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. Continue reading…