Racism, Sexism and Intersectionality

Recently I was involved with putting together a special issue of the journal Gender & Society that focused on what we now call “intersectionality” and what, in sociology, we started out calling “the intersection of race, class and gender” back in the late-1980s.  I mention that less out of shameless self-promotion, and more as just an indication that I’m someone who’s been in the field and thinking about the connections between these dimensions of oppression for some time.  And, like anyone in a particular field for awhile, the domain assumptions of that field begin appear self-evident.    It’s sometimes easy to think,“well, obviously, race, class and gender are inseparable and must be considered in relation to each other.”  And, even, after awhile, “everyone knows this by now, there’s nothing new to say here….” and then something like this Op-Ed appears.   Apparently, this 25 year old meme in academia hasn’t quite reached Nicholas Kristof (NB: thanks to careful readers Greg & JJ for catching my mistake!) at the New York Times, who  writes:

At first glance, it may seem that Barack Obama would face a stronger impediment than Hillary Clinton. Experiments have shown that the brain categorizes people by race in less than 100 milliseconds (one-tenth of a second), about 50 milliseconds before determining sex. And evolutionary psychologists believe we’re hard-wired to be suspicious of people outside our own group, to save our ancestors from blithely greeting enemy tribes of cave men. In contrast, there’s no hard-wired hostility toward women, though men may have a hard-wired desire to control and impregnate them.

Yet racism may also be easier to override than sexism. For example, one experiment found it easy for whites to admire African-American doctors; they just mentally categorized them as “doctors” rather than as “blacks.” Meanwhile, whites categorize black doctors whom they dislike as “blacks.”

It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack Kristof’s assumptions.  For today, I’m going to leave aside the drivel about what is, and is not,  “hard-wired” into human behavior and address the larger point Kristof is making here that “racism may be easier to override than sexism.”   To support this claim, he goes on to refer to (but not cite) an experiment involving “African American doctors,” to conclude something about the persistence of racism.  However, he doesn’t mention the gender of the doctors in this experiment.  My guess is that Kristol (and perhaps the experimenters?) presume that the doctors are men and thus, “only race” is relevant.   Kristof here is engaging in a common fallacy of “separate silos,” or parallel systems, of thinking about race, gender (and by extension, class, although he does not explicitly address this in his op-ed).   In this paradigm, race runs along one track, gender along another and class along a third, and they never coincide or overlap.  So, in this way of thinking, it’s possible to talk about “race” as if, “all the Blacks are men,” and to talk about gender as if “all the women are White” (with deep gratitude to this brave volume).     As if.     This is not only a facile, and flawed, way of thinking about race and gender, it actually obfuscates rather than illuminates the way these systems of domination work.  Let me offer a few examples to illustrate what I mean.

The field of intersectionality really began by placing Black women’s lives at the center of the analysis, and that’s still a useful place to start.  In the four-part documentary series I mentioned here recently, “Unnatural Causes,” about social determinants of health, the segment called “When the Bough Breaks,”  focused on infant mortality rates among African Americans.  The filmmakers explore the evidence that regardless of high levels of educational achievement, black women still experienced more premature births or low birth-weight babies than white women who didn’t finish high school.   The reason isn’t genetic differences (researchers compared African immigrants, whites, and U.S.-born blacks and found that native-born blacks still did worse and the health advantage of African immigrants disappears over time).  The most compelling evidence seems to be that the long-term effects of living with racism, and frequently internalizing the effects of that racism, are a leading cause of premature and low birth-weight babies among black women.    So the combination of race (experiencing racism) and gender (internalizing that experience) influences reproductive lives of black women and their children.  There’s no way to sufficiently account for this lived experience in a “separate silos” paradigm in which “racism is easier to overcome than sexism,” as Kristof suggests.

The field of intersectionality has evolved and many scholars now recognize the ways that race, class, and gender are connected in the lived experience of others besides black women.   Yet, there remains a significant blind spot on the part of white liberal feminists to the way these intersect.   For example, in an excellent piece Jessica Hoffman writes about the way skin-color and class privilege shape the way white women frame issues of “safety” as a feminist issue while remaining oblivious to the serious collateral damage this issue wreaks on the lives of men of color (and those who love them) who are targets of a vicious criminal justice machine.   Again, there’s no way to account for the class and race privilege of white women in the “racism is easier to overcome than sexism” paradigm that Kristol posits.

The “separate silos” paradigm also blinds us to the way that race and racism affect our response to sexual violence.   The all-white FLDS religious group in West Texas has recently been the target of an investigation into the sexual assault and systemic rape of over 400 young white girls.  And, the overt racism of the group got it listed as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Yet, the white-dominated media will not likely report on the racism of the group because the story is now framed – exclusively – as one about gender.    Racism also silences discussion of sexual assault of black women by black men, as scholar Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes:

We are silent about black women as victims and survivors of sexual assault by black men. In African American communities rape narratives are not women’s stories.  They are men’s stories.  Rape is tied to the historical legacy of white terror.  Strange fruit hanging from Southern trees has led to a legacy of disbelieving women who report sexual violence and intimidation.

Again, there is no way to understand Harris-Lacewell’s excellent point here that “Rape is tied to the historical legacy of white terror” within a framework that sees “racism” as separate from “sexism.”  Indeed, it’s hard to even understand how Kristof’s statement that “racism is easier to overcome than sexism” continues to have any coherent meaning in the face of Harris-Lacewell’s cogent analysis.

