Erasing Whiteness

Erasing Whiteness

If women expect to shed the cruel and calculating artifice of race in our lifetimes, we must contribute to the emerging generation of literature that deconstructs racial categories.


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.

It’s saddening that many of these writers are no longer with us, but a new generation of gender, class and race-conscious feminist writers can and should take up the challenge. I don’t seek to discredit the small pool of contemporary female authors who truly have attempted to advance our understanding of the intersections of race, class and gender–Cherrie Moraga, Patricia Hill Collins, Patricia J. Williams and Paula Rothenberg among them–but to call for more of the unique analysis that women can bring to bear on the subjects at hand.

Although lesser known in nonacademic and activist circles, Mab Segrest’s work exemplifies the importance of women’s voices to this discussion. Author of the 1994 book Memoir of a Race Traitor, Segrest is a white Southerner and lesbian feminist who lends a fresh spiritual and psychological twist to her race/gender/class analysis. Take, for instance, her essay “The Souls of White Folks” in The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, in which Segrest writes movingly about the real human cost and damage of everyday racism: loss of intimacy and trust between people; disdain and simultaneous mimicry of minority group speech, dress and culture by the majority; and, most of all, a warped sense of what it means to be a human of one color or another.

There are so many other areas where women’s perspectives on other, related issues truly need to be amplified. For instance, much could be said about the role of women as the progenitors and primary caretakers of “mixed” children of every kind throughout human history.

Rape and forced sexual servitude began large-scale “race-mixing” in the United States, but millions of women throughout history have chosen to love and bear children with men of different ethnic backgrounds.

When a woman chooses to have some variation of a “mixed” child, she does not make that decision lightly. Her progeny’s inherently multifaceted cultural identity becomes something that she now has to help nurture, inform and guide. (One of the most powerful modern memoirs to touch on that issue, James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, indicates just how rich this material is for the mining. Yet here, too, there is an absence of current writing by women on the subject.)

For our sake and for those of generations to come, women must play a central role in articulating a vision for an evolved society in which the ugly remnants of racialized inhumanity and barbarism are finally discarded. In doing so, Americans should not strive for the delusive “melting pot” but for a coexistence in which human beings are recognized for our experiences, character, skills, talent and cultural/ethnic backgrounds.

Freed from the constraints of what now amounts to the shared illusion of race separateness and distinct racial traits–as well as the ongoing, unjust perpetuation of light-skin privilege and power–every person would have a greater chance to realize a fuller and more authentic self.

While change within our lifetimes seems unlikely, we will never get there without women’s equal participation to shed the cruel and calculating artifice of race.

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