Oprah Winfrey has been widely criticized by white feminists who saw her decision to support Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton as a betrayal that put race before gender. Oprah's pointed response spoke for many black women whose loyalty to gender and race is also being questioned — and tested.
"You know, after Iowa, there were some women who had the nerve to say to me, 'How could you? How could you?"' Winfrey said from the stage at a recent Obama rally in California. "'You're a traitor to your gender…..
"I say, I am not a traitor. No, I'm not a traitor. I'm just following my own truth, and that truth has led me to Barack Obama."
Black women around the country are digging deep to find their own truths, too. Do we stand with our white sisters in the cause of getting the first woman elected president, or with our black sisters who believe standing by the black man is paramount?
Is it even fair to press us to justify our choice, whichever one it is? Maria Shriver, wife of the California governor, and Caroline Kennedy, icon of American political royalty, were also at the Obama rally that day and though they may have to answer for not supporting a female candidate, they won't likely be questioned about their commitment to the larger white community.
Black women have never had the luxury of casually separating race from gender. And given the choice, most of us probably would not even want to. We see ourselves as black women, not as two separate entities. But on political matters that have implications for the larger black community, we have historically placed race before gender.
With Clinton and Obama competing hard for our votes, we will have to make decisions that cut deep into who we are and what we stand for. What's at stake is not just our sense of personal empowerment but our sense of social responsibility.
Clinton has a proven record of advocating on behalf of women and children. But we can't lie; many of us see Obama as one of our own. He understands what it means to be black in this country and has a wife we relate to and admire. Of course, there are other important factors at play and politically savvy black women will surely consider them.
There's a lot riding on our votes and that's why we have replaced suburban white soccer moms as the media darlings de jour. But 2008 is not the first time black women have been asked to chose between their identities. And it is not the first time they have been criticized for their choices, — even in spite of them. During the 1950's and 1960's black women willingly subordinated their feminist aspirations for the larger goal of black civil rights. They were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement but got less recognition than they deserved and were overshadowed by the male leaders of the movement who got most of the credit.
For black women back then, something more profound than gender was at stake and that was the dignity and uplift of the larger black community. If they united for "the cause" the reasoning went, their impact would be more powerful. Who could argue with that? The cause of women's rights, well, that would be dealt with down the road. Truth be told, we still have a long way to go on male chauvinism and patriarchy in the black community.
Even today black girls are taught, implicitly or indirectly, to be loyal to family and community first. And many of us see ourselves, above all, as part of the collective black family. We may consider ourselves feminists but we don't wear it on our sleeves. We see feminism not as a political statement but as a state of mind.
That's why black women in South Carolina closed ranks and supported Obama during that state's primary when he came under withering attack by the Clintons and their political surrogates. And that's why black women came out in full force for Obama across the country during yesterday's Super Tuesday primaries.
It's also why we view the criticisms of Oprah as pure hypocrisy and give the back of the hand to those accusing her of being solely guided by race, yet see no contradiction in wanting her to be guided solely by gender.
Let's be real, the primary concerns of the average black woman are not that closely aligned with those of white women. Black mothers fear for their sons who, if current statistics prove true, have a higher chance of ending up in jail than in college — or of being victims of violence. Black mothers wonder if their daughters will marry or have children, now that black women have the lowest marriage rates in the country and, if they are professional black women, also the lowest birth rates. Black men have the highest level of unemployment in the country. And black women are contracting HIV at unprecedented rates. With so many pressing issues bearing down on our communities, is it any wonder why gender has yet to trump race?
So if we're going to talk about solidarity, let's really talk. We'd like to see more of our white feminists sisters marching for increased federal funding to fight the HIV epidemic that is now among the leading causes of death for black women in many parts of the US and Africa. We'd like if they helped more of us crash through the corporate glass ceiling that many of them have managed to breach. We'd like them to speak out about the dismal state of our urban public schools even if their own children go to good private or suburban schools.
To be sure, there are many concerns about important issues that women share across racial lines — domestic violence, affordable child care, sex discrimination, access to health insurance — but until white women have walked in our shoes, they may never understand why we march to a different tune.
Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.