As a teacher, I often encounter the supposedly subtle indicators of bias in the form of differentiated expectations for various groups of students, followed in my head by the screaming subtext.
“He’s very well spoken…[for a black kid.]”
“Her writing is exceptional…[for an immigrant.]”
“Her mother is very involved in her education…[for someone from the projects.]”
These are the most stinging kind of backhanded compliments. You do something well, but only because we don’t expect your kind to excel in that area. We are pleasantly surprised when a Muslim in a burqa speaks her mind, but a woman of Puerto Rican descent is living up to her stereotype by the same behavior. We file people into infinitely complex levels of predictions and benchmarks, not realizing that in doing so, we collectively hold a group back to the minimal expectations we allow for them, both individually and collectively.
We’ve seen this in politics before.
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” said Joe Biden, now Barack Obama’s running mate. Yes, he has since clarified his remark, but many African American editorialists and pundits took the comment as a worthwhile opportunity to try to educate white America about the nature of backhanded compliments.
And now, as bloggers and journalists and MySpacers are proofreading the final drafts of their assessments of last night’s Vice Presidential debate, a tone is coagulating.
“This debate wasn’t lost or won based on anything verbal. It was won on nonverbal communication. And the winner was Sarah Palin. The first thing Palin did upon entering the stage was blow a kiss to the audience….” (Heather Gehlert)
“Sarah Palin won! Actually, she survived, since she had no ‘deer in headlight’ moments…. And really, Palin was like one of those dolls where you pull the string, and some pre-recorded message comes out.” (Markos Moulitsas Zuniga)
“I give her credit for having a great camera presence… — down to the newly caramelized color of her highlights that they toned down with a color rinse from the usual brassier version for the stage lighting tonight.” (Christy Hardin Smith)
It sounds like she did pretty well. For a girl.