I've just finished Ladelle McWhorter's awe-inspiring 2009 book, Racial and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America. First of all, I have to say that the title is terrible, and not because it doesn't fit. It does fit. That's exactly what the book is about. The title is terrible because it does not begin to capture how provocative McWhorter's arguments about the topic are. Having just set the copy down, I am eager to isolate and articulate just what makes this book so compelling and jaw dropping.
McWhorter opens the book with a very personal introduction, in which she tells the story of her reaction as a white lesbian to the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Horrified and devastated by the reports of his death, McWhorter attends a vigil hosted by LGBT undergraduates at Penn State University. After some awkward attempts to say something meaningful about what happened, the crowd appears to be on verge of dispersing, prompting one young member of the crowd to suggest that they ought to sing "We Shall Overcome." But to McWhorter's surprise, none of these young people knows the words to the song. McWhorter says she was raised on the song and can't remember a time before she knew the song, but rather than offering up the words for the young crowd, she stays silent. She remembers instead a time when a young African American man told him he was often offended by the LGBT movement's appropriation of the symbols of the black civil rights movement.
After the vigil disbands, McWhorter still isn't sure whether she should have started the song, in order to offer a mode of healing for the clearly directionless crowd of LGBT people trying to find something to unify them and capture their pain, or, if she was right not to allow it, but the experience is something that prompts her almost decade-long research on the history of what are seen as distinct forms of oppression. What is the connection or overlap? What is distinct? What is it that makes a non-homophobic African American object to the identification of LGBT activists with black civil rights activists?
McWhorter's answer comes partially through the way her book is structured. What follows is not a comparative history of the two strains of oppression and the counter-movements they create, as one might expect from her line of questioning, but one historical story (or genealogy, as the very Foucaultian McWhorter insists). The history of racial and sexual oppression in Anglo-America begins in colonial America with the buying and selling of slaves of all races. McWhorter traces the invention of race to the economic and labor needs of dominant classes in America. It was not racism that bore slavery, McWhorter boldly asserts, but slavery that bore racism.
McWhorter's argument painstakingly reconstructs the travel of race from a question of lineage, to one of morphology, to one of biology, obsessed with processes and developments in the late 19th century, a phase in which race became wholeheartedly a phenomenon of sexual practices, and the practice of racism, one of the regulation of that sexuality. McWhorter does not distinguish between the eugenics projects that limited non-white migration and the eugenics projects that sterilized poor whites, or between the eugenics projects that led to the segregation of African Americans from all social services that might help them to thrive and those that institutionalized white Americans with disabilities or castrated gay men and circumcised lesbians. The story Americans have identified as scientific racism is at once the story of racism and sexual oppression. All of these practices, McWhorter argues, were geared toward the proliferation of white supremacy and the eventual domination of a strong, virile national race, and the methods employed were all meant to identify and then contain sexual practices not in line with this mission.
A couple of profound interventions her argument and methods make:
1-The idea that systems of oppression intersect is an understatement, given McWhorter's argument. Material history does not necessarily make these distinctions between systems, even if certain historical actors try to make them discursively for strategic purposes. We must acknowledge this overlap or we risk being fragmented by multiple identity categories, not recognizing that our complicity with some systems of oppression actually feed our oppression by other systems.
2-McWhorter redefines racism. Racism for McWhorter is not the assumption that all members of a race are the same, similarly inferior, and acting on that assumption. (In fact, American eugenicists invented this argument and this concept in order to distance their own practices from Hitlerism. Even though their project was clearly the proliferation of the white race and the elimination of inferior races, they did so, they boasted, through focus on and evaluation of individual characteristics, rather than assumptions about entire groups (231)). McWhorter says the racism we inherent from these movements is racism against the abnormal (291). This is a move that allows critiques of multiple systems of oppression (racism, homophobia, ableism, classism) to share the same ground. It also forces us to stop trying to fight for rights on the grounds that, hey, we're just normal Americans too, rather than insisting that we deserve them because we claim them, refusing to adjust ourselves and fall into this oppressive trap of the normal.
3-History matters...a lot. McWhorter hesitates in the conclusion to say definitively whether she made the right decision not to sing "We Shall Overcome" (which she acknowledges, actually emerged from the labor movement and was then used by black civil rights movements!). Instead, McWhorter offers a nuanced position and acknowledges that she understands the sides people take (I guess this may be frustrating for those hoping she'd solve the problem, rather than explore its contours). She recognizes why calling on that history of the oppression of other minorities is important to LGBT activists who have to contextualize what is happening to them, especially given the history she has just laid out. And, distinguishing viewpoints like that of the African American man she references in the introduction from homophobic African Americans, McWhorter also grants that calling on that history without any real commitment to knowing the specificities of anti-black racism in the United States is a huge problem. What she fears are arguments that merely acknowledge overlap, and then assert that racism and homophobia are two heads on the same beast, without exploring the historical depth of these concepts and the effects these differing histories have. What she objects to further is the utilization or co-opting of black history without any real commitment to coalitional politics and to actually knowing the history of racial struggle in the United States. Her book is a lesson in avoiding both pitfalls.
Some questions: I was thinking a lot about how Common was berated by white conservatives recently, and how so many people can simply tell us it wasn't racist, because what they objected to was his content and not the color of his skin. This is such a shallow understanding of racism. How do we get beyond these frameworks for evaluating racism and propose another, short of asking the person to read McWhorter's book or something?
Furthermore, it seems that simply saying, "Hey, that's racist" is not an adequate response. T's post that tries to uncover what these conservatives gain from playing this racist game is so much stronger as a response. But how do we take it further? And not just show that their rejection of Common is about racializing Obama and his government, but perhaps, as I think McWhorter would demand, that it's about marginalizing the non-normal, and therefore, ensuring that other citizens stay in line and remain normal? How do we ensure that incidents like these not be remembered just as racist moments or incidents, but as signs of the very over-arching, normalizing roots of society? How do we get these public debates to move from classifying events as race events and LGBT events and feminist events and labor events, and start working to show the connections between them?