Engendering Race/Race-ing gender

This week we looked at how race and gender are co-constitutive constructs, specifically focusing on the centrality of reproduction in racialisation under conditions of slavery, the different relationships to work of Black, Indigenous and migrant women as opposed to bourgeois white women, and the colonial context as that which enforces racial and gendered structures. We also touched on the differences between white approaches to feminism and those that emerge from the movement of Black and majority world feminists, and agreed that there remain significant problems in dialoguing across very different experiences of racialisation and class positioning.

An area that was new for some of the participants in the group was the notion that gender, like race, is not fixed. While some students had engaged in western theories of gender, for example this of Judith Butler, they felt that there was no attempt in that work to consider the centrality of gender fluidity within Indigenous cultures pre-colonialism. There has been very little discussion for example of the impact of colonisation on imposing gender binaries and the way European norms around gender roles and the family were used to police and incriminate colonised women, men and gender diverse peoples.

Please find below the lecture I developed for this class which mainly centres around the core readings for this week:

Angela Davis. 1981. ‘Chapter 1: The Legacy of Slavery: Standards for a New Womanhood’ Women, Race and Class.New York: Vintage Books.

Maria Lugones. 2010. ‘Toward a Decolonial Feminism’. Hypatia 25(4).

Françoise Vergès. 2020. ‘On Women and their Wombs: Capitalism, Racialization, Feminism’ The Wombs of Women: Race, Capital, Feminism. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

As you will see, incorporated are questions and provocations for students that you may wish to use with your own classes.

Gargi Bhattacharyya: Fecundity should be understood as a racial characteristic – either producing too many children, or as in the case of slavery, producing children for the purposes of super exploitation. 

Angela Davis: Enslaved women were only seen in terms of their relationship to reproduction. She writes that they were essentially genderless, seen only as breeders.

However, the fact that they had to reproduce the next generation of slaves did not free them from work in the field. Women had to be both breeders and workers.

‘Status property’, as Weinbaum explains, ‘came to reside in the body in the form of whiteness’.

Hence the maternal body assumes importance as that which transmits ‘racial property over time’ (ibid.). As Weinbaum asserts, ‘status property relies upon the consolidation of a reproductive logic in which this form of property is understood to be bequeathed not by deed but by one’s mother’ (ibid.). 

Black women’s relationship to work is different to that of white women due to the Black women’s role as workers under slavery (we could extend this to other conditions of exaltation – e.g. indenture).

In Women, Race and Class, Davis shows that histories of slavery AND theories of labour ignored the role of Black women as workers, first under slavery and later because she always had to work to supplement the income of men whose own work was undervalued and underpaid, or because they were unemployed or incarcerated.

Black women’s relationship to work cannot be thought about as the same as white women. Middle class White women in the 19th century were seen as existing entirely in the domestic sphere, outside the realm of work (not the same for poor and other racialised women), so the fight to enter the workforce was not one shared by Black and other exploited women who had always worked and whose labour was super exploited. Work therefore is not see as a ticket to freedom!

Angela Davis on ‘Slavery and Nightmares’

Women not only worked as hard as men but were also doubly punished with the use of sexual violence as well as physical.

Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought talks about the prevalence of ‘controlling images’ as they are used to dominate Black women and to repress their resistance. A crucial image is that of the sexually promiscuous ‘Jezebel’. This ties to early racist idea about Black and also Indigenous women as being particularly without sexual mores. 

However, this not only relates to the opposition constructed between ideal visions of femininity (which was white) and Black and Indigenous women who were seen as outside of proper womanhood, but the myth of promiscuity was also used to cover over sexual violence – inviting the interpretation that Black women deserved or even enjoyed being degraded and defiled.

Patrick Moynihan on ‘The Negro Family’

Patrick Moynihan’ 1965 report developed the ‘Black matriarchy thesis’.

