Race and Gender

We cannot examine race without analyzing gender, and vice versa. Race and gender are interconnected categories. Similar to other categories of identity, racial difference is often imagined as an inversion of what are perceived to be gender norms. Gender identities are often racialized, and racist thoughts sometimes appropriate gender stereotypes.

This chapter brings critical race theory to bear on gender studies, and vice versa. It prepares your study of gender theory in the next section.

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How do notions of race and gender intertwine? There are many examples. In early modern times, there were a number of prevalent beliefs, such as the myths that Jewish men menstruate, Egyptian women urinate standing up, and Muslim men engage in sodomy. These are racialized myths about gender minorities. They are also gendered biases against racial others.

History shows us that patriarchal domination of gender minorities, including women, provided a template for colonizers to establish racial hierarchies in colonial domination.

In our times, the ideologies of racist groups have a lot in common with those of anti-gender campaigns. Both groups see the teaching and open discussion of race and gender as a threat to their personal “birth rights” and entitlement.

Therefore, to tackle racism, we must also dismantle sexism. Both critical race theory and feminism help us identify “invisible” ideologies informing the social conventions and politics in our society.

How do we read race and gender relationally? How do we tackle racism and sexism at the same time? 

Here is an example of the intersectionality of race and gender. English novelist E.M. Foster traveled to colonial India in 1912 and 1921, and wrote a novel entitled A Passage to India. The novel offers both a critique and inadvertent affirmation of racial stereotypes of both the British colonizers and the Indians.

From early on, the novel makes numerous connections between race and gender, showing how they signify relationally. For example, Adela, an English woman, travels to India to meet her fiancé and to decide if she should marry him. In India, Mrs. Turton tells the more open-minded Adela,  that she should regard herself as superior to the Indians: “You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that.”

Meanwhile, Mr. McBryde, the District Superintendent of Police, has this to say, confidently, about Indian men:

“The darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa—not a matter for bitterness, not a matter for abuse, but just a fact which any scientific observer would confirm.”

That problematic attitude leads to one of the mysteries in the novel, namely a trial about the attempted rape of Adela by a Muslim Indian physician named Doctor Aziz.

The popular racial discourse of the time classifies Aziz as a potential rapist, like Othello, no matter what happens. Adela, like Othello’s wife Desdemona, is seen as an emblem of white feminine victims under Indian threat.

The trial simply reflects racially inflected sexism directed at both Aziz and Adela. Aziz is framed as the ultimate OUTSIDER who preys upon innocent white women, and Adela is assumed to be nothing more than a weak woman prone to hysterical illusion.

Historically, scholars have debated whether the rape actually does take place in the novel, and why Adela later retracts her accusation. But that is beside the point.

Reading the novel, The Passage to India, in the era of #MeToo movement gives us pause for thought. Why does the novel give the masculine narrator’s voice more weight and legitimacy? Why do the characters frequently cast Adela’s account of the assault in suspicion?

#MeToo Movement and Anti-Racist Campaigns

This brings us to our final point about how race and gender intersect with each other. The activist who gave us that phrase, Me Too, almost got erased from history.

The phrase “me too” was first proposed by Black activist Tarana Burke, but her hashtag did not go viral, so she was not initially credited with her rally call.

Following the revelation of sexual misconduct allegations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano popularized the phrase in October 2017 to encourage women to tweet their own experiences of sexual assault in order to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The core message is to trust women when they come forward with accusations of sexual assault.

For a period of time, Alyssa Milano took the spotlight instead of Tarana Burke. That was highly problematic.

It is, as we know now, important to pay attention to the intersectionality of race and gender. As we pursue social justice, we need to be truly inclusive in everything we do and not sideline someone like Tarana Burke who coined the phrase Me Too.

Relationship between Racism and Misogyny

The relationship between racism and misogyny directed toward women of color is fraught with racialized myths about cultural otherness.

Take, for example, Asian American women on screen. Racially-motivated hatred manifests itself as misogynist racism, bringing together the toxic ideas of “yellow peril” and “yellow fever.”

The first concept, “yellow peril,” was a historical notion that linked people of East Asian descent to diseases. Nineteenth-century Chinese railroad workers were accused of eating vermin and other unhygienic practices, and blamed for spreading disease. In the spring of 2020, however, Asian Americans were often vilified for wearing face masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, even though this hygienic practice was later widely adopted within society as a whole. Combined with the widely-assumed Asian origin of COVID-19, the idea of “yellow peril” demonized the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities as viral origins.

“Yellow peril” intersects with the gender stereotype known as “yellow fever,” the second notion examined here. Punning on the disease of the same name, David Henry Hwang uses “yellow fever” in his 1988 play M. Butterfly to critique white men who have a sexual fetish for East Asian women. Yellow fever” paints Asian women as subservient, dainty, and feminine. In contemporary American discourse on dating, the term critiques the social phenomenon of white men who exclusively seek out East Asian women.

Conclusion

I take comfort in knowing that critical methods from both the fields of race and gender studies can help us solve these issues. These methodologies energize each other.

Race and gender studies are fields of study that are borne out of necessity, the necessity to understand the world, and the necessity for everyone to live a livable life. Both fields offer tools to recognize and support minority life experiences.

Further Reading

Davis, Angela. “Women, Race and Class: An Activist Perspective,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 10.4 (1982): 5-9. 

Joubin, Alexa Alice and Martin Orkin, Race. London: Routledge, 2019.