When I was a little kid, people (including family and teachers) made a big deal about my intelligence. In strong contrast to what I understand to be the experience of many black children in white-dominated environments, I was always complimented for my intellect and encouraged to push further. It was a rare occasion, however, that my physical appearance or size was made an issue (except in the sense of “you’re bigger than the other kids, so be more careful”).
There was a recent dust-up when the President attempted to crack a joke while fundraising for an attorney general in California:
President Barack Obama has apologised to the California attorney general for remarking on her appearance at a fundraising event on Thursday. Mr Obama described Kamala Harris, a long-time friend, as “the best-looking attorney general in the country”. Ms Harris’s spokesman said she strongly supported Mr Obama but would not say whether she had accepted his apology. Critics have cited the remark as an example of the ongoing hurdles women face in the workplace.
Speaking after Ms Harris at the fundraising event in California on Thursday, Mr Obama said she was “brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake”. Then he added: “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country… It’s true. Come on. And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years.”
On its own, divorced from context, this is exactly the kind of compliment you would like to receive from a friend – that you are hard-working and capable, and attractive to boot. However, eyebrows were of course raised because this isn’t just one buddy saying a nice thing about another – this is the President of the United States making the physical appearance of the Attorney General of California an issue. It is somewhat inconceivable that he would give a man the same kind of compliment in that situation. And in an environment where women’s appearance is used to dismiss or denigrate their competence - regardless of their station - the comment takes on a disturbing element.
Black feminists, however, have noted that there is an unexplored phenomenon in this story: Ms. Harris is a black woman. The well-worn stereotype about black femininity does not often include the possibilty of being competent and attractive. In the realm of black femininity, they say, the compliment tacks sharply against both the stereotype of black women as not competent and as not attractive. Far from being troubling, some black feminists have found the comment a welcome one, and have criticized white feminists for failing to take the racial element into account when parsing the president’s words.
In the spirit of honouring that type of intersectionality, friend of the blog Slignot has reached out and made the following request:
I was writing about the importance of complimenting children on things they do rather than things they are when I realized I had a deeply limited experience as a white woman who grew up in an overwhelmingly white place (Utah). As I made a generalized background point about boys more commonly being complimented for being smart & girls for being pretty, I realized I have no idea whether this is remotely true when you’re not assuming white experiences being the default or norm.
As soon as I recognized my mistake, I tried to see if anyone had done any sort of discussion of this when talking about the pretty/smart gender divide but either it’s not readily available or my google-fu just was lousy today. So I decided to ask Crommunist on Twitter if he’d be willing to tell me about his experiences with compliments growing up. However, this ran into the problem of his experiences not being necessarily representative outside of the particular circumstances of his upbringing in Canada. I was able to get a few other answers from people through Twitter that lead me to believe that there’s probably a whole lot more going on here with other stereotype threats that need recognition when we talk about inequitable treatment of kids based on gender.
So if you’re willing to share your experiences, I very much want to know what sort of compliments you received growing up, who gave them to you and honestly how much of the time they doubled as microaggressions. (As someone pointed out to me, people told him he was smart, but in tones that conveyed this was surprising to them.) Does the smart/pretty gender divide apply?
Because my audience is a bit larger and more diverse than hers (I think), I’m boosting the signal for this request to see if others can bring their personal experiences to bear and help to flesh out her piece. Please leave a comment here, or contact her on Twitter.
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UPDATE: Kevin Drum posts an analysis of this worthwhile empirical exploration of the effect that introducing appearance has in these kinds of discussion.