“My dilemma was, and is, this: there are not one but two great dangers. On the one hand there is the danger of identification, homogenization, and consequent erasure. By seeing all oppressions as the same, we can lose sight of the particular reality of our own situation as well as alienate potential allies for whom the differences are crucial… But there is an other hand: There is also the danger of isolation, impotence, and collapse. If we retain radical distinctions between political events, we may fail to see important overarching patterns and as a result miss opportunities to form and consolidate alliances that might counter the networks of power that oppress so many of us.”Ladelle McWhorter, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy
This module has explored some of the ways in which the construction and regulation of sexuality and race have not only functioned analogously but interlocked and co-constituted one another in complex ways. As this module has shown, sexuality and race are closely related constructs – and yet, they are not the same, and increasingly we have seen groups of oppressed people push back against comparisons that are made between their experiences and those of other oppressed or marginalized groups. In particular, some people of colour have resisted comparisons between racial oppression and sexual oppression. To take an example, while anti-miscegenation laws have frequently been compared to bans on gay marriage, and the legalization of same sex unions has been compared to Loving vs. Virginia, it is important to note that white supremacist opposition to miscegenation took forms that opposition to same sex unions did not: it included a long history of lynching Black men on the pretense that they had or would like to have sexual relations with white women, and while hate crimes against queer people also have a long history, there is not the same history or murder in the case of queers as there is in the case of Black men. While, at the end of the 19th century, choosing a partner of the same sex and choosing a partner of another race were each constructed as “abnormal” sexual object choices, and were each targets of eugenics, the dangers that differently situated people ran in these scenarios were not always the same.
In the first assigned reading for this module, Ladelle McWhorter turns to American history to examine both the interconnections and the differences between racial and sexual oppression, and what she calls the “twin dangers” of stressing one versus the other. McWhorter is a a Professor of Philosophy and Stephanie Bennett-Smith Chair in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Find the reading by McWhorter here.
“This materialized scene of unprotected female flesh – of female flesh ‘ungendered’ – offers a praxis and a theory, a text for living and dying, and a method for reading both through their diverse mediations.”Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”
The Transatlantic slave trade entailed both the most extreme form of racial oppression and sexual oppression. While the racism of slavery is well known, the sexual oppression of this institution is less understood. White slaveholders systematically sexually assaulted enslaved women, and many of the enslaved children of female slaves were in fact the offspring of white masters. Enslaved couples and families were regularly separated as slaveholders bought and sold human chattel with no consideration of their sexual and affective relationships. As Black feminist and critical race theorist Hortense Spillers has influentially argued, this brutal history of interlocking racial and sexual oppression has had lasting impacts on the familial structures and gender of Black people in America. At the same time, Spillers argues that Black women today are uniquely positioned to resist the patriarchal gender system of white patriarchy.
Hortense Spillers is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor and Distinguished Research Professor Emerita at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Find the reading by Spillers below.