Moynihan argued that Black women had disproportionate power in the family because Black men had been emasculated. Black women were responsible for this due to their promiscuity and their domineering attitude. He failed to analyse the impact of race and class in creating the conditions of disadvantage faced by Black families.

As Davis shows, Moynihan was not original as he was reproducing the ideas in the Black sociologist Franklin Fraziers’ 1939 book, The Negro Family.

Franklin Frazier wrote about the Black family as early as 1939 and Angela Davis remarks that Moynihan’s ideas largely reproduced the work of this Black sociologist

There was an acceptance of the idea that because slaveholders did not acknowledge paternity (including their own) that this meant that slave families were matrilineal and that fathers were non-existent or unimportant. 

But Davis shows that Black families did constitute themselves, but that everything was done to destroy them by selling mothers/fathers/children individually and breaking families up.

The fact that women had to do everything they could to survive and protect there children does not mean that the Black family was dysfunctional.

Nevertheless, the myth persists that the problems of Black men and women are the fact of women.

The author of the 2021 UK Commission on Ethnic and Racial Disparities, Tony Sewell has one been repeating the line that it is absent fathers and matrilinear Black families that are responsible for social problems among Black boys including knife crime and underachievement at school.

An article I wrote about the report authored by Sewell

Angela Davis describes how both women and men participated in domestic duties equally because doing so allowed them to create home and have a space of autonomy outside of the slave conditions of labour.

The Black woman ‘was performing the only labour of the slave community which could not be directly and immediately claimed by the oppressor’ (p. 32).

So, Black women did not experience housework in the same way that white women did because that was the only realm in which white women could work. This raises questions about the creation of a universal feminist approach later on – when white women were fighting to enter the world of work, Black women were fighting not to work under conditions of superexploitation.

The importance of home lasts well beyond the era of slavery. As bell hooks reminds, although women often face issues of violence etc within the home, the home also serves as a place of refuge away from the harshness of the world outside.  So unlike for white women, who sought to escape the home and mainstream feminism which theorized the home as intrinsically oppressive to women, for bell hooks (1990), the ‘”home”, despite its many threats and tensions, also represents a necessary space of emotional recuperation in the face of dehumanization, depletion and racist terror (Gargi Bhattacharyya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism, loc. 924).

From Gargi Bhattacharyya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism (2018) – talks about this in relation to those she calls ‘edge populations’

Racial capitalism: ‘a process by which capitalist formations create by default the edge-populations that serve as the other and limit the working class…. being cast out or pushed to the edge becomes the occasion of racialising discourses and practices’ (GB, loc. 152).

Edge populations of racial capitalism see their own social reproduction ‘relegated to a space beyond or alongside the wage economy.’

The status and conditions of their work mean that the processes of social reproduction – for households and communities – are jeopardised. For example, parents working different shifts, migrant mothers living o/seas leaving their children with extended families, no time, money or space to organise family and community gatherings, etc. 

Gargi Bhattacharyya on racial capitalism and social reproduction

Black feminist thinkers remind us that the reason for invention of theories such as the pathology of Black family life or the various stereotypes and controlling images about Black women (Hill Collins) is because women have always resisted.

Maroon communities, composed of fugitive slaves and their descendants, could be found throughout the South as early as 1642 and as late as 1864

Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class, p. 38.

The same was true in the Caribbean and Brazil, etc.

Angela Davis reminds that not only were women involved in revolts and in escaping slaves (e.g. Harriet Tubman) but they also resisted in more subtle ways through teaching reading and writing clandestinely.

Interview with Stella Dadzie

Lola Olufemi speaks with Stella Dadzie

The genderlessness of Black enslaved women that AD writes about points to the problem of gender as a whole as it relates to racialisation.

Gender and race have been looked at as separate systems but they are closely interrelated and in fact each relies on the other.

Race is no more mythical and fictional than gender,’ ‘both are powerful fictions.

