Sex, Race, and Power: An Intersectional Study

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Sex, Race, and Power: An Intersectional Study

In 1983 Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press republished This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. This uncompromisingly political and brutally honest anthology of "prose, poetry, personal narrative and analysis by Afro-American, Asian American, Latina, and Native American women" (the reader may check the back cover of that book), which had gone out of print even before its original publisher ceased operation, soon became a staple in many women's studies classes, and by 1986 it had sold more than 65,000 copies and won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award. Bridge raised the consciousness of a generation of U. S. feminists about the intersections of gender, race, and class, as well as the interlocking nature of the multiple oppressions that women of color have had to endure and overcome. It is therefore fitting to preface this interrogation of the complex relationships between sex and power with this tribute to Bridge, to acknowledge an intellectual and political debt. The approach taken in this essay is also informed by critical race feminist theory.

Critical race feminist theory emerged in the early 1990s out of two schools of radical legal thought: critical legal theory and critical race theory. Adrien Katherine Wing explains in her introduction to Critical Race Feminism: A Reader (1997) that a group of feminist legal theorists, most of whom were women of color, became impatient with the fact that its antecedents and mainstream feminism continued to marginalize women of color. They envisioned critical race feminism to be a corrective to these omissions and a commitment to deconstruct and dismantle structures of power that oppress women of color.

Long before the term critical race feminism entered the academic lexicon, Barbara Smith and members of the Combahee River Collective (founded in Boston in 1974) were already practicing this form of politics, which Smith details in "A Black Feminist Statement": "We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women's lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously" (1983, p. 213).

Smith does not see her work as that of staking out a separate feminist movement; rather, she struggles to make it more inclusive and responsive to the realities of all women's lives. She writes, "A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political. In our consciousness-raising sessions, for example, we have in many ways gone beyond white women's revelations because we are dealing with the implications of race and class as well as sex" (p. 213).

Critical race feminism also requires taking an intersectional approach, defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her groundbreaking article "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color" as "a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see race and gender as exclusive or separable" (1985, p. 378). Understanding and practicing the intersectional approach is more than an academic exercise. For example, in policy deliberations about domestic violence, before pushing through mandatory arrest legislation, one would have to ask what might be the consequences for women of color who are victims of domestic violence, if such a law was enacted. One would have to ask, given their experience with police brutality in communities of color, whether mandatory arrest laws might actually prevent women of color from seeking law enforcement intervention, for fear of jeopardizing the life of their abusive partners? As Crenshaw puts it, "The effort to politicize violence against women will do little to address the experience of black and other nonwhite women until the ramifications of racial stratification among women are acknowledged. At the same time the antiracist agenda will not be furthered by suppressing the reality of intraracial violence against women of color" (p. 374).

How, then, would such a theoretical perspective illuminate a vexed question such as the relations between sex and power for instance? "Sexuality as a term of power belongs to the empowered," argues literary critic Hortense Spillers in "Interstices: A Small Drama of Words" (1985, p. 73). Perhaps a good place to begin is to identify who are the empowered.


The work of Iris Marion Young is a good entry point for this section. Tapping into her experience as a political theorist and advocate for social justice, Young devised a framework of analysis that does not limit oppression to mean only "the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group" or "conquest and colonial domination." Instead, oppression is "structural, rather than the result of a few people's choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules." Young agrees with French political theorist Michel Foucault that to fully understand how oppression operates it is necessary to "analyze the exercise of power as the effect of often liberal and 'humane' practices of education, bureaucratic administration, production and distribution of consumer goods, medicine, and so on" (1990, pp. 40-41). Furthermore, Young identifies "five faces of oppression": exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence (pp. 48-63).

If Young's framework is applied to an analysis of women's oppression, the analysis cannot be limited to scrutinizing only patriarch, and even as attention is focused on patriarch, it should be kept in mind that patriarch affects women (and men) differently, based on race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors. Cynthia Enloe, author of numerous articles and books on the impact of globalization and militarization on women's daily lives, believes that it is impossible to discuss the constructions and systems of power without talking about patriarchy. She points out that patriarchy is "rarely self-perpetuating" but requires "daily tending" (Cohn and Enloe 2003, pp. 1191-1192).

