Thursday, June 4, 2009

Richness and Experience

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." -- Sonia Sotomayor, Berkeley, CA, 2001

I'm going to start this post with two disclaimers:

(1) First, by saying that I'm not writing to oppose the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court; and

(2) Second, as I've written here before and as I've commented on Right-Side-of-Lowell, I do think that symbolic "firsts" do matter, and that they are good things for the country. They take wind out of the sails of the bigots on BOTH political extremes, and they also help ensure that the "seconds" will be more about issues than identity.**

All that having been said, I'd like to address the now-infamous quote from a longer speech made by Sonia Sotomayor at a La Raza meeting in Berkeley, CA in 2001. The part about the "better conclusion" has been picked apart and torn limb-from-limb by everyone from GOP Senators to bloggers to the commentariat, but I think I *get* what she's saying, and it's not necessarily mean-spirited.

The word choice might be poor, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt that she's talking about experiencing America on the *other* side of the gender and ethnicity coin, and how that might affect one's jurisprudence regarding issues that deal with those divides. The part that goads me, however, is the more-overlooked "richness of her experience" line, because of what I believe to be the clear implication about living as a member of an ethnic minority group versus being white in America.

The idea that being Latin, Asian, Native, or African American is somehow this rich cultural experience, but that 'whiteness' ascribes those who bear it into a hollow cultural void is pervasive in many elite, liberal circles that I can say I've personally witnessed during my early adult years. If it sounds crazy to you, bear with me. I'm not talking about some crazy conspiracy theory (remember, I'm not a big fan of those), and I sincerely hope I'm not coming across as hiding some pent-up "Angry White Male" thing that was all the rage during the Gingrich Revolution in the mid-1990s. That's not it. Not at all. It's something far more benign than that.

The idea is just that the cultural identity, customs, habits, speech patterns of any minority ethnic group is 'interesting,' 'cool,' or 'fascinating' but that Anglo-American identity is just something that just doesn't count, or should even be apologized for.

Sonia Sotomayor's "richness of her experience" quote perfectly embodies this -- it's not that white males are necessarily bad, or mean-spirited, or even incompetent -- it's just they're soulless. They're culturally neutral, and they haven't "lived that life."

It doesn't surprise me in the least that Ms. Sotomayor -- a graduate of tony institutions like Princeton and Yale Law School who has stayed in those sort of circles professionally -- would say something like this, especially at another elite institution in a liberal setting like Berkeley.

Thinking about the quote, and my reaction, I remembered something a friend of mine said a few years back about the forgettable, formulaic clinker Maid in Manhattan, where the Senator played by Ralph Fiennes sweeps the hotel housemaid, Jennifer Lopez, off her feet. Leaving the theater, his girlfriend said something to the effect of:

"I can't believe how offensive that portrayal was. It just totally exoticized Latinas as these sultry, spicy, fiery types who are single mothers working menial jobs, just waiting for a white knight in shining armor to rescue them."

I tended to think "right on" because even though I hadn't seen the movie, it wasn't much of a reach for me to imagine that being a pretty realistic and fair gripe. What surprised me, though, was his response:

"Well, I was equally the way the movie de-exoticized white people as a bunch of cold, soulless automatons who can't express emotions and care only about the material and the superficial."

Amazing. In modern parlance, he had flipped the script. But at the same time, he had called out an idea that's pervasive in popular culture and in certain ivory towers.

I bolded the parts of the quote at the top intentionally, because it's those parts that stand out for me the most.

I don't think Sonia Sotomayor is mean-spirited, racist, or in any way unqualified for the Supreme Court, as many of her harshest critics have opined.

I do think, however, that my 28 years of American 'experience' have come with the particular 'richness' of someone who has lived in five distinct regions, been able to size them all up, and choose the one to call home. It's the 'richness' of someone who has served operationally with all five major military branches (yes, the Coasties count!) and, by doing so, been exposed to every possible slice of Americana. It's the richness of someone who, though white, isn't bound by the old anti-miscegenation laws, and can daily enjoy the 'richness' of cross-cultural 'experience' in his own home.

At the end of the day, I'd like to think that the "life I've lived" puts me on an equal footing for "richness of experience" with any other contemporary American.

