Peggy McIntosh,
“White people facing race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place”

Those who want to do their homework on race relations must give up the sunny view. . .that we are all in the same system and experiencing it in the same way.

Peggy McIntosh, “White People Facing Race,” On Privilege, Fraudulence and Teaching as Learning, 2020, pp. 58

Racism is often defined as a set of attitudes that are grounded in the belief that race ought to be used to rank some people as superior to others. Biological racism uses the language of science (though not necessarily the facts of science) to insist that qualities and characteristics associated with race are biologically determined. Social constructionist models insist that race is neither biologically determined nor fixed. Instead, race is a socially produced category that enables racism. Anti-black and anti-brown racism in turn is fundamental to white supremacy. White supremacy is not (or rather, not only) an attitude held by individuals. It is a social structure whose effects are wide ranging. Unlike racism’s overt discrimination, white supremacy is deeply rooted in the stories that we tell about the world.

In the modern west, including in Canada, laws are set in place to defeat racism, but long standing, systemic, and inter-generational power imbalances remain in place. It is still the case that Canada has not had a national leader from a visible minority. It remains the case that there exists a persistent and slow-to-close racial wage gap. It is still the case that recent immigrants who are visible minorities fare less well economically than those who are or who pass as white. Individual racist actions do not explain the persistence of racial injustice.

The article that we are reading is authored by Peggy McIntosh, a white American feminist and anti-racist scholar. In a book written in 2020, McIntosh describes her experiences working with white people to discuss racism. She uses the language of white privilege here, by which she means the unearned special advantages enjoyed by whites who live within anti-black and brown racist environments. White privilege is accrued to white people within white supremacist social systems. Above all, McIntosh points out that it is a privilege of whiteness to be able to ignore the subject of racism. The chapter that we are reading identifies five strong cultural myths (we call also call them stories or representations) that perpetuate racism.

As you read:

  • What are white Americans really afraid of when they are afraid to talk about race? What does “facing race” enable us to do that we could not do before?
  • McIntosh uses the term “social myth.” Keep track of the five social myths that she identifies.
  • Who is the audience for her chapter? Do you feel left out or invited in?

Find the McIntosh reading here.

bell hooks,
“Feminist Class Struggle”

It was not gender discrimination or sexist oppression that kept privileged women of all races from working outside the home, it was the fact that the jobs that would have been available to them would have been the same low-paying unskilled labor open to all working class women.

bell hooks, “Feminist Class Struggle” in Feminism is For Everybody, 2000, pp. 38

Socioeconomic class is a system of social stratification that distributes not only money but also power unevenly across groups.

We’re reading a section of bell hooks’ book, Feminism is For Everybody, which is titled “Feminist Class Struggle.” In it, hooks points out that the form of feminist activism that gained the most media attention during the so-called “second wave” of the women’s movement emphasised issues that concerned privileged women.

Ultimately, her contribution to this module on power and gender is to underline the idea that some women are more disadvantaged by existing systems of domination than others. Her central observation is that some women collude with “the existing capitalist patriarchy” (42), while others struggle to reject it.

*bell hooks is the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins; it is a name that she chose for herself because it emphasizes her connection to her material grandmother and upsets patrilineal naming conventions. Though it’s tempting to capitalize the “b” and “h” at the beginning of each name, hooks insists that we keep all the letters in lowercase. There are a lot of theories about why she does this, but the most convincing is that she wants to subvert the rules of grammar. Considering how unsettling it is to type a name without capitals, or to see an uncapitalized name in a piece of writing, it’s clear that’s she has a point to make here. Does our connection to rules of grammar teach us anything about how we might be connected to other social rules and conventions?

As you read:

  • pay attention to the distinctions that hooks makes between reformist and revolutionary feminism
  • hooks draws our attention to divisions within a political movement; keep track of the the criticisms that hooks aims at feminist theory produced by women with class power
  • If class is more than “simply a question of money,” what is it?
  • hooks uses the term “power,” McIntosh uses the term “privilege” – do you think that these terms are interchangeable?

