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Obama, the ‘female’ candidate?

by Khaleaph Luis, Guest Commentary



“Obama is a female candidate for president in the same way that Bill Clinton was the first black president.”

— Newsweek.com, Feb. 26, 2008
Gender and racial stereotypes have been bouncing back and forth across the Democratic primary season like so many pins in a bowling alley. (Can Hillary show her ‘feminine side?’ Is Barack ‘Black enough?’) They have become commonplace, even trite.

And how could it be otherwise, with a white woman and a black man both vying for the Democratic nomination?

But Newsweek’s characterization of Obama as the “female candidate” truly gets us into what he termed in a recent debate, the “silly season.”

In fact, most of the young black men with whom I have deep, personal relationships that exhibit the very same “female” characteristics that Newsweek attributes to Obama — an inclusive approach to problem solving, general optimism about life — are modest about having all the answers, and are comfortable with teamwork.

For us, Obama is not a new phenomenon. He’s not a “female” one either. He’s us. Alas, we are used to our real selves being erased by the “gangsta” masculinity that society too often seems to expect of young black men, or by the surprise it exhibits when we break the mold.

With all the familiar statistics about young black men — academic underachievement, incarceration, underemployment — it may be hard for mainstream culture to believe that we, in Sen. Joe Biden’s immortal prose, actually are “articulate and bright and clean.” Let me assure you, we’re already here.

Calling Obama the female candidate just recycles the same tired, old stereotypes of masculinity that deny us — and him — a precious opportunity to redefine and expand definitions of manhood for young men.

As Don McPherson, an ex-quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles observed at a GenderPAC event in Harlem last March, “We don’t raise our boys to be men, right? We raise them not to be women or homosexuals.”

We teach young men to not step “outside the box,” because if they do, someone will say they’re “acting like a woman,” and someone will get in their face.

My work is about redefining manhood and expanding opportunities for young men of color. It’s so important to have public figures like Obama who are challenging traditional notions of manhood, who are modeling a wider range of masculine behavior for young men growing up today.

What I don’t need is one of the two premiere national newsmagazines jumping in to publicly say he’s acting like a woman. There’s nothing wrong with being like a woman, but this kind of crazy, binary thinking just puts us right back in the box: boys must be like this, girls like this.
I’m struck here by a statement on black masculinity by director Byron Hurt from his documentary film, “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.”

“We’re all in this box and to be in that box: you have to be strong, you have to be tough, you gotta have money, you have to have a lot of girls you have to be a player, you got to be in control, you have to dominate other men, and you have to dominate other people. If you are not any of these things then people call you soft or weak and nobody wants that. So everybody stays inside the box.”

Come on, Newsweek — get outside the box!

— Khaleaph Luis is the community partners director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition based in Washington, D.C.

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