** As an example, look at the Lowell School Committee race. No one would try to insert candidates' gender as a 'wedge' issue because representation across the gender spectrum has already been reached. As each identity barrier breaks down (with the best current example being the President of the U.S.), it just helps takes the identity issue further off the table down the road. I know we Americans have a short memory, but even one short year ago there were still MANY in and out of this country who said Americans wouldn't *let* a person of color win the Presidency. The next time we have a serious candidate of color for President, that type of speculation will gain zero traction. Identity will still matter, but much less so. Ditto for the next time a Latina is nominated to the Supreme Court, and so on.


C R Krieger said...

Seven Uniformed Services.

As I think about it, Judge Sodomayor does have a richer experience than some plain vanilla white guy.  After all, she has all his education, plus her experience in the projects.  He just has summers in the....

There is the view of my buddy, Ron Smits, that science says we are set by the time we are five.  Something to think about.  His blog post is at:

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


I'm guessing tongue was planted firmly in cheek on that one, even though all the white people I know use "summer" as a verb, as it conjures up memories of croquet games on the lawn, Bloody Marys before noon, and belly laughs at any efforts from *the help* to appear dignified..


The New Englander said...

D'oh! Accidentally just pasted this in below the wrong post. Here goes take two:

I am going to post a response here that came to me via e-mail because the writer wished to preserve relative anonymity. With the writer's permission, here is the text:

My experience is that people who solely identify themselves as "American," and especially those who have lived their entire life within the same region or country, have a very difficult time describing their cultural characteristics, which lends to the image of soul-lessness.

I think that differences between peoples living in this country are less about culture or even general life experience (white people grow up in projects too). I think that the experiences that will help Sotomayor are about not looking or sounding "white." I think it is a person's physical characteristics - color of skin, shape of eyes, nose, lips, kinkiness of hair, etc. and an accent - that still engenders negative, unconscious stereotypes that lead to experiences of discrimination, even when the one doing the discriminating is completely unaware of what they are doing.

The notion of white superiority, which was embedded in our laws until just half a century ago, still lingers in the deep recesses of the psyche of both whites and non-whites (for non-whites, it is called "internalized oppression). As a country, we are trying to free ourselves of this archetype. We rejoiced in the election of Obama because it showed that we are able to overcome our own latent prejudices. We felt so good on that night - it wasn't just about Obama - it was about ourselves as well. Appointing Sotomayor will do the same - it shows us that no matter how deeply entrenched the stereotypes, we can get past them. Remember a few years ago in Lowell when some South Asian Indian students from UML were the victims of a hate crime because the perpetrators thought they were Arabs? While that is an extreme, it is the experience of being a person "of color" that makes their "experiences" different. All cultures share some major common values: love of their children, religiosity, hard work, a desire for upward mobility, a desire to live in peace, etc., even though these can be expressed differently. On the other hand, there are enormous cultural differences among Americans, which is why we have left and right wing politics and values. It's also why we have such a hard time describing American Culture.

Thanks for making me think!

C R Krieger said...

I am not sure I agree with the Third Commentor.

Discrimination is rampent across the world.  Look at Japan, or Iraq or Sudan or Italy or Germany or a whole bunch of other nations.

What does the United States bring to the problem of discrimination that is unique?  We are not the only nation with a past history of slavery.  Our attitude toward skin color may not be all that unique.  Read Junot Diaz' book The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao.

And, is the nation really so divided?  I think that this idea that it is a hard break between left and right misses what is going on.  (And, as usualy, the writer doesn't define those terms for the purposes of this discussion.)  Elections go either way (well, except in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts).  Even here the terms "left" and "right" don't capture well what is going on.  Is Kevin Murphy "left" or "right" or down the center?

As our nation become more mixed (rather than diverse) it probably becomes stronger.  The question to be asked is—and the anonymous author does ask it, in a round-about way—what constitutes America and Americanism; is it something worth keeping (at least for the illegal immigrants who flock here); and to what extent can it continue to function in the face of diversity?  Put another way, how much of the culture of Latin America or the Middle East can we absorb before we are more like Latin America or the Middle East than we are like Anglophone Canada (for all its faults)?

Regards  —  Cliff