In most societies gender roles, definitions of femininity and masculinity, myths, laws, customs and/or religious practices, are some of the instruments used to perpetuate patriarchy. An overt example of the daily tending that Enloe refers to is the ideology of sexuality that underpinned rape laws in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). In 1646 the Qing government enacted a law that made it very difficult for women to prove that they were rape victims. For the crime of rape to be irrefutably established, the victim was required to provide evidence that she had struggled against her assailant throughout the entire ordeal. Such evidence had to include: (1) witnesses, either eyewitnesses or people who had heard the victim's cry for help; (2) bruises and lacerations on her body; and (3) torn clothing. Moreover, when violence had been used initially, but subsequently the woman had submitted "voluntarily" to the act, the case was not considered rape, but one of "illicit intercourse by mutual consent," in which case the women would be subject to punishment. Additionally, the law stipulated that when a man, having witnessed an illicit affair, proceeded to force himself on the woman, the incident could not be regarded as rape, because the woman was already a fornicator. In such a case the incident would be considered one of "illicit sexual intercourse in which both parties intrigued to meet away from the woman's house" and the punishment for both parties would be 100 blows with a heavy bamboo stick (Ng 1987, p. 58).

It is plausible that the main thrust of the rape law was to ensure that women in Qing China would forcefully defend their chastity, even if it meant giving up their lives. Such an interpretation would make the Qing rape law both misogynic and sadistic, but so too was the cult of chastity. "It is a small matter to starve to death, but a serious matter to lose one's virtue" was only one of many aphorisms used to indoctrinate young women in Qing China. Women were expected to be chaste even after being widowed, and widow remarriage was fiercely opposed by Neo-Confucian moralists. The Qing state celebrated chaste widowhood by erecting memorial arches in honor of widows who had lived up to what society demanded of them. The prestige accorded widows after decades of self-denial extracted a heavy price, and many widows found that they could not bear it. Suicide committed by widows was not uncommon (Ng 1987, p. 60).

Glorification of chastity is not unique to the Chinese, of course, and history is full of similar examples from different cultures and across different epochs. Cross-cultural studies of rape and rape laws uncover commonalities in ideologies of female sexuality and further the understanding of the power of patriarchy. At the same time whitewashing women's experience of violence against their persons must be avoided. As mentioned in the previous section, critical race feminists fault liberal feminist legal theorists for their failure to race patriarchy. It is also important to avoid the simplistic characterization of Third World women as victims of traditional practices that have not changed over time; otherwise, there is the always and present danger of becoming complicit with performing acts of cultural imperialism.


Shortly after 1 a.m. on January 10, 1993, Truong Loc Minh, a Vietnamese immigrant, was viciously beaten by a gang of young white men in Laguna Beach, California, in an area of town where three gay bars were located. Police who were called to the scene suggested that it was a hate crime. But what kind of hate crime was it? The Los Angeles Times covered it as a gay-bashing incident and Truong's ethnicity was mentioned only once in the story. The Chinese-language International Daily, on the other hand, reported it as a case of Asian-bashing and went out of its way to assure its readers that Truong was not gay.

In Williamson v. A. G. Edwards & Son Inc., Williamson, an African-American man, accused his employer of discriminating against him because of his race and sued for reinstatement. A. G. Edwards, however, insisted that Williamson was dismissed solely because of his homosexuality—specifically, that he wore makeup at work and talked openly about his lifestyle. The judge ruled against Williamson because his claim of racial discrimination could not be substantiated.

In Watkins v. US Army, Sgt. Perry Watkins, an African American, appealed successfully to the Ninth Circuit after his discharge from the army in 1981 because of his homosexuality. This case has been widely touted as a victory for lesbian and gay rights because the Ninth Circuit found the army's policy unconstitutional because it singled out homosexuals on the basis of who they were—that is, their sexual identity. Watkins's race has been practically ignored; indeed, except for the occasional reference to his race in the original discharge papers, that he is black would not have surfaced at all (Ng 1997, pp. 222-224).

