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The Arizona senator, who ran on a progressive platform, appears to be relishing her betrayal of her constituents, with outrageous theatrical gestures that trumpet her racial privilege.
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That curtsy has always bugged me. You know the one I mean. When Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) voted “no” on a bill that would have established a $15 minimum wage for workers, she did so by signaling a thumbs down. And then she curtsied. The Tucson Sentinel called it the “curtsy heard ’round the world.” For her part, the senator from Arizona felt no need to explain her vote or the curtsy.
In the video of it, she looks awkward, as if she’s making it all up on the spot. The thumbs down, one could generously speculate, was an homage to the late Arizona Senator John McCain’s thumbs-down vote that saved the ACA health-care plan from an untimely demise, as she fancies herself a “maverick” like him.
At the New York Times, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has done a brilliant job deconstructing Sinema’s sartorial choices—“the denim vest, the bared arms, the chunky costume jewelry, the bright colors—are how she performs that ideology of independence and maverick-ness.” Cottom rightly points out that her odd style choices are of interest, at least in part, because Sinema is a white, able-bodied woman who wields an incredible amount of power in an almost evenly divided Senate.
In Feminist Giant, Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy has done a rousing critique of Sinema’s “bespoke feminism.,” placing the white-lady senator within the Sorority of Pinky Swears, alongside the women who, rather than fight the patriarchy and the “many-tentacled octopus of oppressions such as misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, transphobia, ageism,” wear a bespoke feminism that is “tailored to fit their aspirations of fighting whatever hurts them individually, and fuck the rest of us.” Bespoke feminism, Eltahaway writes, is the antithesis of intersectional feminism.
But why the curtsy?
Often associated with acknowledging a monarch, the curtsy is “a formal greeting made by bending the knees with one foot in front of the other,” and, according to Merriam-Webster, is an act performed “mainly by women.” Following the vote, one editorial decried her vote as “a disgrace to women,” but it never mentioned the curtsy.
However awkward Sinema’s execution of it was, this archaic greeting seemed, like her fashion choices, a little out of place. It was a decidedly peculiar gesture to make on the Senate floor while casting a vote to limit the pay of those millions of Americans who earn a tenth of what U.S. senators do. As much as Sinema wants to perform maverick-ness through her fashion and gestures like the curtsy, in reality she’s no different than nice white ladies who voted for Trump and supported the border wall and kids in cages. The curtsy is a cover for the white supremacy in the policies Sinema’s so-called independence continues to support.
At a moment when Sinema had the power to help save the dream of a multiracial democracy, the Arizona senator voted against eliminating the filibuster, thereby creating a huge setback in the push for voting rights, Sinema stood up to give a rambling 20-minute speech, in which she offered platitudes about “division” and “unity,” citing them as the gravest concerns in the nation. Near the end, she remarked, “We must commit to a long-term approach as serious as the problems we seek to solve—one that prioritizes listening and understanding. One that embraces making progress on shared priorities, and finding common ground on issues where we hold differing and diverse views.”
Sinema, who started her political career as an anti-war activist, has transformed herself into “one of the most prominent moderates in Congress,” according to the Associated Press. It’s her position as a moderate, and specifically a white lady moderate, that’s key to making sense of Kyrsten Sinema. When President Biden recently asked Americans whether they would be “on the side of Dr. King or the side of George Wallace” his either/or formulation left out the white moderates, like the puzzling Arizona senator.
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” Dr. King wrote from a Birmingham Jail in 1963 after his arrest for civil disobedience in Alabama.
In that letter, Dr. King would go on to write that the greatest stumbling block on the road to freedom is “not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises [us] to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
Today, the white moderate strides into Congress wearing thigh-high boots, pom-pom earrings, and it curtsies.
As Michael Harriot at The Root writes, “Kyrsten Sinema is a white woman. No, she is the perfect white woman.”
She gets this appellation because she is one of the “preservers of white supremacy … who would look us in the eye and proudly proclaim their willingness to uphold the murderous Anglo-Saxon status quo.” (Harriot called the curtsy her “white Electric slide,” which gives more credit to her dance moves than I think is warranted.)
Like so many nice white ladies, Sinema wants to reap the benefits of what Harriot calls “the murderous Anglo-Saxon status quo,” while still thinking of herself as a good person. It’s the bend of the knee that so many of us who were raised to be white ladies and nice at all costs, have learned to do automatically. It’s why this was a gesture Sinema reached for and found when she’d just put shiv in the backs of the working poor.
What we have to recognize when we see the thigh-high boots, pom-pom earrings, and the curtsy: This is still white supremacy.
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