Sisterhood Blog

In Donald Sterling Drama, It's All About Power

By Sarah Seltzer

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Getty Images // Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano

It reads better than a soap opera, the interpersonal and romantic drama that led to the exposure and punishment (a lifetime ban!) for racist soon-to-be-former NBA franchise owner Donald Sterling. All the juicy pieces were in place: an estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, who resented V. Stiviano, the younger woman hanging out with her husband. Such was her animus that she was suing Stiviano or being a “gold-digger” and seducing her way to the Sterling’s property. That lawsuit, presumably, prompted epic revenge: Stiviano’s secret tape recording of Donald Sterling’s appalling racist remarks.

Predictably, while the world has come together in outrage against such heinous comments, the reactions to Stiviano’s surreptitious recording that revealed those remarks has included lots of sexism and even some feminist analysis. At Wifey.tv, there’s a text and image slideshow which analyzes the “transactional” relationship in question, “about rich old men and beautiful young women and what they give, get and expect from each other.” Or as vlogger Jay Smooth put it in his must-watch segment on Sterling: “it dawns on me how being in denial about racism and being a horrible, manipulative [partner] turn out to go really well with each other.”

Sterling’s obsession with his nonwhite girlfriend’s “delicacy” and her potential appearance of whiteness certainly indicates the way those various painful ideas — whiteness and daintiness — are wrongly entwined in the racist imagination. In a blog post the writer Jesse Myerson takes all the power dynamics at play here, race, class, gender, ownership and shows how Sterling embodied them all “The logic of capitalism and racism are the same in this regard — those in power develop attitudes of supremacy to justify reaping the spoils of mass social repression,” he writes. “In fact, in the way Sterling browbeats Stiviano, we see a third, also effectively indistinct, supremacism: that of a man over ‘his’ woman.”

As we now know, abusing power was Sterling’s his m.o. (and apparently, Shelly’s too): his real evils were hardly contained in his offensive words, but can be found his years upon years of documented discrimination, overlooked by most of us until this week, as Kevin Blackstone at the Guardian observes.

While a handful of us in the media excoriated Sterling and the NBA in 2009 when Sterling settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay $2.73m following allegations he refused to rent apartments to Hispanics, blacks and families with children, the story didn’t resonate — despite it being the largest housing discrimination settlement in Justice Department history. There was no investigation from the NBA…

Why shouldn’t someone like this expect to exercise his racial and gender power, even over a girlfriend, with blunt, crude force? Ironically another showing of power — a threatened walkout — by NBA players helped ensure that Sterling’s punishment was just and damning. But wouldn’t it be better if we lived in world where power was more evenly distributed to begin with?


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