A few of my more socially progressive girlfriends have expressed surprise and dismay that, as a woman, I seem to feel no particular allegiance to Hillary Clinton and her quest to become the first female president. They question my sisterhood and my support for women attaining real power. I'd like to say their accusations bother me, but they don't.
I come from an African-American family of women born and raised in the Deep South of Augusta, Ga., a place where my grandmother, equipped with just a fifth-grade education, sent each of her eight daughters to college (and beyond) even after the death of my grandfather in the late '50s. In her world, being a woman in control wasn't something she had the luxury of deciding to fight for. She just was. I doubt if she knew there was a feminist movement or ever heard the name Gloria Steinem.
But she most certainly knew what it meant to sit in the back of the bus, drink from colored-only water fountains and work for little or no pay. In her lifetime—as well as my mother's and, to some extent, mine—race, not gender, has been the defining narrative. For my mother and grandmother, race affected basic civil rights. It affects me in less concrete but nonetheless debilitating ways: the demise of the black family, the growing number of young black men behind bars and the faces of Katrina all haunt me and remind me constantly that, until there is an honest conversation about race in this country, African-Americans will continue to lag behind in income, health care and education. My desire to see someone at the top care about these issues, too, trumps my desire to see a woman in the White House.
One might ask, "But doesn't Hillary Clinton care about those things, given her and her husband's relationship with African-Americans?" Possibly. But Obama's presence alone forces a change of dialogue. Just one look at Michelle Obama and the couple's two beautiful daughters speaks volumes about the diversity of this country and the possibility for anyone who fights the fair fight to have a chance to succeed. Whatever your politics, it is hard to deny how transformative it would be to see those two girls playing on the White House lawn, or watch Michelle's elegant charm as she works the room at an official White House dinner.
When I see Obama, I see a black man who can redefine what it means to be a minority in this country—a man whose very presence may actually encourage the black men I know to believe in their own futures and force those around them to do the same.
I know that a woman president would change the course of history, too, and many might even argue that gender is far more of an albatross than race. That just hasn't been my experience. I know Gloria Steinem might not agree with my decision to be swayed by Obama's poise, intellect, beliefs and, yes, his color. But like my grandmother before me, I can't afford the luxury of fighting two battles when one is so clearly a matter of life and death.