Maria Lugones

For Black feminists and decolonize feminists this is because the very idea of gender, like race, is a Eurocentric invention that was then imposed onto colonised and enslaved people.

These people were then supposed ro live up to ideals of femininity and masculinity that were not derived from their own societies and traditions. When they did not live up to these ideals, they were judged as having failed to be good women and/or men (relates to the pathologisation of the Black/Indigenous family).

The late Argentinian philosopher Maria Lugones theorised gender itself as colonial.

Maria Lugones

She said that under colonisation, not only did Europeans distinguish between themselves as human and Indigenous people as non-human, but it also imposed the system of gender as a binary with man at one end and woman at the other.

Before this there was no understanding in non-European societies of binary gender. All kinds of genders existed. 

Normative European visions of what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman were imposed on Indigenous people. 

Because they did not conform to the strict ideas about the gender divide that Europeans had, their humanity was put into question.

This means that, for Lugones, the answer to Sojourner Truth’s questions, “Ain’t I a woman’ is clearly ‘No’ because ‘no colonised females are women.’

Sojourner Truth

So, colonised people are not only oppressed by colonisation and the racism that accompanied it, they are also oppressed by the gender system which forces them into gender roles.

Christianity played a big role in this, by imposing highly gendered roles on people and turning their Indigenous practices into sinful acts.

Lugones calls this the coloniality of gender.

Black Rainbow

To further elaborate, as Maria Lugones has written, we cannot understand the colonial imposition of a gender system on non-European societies without understanding Anibal Quijano’s ‘coloniality of power’.

Lugones’ foregrounds heterosexism as ‘a key part of how gender fuses with race in the operations of colonial power’ (Lugones 2007: 186).

Lugones argues that focusing on the patriarchy alone (make oppression) obscures how oppressive gender formation is not solely the result of male supremacy, but of heterosexuality, capitalism and racial classification in conjunction with each other. We cannot fully understand what she calls ‘the present organisation of life’ without theorising the relationship between the colonial/modern gender system and the birth of global colonial capitalism.

But, for Lugones, male-centred decolonial approaches have sidelined gender and sexuality. Her approach is to examine the workings of the ‘coloniality of power’ from a perspective that sees gender and sexuality as central to ongoing colonial practices.

She argues for placing the theorisation of intersectionality by majority world and Black feminist scholars alongside the ‘coloniality of power’ theory to suggest the framework of the ‘modern/colonial gender system’.

According to Lugones, while Quijano understands that ‘all power is structured in relations of domination, exploitation and conflict’, including over sex and gender, he nonetheless accepts the ‘global, Eurocentred, capitalist understanding of what gender is about.’

He does not foreground the fact that the arrangement of gender around patriarchy and heterosexism is historical, not natural. They emerged from the modern/colonial system. 

Quijano’s model stresses race as the ‘basic and universal social classification of the population of the planet’ consolidated by European domination in the colonial era.

However, the significance of colonial rule for birthing this system, means that coloniality goes further than racial classification and its attendant social domination because it ‘permeates all control of sexual access, collective authority, labour, subjectivity/intersubjectivity and the production of knowledge.’

Modernity, for Quijano, fuses ‘the experiences of colonialism and coloniality with the necessities of capitalism’ and is the other axis – along with coloniality – of global Eurocentred capitalist power.

For Lugones, Quijano’s model of different structural axes does not stress enough the intersecting nature of these power dimensions. She draws on K. Crenshaw’s theorisation of intersectionality which emphasises the co-constitutive nature of race and gender, which goes against the tendency to see them as separate and homogenous.

Seeing these dimensions as separate lends itself to ignoring violence against women of colour for example. 

For Lugones, Quijano’s understanding of gender reduces it to a question of ‘the organisation of sex, its resources, and products,’ which is a dispute among men. This does not take into account the role of women and variably gendered people, and their specific articulation under colonialism.

