Did Bernie's inauguration outfit epitomize 'white privilege'? A San Francisco teacher thinks so.

David Knowles
·Editor
·4-min read

SAN FRANCISCO — Within hours of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Internet was consumed by images of Sen. Bernie Sanders sitting, stone-faced, bundled against the cold in a parka and colorful mittens. The meme turned into a fundraising bonanza for nonprofits and a symbol of a new administration getting down to business, as a contrast to the carefully curated image cultivated by its predecessor.

Who could possibly find fault with that?

Well, one person at least, a public high school teacher in San Francisco named Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, who wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle that appeared on Sunday and quickly went viral. Seyer-Ochi’s objection was to the “privilege, white privilege, male privilege and class privilege” symbolized by Sanders’s choice of a relatively casual Burton snowboarding jacket and repurposed wool mittens.

Seyer-Ochi addressed the topic with her students, who she said were also upset by what they saw as the implicit message being delivered by Sanders’s choice of outerwear.

“What did they see? They saw a white man in a puffy jacket and huge mittens, distant not only in his social distancing, but in his demeanor and attire,” Seyer-Ochi wrote, adding, “What did I see? What did I think my students should see? A wealthy, incredibly well-educated and -privileged white man, showing up for perhaps the most important ritual of the decade, in a puffy jacket and huge mittens.

“I don’t know many poor, or working class, or female, or struggling-to-be-taken-seriously folk who would show up at the inauguration of our 46th president dressed like Bernie.”

Prior to the inauguration, Seyer-Ochi had also had her students analyze images from the Jan. 6 riot by supporters of former President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol.

“This,” she told her students about the images from that day, “is white supremacy, this is white privilege. It can be hard to pinpoint, but when we see, it, we know it.”

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders at the inauguration of Joe Biden. (Caroline Brehman/Pool via Reuters)

“I mean in no way to overstate the parallels. Sen. Sanders is no white supremacist insurrectionist. But he manifests privilege, white privilege, male privilege and class privilege, in ways that my students could see and feel,” Seyer-Ochi wrote.

Sanders monetized his viral fame to raise more than $1.8 million for various causes from the licensing of T-shirts and other merchandise with the now iconic image. The beneficiaries include Meals on Wheels, Feeding Chittenden, the Vermont Parent Child Center Network, the Chill Foundation, the Bi-State Primary Care Association and senior centers.

Seyer-Ochi’s piece was the most read at sfchronicle.com on Sunday, and the responses to it on social media were less than favorable.

This latest tempest in a teapot followed close on another controversy over political correctness: the San Francisco Board of Education’s resolution last week recommending the renaming of 44 schools that honor people who some consider out of favor by today’s standards. The commission tasked with the decision stated that its criteria was based on whether a school’s namesake had “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Unlike similar controversies that have erupted in other states in recent years, this did not involve Confederate heroes, although one of the names deemed offensive was that of California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, who as mayor of San Francisco in 1984 authorized the replacement of a Confederate flag, part of a historical display, after a demonstrator tore it down. The other offensive names to be changed include Abraham Lincoln (for his treatment of Native Americans), George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and pioneering environmentalist John Muir.

“This resolution came to the school board in the wake of the attacks in Charlottesville, and we are working alongside the rest of the country to dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture,” school board president Gabriela López said of the resolution in a statement.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic no public campuses are open in San Francisco. The renaming project is expected to cost $10,000 per school.

In a statement, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said that while renaming schools to “instill a a feeling of pride in every student” was an important issue, she questioned the timing of the school board’s decision.

“What I cannot understand is why the school board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then,” Breed said.

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