For the past month I have been reading (as indicated by the title) a fabulous book on the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation that was edited by a scholar named Athena D. Mutua. This book is a collection of very insightful essays on the intersection between institutional racism and other forms of oppression. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in institutional racism or wants to get a more complex picture of it’s workings because like all issues, it’s highly complex and multi-faceted. I would also recommend this book if you have an interest in other social issues like gender, class, lgbtq rights, and want to learn about these issues from a different angle.
Before I go into some of the highlights of the book I want to first go over what intersectionality is and what it’s purpose is. The source that I will be using for this information will be Kimberle Crenshaw’s landmark 1991 paper “Mapping The Margins.” In this paper intersectionality is defined as…
“The recognition of the many strands that make up identity; for example, the ways in which sexism and racism are intertwined in the identities of women of color.”
Intersectionality, as demonstrated in this paper, highlights the ways in which the different facets of people’s identities and social circumstances interact; and in this essay she goes on to demonstrate that these identities often interact in ways that can compound each other, and mix to create unique experiences that can’t be understood as the simple layering of it’s ‘separate’ components. Crenshaw gives numerous examples in her work which include how structural racism and economic deprivation make it harder for black women to find shelters; how language barriers and immigrant status make it nearly impossible for some women to get help; and how unemployed and poor women of color are less able to depend on others for financial support during these struggles.
She also goes out of her way to speak on identity politics which really dispels the notion that intersectionality theory and identity politics are essentially synonymous.
“The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite-that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference in identity politics is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. Moreover, ignoring difference within groups contributes to tension among groups, another problem of identity politics that bears on efforts to politicize violence against women. Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains.”
With that being said I want to highlight some of the most interesting things that I read in this piece and share my thoughts with whoever may be reading this blog. So the first thing that I learned was that…
Gender Is An Inseparable Part Of Racism
Racism by it’s very nature is gendered, meaning that the type of racism that one will experience due to their membership in a certain racial group will be funneled through the lens of gender. Take for example the common and racist stereotype that African Americans are aggressive. The application of this stereotype to blacks as a whole is common amongst racists but this aggression is often seen to take the form of verbal abuse and narcissism amongst black women, and amongst black men this aggression is seen to manifest through things like physical violence, and other nasty things.
This gendered racism borrows heavily from hegemonic systems of masculinity that emphasize things such as dominance, aggression, wealth, heterosexuality, gender conformity, etc, etc. However, because hegemonic masculinity in the United States centers itself around whiteness and black culture is seen as deviant, black masculinity joins the ranks of the subordinated masculinities and this helps to form the foundation of racist ideologies in this country. When it comes to addressing institutional racism against black people in this society one must also address gender roles and pay special attention to the different ways racism impacts both black men and black women, as well as trans individuals.
Now considering all of this and the fact that feminists claim to be inclusive and for gender equality, these facts provide further incentive for feminists to fight against the sexism against men in our society. Doing so is not only essential for combating discrimination against minorities but it will help men in general as well.
Anti-Racist Efforts Are Highly Androcentric
Intersectionality, as expected, is basically in the periphery of mainstream anti-racist activism and because of this anti-racist activism disproportionately focuses (unwittingly) on black males, which allows discrimination against large swaths of people to fall through the cracks. This is especially a problem for black women.
In the words of Kimberle Crenshaw in an article she wrote for the Washington Post…
While white women and men of color also experience discrimination, all too often their experiences are taken as the only point of departure for all conversations about discrimination. Being front and center in conversations about racism or sexism is a complicated privilege that is often hard to see.
The example that she uses in this section is a case of sex and race segregation that occurred at General Motors in 1976. The company, according to Crenshaw, segregated it’s workforce by race and gender. The black jobs in this case were men’s jobs and the female jobs were only for whites and this led to a situation were black women were completely unable to even be considered for the job. Not only that but when the black women filed a suit against General Motors in the same way that the white women, and black men did, they were denied due to the fact that the court rejected their claims of being discriminated against on multiple fronts. The reason given for this was their supposed inability to prove this multi-faceted discrimination. Such stories shed some serious doubt on the popular narrative that race and gender can and should be considered separately when tackling these issues because as this case shows, doing so is impractical and highly irresponsible.
So not only will black women face discrimination because of both their race and their gender—creating unique experiences, but this multi-faceted discrimination can also make it much harder for their unique experiences to be addressed when the causes of it are addressed separately. This will more often than not lead to their issues being ignored.
There Is A Very Interesting Relationship Between Race and Space In American Institutional Racism
One of the essays in the book named “Reasonable and Unreasonable Suspects” by John Calmore, it outlines the relationship between race and space and how racism sometimes shifts depending on the social context. Sounds simple enough, but when you really think about it this shows that racism itself depends heavily on the socio-economic status of the groups in question.
The example used to illustrate this point in the essay was the City of Memphis v Green case of 1981. In this incident the officials of an all white neighborhood set up a road block that lead to a low income black neighborhood—effectively making access to this neighborhood, via vehicle, more difficult and limiting the flow of traffic between the neighborhoods. In this case they ruled that there was no evidence of discrimination because it was only a mild inconvenience and that it has to be proven that the same would not happen if it was an all white neighborhood.
