As a campaign issue, the literal “he said/she said” fight between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren shouldn’t matter much. Warren says that Bernie said a woman couldn’t win the election, Sanders says he didn’t say that. In the context of the most important presidential election of my lifetime, I couldn’t give a flying expletive who said what to whom. It has no bearing on whom I’m going to vote for in the primary, or why.
However, as a personal issue, I have no doubt that Elizabeth Warren is telling the truth. I know in my soul that she heard what she says she heard. I know it, not because I am in any position to vouch for Warren’s character (though, full disclosure, I know her from my days in law school). I know it, not because I have access to the Federalist Society’s Ouija board that allows them to divine the original intent of any conversation. I know it because I’m a black person, an “other,” and I’ve been living in a white man’s world for 41 years and counting.
People say hurtful things all the time. Often, they don’t mean it. Language is an imperfect tool for communicating thoughts. But when you are an “other,” when you are a minority or part of a disadvantaged group that has historically been shut out from power, and when the person saying it is a member of an advantaged group, you notice the hurts. You notice them because you always have to assess where the hurtful comment lands on the spectrum between merely inelegant to actively dangerous. Did the person misspeak? Or did the person just accidentally reveal deep antipathy for your kind of people? Or was it something in between?
And what should you do about it? Should you ask them to repeat it? No, because what if they do, what then? Should you confront them? Should you make a scene? Should you play it cool? Oh no, can everybody tell that you haven’t actually been listening for the last 10 minutes because your mind is still wrestling with what’s been said? Should you go to the bathroom and collect yourself? Wait, why are you the one who needs to collect yourself?— you didn’t say anything. Why are you even in this position? You should punch him, that solves everything. Wait, no, that solves nothing. Actually, you should go to bed, because it’s already six hours later and you have work in the morning.
Everything that Warren says happened tracks with my own experience of how one deals with these things. Warren says she “disagreed” in real time. Remember, folks, if you think Warren is “lying,” not only do you have to believe she made up something Sanders said, whole cloth, you also have to believe that she made up her entire reaction to the event. She clearly told other people she works with, as one does. In these situations, you’re always looking for confirmation from people you trust that the bad thing that happened to you actually happened.
Then, when it came out, and Sanders straight up said that he didn’t say it: the anger. The anger is very familiar to me.
If you want to make a person go from zero to nuclear, tell them that a hurtful experience in their own life didn’t happen. Tell them something they thought about and wrestled with and made peace with and were ready to move on from didn’t actually exist in the first place—simply because you say it didn’t exist. Do it on national television with everybody they care about watching. See how that works out for you. I’m not surprised Warren didn’t shake Sanders’s hand. I’m surprised she didn’t break it off and try to hit him with it.
I believe Warren heard what she heard. But I also believe Sanders doesn’t remember saying it. Sanders isn’t lying when he said, “I didn’t say it.” Lying requires at least some minimal intent to dissemble or deceive. I believe Sanders is being forthright. He says he didn’t say it because he has no memory of saying such a thing, and it doesn’t sound to him like something he would say. From his perspective, that’s the end of the discussion. He doesn’t remember it, doesn’t agree with it, and so it didn’t happen.
Again, I’ve seen this a lot in my own life. White people have said hurtful things to me, and I’ve confronted them a short time later, only to hear them say “I didn’t say that.” Unless a friend or (more usually) a bartender also heard it, I’ve got to spend the rest of the confrontation arguing that the thing happened, before I can even get to arguing about the thing.
It’s infuriating, but I’ve come to understand that white people don’t always remember the hurtful things they say to me, because it didn’t hurt their feelings. It didn’t ruin their day. They didn’t spend time replaying the conversation over and over, trying to analyze exactly what was said and why. They didn’t spend time wondering if maybe they’re secretly racist because of something they said to me. They just said it, moved on living their best life, and were, frankly, quite surprised when, minutes or days later, I showed back up ready for open war.
I’m positive Sanders himself has been on the receiving end of this particular kind of pain. Because Sanders is also an “other” in this society. I’m sure he’s heard hurtful things, from avowed friends, who later don’t recall or deny that they said the thing in the first place. Sanders, the human, has lived this experience, too. I’ll bet he can remember how Warren feels.
Toni Morrison says, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” Part of the privilege of not being a minority is the option to not be distracted by the hurts you unintentionally dish out to others. It doesn’t slow you down; it doesn’t keep you awake at night. You don’t even have to remember it.
I know it’s part of privilege because, while I don’t have white privilege, I certainly have male privilege, and I’ve been told I’ve said things I “didn’t say.” Over these past holidays, my wife brought up a joke I made that I didn’t remember making. It didn’t sound like a joke I’d make, and so I initially pushed back, only to be informed that while it was not something I’d say now, it was a joke I made… 23 years ago. I still don’t remember saying it, but I don’t think my wife made up an experience from 1997 so she could get one over on me when I was sore coming back from the gym in 2020.
What I said to my wife was, “Wow. Well… I’m sorry now—if that helps.” And, of course, it did help, because treating people like they are intelligent beings capable of accurately recalling the pains and disappointments in their own lives is a winning strategy in a successful relationship.
I’m not sure if it’s a winning strategy in a presidential campaign. I hope that it could be. I hope to live in a world where Warren could be justifiably angry and that could be fine, and Sanders could be vulnerable and apologetic and that could also be fine.
But I will settle for a world where Donald Trump is no longer president. I’m not going to slam Bernie Sanders for getting his back up in the middle of a contested primary when the first ballots will be cast in a couple of weeks. Sanders has a solid record of supporting and promoting women candidates. That, I care about. He also seems like a prickly pear. That, I care less about. I’m not voting for a president based on their emotional intelligence unless Oprah gets in the race.
I don’t need for Bernie Sanders to remember every time he—unintentionally, I believe—hurts somebody’s feelings. But I do need for Elizabeth Warren to be able to tell her truth, and what I believe is the truth, without people calling her a liar, a snake, or some hysterical witch who spends her downtime boiling up problems for men.
Unity can’t mean that women are not allowed to remember what’s happened to them. Unity should celebrate forgivingness, not demand forgetfulness.