The Intersection of Race and Gender Essay

The Intersection of Race and Gender

Race and gender are important identities for women of color.   The intersection of race and gender can have important ramifications for individual identity and self-identification.   Although identities are fluid and in a constant state of motion, American society has a shameful legacy of slavery and is a country stratified by race, gender and class.  For some, like renowned African American author, scholar and social activist, bell hooks, the United States is a country with a strong tradition of institutionalized racism which permeates all aspects of modern America society (see hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, 1981).

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  For many in America, racism is an ever-present aspect of the social condition and is built upon a rigid social code, a white/black binary which has its roots in early American settlement and the shameful tradition of slavery in the New World.  In addition to the white/black binary, another binary exists.  The sexual binary, which is heavily engrained in our society and has been responsible for persistent inequality between the sexes as well as the historical division of labor, coexists alongside the racial binary in modern American society.

  When the racial binary meets the sexual binary and the two meet, what are the implications?  Why is it important to analyze race and gender together and not separately?

The binary logic of race is inherently hierarchical and in modern American society, white people are supposedly superior when compared to people of color according to the subjective racial hierarchy in American society.  This hierarchy has important ramifications in the social, cultural, economic and political realms as access to social services, jobs, and political office are presumably easier for white Americans rather than black Americans.  Similarly, the binary logic of sex and gender also represents a social hierarchy and postulates that men are superior to women with results in social, cultural, economic and political realms.

The intersection of race and gender are very important for women of color who must deal with both the challenges of sexism and racism in modern American society.  While race is a social construct, not a scientific one, sex has a biological basis and is usually determined at birth.   Race and gender intersect with one another all the time in modern society, particularly when people of color face discrimination on both their gender and their racial background.  This dual form of discrimination is particularly insidious since it further reinforces stereotypes based upon race and sex.  Renowned, yet controversial, cultural theorist bell hooks discusses the intersection of patriarchy (discrimination based upon sex and gender) and racism and white supremacy (discrimination based upon the artificial constructions of race).  According to bell hooks, we are socialized to think about race and gender through a hierarchical lens and accepted these hierarchies unflinchingly without questioning them.    Accordingly, women of colour face additional hurdles to their full acceptance in modern American society and this intersectionality shapes their relations with others as well as their personal identification and self-identities.

Women of colour are in a unique position to challenge both the artificial racial binary imposed on American society and the sexism so-prevalent in modern American society today.  Identities are fluid and forced racial identities expose just how fluid these identities can be.    While the sex of an individual is innate, determined at birth and not as fluid as race is in American society, our ideas about sex and gender are socially constructed and also have important social ramifications. Women of colour are in a unique position to reevaluate society’s conceptions of race, racial identity and sexism in American society.  In a global world and in an era of multiculturalism, the rigid and constricting black/white duality is increasingly out of touch with reality and the lives of real people today.  This hierarchical binary is being challenged on a daily basis by people like President-elect Barack Obama while the sexual binary is challenged by women who demand equal pay for equal work or who choose not to conform to traditional ideas about sex, gender and heterosexuality in American society.  Women of colour are thus in a unique position to tear down the socially constructed and inherently inhibiting walls of racial identity and sexism in America today.

It is important to analyze the intersection of race and gender because ideas about these two identities are integral to lives of women of color who face hurdles based upon both race and identity and because these two identities allow for a unique, and often times more thorough, analysis of our entrenched assumptions about the racial and sexual binaries.  Women of color were the first to criticize the women’s feminist movement as being elitist and often times racist, neglecting the legitimate concerns voiced by women of color who felt that Betty Friedan and the so-called “first wave” feminists did not truly represent them .   A reformist-based feminist movement argued that the discourses of early feminists did not take into account the experiences of black women in America.  Groups such as the Combahee River Collective emphasize the intersectionality between race, gender and heterosexism in our society, adding a new vantage point from which we can view the world.  This is important because it allows us to question and debate the hierarchical natures of racial classification, sex and now heterosexuality in America today.

Women of colour are in a unique position to challenge both the artificial racial binary imposed on American society and the sexism so-prevalent in modern American society today.  Identities are fluid and forced racial identities expose just how fluid these identities can be.    While the sex of an individual is innate, determined at birth and not as fluid as race is in American society, our ideas about sex and gender are socially constructed and also have important social ramifications. Women of colour are in a unique position to reevaluate society’s conceptions of race, racial identity and sexism in American society.  In a global world and in an era of multiculturalism, the rigid and constricting black/white duality is increasingly out of touch with reality and the lives of real people today.  This hierarchical binary is being challenged on a daily basis by people like President-elect Barack Obama while the sexual binary is challenged by women who demand equal pay for equal work or who choose not to conform to traditional ideas about sex, gender and heterosexuality in American society.  Women of colour are thus in a unique position to tear down the socially constructed and inherently inhibiting walls of racial identity and sexism in America today.   By navigating the artificial binaries of race and sex and now compulsory heterosexuality, women of colour are navigated and exploring new ideological terrain in an attempt to reconfigure our ideas about race, sex and sexuality.

Works Cited

Hooks, Bell.  Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism.  Boston: South End Press, 1981.

The Combahee River Collective Statement. Combahee River Collective, 1986.  Available <http://www.buffalostate.edu/orgs/rspms/combahee.html>

 

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