"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 offended...by 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.