Giving Obama the Finger Jan Brewer Style by Nicole Guidotti Hernandez (Guest Blogger)

This blog installment is written by Guest Blogger: Dr. Nicole Guidotti Hernandez, Associate Professor of American Studies  from the University of Texas, Austin.  Enjoy!!

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I just began teaching Juliana Barr’s book Peace Came in the Form of a Woman in my Feminist Borderlands History course at UT Austin. The book brilliantly details the gendered nature of diplomatic relations between the Spanish and Texas Indigenous tribes such as the Comanche, Caddo and Kiowa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It details how Native women became the arbiters of peace and negotiation processes during this epoch in Spanish America. My students had a hard time dislodging the idea of diplomacy from the empire. In other words, they couldn’t imagine that Indian nations had sophisticated systems of decorum and processes  that involved women where the Spanish had to obey to survive and pass through the region. At one point in my lecture I asked, “When Obama gets off a plane, people don’t get up in his face and say ‘what’s up homie?’ ” As the students chuckled I continued, “no, we see that there is a particular set of cultural rules that one must follow in addressing heads of state today, just like with Indigenous communities who controlled Texas before the Spanish and American presences became dominant in the nineteenth century.” It was as if I were psychic, because, literally, while I was delivering my lecture, someone did get up in Obama’s face.

On January 25th, Jan Brewer, governor of Arizona did something unheard of. She literally and aggressively waved her finger in President Obama’s face as if chastising a school aged child for behaving badly. While there are several angles one could pursue in interpreting this event, I want to talk about it in terms of race, gender, and immigration.

It still makes me laugh that Brewer and Arizona Republicans want to incarcerate all immigrants and essentially run all brown and black people out of the state, calling for stricter immigration policy at the federal level even though more and more people are dying crossing the border, being intercepted in Arizona and being deported at record rates. Nonetheless, as a Latina feminist, I can’t say that I’m thrilled with Obama’s immigration policy, especially given the increase in deportations under his tenure as President. But as a former resident of Arizona, I can assure that my frustration with Obama is nothing compared to the ire that I feel for Brewer and her posse of neocon henchmen (or is it the other way around?) who in a matter of two years have outlawed Ethnic Studies in Arizona high schools because they are supposedly biased and promote overthrow of the US government, banned books because they incite racial separatism, and passed one of the most stringent anti-immigrant laws in all of the United States.

On to the finger pointing… Some might use gendered stereotypes to narrate Brewer as a pathological, out of control, raving white woman, who insulted the President. Brewer has characterized her finger waving as a normal and moral response, for “she’s always been expressive with her hands and didn’t mean any disrespect.”[i] Enter the politics of race and gender. Would Brewer have waved her finger involuntarily had she been talking with another white woman or a white man who was the President? Or is it that Brewer subconsciously, as many Americans do, see Black men as worthy of disrespect because of their race and gender, irrelevant of the decorum of diplomacy mandated by the power structure? My guess is that this might not have played out the same way had the conditions of race and gender been different. If Brewer were a man, would the media have pathologized her behavior similarly? I doubt it.

While Obama laughingly told Diane Sawyer “I’m usually accused of not being intense enough, right,” his flat affect signaled something also about the politics of race, gender and diplomacy that demand he be anything other than too relaxed.[ii] His job and credibility depend upon this. So while the flat response to Brewer’s finger shows that Obama, like the Comanche in Texas in the eighteenth century have a sophisticated sense of diplomacy in the face of an immigration crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, what we see in that involuntary finger pointing is that bullying has arrived as a normalized practice, however “involuntary,” even by women.