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Race, Sex, and Power: Observations in 2008

“The color-blind or post-racial paradigm appeases the powerful without yielding much in exchange other than their comfort.”

A version of this presentation was given as part of the Opening Plenary Panel at the Race, Sex and Power Conference at the University of Illinois, Chicago on April 11, 2008. Copyright 2008 Urvashi Vaid

The response to this conference certainly indicates the continued salience of, what that Marxist Leninist study group that one of my friends once belonged to used to call, “the primary contradictions.”  Indeed, the hierarchies of dominance and submission that those primary contradictions of class, race, sex, gender, and sexuality represent continue to operate in the same way as they ever have.  Inequality has not been eliminated; it has only been born again in new forms in the new economy, in the various global governance regimes, and even within the social movements to which many of us belong.

My perspective on racial and social justice comes from a queer place.  I’m one of the dinosaurs – the much derided 70’s radical lesbian feminist.  The one who still applies concepts like patriarchy to explain the glass ceiling to women’s power; the one who values participatory forms of decision making that come out of social movements over business school models and case studies; the one who still maintains that women’s liberation will mean a simultaneous transformation of the possibilities in men’s lives – away from deadening, competition and violence based forms of masculinity to a life where biology is not men’s only destiny.

Call me naïve, color me old school, and critique aspects of my politics as essentialist.  I will admit to all these flaws.  What I will not concede is that we are living in a post-gender, post-racial world, post-gay world where somehow the old primary contradictions no longer operate, where somehow racism, misogyny and homophobia are somehow less relevant.  I do not believe that we are in an era of politics 2.0, where the age old battle lines between right wing and left wing have been replaced by a third way.  I do not believe that the bitter power struggle progressive movements have been waging with authoritarian movements can be wished away by speeches seeking a new national consensus nor by centrist policy accommodations.

Instead, I believe fairly conventional things, among them – that power yields nothing without a demand and without some kind of countervailing power to win that demand; that organizing to more democratically redistribute power and access is how we will win change; that sex is as central to human beings as food, and as potent a motivator in our lives; and that the biggest job of intellectuals – be they in activist realms or in academic realms is to disturb power and challenge tradition.

In the spirit of disturbance, I want to offer three very personal reflections on race, sex, sexuality, and power as we begin this conversation and before I join the other panelists to address specific questions about sexual citizenship!

First, let’s state the obvious and agree that the interaction of race and class today is more central to the perpetuation of racism than any other factor.  By this I am of course referring to the extensive discourses many of you have created on how class interacts with race to create disparities, or exclusion.  But like the Lord, class works in mysterious ways.  Class not only causes and exacerbates structural racism; it also undermines its visibility, while not really dislodging its operation.  This fact is clear especially if we look at the role ”the talented tenth” plays in relation to the larger power structure, and within each community of color.

The current form of racism requires that people of color erase or at least mute their racial identity in favor of a class based solidarity with the upper middle class and the rich in order to succeed.  The erasure of racial identity has and remains the price of admission to the inner circles of power.  You have to talk different (no accent), walk different (no swagger if you are a man), act different (don’t make white people at the table uncomfortable), and even start to think different about what you see as the solutions to the continued subjugation of large numbers of your own people (one word to illustrate this – Oprah, enough said).   If you do all this, you succeed.  That is in part why a Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.  That is why a black presidential candidate from Harvard (with a Harvard accent?) does better than a black presidential candidate from South Carolina (with a Southern accent).  That is why immigration policies favor the “exceptionally talented people” (or whatever the HB-1 visa language states) over the day laborers who pick the apples from the orchards.  That is why Asians are held up as model minorities, and why we must challenge the way we are used in America’s racial dynamics, challenge what Vijay Prasad has called The Karma of Brown Folk, in his wonderful book of that title.

In our time, the emergence of middle, upper middle class and rich people of color is interpreted to mean that race is no longer a barrier.  Green is said to trump black and brown.  We are told that deep racial disparities in education, health care access and delivery, criminalization, housing, and wealth notwithstanding, that racism is a relic from another era. Jeremiah Wright is just a 60’s radical speaking an outdated politics.  The discussion of structural racism or supremacy or color is irrelevant in the virtually driven world where having a “second life” on line is more real than the real life off line.

