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Understanding the Intersectionality of Race and Gender

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Intersectionality of Race and Gender in Women of Color

Many feminists such as Friedan criticize the sexist institutions that keep women in their homes and away from the workforce but fail to see that this is not the only form of sexist oppression that exists. Women of color experience discrimination in the intersectionality of race and gender an issue that is often ignored and misunderstood by both men of all races and the white majority. In The Damnation of Women Dubois demonstrates how the long-lasting effects of slavery and increasing economic independence enforces the continued oppression of black women while Bell Hooks in Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory makes the same assertion by analyzing the dynamics of white feminism. Although their arguments differ both theorists make valid claims that provide a more complete view of the marginalized position of women of color within contemporary American society.

In The Damnation of Women, Dubois discusses the ways in which increasing economic independence of women was leading to an increase in unwed mothers and childless wives. Dubois argues that only at the sacrifice of intelligence and attainment of their full potential can women bear children, this phenomenon he called the damnation of women (DuBois, 1). All women are struck with this burden but black women are especially impacted. Due to income inequalities, women of color are compelled into the workforce at higher rates than white women (Dubois, 9). Black men at the time were earning significantly less than black women due to increasing demand of domestic work and the expansion of industries in urban areas. Dubois states that while fathers and brothers remain in the country and towns toiling at low wages, sisters and mothers move to the cities and as a result “Negro women outnumber the men nine or ten to eight in many cities” (Dubois, 11). Therefore, this migration encourages the economic independence of women of color while at the same time tearing apart black families (Dubois, 11). This is confirmed by the fact that “Among native white women one in ten is separated from her husband by death, divorce, or desertion. Among Negroes the ratio is one in seven” (Dubois, 10). Dubois also refers to the ideal of culture within colored groups which is based upon the mother appearing as a nurse and homemaker, while the man remains the sole breadwinner. This ideal clashed with the emergence of an economically independent black women and thus also lead to broken families(Dubois, 9). Another factor of the black women experience DuBois emphasizes is the long-lasting impacts of slavery. Under slavery black women had no legal marriages, families or control of their children. DuBois goes into a detailed account of how black women were sexually exploited during times of slavery and describes how they “were mated as the stock of the plantation were mated, not to be the companion of a loved and chosen husband, but to be the breeder of human cattle for the field or the auction block” (Dubois, 5). White men would use black women as objects of pleasure and “publicly sneer at the body he had privately blasphemed” (Dubois, 5). While black women were being sexually exploited and starving their own children to feed those of their master’s white women married within wedlock and never were forced to endure this unimaginable abasement (Dubois, 6). This contrast in the experiences of black and white women is crucial to the understanding of the intersectionality of race and gender because it shows the origins of their continued oppression. Discrimination against black women is a result of the abuses that they faced based on their race and gender. White women, conversely, only experienced the societal repressions of being female. Dubois proposes that in order to have the union of love and work civilization must learn to value both the beauty of creating life and the need of power and intelligence for women. Dubois argues that the future women must have an occupation, economic independence, knowledge and the right of motherhood at her own discretion (Dubois, 4). This concept was very controversial at the time because it suggested the endorsement of contraceptives and abortion. Dubois didn’t see imprisoning women in their homes and abolishing their new economic freedom as a viable option and states that men should no longer be paid for work they don’t do for the sake of upholding outdated gender roles (Dubois, 4). Instead of burdening the overburdened Dubois believed we could prevent race suicide by honoring mother hood. Insisting on women’s suffrage and paying women what they earn were also ways he suggested that this issue could be remedied (Dubois, 12). Ultimately, Dubois concludes that god has sent us a world in which women’s freedom and married motherhood are inextricably linked. Due to this unfortunate dilemma women, primarily white women, should stay in their homes and raise children instead of offering them up for clothes or other material gains (Dubois,12).