She refers to intersexuality as an example of the way in which heterosexism played a significant role in colonialism. Intersex people were ‘recognised in many tribal societies prior to colonisation without assimilation to the sexual binary.’ However, under colonialism, they were imagined as evidence of the sexual threat posed by Indigenous peoples, requiring their conformity to Eurocentred gender norms.

So, the naturalising of sexual differences is as significant for colonial domination as the naturalisation of difference as race, instituted through the imposition of modern science. 

Lugones cites research by Yoruban scholar Oyeronké Oyewumi, for example, that demonstrates that colonial rule had a direct effect on the organisation of reproduction. Native American scholars, such as Paula Gunn, have demonstrated the acceptability of third gendering and homosexuality within their cultures prior to colonisation.

To recap, colonialism constructed non-white women as existing outside gender, while white bourgeois women were the only ones to have ‘counted as women.’ Lugones demonstrates this by pointing to the consistent identification of colonised racialised women with animals; they were sexually marked as female but ‘without the characteristics of femininity,’ giving rise both to sexual abuse and enslavement. 

The mass disappearances of First Nations women to this day in Canada, as well as the disportionate rates of incarceration of Aboriginal women and the theft of their children far beyond the official end of the ‘stolen generations’ is testament to this ongoing attitude.

The colonial gender system has both a light and a dark side.

The light side constructs gender relations for Europeans hegemonically, ordering gender into the binary of men and women along bourgeois norms.

The dark side is thoroughly violent. It forces majority world women and third gendered people into relations of sexual and labour exploitation, often resulting in their death.

As Lugones shows, centring the role of gender domination does not sideline the significance of race, but rather demonstrates how the theorisation of one in the absence of the other obscures the workings of colonialism which relied equally on the radical alteration of reproduction and gender relations in precolonial societies as much as it did on the understanding of the meaning of human difference via the imposition of race as a system of power on a planetary scale. 

We watched this short informative film in class

The debates among Marxist feminism and between them and other feminists about the relationships between capitalism and patriarchy were foundational in feminist theorizing. However, by the late 1970s and 1980s, they were being increasingly critiqued by black feminists, majority world feminists and lesbian feminists who felt that these debates did not adequately account for their experiences.

These activists and theorists, most significantly bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Chandra Mohanty, the feminists of the Combahee River Collective (1977) amongst others, put forward the critique that the framing of debates about patriarchy by white western feminists failed to take note of how white women have benefited from imperialist and racist structures.

In noting the significance of white privilege in shaping relationships between women, Black feminists demonstrated the difficulties of talking about a common sisterhood. The same critique is extended to the relationships between middle and upper class women and working class women. Much feminist theorizing that focused on the inequalities produced by capital was generated within the academy. However, the discrepancies between the class privileges of women academics and the working class women whose lives they theorized often went unnoticed.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on the significance of the Combahee River Statement

Critiques of this nature opened the way for important debates in feminist epistemology which stressed reflexivity and participative research in which the imbalanced power relations between the researcher and the researched were problematised and addressed through the choice of methodologies that opposed the artificiality of positivist research that stressed objectivity and the neutrality of the researcher. 

Feminist standpoint theorists such as Sandra Harding, in particular, took the view that there was a particular woman’s voice that could only come through by engaging with the researcher’s own position as a woman and exploring her relationship with other female subjects.

However, the critique from Black feminists in particular complexified standpoint theory by questioning the notion of universal womanhood. Difference and specificity of experience became key concepts in enriching and personalizing standpoint, questioning universalist assumptions for the reproduction of the very power imbalances they sought to overturn. In other words, it was insufficient to critique men’s domination over women and to see the world as divided between those who exerted patriarchy and benefited from it (men) and those who were oppressed by it (women). 

Being aware of the privilege of white and upper class women and the ways in which they participated in the subjugation of black, poor and majority world women meant that it became necessary, as Chandra Mohanty pointed out, to question the term ‘“woman” as a basis for unity.’