The work that many of you have done exposes the falsity of these arguments, but I would like to offer one reason I think they are made.

From the upper middle class and middle class white person’s perspective, the race question remains, “What can Brown do for me?”  This is why people of color’s success (in business, in nonprofits, in politics, in the academy) is linked to how comfortable they make white people feel about their own racial identity.  (The movie of the book by Jhumpa Lahuri showed this vividly when it showed how the young Indian – Gogol – assimilated and was accepted into the upper East side family as long as he kept his background at an appropriate level of exotica but not when it disturbed his girlfriend’s white upper middle class comfort zone).  This is a key dilemma for successful people of color.

This is perhaps why I think Barack Obama’s  campaign has been championed by people whose politics have been arguably racist or at best racially ignorant in the past. How else do you explain that some of the most conservative people around – those who have opposed any focus on racial diversity, affirmative action remedies or other race specific remedies, support Obama. What do we make of this?  I suppose the support of these individuals could be proof of their claim that the world is merit based and color blind to talent and skill.  But I would submit that it is equally plausible that for many liberals and conservatives and for white people – his success assuages white guilt and is seen as being about their and America’s redemption from racism.

Middle America seems to be saying, see, it’s over, we can see the talented man, the inspiring leader, the generational paradigm shifter, the new visionary who can unite this country again, we don’t just see a black man.  But to me, these voices want to move beyond race without having solved the barriers and obstacles that hundreds of years of racism have created.  It’s easy to proclaim a post-racial world and much harder to change the structures that still reproduce racial inequality.

Do people of color want to move beyond race or are we too busy being stuck inside it to get out?  From my mind, going Post-racial requires a self-immolation that kills people of color (and I would argue a comparable self immolation is required by all other post-whatever frames – post-gay, post-feminist etc.).  Challenging, provoking and naming racism disturbs America and for that reason alone it has NOT become an effective strategy for getting the mainstream to address structural racism.  But the color-blind or post-racial paradigm appeases the powerful without yielding much in exchange other than their comfort.  Poor people of all colors are more honest about race- there is not a lot of denial possible when you feel you are in a struggle for survival and that you are threatened economically by somebody else. Middle class and upper middle class people of color have to speak to the racism we encounter, find new ways to connect to poor and rich white people, and new ways to live with the racist dynamics in our neighborhoods, social lives, class rooms, board rooms, churches, and indeed in every institution in our society is the only alternative to follow.  Obama’s genius was to try to find this new language, to reframe this dynamic and not allow erasure.  But for most of us confronting the kinds of racial ignorance we face on a daily basis – our own confrontation with race and power – is rarely done with that kind of eloquence or clarity.

How to challenge the department committee from passing over the woman of color candidates credentials while allowing those of someone else who is less qualified?  How to talk about race with a neighbor who blames immigrants for his unemployment? How to question the lack of authority accorded to women?  How to confront the dynamic of comfort and discomfort around race within our daily social circles and lives?  How to hail that goddamn cab in New York?  How not to have my nephew have to shave his beard so he will not be stopped and detained at the airport because he looks like an Arab young man?

As a starting point, we need to look much more critically at how green has colonized brown and black and white, at how the color green has made us its vassals.  Green does indeed trump black or brown.  But not in the way that conservatives promise.  You are still colored and subject to those codes of inferiority, violence, and exclusion even if you are the most respectable, rich and brilliant person in the world.

My second observation is a reflection about the current form of sexism.  The vileness of the current landscape for women – the huge levels of hostility in most parts of the straight world, the incredible subjugation of women, especially straight women is vividly visible to anyone interested enough to think about women’s status.   When women’s power is primarily and still through men, when women are still derided as not good enough for being built differently emotionally and physically, when women are still seen primarily as holes and cunts who are there to please men rather than as agents of their own sexual pleasure, when women are still mutilated in their genitalia in the name of tradition, when women are raped and abused in massive numbers in every culture and country in the world and there is no penalty that men as a class bear for that violation – we have not at all achieved women’s liberation and men’s transformation.