Though many scholars say that this case was more than a mere inconvenience and stands as a monument to racial hostility.
Now in that essay it talks about how in America, because of the large prevalence of racial segregation, that white America has been able to take advantage of this racialized space (e.g., the ghetto, the hood, inner-city, etc, etc) to further disenfranchise the black community and express racism in race neutral terms—effectively making it harder to both identify and fight racial discrimination.
Additionally, because public encounters on the street are very brief, people are usually forced to make judgements about people very quickly with very little information. With very little information available to make such judgements people often have to resort to very superficial observations like race, sex, class, public demeanor, style of dress, and their activities in order to determine whether a person is a possible threat. Race is one of the most easily recognizable features of a person and because of this black men and boys are often framed as dangerous and suspect; as someone who has the burden of proof for proving their decency; and “as something to be apprehended, prosecuted and sent away.” Such feelings can lead to things such as hatred, fear, avoidance, and in rare cases—violence. The disastrous consequences of this cultural tendency has been seen in action with cases like that of Trayvon Martin.
Black Men Who Are Socio-Economically Well Off Are De-Raced and White-Washed
Going back to the “Reasonable and Unreasonable Suspects paper,” Calmore explains that black men who make it out of the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder are disassociated from their own ethnic groups and treated largely as individuals—meaning that white acceptance of the ‘upstanding black male’ is the result of him being distanced from the usually negative cultural understanding of what blackness means. This cultural framework, along with the concept of “color-blindness”, allows white America to accept individual black americans who meet white, middle-class criteria for decency and still hold largely negative views about anonymous black men and black americans in general. Basically he and many others are treated as black until they succeed and abandon their identity and culture. However, he says that once he takes off his suit, stops being the professor, and assumes the normal role that he will fall back into the paradigm of the anonymous black male.
He also goes on to say that he, as a middle-class, educated, black man is forced to hold on to his black identity and black culture and not turn his back on the blacks that are less privileged than him. However, attempts to bring this up are met with denial, and accusations of ‘whining’ or ‘playing the victim.’ This cultural system masks the reality of institutional racism under the cloak of class, perpetuates it, excuses it as the result of black cultural pathology, and allows it to continue unchallenged.
There is a lot more but I don’t want to make this any longer than it already is so I will finish up.
As previously stated, I would recommend this book for feminists looking to expand their horizons on the systems of oppression in this country and how they connect with and often reinforce other forms of prejudice. I would also recommend this book for anti-feminists if you want to familiarize yourself with the scholarly literature and arguments from black feminists such as myself and thus actually make decent and informed arguments against my beliefs.
As for me this book revolutionized my outlook on social justice issues and in a sense it made me both sympathetic to men’s issues and gave me more legitimate reasons to work with white, middle-class, mainstream feminists. At the same time though it lessened my view of their beliefs because this book exposes the complexity of manhood and helped me realize that it makes little to no sense to view men as some monolithic, dangerous, privileged, and oppressive group. We all need to look for a more nuanced view of these things because in reality these issues are always more complex than they appear. Thanks for reading.
Archives & Citations
Mutua, Athena D., ed. Progressive Black Masculinities. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Sunny Buffulo Law School Faculty Directory, Athena D Mutua, 12 April 2016 http://archive.is/yMZ5u
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford law review (1991): 1241-1299. http://tinyurl.com/jv6q5mg
Swami, Viren. “Mental health literacy of depression: gender differences and attitudinal antecedents in a representative British sample.” PLoS One 7.11 (2012): e49779. http://tinyurl.com/jpctpzt
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Why intersectionality can’t wait.” Washington Post. The Washington Post., 24 Sep. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2016 http://archive.is/N9iiK
Calmore, John. “Reasonable and Unreasonable Suspects: The Cultural Construction of the Anonymous Black Man in Public Space (Here Be Dragons).” Progressive Black Masculinities. Ed. Athena Mutua. New York: Routledge, 2006. 137-154. Print. http://tinyurl.com/zqzwd99
Linder, Doug. “MEMPHIS v. GREENE, 451 U.S. 100 (1981).” Exploring Constitutional Law. University of Missouri-Kansas City., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016 http://archive.is/OJwGY
Buermann, Eric. “Greene v. City of Memphis: Is Intent the Sine Qua Non of Discrimination Claims.” U. Miami L. Rev. 35 (1980): 131. http://tinyurl.com/zuhde2v
Demissie, Fassil. “Book Review: American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass DOUGLAS MASSY and NANCY DENTON Cambridge: Harvard University Press 291 pp., $23.50.” Urban Studies 31.7 (1994): 1232-1234. http://tinyurl.com/j8kesjh
Goodman, Melody. “White Fear Creates White Spaces and Exacerbates Health Disparities.” Institute for Public Health. Washington Univerity in St. Louis., 16 Aug. 2002. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://archive.is/AAU4j
Devah, Pager. “Marked: Race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration.” Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2007. Print.
Anderson, Elijah. Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race And Civility In Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print