2013/02/25

Book Review: The Specter of Sex: Gendered Foundations of Racial Formation in the United States

Specter of Sex book cover: woman in 19th century dress
I'm a well-off, well-educated, straight, white man living in the US, so I sit in the intersection of pretty much every dimension of privilege. I'm also a radical committed to real freedom and equality for everyone, for the destruction of all these systems of oppression. So the question I'm often faced with is: what should I work on? To what specific struggles should I contribute?

Over the years I've become more and more convinced that patriarchy is a linchpin hierarchy, upholding many others. It's also historically ancient: even among the least unequal, classless, aboriginal societies anthropologists have reported on, most have some degree of patriarchy, and this seems to have gotten distinctly worse with the rise of agriculture, settlements, and class structure.

Accordingly, I have, for example, worked on campaigns for LGBT rights, because I believe that attacking homophobia and discrimination against LGBT people is fundamentally feminist: the basis for these kinds of discrimination is that men and boys should act certain ways, and women and girls should act certain other ways, and there are no exceptions. I can see from years of living in San Francisco how a queer-friendly environment allows even the straightest, most gender-conformant people freedom from gender and sexuality norms that don't suit them.

Patriarchy as a Linchpin System of Oppression

So it's no surprise that I was intrigued when, in the basement of City Lights bookstore, I came across The Specter of Sex: Gendered Foundations of Racial Formation in the United States by Sally L. Kitch. The book promised to give me some support for my mostly intuitive feeling that patriarchy underlies and supports other forms of hierarchy and oppression.

And in that regard, the book delivers. It traces the development of the concept of race in what is now the United States from the time of early European colonialism in the 15th century to the early-to-mid 20th century. At the time of the founding of the first colonies, "race" as we know it today did not exist. Gradually, the concept developed over three hundred years, to the point where skin colour and racial assignation became one of the most important determinants of a person's life.

Some of this history may be familiar to some readers: how "race" was reified and used to maintain the slaveowners' power against the threat of a combined rebellion of blacks and poor whites (or even, in some cases, Indians, whites, and blacks), and how the main black-white axis was later challenged by the presence of Chinese immigrants in California and Latinos in the territories taken from Mexico.

The Specter of Sex provides a few things that other accounts don't. Kitch lists "five principles of gendered racial formations" - ways in which ideological support for patriarchy carried over into white supremacy - and provides empirical support for these throughout the book. These principles are listed on pages 21 to 23 in the first chapter:

  1. The "use of a singular human standard to measure other groups"; European men considered themselves exemplary human beings and used this to justify their dominance over other groups. We see evidence of this in our everyday speech, where humans are considered male and white unless specifically described otherwise (e.g. the doctor riddle).
  2. The "interpretation of human difference as evidence of unequal value" - always finding a dominant class in any category.
  3. "Dependency proves inadequacy." The dependence of women on men or slaves on their masters has been interpreted (by white men) as a cause, rather than an effect, of their subordinate social role.
  4. The use of "science" to provide supposedly impartial explanations of the inherent inferiority of oppressed groups.
  5. The idea that the dominant group has a right to control the subordinate classes and to have political control of society.
In addition, Kitch shows how white supremacy and patriarchy intertwined; for example, how appeals to the "purity" of white women were used to restrict their intermarriage with black men and maintain "white racial blood", while at the same time white men raped black women with impunity - they were considered so promiscuous that they were unrapeable. At both extremes, women's sexuality was controlled to maintain white supremacy. Overtones of gender tinged every aspect of race; Chinese men were simultaneously stereotyped as a hypersexual danger to white women and as too effeminate for true, male citizenship. In order to gain privilege in white supremacy, Chinese immigrants adapted to present images of masculinity and feminity more acceptable to whites. (This is how Miss Chinatown pageants got started.) In other words, part of their price for getting ahead in the American racial hierarchy was the strengthening of patriarchal gender norms.

Drawbacks

The material is great, but, in my opinion, could be better written and presented. The book could have used a harsh editor. It takes longer than necessary to convey its information and arguments, bogged down in repetition and clunky vocabulary. A common explanation of how to write a short essay is the following: "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em; tell 'em; tell 'em what you told 'em." In other words, write an introduction and conclusion and in those, convey the structure of the argument.

Well, Specter does this way too much. Often, in referencing a chapter or section, the author will summarize it, causing a tremendous amount of duplication. Not only is there an introduction to the book as a whole, but each of the five sections of the book has its own introduction and conclusion. The author takes this fetish for symmetrical structure so far that one of the conclusions, titled "Homosexual Citizenship", is not any kind of a conclusion at all and presents some new ideas in three pages - basically the stub of what could be a proper chapter in its own right.

On the whole, I found the book valuable in terms of providing historical background for how patriarchy has been used to support white supremacy in the US. The book mostly limits itself to the early 20th century and before. There are hints of how this history affects us today, but it would have been instructive to have more explicit discussion of contemporary stereotypes and their origins. The books that Specter references look like good jumping-off points for further investigation; unfortunately, Kitch does not provide us with an easily referenced bibliography.

You can find it on isbn.nu.

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