Tuesday, April 9, 2013

President Obama In Trouble

California Attorney General Kamala Harris
As Africans living in the West, sometimes we find it very difficult to understand Western sensitivities and many an African man has gotten into trouble for not understanding that statements we routinely make back in our own countries to women would be totally incongruous in the Western context.

President Obama has the unfortunate tendency of always complimenting people on their looks. As an extremely good looking man himself, he must have received a lot of compliments on his looks while growing up and must have felt good about it. He therefore may have grown up thinking that complimenting attractive people on their physical appearance was well and good. Unfortunately, he may not have had many factory or service jobs in his life and most probably did not read the Sexual Harassment Manual too keenly.
Harris and Obama

In Africa, or at least in Sierra Leone, you could see a female colleague well dressed, looking good and compliment them for looking great. That is commonplace and most times taken as an innocent statement, except if you have an ulterior motive or have made some unwelcome advances in the past. Then, the statement could lead you in trouble, but even that is rare.

In a country like America, you have to be very careful how you compliment members of the opposite sex, particularly when they are not a relative or an extremely close friend. I have one rule and one rule only and would love all my African colleagues living in the West to adopt that rule if they want to avoid trouble. "Never compliment a workplace colleague of the opposite sex on their looks or dress."

I have a female African colleague at my work who spends a lot of money every month on the latest hairstyle. Unfortunately, over 80% of the colleagues at my workplace are women, so they always compliment this lady on her hairstyle. As we work together she will say, "Sheku, everybody is saying that my hair looks good, you did not say anything?"
I would always say, "You know me, I am not very observant. Your hair is looking great!" End of story.

African men have this need to always compliment women and many colleagues and friends have landed in trouble or lost their jobs for simple statements that they considered harmless while making them, only to find out that it was taken the wrong way or interpreted differently.
Harris at DNC 2012

Back to president Obama. On April 4, 2013 President Obama, who has a weakness for complimenting people on their appearance regardless of their gender, made the following statement about the female California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

“You have to be careful" President Obama said at a fundraiser "first of all, say she is 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. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.”

That simple statement, which if made in Sierra Leone would have been regarded as a great compliment has landed the president in some hot waters. Conservative news outlets and even some liberal commentators who are usually sympathetic to the president, have come out swinging.

Some have described Obama as sexist who has no regard for women's achievements. Some have described him as a hypocrite who talks about gender equality but makes demeaning statements concerning women

One of the more extreme criticisms of the president came from Jonathan Chait of the New York Times. In a scathing indictment of the president, he wrote the following, "For those who don't see the problem here, the degree to which women are judged by their appearance remains an important hurdle to gender equality in the workforce. Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse." Chait continues, "It's not a compliment. And for a president who has become a cultural model for many of his supporters in so many other ways, the example he's setting here is disgraceful."
Honestly, She is Beautiful

Other people have not been as extreme as Jonathan Chait, who is clearly being overtly dramatic, but you get the picture. If I go to my hometown Segbwema and say that the president got into trouble for telling a lady that she was the best looking attorney general in the country, people would say I was lying, but America is truly a strange place and as a leader, you have to be very careful, no extremely careful what you say.

Personally I think this whole kerfuffle is much ado about nothing, but as I grew up in Freetown Sierra Leone, my opinion is purely tainted by my cultural world view. This will be a lesson to the president. You can think that a woman is beautiful, but don't say it aloud.
Is this not Sexist?

Western society is somehow hypocritical. For a society that promotes beauty pageants like Miss Universe, Miss America and Miss World, where scantily clad women parade their physical attributes in front of cameras for the whole world to see, these same societies are quick to take exception to people praising women on their attributes. What is more sexist than taking a woman dressed only in a bikini, putting her in front of television cameras, telling her to walk gracefully, and calling her miss America. But as I come from Sierra Leone, I may not understand.
Segbwema Blogger

1 comment:

Sage said...

This is a great post. I agree with you, there is nothing wrong with Obama's compliment, especially since he said it in a spirit of friendship; the two are personal friends. And it's true she is far better looking than all the other AGs, most of them are men. I think Obama knows that and that was part of the joking moment. A few knee-jerk feminists are making a big deal out of nothing. America is becoming a very repressive society in some troubling ways. This new way of parsing and policing speech that does not meet some PC group's criteria of correctness is driving us all further apart and rendering it impossible to speak honestly with each other. These attitudes and pressure for conformity is making social life impossible; we are all alienated from one another.

What you say is true about needing to be careful in America, we must all self-repress our true thoughts and feelings, even positive well-intentioned words, lest we be condemned or punished. It was not always this way, and it only serves the wrong powers that be of wealth, the business class, and corporate privilege when we are this divided among ourselves and people are forced to suppress. People need to lighten up.