On Sunday 27 April I posted the following on my Facebook wall:
Three folks called me out for my use of the term “Gold Digger” to describe NBA team owner Donald Sterling’s girlfriend, V. Stiviano.
This is where it gets really embarrassing: upon seeing Saideman’s comment I furrowed my brow, frowned and thought “What?” And then I googled Gold Digger for a definition. This is what I found:
“Stereotypically a woman” and “The term is usually pejorative” jumped out at me. This is horribly embarrassing, but my initial reaction was “Huh,” as in, “Really?” Yet, in hindsight, what world am I living in that I could have imagined Gold Digger was not a pejorative word used to belittle women? I’ll return to that in a moment.
Let’s consider a brief remark by Jay Smooth, among several observations on “the tape” he posted on YouTube. Without using derogatory terms Smooth managed to not only draw attention to the issue I was trying to highlight, but several others. Here is Smooth commenting on part of what I was trying to draw attention to:
The very notion that what we hear on those tapes could be what some people think of as “a relationship” is horrifying to me… [Sterling’s] mind games, tactics, and emotional abuse…
That is, I was trying to interest people in an additional angle on the tapes than the one everyone was talking about. We go into the tape knowing that Sterling is a man who started life poor and has built a net worth well over $1 billion, so this is a guy who excels at “getting what he wants,” and the tape shows us what a manipulative, shameless prick (as well as racist) he is. But it also exhibits a woman who also grew up poor more than holding her own with this fabulous prick. The final line of my post explains why I posted the tape and encourage people to listen to it:
The audio captures two highly instrumental people in a mutually exploitative relationship in a high stakes struggle. It is really pretty riveting.
By using the term Gold Digger I undermined my effort for all sensitive to the sexism of that term (embarrassingly, a group of which I was not yet a member), derailing my point well before I made it.
So, what’s wrong with the term Gold Digger, and how the heck could I be so clueless? Like most moral policing terms it reinforces sexist notions of appropriate female behavior by making acceptable male behavior inappropriate for women. What is inappropriate here? First, the pursuit of assets and wealth. Second, a woman’s instrumental use of companionship or sex. Men are encouraged to not only accumulate assets and wealth, they are encouraged to be instrumental in that pursuit: use what advantages you have at your disposal. Women, on the other hand, are expected not only to reserve their affection and bodies for sharing in the context of monogamous, heterosexual love, but also to stand behind their man in his pursuit of assets and wealth. So a Gold Digger is a woman who steps outside of appropriate behavior for her gender on two dimensions. Or, so it appears to me upon having reflected on the issue for a couple of days.
How could I be so frigging clueless? Well, I don’t have a good explanation for that, beyond “I was socialized that way, and had yet to recognize it.” which is not an excuse. I return to this below.
So What’s So Interesting about the Sterling–Stiviano tête-à-tête?
What really jumped out at me when I listened to the tapes was what I perceive to be a serious competition for the moral high ground by two very talented people who are trying, very insincerely, to “get over” on the other (while pretending that is not what is going on). For me it was like watching two skilled poker players engage one another in a hand, except that the rules of play were up for debate during the hand, but if one acknowledged that, one would lose the hand. That is, in addition to the very obvious things one could learn from the tape (the team owner has remarkably horrible views about his fellow human beings, is a control freak, etc.), there was a really interesting “contest” going on between two people who are good at their craft. Put another way, in addition to thinking “What a scumbag!” about Sterling, I was very impressed with the two of them for how they sought to manipulate one another. Unlike many, I came away from listening to it very impressed with Stiviano, thinking to myself: “Damn, she is good! I couldn’t pull that off.” Indeed, after listening to it I found myself hoping that “I’m sorry honey, can I get you some juice?” might become a sarcastic catch phrase we can use to call out someone’s shitty, manipulative verbiage.
Writing at The Root, Demetria Lucas shares my views on the basic exchange that certainly appears to be at the center of the Sterling–Stiviano “relationship” (though Lucas had the good sense I lacked to identify Stiviano as a “so called Gold Digger”):
Here’s the thing: Both parties know what’s going on in these situations. Men who flaunt their money like a peacock’s plumage do so to attract women who like said money. In exchange for “gifts” and an upgraded lifestyle, the woman offers her looks and companionship and alternately overlooks and strokes the man’s ego—the literal one and the Beyoncé version. It’s an exchange of services in which parties use and utilize each other and consider it a fair exchange, at least until things go south.
In this particular arrangement, Stiviano got access to cars, money and a pricey home that may have otherwise eluded her. And 80-year-old Sterling got a P.Y.T. who wouldn’t have looked in his direction, much less touch him, if he weren’t sitting on a billion. Both parties got what they wanted here.
Of course, the point of this post is to note that I got in my own way, undermining my ability to draw attention to something I thought would also interest others.
Recovering from One’s _______-ism
On the plus side, as embarrassing as this is, I come out better for it, having identified another term hanging around my lexicon that I needed to pull out, examine, and recognize for what it is. At the end of Smooth’s video he asks, as have others, why we get so exercised about racist statements, yet mobilize so little to condemn systemic racism. I think the reason is that we find Manichaean narratives so compelling: there are good and evil people, and part of norm construction and maintenance is shaming the bad ones. Thinking about systems is not only complex, but implicates each of every one of us, and “calling out the bad apples” is not only easier, but participating in the shaming has the added advantage of subtly signalling that we are “good apples.”
Yet, we have all been raised (and socialized) in an ableist, classist, racist, sexist, etc. society, and the pernicious part of these -isms is that each of us is ill equipped to recognize the ______-ist attitudes we have internalized because those who raised/socialized us hold them, or the terms that serve as code to sustain the various _______-ist structures of power. While it is easy to identify a racist or sexist comment or viewpoint, it is a relatively challenging intellectual endeavor to see the system that perpetuates them. Worse, none of us are terribly good at stepping back and seeing how we have internalized those norms. After, “we aren’t ableist, classist, racist, sexist, etc.” The trouble is that because we were raised / socialized in such systems, we certainly do hold such views. The question is not whether we hold them, but instead how deeply we have drunk from the well of each. Someone like Sterling is easy to see because he has drunk so deeply (across many, it would appear). Most of us have drunk more or less deeply from some and not others, but all of us are tend to see only, in others, that which we did not internalize. Seeing the parts we have internalized is damn near impossible.
Indeed, over the years I have come to accept that I cannot see it. What then is to be done? That’s where we have to rely on friends and, at times, folks we do not necessarily like. That is, we need to encourage those around us to “call us out,” and when they do, not strike back with “How darest thou!” but instead be willing to brood, reflect, and be embarrassed, as I did in the early part of this week. Further, we need to return the favor and call out others. None of it is any fun, I can assure you. It is much easier to just let crap go. But I think we should expect more of one another. And that’s why, in a comment to my post, I wrote this last night:
 If you have not seen Smooth’s remarks, check it out.
 People familiar with my social media posts will recognize that I rarely editorialize: the vast majority of my posts are links “without comment” from me. I added the commentary on this on in an attempt to direct folks who might be interested to listen to it for a different purpose than one would likely go to listen to it.