lyndon Johnson, was willing to sign it into law…effectively ending his own political career. And just so that there is no question, that’s exactly what I’m saying: men, particularly white men, need to make a political sacrifice.
Diverse ideas and solutions to diverse problems must come from diverse people. Women do not need permission from men to achieve, but they do need room. People of color do not need instruction as to how to lead, but they do need to be included. So, this is not a call for erasure (or “replacement”) of white men, it is a demand for spaciousness and inclusion. Creating space for inclusion will require that white men who have assumed and expected positions of leadership, learn from those at the margins that gender and race have served as obstacles for others to achieve full participation in our democratic process. From this enlightened perspective, white men in power can choose to do something about it…if they have the balls.