Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Love, Inc

The Clippers Scandal Isn't Just About Race

Donald Sterling's racist comments were also about sex

Posted Apr 29, 2014

Sometimes a single cultural event can stage the 450-year history of race in the US in just a few short minutes. I am of course referring to the now infamous tape of a conversation between Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and his former mistress, V. Stiviano.

 The two lovebirds recently ended their relationship when Stiviano, 31, released a tape of her 80-year-old lover saying some pretty racist things. Let’s start with that- an old man with a lot of money has not just a wife, but also a lover. The man is white; the lover is not. Sound familiar? Now it gets more interesting. Sterling is not just white, but also Jewish, a man who changed his name from Tokowitz to Sterling in order to live the American dream of accumulating billions of dollars and buying an NBA team comprised of mainly nonwhite men who can be sold and traded with other white men who own other teams of primarily non-white bodies.

 And this old, rich white man is afraid that whiteness can be polluted with the taint of blackness if they get too close. Despite having a Black/Mexican lover, Sterling does not seem to particularly like black people. We know this because he told Stiviano to remove all images of her with any “minorities” from her Tumblr account. When an image of Stiviano with Magic Johnson got back to him, Sterling got so upset at seeing his beloved V. with a black man that the two got into a fight, a fight that she recorded and later released to the press. 

Yet what is interesting is not just the racism, but also the way that racism intersects with some pretty intense sexism (the way racism always has). This is what scholars mean when they talk about “intersectionality.” We can never really separate racism out from sexism since the two usually rely on one another to make sense. Surely we cannot understand the white supremacy of Sterling without also understanding that this is a man who feels entitled to own and control women.

It is impossible to listen to the conversation and not understand that this is not just a white person feeling superior to his black employees, but a white man feeling as though women are only worthwhile to the extent they are themselves white.

 Sterling tells V. that she should do what he says and not associate-even visually- with black people because otherwise she will be polluted by them. 

“I’m not you and you’re not me. You’re supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina.”

 This is, in many ways, the intersectional denouement of the conversation. White (and possibly even Latina) women are delicate. That is, they are ladies, in need of the protection of white men since their virtue is always in danger of being besmirched by black men. Since white men own these delicate flowers, they have the right to control their every move through space, even the social space of Tumblr. As Sterling tells his mistress,

“I don’t want to change. If my girl can’t do what I want, I don’t want the girl. I’ll find a girl that will do what I want!”

I bet Sterling doesn’t want to change. And why should he? He moved from the polluted racial status of a Jew born in the 1930s to a fully white man who has managed to own not just a team of other men, but a few women as well. He gets to call the shots, demand his orders be followed, because he’s got the full weight of racism and patriarchy behind him and when racism and patriarchy get into bed together, they produce a volatile mix of white femininity as delicate, white masculinity as heroic, and blackness aa a constant source of danger and pollution.

But interestingly enough Sterling’s “girl” decided she had enough and taped the entire sordid conversation and released it to the press. And the players on Sterling’s team, his “boys,” staged a protest by turning their team shirts inside out so the logos would not show.

And now Sterling himself is banned for life from the NBA and has been fined $2.5 million dollars 

So although this sad little psychodrama between two star-crossed lovers rehearsed the racism and sexism that still structure far too much of our daily lives, it also allowed us a glimpse into what is in fact a very different world, a world in which a white man’s “girl” and a white man’s “boys” use the technologies available to them to fight back and possibly even escape from the grip of the intersection of patriarchy and white supremacy that is Donald Sterling.

The result is both terribly depressing and yet also incredibly hopeful since it is yet another story about racism and sexism, but also how we might create new stories from now on. 

You can listen to the conversation here.