Examining Race in our Races

Categories: Misc.
01/09/2018

Shortly after Democrat Doug Jones scored a historic victory in Alabama’s special election to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy left by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the hashtag, #blackwomen, immediately began trending on Twitter—and rightfully so. Just a cursory glance at voting demographics demonstrates that 98 percent of Black women voted for Doug Jones, and further analysis reveals that Black women also constituted the driving force behind organization and mobilization throughout Alabama. As a self-identified Southerner (North Carolinian) and woman of color (Asian-American) who knows her history, this information hardly comes as a surprise. Politicians and pundits are now calling Black women the “backbone of the Democratic Party,” but the truth is that Black women have been the backbone of Southern, progressive politics long before politicians in Washington started searching for their spine.

“Black women have been the backbone of Southern, progressive politics long before politicians in Washington started searching for their spine.”

During the days of Reconstruction, although the Fifteenth Amendment only awarded Black men the right to vote, Black women still played a pivotal role in politics. They held political meetings to ensure that Black men voted in their community’s collective best interests and, in several recorded instances, showed up to the polls armed with weapons such as hatchets to publicly demonstrate their investment in protecting their male counterparts’ votes. This powerful legacy was passed on to the Civil Rights Movement. In just one of many incredible examples, Black women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hammer served as the major force behind the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which publicly challenged Mississippi’s all-White and anti-Civil Rights delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and played a large role in creating a more racially-inclusive Democratic platform.
Just as the impact of Black women has not been bound by time, it also hasn’t been bound by place. During the 2016 presidential election, 93 percent of Black women voted for Secretary Hillary Clinton. Yet, from the remnants of both Alabama’s special election and the 2016 national election, it’s become explicitly clear that although women have begun to more actively mobilize and organize, not all are necessarily unified by the same definition of womanhood. For, within both the context of Alabama and the United States as a whole, the majority of White women have chosen to support the candidacies of men who have demonstrated irrefutable instances of sexual misconduct, who have spoken chauvinistically about women, and who have promoted policies that restrict women’s autonomy. During the Alabama special election, 63 percent of White women supported Republican candidate Roy Moore, who has a documented history of aggressively pursuing and harassing underage girls. And during the 2016 election, 53 percent of White women supported Donald Trump, who has been recorded bragging about committing acts of sexual assault as well as a laundry list of sexual allegations from multiple women.

“what is it that drives White women to continue supporting these men?”

 And so we must ask ourselves—what is it that drives White women to continue supporting these men? I’ll admit, in this political climate, it’s tempting to simply point to concepts such as racism and White privilege as overarching explanations for such seemingly contradictory behavior. But to reach for these overarching explanations is oversimplify the historical context behind this apparent racial divide between Black and White women. True steps towards women’s progress require us to deconstruct what it truly means to be “women” and how that concept has been twisted across racial boundaries in a parasitic codependency since our nation’s founding.

When colonists first immigrated to America, they sought to construct a new society in Britain’s likeness. This ambitious project required transplanting various facets of British society to the New World, including the reestablishment of a European-based patriarchal system. The maintenance of this system was reinforced by other aspects of British culture that became prominent in the American colonies such as the Anglican Church, which theologically upheld that men’s primary function was productive and women’s was reproductive, and English common law, which legally upheld that married women had no individual legal identity. Yet, although all colonial women shared common limitations by virtue of their gender, White women oftentimes received limited agency at the expense of Black women’s racial suffering.

For example, during the late seventeenth century, White men regarded White women as virginal beings whose primary sexual function was to reproduce and maintain British culture through childbirth. Any threat to a White woman’s sexual purity was considered an attack upon not only her individual honor, but the honors of her male relatives and British civilization as a whole. As a result, White women were expected to be sexless individuals, devoid of their husbands’ desire. However, this chastity came at the cost of more than just White women’s sexual autonomy. For, it was also purchased at the expense of enslaved Black women’s sexual agency, who White men raped in order to gratify the desires they could not “honorably” enact upon their White wives—causing generations of suffering within the Black community as well as fostering open resentment between Black and White women. 

“a patriarchal dichotomy that asserted “bad” women worked in the fields and “good” women stayed in the home”

In addition, Black and White women were also limited by White men’s expectations about female roles in the workforce. Colonial society viewed physical labor as the purview of men and domestic labor as the domain of women, resulting in a patriarchal dichotomy that asserted “bad” women worked in the fields and “good” women stayed in the home. As a result, White women were relegated to the household where they were limited in their ability to exercise individual agency outside of the home, but gained status from their domesticity. Yet, this slight power did not occur independently. Instead, it once again came at the expense of Black women who were forced to toil in the fields so that White women wouldn’t have to labor. While White women kept the house, Black women sweat planting, fertilizing, and harvesting the fields.

This interdependent system where White women’s oppression built upon the oppression of Black women is the original sin that has continued to plague the Women’s Movement throughout history. Scholars of intersectionality are no stranger to the idea that women’s experiences under America’s patriarchal system have always been further complicated by race, with not only Black women, but all women of color receiving fewer protections than their White counterparts. For far too often, women of color have suffered in ways that have both directly and indirectly benefited White women’s restrictive, but more powerful social status. This legacy has haunted us throughout all three waves of feminism, and, as evidenced by recent electoral results, continues to follow us to the polls.

The interlocking oppressive experiences of both women of color and White women are inextricably linked. It is clear that if the Women’s Movement is to progress as a unified front, we must both acknowledge this painful history and hold the difficult conversations that we’d prefer to avoid. While women of color must recognize that within America’s patriarchal system, White women have been oppressed by their male counterparts, it is equally important that White women acknowledge and recognize that within this system, they have also complicity fulfilled the role of oppressor towards their sisters of color.

____
Emily Wasek recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a major in Government and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. While in college, Emily served as president of Women’s Initiative in Leadership, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of female leaders.
Much of Emily’s previous work has focused on the intersection of women and political progress. Her honors thesis, “A Women’s Place in the State House: Exploring Backlash Effects of Women’s Increased Descriptive Representation” examined whether women’s increased elected presence resulted in a legislative backlash that could increase policies counterproductive to women’s interests. As a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, her white paper “Mobilizing Change in Central America: Fostering Women’s Networks to Combat Gang Violence” analyzed how women’s coalitions could be used to enhance anti-gang policies in Central America.