Find the hooks reading here.

Kim Anderson,
“Construction of a Negative Identity”

Since contact with the European, Native women have been trapped within a western dichotomous worldview, where everything is either good or bad; dark or light; pure or corrupt.

Kim Anderson, “Construction of a Negative Identity” in A Recognition of Identity, 2000, pp. 105
Image source: University of Alberta, The REDress Project by Jaime Black

Women’s and Gender Studies has always attempted to tie together race, class, and gender. In the university setting, however, WGS has often placed white bourgeois women’s experiences, knowledge, and political concerns at the heart of the field. Contemporary feminist scholarship needs to reckon with the exclusion of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, the matter of settler status and colonial systems of power have more frequently found a place in Canadian feminist scholarship.

Colonialism describes the process by which one group exercises power over another through an incursion into their lands or territories. In most cases, colonialism involves exerting power through the extraction of goods or exploitation of people; in all cases, colonialism involves settlement of members of a powerful group and displacement of peoples indigenous to the land. Canada is a colonial state because the nations of France and Britain set up policies that promoted the exploitation of resources on what some called—and some continue to call—Turtle Island. It is a settler colonial state because the French and British settled in the mis-named “New Land” and used power, privilege, and policies to dominate Indigenous populations. Though the first instances of colonial incursion happened hundreds of years ago, it is important to recognize that Canada remains a settler colonial state.

We’re reading a short section of Kim Anderson’s book, A Recognition of Being. Anderson is a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Research and Relationships at the University of Guelph, where she studies how Indigenous kinship connections are maintained in urban settings. In the essay that we’re reading, she draws attention to the ways that a colonial western world view—a white settler way of seeing—continues to interfere with the lives of Indigenous women in present-day Canada and the United States.

As you read:

  • Consider how dualism is at work in Anderson’s understanding of colonialism and its enduring impact on Indigenous women.
  • Pay attention to the language that colonizers used to describe Indigenous women; how are the qualities and characteristics associated with Indigenous women different from qualities and characteristics associated with European womanhood?

Find the Anderson reading here (NOTE: we’re reading Chapter 6, pp. 99-112)

My Body Doesn’t Oppress Me, Society Does
View Time: 5:08 Minutes

Disability is not fundamentally a question of medicine or health, nor is it just an issue of sensitivity and compassion; rather, it is a question of politics and power(lessness), power over, and power to.

Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin, Critical Disability Studies, 2002, pp. 2

Ableism is a system that devalues people who have physical, intellectual, or psychiatric impairments. From an ableist perspective, folks with disabilities are in need of fixing. From a critical disability studies perspective, disability is a social justice issue because ableism leads to discrimination and inequality.

A key distinction that disability scholars make is between a disability and an impairment. A social model of disability separates physical, mental, and sensory capacities of an individual’s body from disability, understood as the experience of oppression. For instance, a spinal cord injury that requires someone to use a wheelchair is an impairment, but the absence of curb cuts on a sidewalk or elevators in a building mean that the impairment is now a disability. You’ll recognize that this distinction is enabled by a social constructionist approach to disability—a disability is not something that a person has, but rather is an effect of decisions to design buildings around particular bodily capacities.

There is an enormous amount of excellent scholarly material in this emerging field of research; we’re watching a short video that features a conversation between Stacey Milbern and Patty Berne. Stacey Milbern is a community activist and organizer who works with Sins Invalid, which describes itself as a disability justice performance project that centers people of color, queers, nonbinary and trans people with disabilities. Patty Berne is a co-founder, Executive and Artistic Director of Sins Invalid and her community activism includes advocacy for queer immigrants and bringing queer of color and disability perspectives to bear on contemporary understandings of reproductive genetic technologies.

As you watch:

  • Notice how Milbern and Berne use the distinction between impairment and disability
  • Consider how Milbern and Berne’s rejection of individualist (or individualizing) explanations of disability might apply to oppressions that emerge from colonialism, class division, racism, and sexism

BCRW – Barnard Center for Research on Women
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