In the realm of popular media, the gender battle is on again.
If Phyllis Chesler didn’t get your attention in The Death of Feminism, with her rage against the movement’s unwillingness to face up to sexism in the Muslim world, Maureen Dowd has, at the very least, piqued it with Are Men Necessary? Both titles are deliberately provocative and simplistic: Of course men are still necessary, and feminism is not dead. It is still very much alive, although most self-identified feminists can agree that the “movement” now feels incoherent and fragmented.
At least people are talking, thinking, even arguing again about the subject of sex and gender in modern-day society. I wish we could say the same for what we, as feminists, are doing to get ourselves talking and thinking about America’s racialized past, present and future.
In recent years, a new generation of compelling literature revolving around genetic discoveries, historical analysis and the ultimate deconstruction of human racial categories has emerged. Nearly all of these works have been written by talented writers and impassioned, knowledgeable academics–yet virtually all have been men.
The most notable of these works have included evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves Jr.’s The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America; Lawrence Blum’s “I’m Not a Racist But…”: The Moral Quandary of Race; the epic historical account One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race by Scott Malcomson; and a diverse collection of essays in White Men Challenging Racism. In just the last year alone, two provocative additions to the discourse included Tim Wise’s White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son and Robert Jensen’s The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege.
Because of important works like these, the very concept of racial human categories has been both expertly and eloquently shredded to pieces. The idea, belonging to the early twentieth-century pseudo-science of eugenics, that essential racial attributes have kept one group in power (intellectual acumen, intrinsic work ethic, moral/religious superiority) and the vast majority of people of color away from that power (laziness, lower intelligence, overall inferiority) was bogus from the get. But what should amount to an evolution in race consciousness has yet to permeate mass awareness.
We cannot effectively talk about the construction and social evolution of gender without talking about both race and class. Where the eradication of racism and the reconceptualization of race is concerned today, American women–and particularly those Euro-American women who have gained some measure of power and influence at the cost of minority and working-class women–should be playing a far more significant role in dismantling notions of racism and white/light-skinned privilege than they are.
From the 1980s through the mid-1990s, gender discourse was momentarily headed in a different direction. Envelope-pushing, truly multicultural and cross-class writings had finally begun to make their way out of women’s studies classes to reach a wider audience. In addition to Angela Davis’s groundbreaking 1981 book Women, Race and Class, writers like Audre Lorde, Bel Hooks, June Jordan and Gloria Anzaldúa helped to illuminate a brave new path for feminist studies–one in which the three crucial variables of identity in America were recognized as inextricably interwoven.