In Week 7, on Methodologies we will look at Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Aboriginal Women’s Standpoint theory.

Aileen Moreton-Robinson famously in her book  Talking Up to the White Woman’ has critiqued the role of white feminism in omitting the ‘deep imbrication of race’ from an analysis which foregrounds gender and sexuality alone.

As Moreton-Robinson writes in a piece reflecting on ‘Talking Up to The White Woman’:

For Indigenous women all white feminists benefit from colonisation; they are overwhelmingly represented and disproportionately predominant, have the key roles, and constitute the norm, the ordinary and the standard of womanhood in Australia. White women are not represented to themselves as being white; instead they position themselves as variously classed, sexualised, aged and abled. The disjuncture between representation and self-presentation of both Indigenous women and white feminists means that the involvement of Indigenous women in Australian feminism is, and will remain, partial.

Moreton-Robinson 2006: 246

The challenge to white feminism and the development of Black feminist thought was not without its iosseus, Certain Black feminists fell into the very essentialism they sought to critique. Heidi Safia Mirza for example critiques black feminism for operating with ‘essentialist definitions of blackness’ (1997). Focuses on the differences between different groups of women lend themselves to the reification of these very categories so that they become universalised in themselves thus failing to radically overturn the universalism of the category woman that spurred their critique.

The theory of intersectionality emerged in critical legal studies in the 1980s and was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black feminist legal theorist who is often thought of as the instigator of Critical Race Theory. She wrote that identity politics often led to the differences that exist within groups being ignored, leading thus to tensions between groups and the break-down of solidarity between, for example, white and black feminists. Rather than be fixated on the ‘large’ differences that appear to divide us, we should be alive to the ways in which we are all composed of a variety of identities and exposed to various structures of oppression that may shape our experiences in different ways and at different times. 

In particular, Crenshaw was interested in the ways in which patriarchy and race intersect in violence against women of colour. It is impossible to look at either factor in isolation. So too, just as women can never be reduced to the category ‘woman’, her life experiences can never be said to be shaped by her gender, her ethnic identity, her class, her age, whether she is able-bodies or not, and so on. Rather an individual’s life includes all of these facets, and so any theory that attempts to explain women’s condition should take account of these important intersections. Crenshaw explains how this works in practice by asking us to consider the analogy of a traffic accident.

Theories of intersectionality have been influential because they appear to describe reality more adequately than what have been referred to as ‘add-on’ or ‘triple oppression’ theories (Claudia Jones), those that look at the various forms of discrimination faced by women as occurring in separate realms. Such theories do not see race and class, or race, gender, class and sexuality for example as imbricated in each other. However, most theories of race would agree that it is impossible to explain racism historically without grounding it in an understanding of capitalism.

Claudia Jones

Although intersectionality has enabled us to go beyond additive theories that see race, class, gender and so on as separate, it is not free of problems. 

For eg. Jennifer Nash asks us to free intersectionality from its origins in Black feminist theory arguing that that has led to unproductive arguments about who the theory belongs to and means that many Black feminists cannot take enough distance to think about what may be insufficient in intersectionality theory.

Some have argued that intersectionality is too flat or horizontal as a theory; it does not take into account that fact that reality is more messy and multi-layered that the traffic accident analogy that Crenshaw proposes.

Jasbir Puar in ‘I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess’ argues for analyses of race and gender that are less focused on identity positions and more on how race and gender are always what she calls assemblages of many different things – there is no pure position as X (a Black woman) that is not troubled by many other factors – class, ability, nationality, sexuality, etc. Puar is interested in how these things are composed and are contingent on each other (more similar to Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation – processes are lived through others processes – ‘race is the modality in which class is lived’).

To read more on this, please have a look at my blog on Alex Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus in which I discuss both his and Puar’s approach to intersectionality.

As a classroom exercise, please read the short text by Francoise Verges and answer the questions on the slide.


Alana Lentin