These days it seems that all roads lead back to the discussion of the presidential election, and it is part of Kristof’s piece as well.   It’s not surprising to me that it is black women, once again, who are in the lead in pointing out the need for an intersectional analysis of the election politics.   Over at Sistahletstalk, there are some pressing questions that speak to intersectionality, including this one:

Why aren’t we “publicly” critiquing the racialized gendered sexualized class-based meanings behind the tee shirts, internet slogans, video, and blogs dedicated to Obama Mommas, Obama Girls, and Bro’ (Obama) before Hoe’s (Clinton)? [edited to add links]

These sorts of intersectional critiques are barely a whisper in the blogosphere and completely missing in the larger, mainstream discussions.  The only other place where I’ve read an intersectional analysis is (again, not surprisingly) from Alice Walker, who in her endorsement of Barack Obama writes this:

It is hard to relate what it feels like to see Mrs. Clinton (I wish she felt self-assured enough to use her own name) referred to as “a woman” while Barack Obama is always referred to as “a black man.” One would think she is just any woman, colorless, race-less, past-less, but she is not. She carries all the history of white womanhood in America in her person; it would be a miracle if we, and the world, did not react to this fact. How dishonest it is, to attempt to make her innocent of her racial inheritance.

Walker eloquently speaks the truth here.  Why isn’t there an expectation that like Obama,  Hilary will give her own speech on “race” in which she is speaks to the history of white womanhood?  And, similarly, why isn’t there an expectation that Obama address sexual violence and denounce heteronormativity?  It’s not hard to explain. As a culture, we’re so bereft of any meaningful, national discussion about inequality of any kind that we barely have the vocabulary to begin a dialogue, much less pursue all the nuances.   Watching the mainstream news-and-chat shows (or reading the paper of record) try to grapple with the complexities of race and gender is like me trying to discuss Derrida in French: we simply don’t have the language for it.    While some might argue that having a prominent writer for the New York Times such as Nicholas Kristof address racism and sexism at all is a sign of progress (a point I can sometimes be persuaded by), the fact that he frames his analysis in the language of “either/or” shapes the larger debate and influences the way people think about these issues.   And, in so doing, his limited, and limiting, way of framing these issues diminishes the possibilities for a wider audience to understand them in a way that’s both complex and useful.


  1. adia

    Jessie: Thanks for a fantastic post. I have been thinking of these same issues and yesterday read the Kristol piece (you beat me to a post!). I’ve also noticed how infrequently Clinton is referred to as a *white* woman, even as her gender is frequently acknowledged. And to bring up a slightly older issue, when you mention white liberal feminists’ frequent blindness to intersecting inequalities, I am reminded of Geraldine Ferraro’s statements implying that sexism is a bigger barrier than racism, a sentiment that suggests a willfull obliviousness to these categories as intersecting phenomena. Excellent work.

  2. Jessie Author

    Thanks for your astute proofreading skills, Greg, and JJ. I really should include typos in my posts more often as it seems to generate comments. And, no, Greg, it didn’t change my conclusions. I look forward to more substantive comments from you both in the near future. 😉

    Adia ~ thanks, glad you liked the post. Yes, I continue to be, amazed, I guess is the best word, at the obliviousness to intersectionality, especially from people that I assume should know better.

  3. Tim McPike

    Hey, I’m an old, white male. But my parents were divorced, and now I’m experiencing age discrimination. All my life, I’ve felt like a victim because I wasn’t a member of any group whining about being victims. Now, I can whine about my parents’ divorce, and age discrimination. Jeez, life really ISN’T fair, is it?

  4. Seattle in Texas

    Tim, your post sounds like something that would be posted in the Onion, actually. I’m sorry, but this one has been eating at me. You used a computer to send of this message. Your message has no spelling or grammar errors. It looks as if it is from an educated, professional person. I don’t discount divorce is tough…but in many, most, if not all cases, it is actually better for children. The economical problems growing up in a single parent home is hard, as well as other issues, but good things come from them—such as an appreciation for many things that others take for granted and understanding the world in ways different from others.

    And, there are white people I do feel sorry for, such as, the homeless disabled and veterans—no question. There are even poor whites I am concerned about. Down here, I’ve met many with missing teeth, haven’t been to a doctor since who knows when, and lines in their face speak loudly. They can probably read and write at high school level, possibly, maybe, have an idea of how to use a computer. I’ve also seen members of the Black community in similar conditions. But one person comes to mind right now because he worked very hard up until he was hospitalized due to cancer that had gone out of control, no diagnosis, and obviously treatment, and almost a senior. This person has worked since he was a kid, he knows nothing but hard, intensive labor. Low education, but at the same job for 25 years. No health benefits, dental, etc. Just enough to pay the bills with a few raises along the way, but certainly not enough to allow for doctor or dental visits. No medical insurance and now enormous medical bills that aren’t even accrued for “treatment”—just pain control. This all could have been quite possibly prevented if he had equal access to medical insurance. (Patch Adams! Where in the hell are you???)

    Please help me understand where you are coming from, regardless if it were meant to be humorous or serious. I understand ageism (particularly when race and/or poverty are factors)—but I have a very difficult time empathizing with a person who quite likely has all of the benefits that comes with being a white person and aging comfortably (and especially male), most generally in this society. The gentleman with cancer mentioned above grew up in an unbroken home. Even if he never got cancer, he would have had to work until the day he dies (no pensions and social security is nothing more than a joke). I assume you have a pension built up, you have health insurance, you still have all of your teeth due to the privilege of having regular dental care—if not, dentures…paid for by your insurance. I’m sure you likely get preventive check-ups for cancers, etc. And even in divorced families, people still inherit wealth. I’m missing the point. I mean, when was the last time you went to the golf course? To the doctor, the dentist, etc.? Please don’t bring insult to poor, low-income and working-class senior communities—you should be busy advocating for them, since you have the power, likely useful talents, and the ability.


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