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Black women are the less likely to marry or remarry than black men or women from any other racial or ethnic groups. 7 out of 10 Black women are unmarried and 3 out of 10 may never marry(Hurt et al, 2). Contemporary sociological studies on the reasons why black women are disproportionately single demonstrate a continuation of the phenomena identified by Dubois. In the study Married Black Men’s Opinions as to Why Black Women Are Disproportionately Single: A Qualitative Study by Hurt et al. qualitative interviews were conducted with 52 married black men in northeast Georgia in order to understand their perspective on why black women tend to remain single. In their research, they discovered that among men, there is a positive correlation between higher incomes, job security and the likelihood of marriage (Hurt et al, 89). Among black men, scholars have observed a decline in well-paying jobs and a reduction in employment prospects, this occurrence has been labeled the “depletion effect” (Hurt et al, 92). Evidence suggests that Black women have advanced more in education and job opportunities relative to black men. Black women who traditionally worked in the labor force to sustain their families have become increasingly independent and thus less likely to marry solely for financial support (Hurt et al, 93). 37 percent of the men from the interviews stated that economically self-sufficient women had a strong sense of independence therefore leading them to believe that they didn’t need a man and remaining unmarried (Hurt et al, 105). This perspective provides evidence of Dubois assertion that the economic independence of women would lead to broken families and unmarried mothers. Researchers also contend that during times of slavery black men were removed from their families and communities therefore their contribution was often biological rather than social or financial. Slavery conditions undermined the formation of permanent unions and the leadership roles of Black men in their families. Coping with persistent inequality led to a spirit of independence and a sense of personal rights among black women which has place a strain on relationships between black men and women (Hurt et al, 96). This also upholds Dubois views because it demonstrates how the unique struggles of Black women resulting from slavery has shaped their character differently from that of white women. Slavery placed black women at a fundamental disadvantage and the consequences are evident in their continued oppression and in the tension that it places on their relationships. Although the impacts of slavery and increasing economic independence were key components for explaining the disproportionality of single black women other factors, not accounted for by Dubois, were identified as well. Forty-nine percent of the participants cited the effects of male incarceration on the availability of marriageable Black males. Blacks, and Black males in particular, have been imprisoned at higher rates than Whites or women. One third of Black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are in prison. Incarceration not only reduces the availability of black males but also does not allow them to provide the support that women seek in a relationship (Hurt et al, 106). 34% of respondents also maintained that the women are not at fault, but pointed to men not fulfilling their responsibilities to themselves (e.g., engaging in criminal activity, failing to pursue higher education) and to their female partners/spouses (e.g., failing to actively parent their biological children, failing to commit to a relationship) (Hurt et al, 106). Lastly, 74 percent of men in the study cited many negative stereotypes about black women as the reason for singlehood. These stereotypes included that they didn’t exhibit ladylike behaviors, placed more value on men who could offer material possessions and status, engaged in controlling behavior and were not approachable (Hurt et al, 106). A suggestion made by researchers for alieving this disparity was that “scholars should work with policymakers and legislators to address structural social inequities (e.g., unemployment and underemployment, incarceration) that often challenge enduring relationship formation and maintenance in the Black community” (Hurt et al, 108). This study supports many of claims made by Dubois and offers a similar solution to addressing this issue but it also supplies evidence for aspects not addressed by DuBois, that could account for the high rate of singlehood and the continued oppression of Black women