The Hillary Clinton campaign makes visible many sad facts  – chief among them that there is no longer a movement in the US that is mobilized to defend and represent women.  Hillary reveals the dilemma of strong women everywhere.  How do you lead without being picked apart for every and any thing you do?  IF you say something strongly, you are too strident; if you fight back, you are defensive; if you cry, you are weak and playing the gender card; if you stand without a man, you are a man hater; if you stand by your man even when he does you wrong, you are hated by women who wish they had the courage to leave their own men and hate you because you didn’t because they hate themselves because they haven’t.  Your hair, clothes, weight, age, smile, gestures, and even your big laugh are criticized.

The obstacles to women’s progress remain – whatever the level of organizing in the women’s movements around the world.  The obstacles stem from the resistance of traditional cultural institutions to change (religion, media, family structures, governments have been less then friendly to women’s liberation).  And second, the resistance of women themselves to change – to changing the way they raise their children, to the way they engage with their men, to the way they feel about themselves and each other.  There is little more to female solidarity today than there was in the 1950’s.

The even sadder truth is that the women around the world are at a stalemate over how to transform male privilege and power – we have not been able to dislodge it except in the tiniest of ways.  Indeed, male power and prerogative are being advocated and asserted more vigorously than ever in many parts of the world (from the Promise Keepers in the US to the Islamic fundamentalists to the Hindu fundamentalists to the Orthodox Jews).  We need courageous avenues for resistance.  I think we need a movement wiling to challenge the morality of tradition as the primary guiding force in the lives of our cultures.  And second, a movement of women and men willing to stop making endless excuses for men’s horrible behavior.  The social justice movements have to reprioritize the issues of gender – of women’s roles and men’s roles, of what is acceptable and what is not in what we say and how we behave towards each other, it the oppressive nature of macho and female victimhood.  Until we focus on the reasons why men cling so desperately to their misery, women will never be able to be free of them.

In my view the hatred of women that is expressed in violence, in misogynist disregard for women, in the reassertion of tradition in the face of women’s liberation  — all these expressions of sexism are rooted in fundamental problems in the parenting and nurturing of boys and men by their fathers and in the social channeling and control of men to be soldiers for the state.

We need a movement of people that prioritize issues of gender – of women’s roles and men’s roles, of what is acceptable and what is not in what we say and how we behave towards each other, it needs to question the oppressive foundations of machismo AND female victimhood, it needs to get to address economic and structural barriers to the equality of women.

I have always been grateful that I got to be a lesbian.  Lesbian is a status that sits outside the traditional traps of male-female dynamics.  I do not have to see men with anything but empathy and equanimity — because they have no power over my happiness.  I get to actually like and admire women and men, for who they are and not for their gender.  This makes it easier to live in a sexist world.

But being a lesbian feminist of color inside the gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender for the past 30 years has been an interesting challenge.   Somebody asked me if I thought things around race, sex and class had changed a lot in the GLBT movement in the time I had been involved.  I had to answer yes and no.  Yes there are more of us today than before – more queers of color, more straight friends and comrades working alongside of us from every kind of background, more support for and awareness of intersectional politics.  But there is still very little of what we might call intersectional practice.  The Institutional GLBT movement is still overwhelmingly white and male in its leadership.  The Boards of our institutions and how they prioritize what they see as the community still reflect the biases people like my predecessors and me like Barbara Smith or Craig Harris or other leaders of color were raising in the 1980’s.

The dynamics of green affect the lavender bubble too.  I see the operation of class in the GLBT movement vividly and daily – I run a foundation for god’s sake.  Philanthropy American style is a byproduct of inequality.  Yes it is about love of our fellow man – literally.  And it is true that such a tiny fractional amount goes to support GLBT causes that it’s rather remarkable that we have the thriving movement all over the world that we do.  But inside the movement the same mechanisms I described in racial landscapes operate.  I’ve always felt that my success as a woman of color in the world of gayness was a function of my ability to pass among many classes – a product of my own migration with my family of origin from lower middle class to middle class to upper middle class to ruling class.

Money in America brings with it the power to set agendas.  Why are certain issues on the top of the list for the GLBT movement and others are not – why marriage as opposed to HIV/AIDS among black gay men?  Why domestic partnership instead of universal health care?  Why second parent adoption instead of parental rights for poor women whose reproductive lives are criminalized if they do not conform to the state’s orders of how they should conduct their pregnancies?

