I don’t follow the comings and goings of the White House press corps, so I’m wading in uncharted water here. (I come from a long line of water waders, so I think I’ll be ok.) Yet I did watch the clip of last week’s exchange between White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and American Urban Radio’s April Ryan three times after I saw the story posted on Yahoo!. (It does not get near my “Video Phone” record, but who’s counting?)
Does Robert Gibbs act like this frequently? Has kicking it with Michelle Obama taught him nothing?
At the very least, Gibbs was plain rude. At worst, he exhibited a racialized sexism (or is it sexualized racism?) that was thoroughly unnecessary and uncalled for. The only thing worse than Gibbs’ behavior were the comments about the video on youtube. Here, I’ll outline the former.
1. I don’t know how these press conferences normally go, but I hope they’re not always this impolite. Whether or not Gibbs liked the question, Ryan’s inquiry was legitimate. Ryan’s question stemmed from the debacle during the Obama Administration’s first state dinner, where two uninvited guests not only got into the dinner, but were so close to President Obama that they could have boxed his ears. (Well, I guess you wouldn’t have to be all that close to box those joints, but you know what I mean.) Ryan seemed to be suggesting that White House social secretary Desiree Rogers’ attendance at the dinner as a guest hindered her from ensuring that her office did its job by verifying guests on the list. The degree of fault Rogers and her office should receive for this mistake is debatable–and for another blog. My point is Ryan’s inquiry was quasi-pertinent, whether or not Gibbs thought the question was worth his time.
2. Here’s an earlier exchange between Ryan and Gibbs that we don’t get to see in the clip:
Q Well, what about the issues of her [Desiree Rogers] being in fashion spreads early on in the administration? Did you put the brakes on that? I mean, that is — it’s been raised, it’s now public, you saw it in the magazines, her pictorals. You saw her on the cover
–MR. GIBBS: I get Sports Illustrated at my house. I don’t — I don’t get —
Q But could you talk — seriously, could you talk about that? I mean, was there a concern in this White House that she came out being — some might have called here the belle of the ball, overshadowing the First Lady at the beginning
— MR. GIBBS: I don’t know who “some” are. I’ve never heard that.
Gibbs’ response to Ryan’s claim, “I get Sports Illustrated at my house,” reeks of sexism. I could’ve died of testosterone poisoning just by that reading that portion of the transcript. He might as well have said, “Shut your trap with all that lady talk.” I guess no one can get a subscription to or hear about the magazines Ryans is referring to on Planet Dude, where they’d rather talk about soldiers fighting in far off places, because that’s manly.
3. Could anything be more disrespectful and patronizing than telling someone to calm down after you’ve disrespected her? On what planet is it ok to shoo away a reporter as if she was a pestilent fly, only to turn around and compare her behavior, her response to your child? Planet Dude, I guess.
4. Here’s where the race part comes in. This is the part that folks who just can’t seem to grasp why people are talking about race in this context miss, ignore, or simply refuse to acknowledge. I know folks are drunk from all the post-race punch, but you can’t just randomly compare black folks to your children. Why? Because slaves were referred to as their owner’s children. Because grown-ass black men were (and are sometimes still) called “boy” and black women “girl/gal.” It’s like the time when folks got upset at Bill Clinton for calling Obama a good kid. We don’t take kids seriously, we don’t respect them. So to compare a black person to a child is to disrespect him or her. Whether or not that’s the intent, the words, the comparison is racially loaded. For instance, if I am out shopping–and that’s rare–and a white salesperson calls me girl, I turn around and leave. No response. I don’t browse; I just leave. It’s that deep.
This is the problem with being post-race: forgetting the history of racial inequity and the semantics that are at the core of it. Not remembering this or pretending it doesn’t exist shows a real lack of racial sensitivity and fluency. We don’t elect a black* president and get to start over again at zero-zero. Like men, compliments and insults are not created equal, and thus can’t be applied without regard to the interlocutors participating. That said, if April Ryan were blue with a burly beard, how Gibbs reacted would’ve still been irritatingly disrespectful. Not as loaded, but disrespectful nonetheless.
Grandma Charlotte says, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it. It’s not the words that you use, but the way that you convey it.” Take note, Robert Gibbs. Take note. And even though your boss won’t make you, you should at least say sorry. While you’re at it, Robert, maybe you should take a break from reading Sports Illustrated and check out Fallon’s blog.