Bell Hooks in her piece Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory addresses the persistent discrimination of Black women but through the lens of the white feminist’s movement. White feminism as described by Friedan in Feminine Mystique only focuses on the concerns of upper class white women but claims to be inclusive of all women in order to legitimitate it and advance personal agendas. White feminists argue that all women are oppressed through sexism but fail to recognize that oppression implies absence of choice, which they have. Women of color suffer exploitation and discrimination which is intrinsically tied to both race and gender. The concept of “common oppression” used within the feminist movement does not account for the variations of experience caused by differences in class, status and privilege (Hooks, 6). Friedan and other feminists have made plight of white women synonymous with the condition affecting all American women when in reality at the time one third of women were in the workforce and many of them were concerned about economic survival and racial and ethnic discrimination (Hooks, 2). This one-dimensional perspective on women’s reality has therefore become representative of the feminist movement but is not representative of all women (Hooks, 3). Hooks continues to argue that white women do not understand the unimaginable oppressive situations women of color face which forces them to acquire an awareness of patriarchal politics from lived experiences and to develop strategies of resistance even if they are not on an organized basis (Hooks, 11). Within the feminist movement black women were not treated as equals. White feminists expected black women to provide first-hand account of their experiences but would decide if their accounts were valid. If they didn’t fall under white women’s perceptions of “real” blackness, which often constituted ideas of poor black people being uneducated and streetwise, they were dismissed (Hooks, 12). The fear of encountering racism is one of the main reasons black women refused to join feminist movements (Hooks, 13). Racist stereotypes of the strong, superhuman black woman often led white women to ignore how black women were victimized within society and the role they played in this victimization. By projecting these stereotypes onto black women, white women are able to maintain a false image of themselves as powerless and passive victims and divert attention from their aggressiveness, power and control over others. By not acknowledging the social status and privilege that they have white women are unable to transcend racism and thus limit their understanding of women’s overalls social status (Hooks, 15). Thus, in this way a movement that was created to help women excludes women of color and upholds the subjugation of black women. Hooks asserts that as long as any group continues to define liberation as achieving social equality with white men, they have an interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others (Hooks, 16). This statement is crucial to her argument because it demonstrates how white women and even black men perpetuate continuous inequality since their idea of liberation is inherently flawed and based upon a system of oppression. Hooks believes that the solution to this issue is greater representation of black women shaping feminist theory due to their unique position within society. Black women have no position of privilege or group that they can discriminate against thus their lived experiences are critical in challenging classist, sexist, racist social structures and ideologies (Hooks, 16). By using the perspectives of Black women feminist theory can be reformed to create a truly inclusive liberatory ideology and movement (Hooks, 17).

The importance of the intersectionality of race and gender and its role in the marginalization of black women is evident in contemporary American society. In the study Use of an Intersectional Framework to Understand Black Women’s Racial and Gender Identities by Isis H. intersectionality, role/identity conflict, and role/identity complexity theories were applied to 89 black women in order to examine their perceptions of their racial and gender identities, their experiences related to the intersection of these identities and the relationships of these factors to their psychological well-being (Settles, 589). Evidence suggests that intersection of race and gender is particularly important for understating the experiences of black women because of the complex political and social context in which they live in the US. The three ways in which this intersection occurs for women of color is structurally, representational and politically (Settles, 589). Structurally, “woman” and “Black person” are both considered to be lower status identities in the US. The position of marginalization of black women is especially unique because they are subjected by both racism, sexism and at times even members of their own community (ex. experiencing sexism within the black community and racism from other women) (Settles, 589). Representationally, black women are portrayed by the media in ways that uphold negative and often sexualized stereotypes. Research has shown that black women who endorse these stereotypic roles often suffer from lower self-esteem and depression, illustrating the negative psychological impacts of these representations (Settles, 590). Politically, there is tension between the goals of black people and women as groups, which could create an internal conflict for black women. Black women often feel torn between conflicting ideas, beliefs and aims of social political groups that represent women and those that represent blacks. Under these circumstances racial identity is often more salient than gender identity due to more perceived experiences of racism than sexism (Settles, 590). Findings of this study were that black women have a combined identity of both “black” and “woman” because the discrimination the face is often an amalgamation of both racism and sexism. An example of this fusion can be observed in racialized sexual harassment. Racialized sexual harassment is common in stereotypes and caricatures of black women such a Jezebel which connotes that black women are promiscuous or Sapphire, which suggests that they are aggressive (Settles, 597). Researchers also found that even positive aspects of the black women identity were tied to pressures that resulted from their low position in the social structure. For example, the felt the increased burden of an expectation to be strong and once they were granted opportunities they were not followed up on (Settles, 598). Discrimination and stereotyping of black women also had psychological and practical costs such as the stress of being expected to fail, being overlooked at school or work, having fewer job opportunities, or being paid less for their work when those opportunities exist (Settles, 598). Black women also described feelings of isolation primarily from white people but from other black women as well due to issues of colorism (Settles, 599). Black women tended to define themselves in relation to how others viewed them but also to some extent in their opposition to the perceptions of others. Overcoming negative stereotypes or experiences often shaped their identity and allowed them to view themselves as strong and independent (Settles, 599). The study depicts a continuation of concepts discussed by Hooks because it demonstrates race and gender are linked in the experiences if black woman and how oppression resulting from both aspects of their identity is both distinct and detrimental.

