The Many Faces of Bias
By Julianne Malveaux
If 2002 did nothing else, it provided those who teach African American studies with scores of “teachable moments” about race, class, gender, history and intersectionality. The year-end flap about Sen. Trent Lott’s hankering back to the good old days of segregation could easily take up hours of conversation, with a dissection of his BET interview — the Pascagoula, Miss., “apology” and embrace of affirmative action.
It was amusing and amazing to listen to the coded signals that Lott continued to send until the end, and alarming to think that the Republican Party or Democrats, for that matter, can sidestep the issue of race by using Lott as a sacrificial lamb. And it will be interesting to see if Lott’s newfound racial sensitivity results in any amended actions on his part. Will he, indeed, tour the South with Georgia Congressman John Lewis? Will he continue to support Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. for an appointment to the federal appeals court?
Another story had nearly as much intensity as the Lott story, and it will probably stay in headlines longer. Martha Burk, president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, set off a firestorm when she wrote Hootie Johnson, president of the Augusta National Golf Club, asking that he consider admitting women to the all-male golf club. Since the Augusta National Golf Club had reluctantly admitted African Americans and other minorities, Burk must have expected the resistance she got when she wrote Hootie in a letter she says was private. Hootie, predictably, made the letter public, dug his heels in, and said that he would not be forced to do anything, anytime.
My reactions to the story were as predictable as anyone’s. As a feminist, I support Martha Burk’s position and admire her moxie in taking on Augusta. All-male private clubs, especially those subsidized by tax dollars, are places where commerce takes place, commerce that women are excluded from. When Fortune 500 CEOs and their staff members rub elbows and cut deals, women who might legitimately want a piece of the action or just a place at the table are excluded, and miss networking and other business opportunities.
At the same time, as a former president of an all-Black women’s organization, the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Inc., I am often asked to justify why I support separatism on one hand, and inclusion on the other. We still have African American and women’s organizations because we have been, in large part, excluded from the mainstream. Though exclusionary membership barriers have sometimes disappeared, African Americans can, for example, now join the American Medical Association.There are enough racial and gender gaps to warrant the continued existence of organizations that fight to close these gaps. Thus, White women who agree with Delta Sigma Theta’s struggle for Black women’s rights are welcomed into the sorority. And organizations like the NAACP that many perceive as “Black” organizations are actually civil rights organizations that were founded by Black and White leaders through the Niagara Movement.
I comfortably made those comparisons in conversation, looked at Martha, Hootie and Augusta from a distance, and wondered just how the story would turn out. I cared about the issue but, frankly, had not put it on my front burner. Then Burk and the New York Times upped the ante, suggesting that Tiger Woods should refuse to play at Augusta until women were admitted to the club. Talk about snapping me to attention. The first thing I thought was “Black man’s burden.” How dare Burk and the Times put Woods on the line when they hadn’t called any White golfers onto the carpet?
Tiger Woods has said he thinks the Augusta National Golf Club should admit women. But he also says he won’t boycott a tournament to make it happen. Burk is not satisfied. “If others had taken that view,” Burk told a reporter, “he’d be a caddie at Augusta. He wouldn’t be a player.” I cringed when I read the comment because I realized that some women, right as they are on women’s issues, don’t get the civil rights struggle and the difference between bias against women and bias against African Americans. I also wondered how many White women, including Burk, shrug off their White skin privilege around race matters. Where have they been in the face of race matters? Feminists have come a long way in terms of racial sensitivities, but comments like Burk’s suggest women still have a long way to go.
It takes a history lesson to understand why Woods may be a reluctant spokesperson for women, and why I look askance at Burk’s willingness to turn Woods into a pawn in her game. She is acting as if Woods is the establishment, the enemy. The real enemy is the White male patriarchy that has excluded both African Americans and women from Augusta. In the name of women’s rights, should Black men walk away from Augusta? When, in the name of civil rights, have White women walked away from racist institutions?
African Americans and women have somewhat parallel histories in terms of having been discriminated against. But the histories are not the same. Only African Americans were enslaved. And White women, often, have enjoyed the privilege their race confers. When the many faces of bias are viewed through the lens of history, the result is a fascinating complexity absent from Martha Burk’s comments about Tiger Woods.
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