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date: 26 February 2020

(p. 561) Feminism, Gender, and Race

Abstract and Keywords

The presumed opposition between man and woman is a very recent phenomenon in the historical scope of gender. This is especially true for black Americans who were thought to be “ungendered” throughout history. In the nineteenth century only the white race was gendered—blacks were believed to be too savage to share these distinctions. The theory of gender that white ethnologists applied to black Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was also taken up by blacks, with implications for our current intersectional historiographies.

Keywords: ethnology, race, gender, evolution, intersectional historiographies, Thomas Jefferson, black women, sexuality, hip-hop culture, antiblack misogyny, black body, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, trauma, whiteness, critical plunder theory, critical race theory, black women, feminism, gender, shame, ridicule, insult, rape, social bonds

In surveying the subjects of philosophy of race and African American thought, it goes without saying that the human subject is blacks and other people of color. The subject is thus racial groups who have typically resided in certain places and occupied subordinate social positions, throughout the history of modern Western culture. Sometimes, as during slavery, families were broken up, and other times families were united by arrangements counter to mainstream white ideals, for instance with female heads of household or without legal marriage. But, overall, nonwhite peoples have been considered as integral historical human groups. By contrast, women or female human beings, as the primary subject of feminism or gender theory, are dispersed. Women are integral parts of all historical human groups, but unlike racial groups, they do not have distinct geographical locations, apart from other groups.

In the post–civil rights era liberatory part of the academy, there has been a pervasive focus on “women and people of color,” because historically, the academy has been overpopulated and dominated by white men. But in real life and in human history, gender and race are not comparable categories. It is therefore not surprising that apart from progressive contexts and resistance to liberatory reform, it would be very strange to consider them in the same sentence or the same breadth. To speak of women is to refer to about half of all human beings. To speak of people of color refers to all nonwhites. Both are natural groups (albeit culturally constructed), but their conjunction does not refer to a natural group. The term “women and people of color” refers to people who may share experiences of oppression by white males—it is a political term. Still, for the sake of theorizing, in considering the history of ideas, and to some extent for designing practical political reform in the face of conservative or reactionary ideologies, we are stuck with this odd conceptual combination.

(p. 562) Nineteenth-century America was a century of both racial liberation through the abolitionist movement and Civil War, and feminist liberation through the suffragist movement. That black men received the right to vote in 1870, fifty years before women did in 1920, caused a lasting political split between advocates for race and gender. When both women’s liberation (later known as “feminism”) and black civil rights became cultural movements in the 1970s, the political rift had not been resolved. Feminism soon came to be criticized for its focus on the problems of white middle-class women, and black political groups were criticized for their more or less exclusively male leadership and general indifference to the subordinate status of women.

For identifying a subject of complex oppression, intersectionality is a sociological concept that admits of both quantitative study and metaphorical-modeling applications. The core idea is that many people experience multiple identities that result in oppression, for instance, nonwhite race and nonmale gender and disability, or, nonwhite race and poverty and same-sex preference. Awareness of intersectionality affords permission for flexibility in analysis. This does not tell us when racial differences are more important than gender or class differences or how to rank or prioritize different sites or identities of oppression. But the flexibility to consider issues of gender, alongside, or in contrast to, issues of racism and racial identity, is important for the development of historical awareness and understanding of contemporary culture, as well as abstract theorizing. Also, as the writers in this part demonstrate throughout, sometimes insults and injuries based on gender are relevant to those based on race, and other times insults and injuries based on race are relevant to those based on gender.

In “Ethnological Theories of Race/Sex in Nineteenth-Century Black Thought: Implications for the Race/Gender Debate of the Twenty-First Century,” Tommy Curry examines the intellectual history of black ideas of race and gender during the era of nineteenth-century enthology or theories of race in society. While this area of thought would today be dismissed as pseudo-scientific or speculative along racist white supremacist themes, it retains interest both for how it was taken up by black writers and its lingering legacy in popular imagination. Curry notes that the presumed opposition between man and woman is a very recent phenomenon in the historical scope of gender. Black people were thought to be “ungendered” throughout modern history. Over the nineteenth century, many white ethnologists assumed that only the white race was gendered, because gender, especially femininity, was believed to be an effect of evolution toward civilization. By the same token, races themselves were gendered in the white racist imaginary and the black race was considered feminine, the “lady” of human races. Against this ideology, a number of black “racial uplift” writers endeavored to develop and support white ideals of patriarchy and femininity within black culture and society. This led to a black social movement and literature concerning manners, morals, hygiene, grooming, and domestic economy.