The analysis of both Dubois and Hooks complement one another in providing a more complete view of the intersectionality of race and gender in black women because each represents distinct aspects of the same issue. The work of Dubois is critical because he situates the contemporary conditions of black women in the historical context of slavery and focuses on their victimization. Dubois also demonstrates how the struggles of women of color are magnified by racial inequality and how slavery had placed them at a fundamental disadvantage not experienced by their white counterparts. Dubois argument on how economic independence has led to broken families and increased singlehood among black woman contains some validity as evidenced by contemporary studies but much like Genovese in Severing the Ties that Bind: Women, the Family and Social Institutions, takes on a sexist view. At the end of his argument although he does not agree with the ideal of culture that implies that women should remain as homemakers he ultimately endorses it as the best alternative. Similarly, Genovese’s argument that individualism and women rights destructs the social institution of family is misguided because it places the sole responsibility of sustaining the family on women. Women’s desire to advance outside of the home is the not the only reason for the disintegration of families. The contemporary study of singlehood among black women demonstrates that many other factors such as negative stereotypes and increased incarceration contribute to this phenomenon, Dubois and to an even lesser extent, Genovese, due not account for this. Hooks also shows how many women of color unlike their white counterparts, don’t have the option of not working, Dubois assertion that women should remain in the home does not take under consideration the absence of choice. In her critique of Freidan, Hooks also shows how by equivocating the experiences of upper class white women to that of all women, feminism continues to perpetuate the exploitation of black women as a means of personal gain. Hooks provides a more objective perspective of the experiences of black women because she condemns both sexism and racism. In her interpretation, she describes how feminist movements uphold racism and racial movements uphold sexism by excluding black women. Dubois’s belief that women should remain at home and Friedan’s premise that all women suffer a “common oppression” are both based upon ideologies that continue to oppress black women. Hooks emphasis on the importance of redefining liberation is pivotal because it shows how both feminist and racial movements in attempts to achieve the status of white men fail to advocate for true equality and continue to exploit other groups.

Understanding the intersectionality of race and gender is fundamental to all social movements because by supporting each other’s movements, marginalized groups, can achieve progress towards true equality. Many women of color have been impacted by injustices within the criminal justice system. An example of this is the sad story of Cyntoia Brown who is spending life in prison for killing her pimp in self-defense while a victim of sex trafficking. Since Cyntoia is a woman, one would assume that self-proclaimed feminists would be advocating for her release, but criminal injustice has been labeled as race a problem. Black lives matter also impacts many women of color because it is their brothers, fathers and sons which are being killed by instances of police brutality. Women of color themselves are also being targeted as can be seen with the cases of Sandra Bland, Charleena Lyles and countless others. Since feminist movements claim to be advocates for all women the assumption would be that they would stand in solidarity against these injustices but its only when these issues impact white women are they considered valid. A perfect example of this phenomena was the women’s marches taking place after the election of Donald Trump. White feminists everywhere were outraged by his sexist commentary and proposed policies and viewed it as a terrible injustice against “all” women but where were these same white women at the protests against police violence? If feminists truly want to advocate for “all” women they need to reevaluate their priorities or redefine their movement. White feminists still benefit from white privilege and could use that privilege to protect women of color by supporting black liberation movements but instead they continue to view race as separate from gender and uphold racialized systems of oppression. Many black power movements have also been criticized for sexism and for placing the struggles of black men above those of black women. Until these groups can surpass divisions created by race, class, status and gender effective social change will not be attained.


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