Race Shapes Gender: Intersectionality in organizing
At least in US society, we cannot imagine a world without race and gender because the world as we know it is literally, metaphorically, and economically built on black female bodies. As Katherine McKittrick puts in The Last Place They Thought Of, “… the legacy of racism and sexism demonstrates how social systems organize seeable or public body differences” (McKittrick, 2006, p 46). In the past, black labor and bodies were literally bought and sold in the transatlantic slave trade; now, the complicated geography, society, and economy still rest on blackness and femaleness being possessable, moveable, and disposable. The wealth we know, fight over, collect, and redistribute has been accumulated by black labor, both work and reproduction: organizing bodies by skin color and reproductive capacities in order to commodify labor.
This white supremacist patriarchal history is why black people are now proportionately more likely to be poor, imprisoned and unjustly killed (legally and extralegally). This is also why poor people in general are more vulnerable to violence and dispossession. And this is why women are still crying out for liberation from men’s possessive, patriarchal grip. Land, bodies, and reproduction (more bodies) have been held captive by white men who exploit them as both kinetic and potential labor. “Because female slave bodies are transformed into profitable sexual and reproductive technologies, they come to represent “New World” inventions and are consequently rendered axiomatic public objects” (2006, p 46).
My understanding of the development of gender changed, kinda drastically, during the beginning of this reading. I am starting to realize how gender and race are inevitably intertwined; both are social constructs, of course, but they’ve finally come together in my larger perception of labor being commodified in the name of power, progress, and nation-building. The phrase “reproductive technologies” as used to describe black women’s bodies, particularly “the space between legs,” is especially telling. While I previously understood some basic differences in black and white femininity (see Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?”), I still struggle to reconcile those differences for a broad understanding of a binary gender construction. Perhaps the wicked agendas of race and gender as hierarchies were particularly complimentary for capitalists to produce and reproduce, keeping black women in a distinctive position of known, sexualized, owned, and dehumanized.
After identifying the “progressive” western structures oppressing black feminine bodies, McKittrick went on to critique the politics which emerged from such oppression. Specifically, she analyzed the way various black feminists have navigated “the margin.” She referenced bell hooks, writing, “Black feminism and black women, the editors argue, have critically and creatively intervened in how liberty has been, and is, perceived: the unique perspective of black women, what bell hooks calls a ‘special vantage point,’ indicating a long-standing critique of racial-sexual marginalization” (2006, pg. 53).
Having been exploited for the creation of the “New World” and the foundation of its economy, we can deny the idea that Black womanhood exists only in the margins, as McKittrick does, referencing Marlene Nourbese Philip with: “Not on the margins. But within the very body of the text where silence exists” (2006, p 49). It exists in everything we know because of its forced role in production. But she has a particular critique of work within the margin, within this “site of radical possibility, a space of resistance,” as hooks describes. McKittrick poses, “But is the margin too marginal?” (2006, pg. 56) and continues, “The margin is therefore not a legitimate area of deep social or geographic inquiry- it is a site of dispossession, it is an ungeographic space, it is all too often a fleeting academic utterance and therefore easy to empty out, ignore, and add on in times of multiracial crisis.” McKittrick describes theoretical space of the margin as “flattening out black women’s geographies” as well as “hemming” them in. (2006, pg. 58).
Maybe it’s my inexperienced place as a white third-wave feminist, or maybe it’s my hope that we can start where we are to get where we want to be, but I’m not totally vibing with McKittrick’s critique of hooks’ margin politics. For one thing, academic writing in general frustrates me as it seems writers are out to one-up each other with nuanced definitions and explanations. Regarding this critique in particular, as a white person, I believe sometimes I must look outside myself, to the furthest margins, for the kind of creativity we need to work beyond the current systems that are in place. Many Black women who are “in the margins” have, it seems, developed a kind of creativity and politics that one can only develop in a position of being denied humanity on racial-sexual grounds.
I have experienced resisting state-sanctioned oppression for survival, but not to the extent that many black women and trans people have. I believe that in order to fully resist for the opportunities outside these systems, we must listen to those of us who’ve had the deepest struggle. For example, my experience may have taught me how to live on a very tight budget or sustain my emotional well-being despite constant misgendering; however, I do not understand fearing my kids being targeted by police, or any of the many other forms/threats of violence Black women experience. Sometimes I may have to trust the perspectives of others who have those experiences when creatively imagining and practicing resistance to police brutality. An illustration of this is studying how black women resisted both domestic violence and police responses in the 70’s by supporting each other in tangible ways (see On Women and Violence, pg. 14-19).
Prioritizing the needs and ideas of black women and trans people means recognizing the weight of intersectional identities. I cannot actively, intentionally seek out creativity from queer communities of color without understanding that their perspective is different than my own – they’ve been hurt in ways I haven’t even if we share some elements of identity, like gender or sexuality. This can become frustrating as an activist who seeks to build a new society outside of what we know. Intersectional ideology can emphasize differences without assuring there are still root causes of divisive social constructions which people can commonly struggle against. I’d like to remind myself and others of the formation of social constructions and how cleverly they can work to turn us against each other. Moreover, I want my community to see the benefit of both recognizing intersectional differences, looking to each other for ideas, and continuing to work together.
In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici writes, “Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat” (pg. 63-64). We ought to remind each other that our struggles, though different in experience, stem from the same root oppressors. People in the margins have much to contribute to our collective understanding of oppressive strategy, but we all have much to gain from strategizing together against such oppression.
Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Brooklyn, NY. Autonomedia.
McKittrick, K. (2006). Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Catastrophies of Struggle. Minneapolis, Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press.
NC Peace Corps. On Women and Violence. N.d. n.p. retrieved from https://ncpiececorps.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/womenviolencetotal.pdf