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting in “Jefferson’s Paradox, or a Very Brief History of Black Women’s Sexuality, Hip-Hop, and American Culture,” explores representations of black women’s sexuality, from the political culture of eighteenth-century America to the public and popular culture of the twenty-first century. Hip-hop culture, especially gangsta rap music, is at the center of Sharpley-Whiteing’s discussion, because its misogyny against black women both directly devalues black women and spreads stereotypes that cross over into white entertainment. At the same time, in popular representations, white women appropriate hairstyles and skin shades from black women, and black women strive to emulate white aesthetic standards. Sharpley-Whiting argues that the origins of such misogyny, disrespectful stereotypes, (p. 563) and aesthetic ambivalence are as much white as black. Thomas Jefferson’s racial musings on blacks and black women, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (written and rewritten from 1781 to 1787), was a tortured aesthetic critique of black women that established a black misogynistic tradition. Jefferson drew political implications from what he assumed to be a natural white superiority that deprived black women of flowing hair and smooth skin, which, he said, made them aesthetically unappealing to white men. That judgment was, of course, hypocritically at odds with his own long-term sexual relationship with his wife’s mixed-race half-sister. And just as Jefferson and his father-in-law benefitted economically and sexually from their slaveholder status and its sexist-racist rhetoric, the simultaneous devaluation and exploitation of black women endures today in US economic, social, and cultural life.

In “The Violent Weight of Whiteness: The Existential and Psychic Price Paid by Black Male Bodies,” George Yancy begins with the question, “What is the lived experience of the black male body within the context of white America in the twenty-first century?” For an answer, he explores the existential and psychic dimensions of “black male bodies” as they negotiate their lives within the context of white hegemony, which truncates them according to a distorted and racist picture in the white imaginary. Yancy argues that within the context of this white imaginary, the black male body constitutes “a site of contamination.” As such, within the white body politic, black male bodies are always targets of the state, regarded as “criminals,” “monsters,” or “thugs,” before they even do anything. Yancy regards the idea of a postracial America as mythical.

In “Gender Theory in Philosophy of Race,” I consider the theoretical crosscurrents implied by real-life intersections of race and gender and conceptual difficulties raised by the apparent privileging of black male problems and the black male subject. Both feminism and critical race theory are critical theories. A critical theory is sufficiently abstract to analyze and normatively assess a large area of human life that is a site of injustice. Critical theories have leading ideas and subjects—race and black men for critical race theory, gender and white women for feminism. The injustices experienced by women of color do not fit into either critical theory, and this raises the question of whether there is something unique about their identities and status. The answer lies in the ways that the biological products of women of color, especially the sexuality and children of African American women, have been both devalued and appropriated without compensation, as a form of plunder. I suggest that these experiences of black women support critical plunder theory, a new critical theory that would specifically address the oppression of women of color, as both nonwhite and female.

Finally, in the last essay for Part X and the volume, Cynthia Willett brings us back to concerns of everyday life in “The Sting of Shame: Ridicule, Rape, and Social Bonds.” Willet begins with this question:

What if a devastating dimension of violence and material damage cannot be understood apart from the cruelty of the joke or the sting of ridicule? What if a shaming insult constitutes the significant sting at the heart of much racial and sexual discrimination or assault?

Willett here seems to suggest that the greatest injury of racial injustice, the thing that “gets” and “gets to” most victims, is not physical or other material harm but disrespect, disregard, contempt, or a sense that who they are as human beings, or that they are human beings, just does not matter.

Willett considers how public ridicule (as expressed, for example, in anti-Islamic cartoons) works. Ridicule depends on its source having more power in a context or system than its (p. 564) target, so that the sense of superiority manifested by satire is a cruel source of pleasure. At the same time, in-group solidarity may be strengthened by drawing on awe, an appreciation for what is larger than the individual self. Here, there is sublimity in the idea of the group, which is imagined to be on the other side of the spectrum from the target of ridicule. Willet draws on Audre Lourde’s reference to eros as a lifeforce that women of color need to reclaim from draining atmospheres of white, male, or white male mockery. The excess of pleasure experienced by perpetrators of crimes of shame is akin to rape. And yet it is also important to keep the value of the community connection in mind and look toward amelioration. Willett concludes: “The old adage about sticks and stones has something to teach us after all—not to endure stoically the insult, but to breathe in deeply before one reacts and think about how to counter the aggression and repair social bonds.”

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