Sunday, May 15, 2011

Racism and Sexual Oppression, History and Coalition

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?


t said...

Super-interesting post! It's given me a lot to think about, and I think it may be worth picking up a copy on the basis of your detailed look at it.

One (half-formed) thought/question, though: Could McWhorter's focus on the marginalization of the non-normal catch too much in its net? For example, the danger with intersectionality theories is that we risk papering over the particularlities of various sorts of oppressions. Of course, I think this is a risk we just have to take. And as you put it, material history doesn't always draw the distinctions that theoreticians do (sometimes it's just a fact that two sorts of oppressions are mutually constitutive and deeply intertwined). So, of course, I'm on board with the project of constructing a sound approach to intersectionality. But the other horn of the dilemma, i.e. papering over particularity, is still a problem to be avoided. Might not McWhorter's position (i.e. marginalization of the non-normal) tend too much toward the latter? I don't know, but it's something that I thought of while reading the post.

Also, does McWhorter leave room for a "critical" normality? In other words, is her view that all normality, as such, is oppressive? Certainly every consensus rules out certain alternatives. But aren't there cases in which that is a good thing? For example, sometimes sedimented gains from past struggles become normal just as older, oppressive practices get dismantled and deemed beyond the pale. Shouldn't critical theory strive to marginalize certain oppressive practices and make them non-normal? Again, it's not clear to me that McWhorter would even disagree here (my sense, from what you say, is that she wouldn't). I'd love to get your thoughts! Her position sounds extremely interesting and seems to get almost everything I would want to get out of a good theory of racial and sexual oppression!

Arvilla said...

Glad you liked the post. And good questions. Firstly, I think McWhorter does a really good job of walking that tight rope of intersectionality. By the way, she actually says she is not doing intersectionality, which kind of reflects a division in women's studies about what intersectionality is. A lot of poststructuralist feminists distance themselves from intersectionality because they think it always entails beliefs in easily identifiable structures and that a clear structure to how oppression works (almost like they take Crenshaw's metaphor of the intersecting roads way too literally). Other feminists have come to see that intersectionality can make room for a whole lot of complexity and can be adapted to poststructuralism, so long as the theorist maintains that categories do not work independently of each other. There's a real debate about whether that's far too simplified a definition of intersectionality that could allow pretty much anything but vulgar identity politics to come under the tent. I just lay this out to iterate that McWhorter doesn't think she's an intersectional theorist, but I do.

The label aside, though, you're right that there is a real risk of "papering over particularity"if you start to identify overlap instead of looking for departure. I think what I see to be one of the basic, necessary tenets of intersectional theory (as demonstrated best by the black and postcolonial feminists who first developed it)is that you're trying to be more specific about systems of oppression and identity categories than ever before. McWhorter is definitely sensitive to this. I think her argument is, ultimately, all about the need for specificity. It's historical specificity that shows her race and sexual oppression came from the same history, but it's also historical specificity that tells her it's dangerous to just lump them together.

However, and this is a good segue to your question about normality and critical normality, I think her almost religious Foucaultianism (read her first book, Bodies and Pleasures for evidence of this) makes her fairly uncritically accept this idea that contemporary politics are all about creating and regulating the normal, and that almost all claims of deviance and appropriateness belong to this oppressive scheme. I don't think she would like the idea of a critical normativity. I think she thinks the normal is the problem. The problem is not just that it's an oppressive idea of normal.

And here's how I think this ties back to your question of specificity: It seems to me the genealogical imperative for specificity runs directly counter to this idea that all social oppressions are about the normal and the abnormal. This categorization actually gets us much broader than race, class, sex, ever did! Suddenly it's not just a few big systems of oppression dividing us (which Foucaultians hate because it's a metanarrative!) but just some overarching paradigm of normal and abnormal. Is that really the best end goal we can reach for with McWhorter's painstakingingly detailed historical account?

It seems a really tough balance between that close analysis to find the overlap in the specific and the conclusions it brings us too, which is maybe a wide net. This really leaves activism to simply the challenging of the normal. Isn't there another way to go? Can't we think instead about what it means to challenge each of these specific manifestations of abnormality?

t said...

I really like the point about intersectionality being about adding more specificity. That makes a lot of sense, and helps clarify things for me a great deal. I also like the emphasis on history. Systems of oppression, after all, only intersect inasmuch as they co-originated and co-evolved historically together in a particular way. It's a bold claim to say that slavery helped inaugurate modern racism, but I think it's the right one. The last thing we need is a timeless, ahistorical approach to racism- if we're ever going to end it then we'll need to get clear on why it developed when it did and how it is bound up with the history of the sort of society we live in.