Who decides the agenda of a GLBT movement?  In truth it is decided quite undemocratically – there are no participatory polling processes, or deliberative democracy forums in cities around the country.  No process exists to set an agenda.  It is a matter determined by the urgency of crisis and the ordinary bravery of someone resisting prejudice.  In recent years, post-AIDS, we have increasingly delegated the job of advocacy to professional nonprofit organizations.  We have had our agenda set at times by individuals petitioning the courts for redress for bias – the marriage case in Hawaii in 1992 put the issue on the map.  But would that issue have become the media force it did if it had not also been picked up and amplified by the voices of a handful of conservative gay writers; or if it had not been seized upon by the anti-gay right wing as a wonderful tool for them to exploit as a wedge.

The question of what gets put on a movement’s agenda is a combination of political opportunity and opportunism; a mix of intention coming from a coherent thought out strategy, and happenstance coming from the biases of the people placed in the movement to have influence over an agenda.  Race, class, power and sex all play a role in what gets put on a movement’s agenda and what gets left out.

Two final notes on the GLBT movement – there is a vast difference between the goal of sexual freedom and the goal of sexual citizenship.  Perhaps it should not be one or the other, but a quick recap of queer history would suggest that the latter has replaced the former almost entirely, with interesting consequence.  Where gay liberation sought transformation of the nuclear family and the invention of new forms to protect a wider circle of kinship relationships, gay rights seeks access to the traditional forms of family for GLBT people.  Where gay liberation argued that straight society would be transformed for the better by the open acceptance and welcome of queerness, gay rights argues that our integration will change very little.  I have argued that both are true and that indeed citizenship is a precondition to freedom.

But what is citizenship anyway?  As Shane Phelan writes in Sexual Strangers:  Gays, Lesbians and the Dilemmas of Citizenship, “The question of citizenship does not concern only what rights, offices, and duties are to accrue to citizens but also how the polity decides who is eligible for them; that is it concerns the structures of acknowledgement that define the class of persons eligible for those rights, office and duties.”  (p. 14).

The mainstream struggle for GLBT rights in the US is squarely at the place of acknowledgement – that is the basic rights agenda, still unfulfilled, that is the agenda of every GLBT organization you can imagine.  But the deeper struggle for GLBT liberation is focused on full cultural acceptance around the world.  It seeks the fundamental redefinition of what is good and what is defined as evil when it asserts that gayness is a moral good, that sexuality is god given.  Sexual freedom – defined as the cultural transformation and opening up of ideas of sex and gender – must be the ultimate outcomes of our struggle for full human rights.  That is why the message from the 1960’s era Mattachine movement that Gay is Good was so powerful.

Let me make a final point using the metaphor of citizenship and its evocation of the state.  Homosexuality has gone from being a rogue state (outlaw, outsider, unrecognized, dangerous) to being a nation state — with its own culturally repeated national ethnos, a people who share a national culture and identity.  I have always found the language of nationalism and queer nation troubling because I do not trust the state and I believe the legacy of a nationalist ethnos is inevitably exclusion, the other is configured the minute a nation is asserted.

Maybe I don’t like the nationalism behind ideas of citizenship – because I am an immigrant.  Citizenship is about belonging to some national ethnos.  And any national ethnos inevitably defines itself against an other. Nations start policing their boundaries internally and externally.

We see this in queer nation today, where sexual boundaries are defended by some just as vigorously as if we were a territory to be protected – that is how I read the fight in play at the national level about transgender inclusion in the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Bill.  Who decides what category is included and what is out of a federal bill?  Should it be Barney Frank?  Ted Kennedy?  Should the largest national GLBT organization (HRC) be the decider or the 350 that support trans inclusion?  Should we base it on a poll of 500 online people conducted in November in which only 15.8% urged national GLBT organizations to oppose a gay-only federal bill and 67.7% said that these groups should support a gay bill because it was “a step towards transgender employment rights.”  And 12.3% said groups should remain neutral.

While I understand the frame of citizenship to represent belonging and a set of practices that could be subversive (as Lauren Berlant has pointed out) and could redefine our identities; I do not believe I am fighting for sexual citizenship as much as I am fighting for a revolution in economic and human values that includes new sexual values.


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