The invisibility of lesbians and gay men of color is a reality that has been socially scripted. This script is a product of cultural imperialism that Iris Marion Young explains in the following manner:

The culturally dominated groups undergo a paradoxical oppression, in that they are both marked out by stereotypes and at the same time rendered invisible. As remarkable, deviant beings, the culturally imperialized are stamped with an essence. The stereotypes confine them to a nature which is often attached in some way to their bodies, and which thus cannot easily be denied. These stereotypes so permeate the society that they are not noticed as contestable.

                                        (1990, p. 59)

Thus, in dominant discourse, Asian and black men cannot be gay and gay men cannot be Asian or black.

Academic disciplines or fields of study themselves can operate as dominant groups in enforcing monolithic discourses of sex and power. In her article "The Power of Patriarchy," Jennifer P. Ting calls on her colleagues in Asian-American studies to extend their inquiry to include overt discussions of sexuality. The fear of the construct "sexuality," which in Asian-American studies has been used to mean "orgasm, vaginal-penile intercourse, homosexual existence, sexual identities," has obscured an already existing component of their work. "For example, the assertion that Asian Americans don't write or talk about sexuality implies that discussions of immigration and marriage, anti-miscegenation laws, dating and socialization, prostitutes, political eunuchs, and the standards of beauty are not also, to some degree, discussions of sexuality." (1998, p. 65) Even in instances where Asian-American scholars broach the subject of sexuality, their discussion normalizes hetero-sexuality and avoids homosexuality altogether. David Eng, in his book Racial Castration (2001) explains the consequences of this narrow scripting of Asian-American experiences: It entails the failure to link the feminized nature of work that early Asian-American men were allowed to do, for example, in laundries and restaurants, to the stereotype of Asian-American men as asexual; in other words, failure to explain how they have been racially castrated in America. Being able to define instead of being defined is central to affirming sexual agency.

In the early 1980s Spillers surveyed the terrain of public discourse and discovered that African-American female sexuality has been rendered invisible or distorted. In 1991 Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court by President George H. W. Bush, at the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings divided the African-American community. The essayist bell hooks (1998) writes about how her sisters were scandalized whenever she stood naked in front of the mirror. A common thread runs through these three examples: the history of slavery and colonialism. Frantz Fanon, writing about the legacy of European and North American colonialism in Black Skin, White Masks, states bluntly that "the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis" (1970, p. 120). Paula Giddings explains that the Thomas hearings were especially traumatic for the African-American community because both men and women had to face the "last taboo," sexual violence committed against African-American women by African-American men. This is a taboo subject because racism has scripted black men to be rapists of white women and, so as to explain away the endemic rape of slave women by their masters, black women have been scripted as "morally obtuse," "openly licentious," and having no sense of morality whatsoever (1992, p. 444). Confronting this taboo would mean opening old wounds and risking distortions (again) by an uninformed public.


The prudery of her sisters, explains hooks, is rooted in slavery: "Naked with shame on auction blocks. Black female slaves watched the world that was our body change. Nakedness that cannot be covered must be forgotten, shrouded in the cloaks of modesty" (1998, p. 65). For black women to reclaim their lives, they must first rehabilitate their bodies. To achieve this goal they must dismantle white supremacy and sexism, including internalized sexism: "Every day of our lives black females are assaulted by images of ourselves constructed by the white racist/sexist imagination…. The 'shame' that such images evoke in individual black women has yet to be fully named…. We must … decolonize our minds and imaginations in ways that empower us to create subversive and alternative images" (p. 73).

There is no better way to conclude this exegesis on critical race feminist theory's reading of power than to invoke Audre Lorde's 1984 essay "Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power," because she shows women how to decolonize their minds. This essay is an affirmation and celebration of the possibility of genuine connections that can be made between and among women. Some women are afraid to do so because the erotic has been misnamed and distorted into the pornographic, but by giving in to this fear, they have deprived themselves of a powerful, transformative force:

Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama. For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.

                                                (p. 59)

see also Censorship; Courtesans; Domination; Family; Hierarchy; Prostitution; Queens.


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                                                Vivien Ng