Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Woman Head of the IMF and Other "Tokens"

I saw yesterday that a replacement was named to head the IMF. The first thing I noticed as I looked at the picture accompanying the headline was that they had chosen a woman. My response: I chuckled. What better way to smooth over a sex scandal and dissociate from the "old boys club" image than to choose a woman as the replacement?

That is most frequently how members of oppressed groups "break ceilings" and rise up in the ranks of elite organizations: on account of their symbolic value. If a few prominent women, blacks, latinos, etc. are allowed to hold important positions, it helps to sustain the illusion of an equal playing field, a system that just needs a few "tweaks" (affirmative action?) in order to be fair, a social structure that exists to protect the general welfare and ensure equal rights, rather than to exploit large groups of people for the benefit of a few. It sends the message (or at least attempts to) to members of marginalized communities that if they just work hard enough, take advantage of opportunities, play their cards right, they too can be successful.

Now, I do support affirmative action, mostly because it seems like allowing greater opportunities to some people is better than doing nothing, and perhaps some of the educational opportunities may help stir the pot of real social change. More often, though, the lucky few just become absorbed into the middle class and reorient their identities and allegiances away from the marginalized communities they may have previously belonged to.

Similarly, I can't deny feeling excitement over the election of the United States' first African American president, even though, ultimately, it just means that there is one more highly visible black man helping to sustain a political-economic system that degrades and abuses black people in general, as a rule.

On the one hand, I don't think that people should not have hope; that consistently enforced and unmitigated cruelty is better than a mixed and falsley interpreted reality. On the other hand, if "token" successes and the illusions that they enable prevent the oppressed people of the world from truly challenging structures of domination and working for a better, necessarily different world order, then I think it can be severely damaging as well.

One of my favorite comments regarding the Strauss-Kahn debacle appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He said something to the effect of, "Not only is the IMF symbolically raping Africans, it is literally raping Africans." (The victim was African.) Sex abuse and patriarchy are not independent from the system of domination associated with (neo)colonialism and racism. One of the reasons I love Jon's joke is because it unwittingly highlights this connection. A woman may head the IMF, but the IMF is still one of the foremost institutions perpetuating global power structures, including, by necessity, that of patriarchy.

The woman is a token.

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