When it comes to theorizing about liberation from sexism or racism, people who study them usually take one of two sides: either we eliminate these identity categories altogether, or keep them and work towards combating the various stigmas attached. In the final year of my undergrad stint I took a philosophy course entitled “Transgender Theory” with Professor Miqqi Alicia Gilbert. His position is that in order to eliminate heterosexual normativity we need to do away with “gender” as a category of identification (i.e., “male” and “female”). I responded to his views drawing from black existential thought, arguing instead that although identity categories such as “female” and “black” can be harmful, we should still employ them. Below is an excerpt of the paper, where I outline my thesis and give a quick summary of Gilbert’s views and gender construction in Western society. The actual development of my thesis I have not shared as I hope to publish these ideas in a more developed work.
The actual and purported differences that exist between people have been used as a means of justifying oppression throughout history (Risman 430). In societies such as the West, biological variations in phenotype and reproductive function have become especially divisive because of their institutional integration. These hierarchically constructed characteristics have become elevated to the status of “social identities” that “play” out on persons’ bodies – over-determining the interactions of one with another to the point of differential valuation (Ridgeway and Correll 516 – 520). Yet as Miqqi Alicia Gilbert points out, we cannot interact with one another in the absence of conceptual schema that allow us to understand the “what” that we are being confronted with (“Pass or Die” 2). Social constructions allow us such understanding, but our “seeing” becomes problematic when the “physical-conceptual” schema that convey messages of worthiness, acceptability and legitimacy becomes accepted as natural. The aim of libratory politics is to expose the naturalization process for the construction that it is, laying bare its oppressive roots.
In gender theory expositions of this kind have led to a questioning of the sex-gender dichotomy and heterosexist privilege. The existence of the “gender diverse” (Gilbert, “Defeating Bigenderism” 96) is an affront to the “physical-conceptual” code of a society which views gender and sex isomorphically. Gilbert offers four possible models for conceiving of this coupling, and supports the final stage of “non-genderism” as most desirable (ibid. 93). By eliminating both the isomorphism as well as the personalization of characteristics that is integral to the sex-gender dichotomy, he states that not only are the libratory goals of feminism accomplished but also those of the LGBTI community (ibid. 98). In this paper I will be arguing that dispensing with gender altogether is too radical, and that his third model of “non-binary genderism” (ibid. 106) would be sufficiently libratory. Because institutionalized social identities are “enmeshed” into the surrounding socio-economic environment, any attempt to dispense with them completely risks replacing one form of oppression with another. The potential for a Sartrean “spirit of seriousness” (Gordon, Existentia Africana 69) to replace gendered realities can only be avoided by valuing derided feminine identities and keeping the construct in place.
The socially constructed nature of our gendered identities has been explored by theorists for decades (Warnke 1). With an eye towards de-naturalizing the hierarchy that privileges “male” embodiment over “female”, many feminists in the field continue to support Simone de Beauvoir’s statement that “[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (ibid. 5). Erving Goffman discusses this socialization in his analysis of the placement of males and females into different “sex-classes” (303) at birth; the beginnings of their “life-long” (303) relationship with the dichotomous sex-gender institution. What Goffman highlights is the extent to which gender is a social project rather than a biological occurrence. Children are divided into “sex-classes” (306), taught and treated, in different ways. He engages in a term called “institutional reflexivity” (313) and looks at how gender distinction is reinforced by the very mechanisms of society. The institutionalization of gender is made evident in, for example, the separation of washrooms into “male” and “female” – argued to be an assumption of gender distinction rather than a catering to them (315 – 316). Barbara Risman also addresses the insidiousness of sex-gender categorization in her poignant statement that “[a]s long as women and men see themselves as different kinds of people, then women will be unlikely to compare their life options to those of men. Therein lies the power of gender.” (432) Quite literally a Butlerian “performance” (Warnke 59 – 66), because of the frequency with which different sex classes interact Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelley Correll further describe it as something that “goes home with [us]” (512). From the work to the home, these sex-classifications plague us: women are perceived to be less competent than men, and work concentrated in female occupations are devalued when compared to their male counterparts (ibid. 518).
A key difference between critical race and gender theory is that anti-black racism has an origin that can be (relatively) easily identified. There is some consensus in the field that the Othering process which relegated melanated people to the lower rungs of society started roughly around the time when Europeans began to make increased contact with Africans on the Ivory Coast. It is much more difficult to determine why males and females have been historically divided into different roles. From the one-sex model of the pre-modern West that distinguished male and female according to body heat (Warnke 29 – 35), to behavioural ecologists’ views that evolution is the reason for distinction between the sexes (ibid. 21), and psychologists such as John Money’s insistence that gender is a social process that biological sex in no way influences (ibid. 12 – 14); there has been little societal consensus about why women and men are so different. As for trans-identities, although their existence is questionable on the bigenderist model of the Western gender-sex schema, they have been integrated into other cultures – two examples being the “two-spirited” in Aboriginal culture and the “hijras” in modern India.
The point at which “gender” and “race” intersect is, however, fundamental: they are both social constructions which have functioned to constrain the actions and life options of persons within society. Gordon writes in Existentia Africana that a key problem concerning the field of black existentialism is the Sartrean concept of the “spirit of seriousness” (69). This conflation of values with material things results in the question that Du Bois asked in his canonical text The Souls of Black Folks. “What does it mean to be a problem?” is an examination of the situations under which blacks begin to embody the social conditions that have resulted from their history of racial oppression. “Thus, problematic people do not signify crime, licentiousness, and other social pathologies; they, under such a view, are crime, licentiousness, and other social pathologies.” (ibid. 69) For example, the dilapidated conditions for many of the Aboriginal reserves, the disproportionate number of people in their communities who struggle with alcoholism, are unemployed, or incarcerated is a direct result of the historical moment when Europeans deemed both the lands and the people within it “savage”. A “spirit of seriousness” would displace such historical contingencies onto the persons themselves, resulting in a de-valuation of Aboriginal peoples as “problematic people” (ibid. 69) rather than “people with problems” (ibid. 69).
Image Credit: uptownmagazine.com/2014/01/skin-bleaching-is-self-hatred-dencia/
Extras: My former professor Gilbert in an interview on “Dina Petty” on being a cross-dresser:
T. M. G.
Gilbert, Miqqi Alicia. “Defeating Bigenderism: Changing Gender Assumptions in the Twenty-First Century.” Hypatia 24.3 (2009): 93 – 112.
Gilbert, Miqqi Alicia. “Pass or Die: There is no life in the Closet.”
Goffman, Erving. “The Arrangement Between the Sexes.” Theory and Society 4 (1977): 301 –331.
Gordon, Lewis. Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Ridgeway, Cecilia L. and Shelley J. Correll. “Unpacking the Gender System: A Theoretical Perspective on Gender Beliefs and Social Relations.” Sociologists for Women in Society 18.4 (2004): 510 – 531.
Risman, Barbara J. “Gender as a Social Structure: Theory Wrestling with Activism.”Sociologists for Women in Society 18.4 (2004): 429 – 450.
Warnke, Georgia. Debating Sex and Gender. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.