“Racism is a Sexual Phenomenon”

This is going to be my final post on Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex”, focusing on her chapter on race – which as you might have guessed, argues for the position in the title. I’ll freely admit that race issue are not something I’m hugely familiar with, so I feel a certain reluctance to issue judgements about it, and the claim that racism “is a sexual issue” seems like a fairly sweeping one. But I’d be inclined to take it in the following sense:

“The symbolic structure of American black-white racism is based primarily on the deployment and unfolding of psychosexual symbol-structures.”

So just to clarify – the focus is on the symbolic structure, the way that different races are constructed in the cultural imagination. The relationship and degree of weight to be apportioned between this and more ‘concrete’ economic or political issues, I will leave hanging. Similarly, Firestone expressly limits her remarks to black-white racism in the United States, but suggests that similar structures can be found far more widely.

Of course you may be wondering what on earth a ‘psychosexual symbol-structure’ is. Hopefully that will become clear.

So, starting with the symbolic construction of black vs. white women, Firestone suggests that this, in the racist cultural imagination, and in reality insofar as that imagination determines reality, is modelled on the relationship husband (white man) – wife (white woman) – prostitute (black woman). This in turn is derived from the madonna-whore dichotomy: that there are ‘good’ women, and then there are women you sleep with.

The white woman is cast as the good woman, superlatively feminine and demure, minding the house and raising the children and benefitting from the support and patronage of the dominant figure, the white man. The black woman is cast as the woman you sleep with, who though sexually attractive is dirty and unworthy, not really a ‘proper’ woman, and yet enjoying for all this more independence – but the independence that accompanies being public property as opposed to the private property of one person.

Part of the reality this reflects is not only the contemporary prevalence of prostitution both in poor black areas and in their slang (‘ho’), but also the historical ease with which white men could rape black women – either because of a supportive legal system or because they were slaves. It also connects with the phenomenon of black women as the family servant, child-minder, cleaner, etc. for the respectable whites – even if no sexual contact takes place, the structure of black woman as subservient version of white woman, doing ‘her’ jobs for the white man, is reproduced.

If the construction of black vs. white women evokes ‘pure’ vs. ‘impure’ woman, the construction of black vs. white men evokes the Oedipus conflict (according to Firestone). That’s firstly in the obvious way that racism has portrayed black people as childlike, carefree, and bumbling, summed up in the derogatory habit of calling black men ‘boy’. But more than that, just as in the Oedipus conflict is ultimately about power, but specifically sexualised power, expressed in terms of power to control sexual access, so too is the racial conflict between males. The white man’s greater social power is expressed pre-eminently in terms of the fact that he can 1) deny the black man access to white women, and 2) obtain access to black women. The black man’s resistance to this consequently includes trying to defy both of these: in the first place through having sex with white women, consensually or otherwise, to strike at white men, and in the second place through trying, as many of the civil rights and Black Power leaders did, to develop a black family that would ‘defend’ black women and keep them ‘precious, protected, and pure‘.

One of the indications that Firestone might be on to something here is the way that white racists have historically been almost obsessed by the idea of black men raping white women (or indeed, showing any sort of sexual advance towards them), despite the fact that rape, setting aside that enabled by slavery, has tended to be largely a within-race phenomenon. It was not that lots of black men were running around raping black women, but rather that the very idea of even one of them doing so was of great significance because it broke down the key plank of the racial hierarchy: that the white man had exclusive control of white women.To defend this, no amount of lynchings and castrations was too much.

One of the things that follows from this is that the white man’s position, as 1) secure enough in his phallic power (i.e. sexualised power defined as male) that he could afford to be relatively gracious and patronising (in the sense of bestowing patronage) to ‘his’ women, and 2) able and willing to ensure ‘his’ women’s fidelity, i.e. his exclusive access, fitted him out for the role of married husband.

The black man’s position, on the other hand, as 1) insecure in his phallic power, symbolically ‘castrated’ by his inferiority to the white man, and consequently able to affirm his manhood only by asserting rigourous and overt domination over women, and 2) unable to ensure fidelity, fitted him out for the role of pimp. Firestone speaks of a ‘pimp complex’, and this is, surely, something that has become only too obvious in the intervening thirty years.

Overall, Firestone presents white women, black women, and black men as all, in their different ways, aligning themselves to white men, trying to acquire a little bit of their status, whether by being a good wife, a good prostitute, or a good pimp. This alignment, she argues, predisposes them to direct various forms of hostility that would otherwise go towards white men onto each other – clinging to whatever minor privileges or subtle distinctions of status they have to elevate them above the other groups.

If this sexual analysis is largely correct, then a very significant conclusion follows: that

“The All-American family is predicated upon the existence of the black ghetto Whorehouse. The rape of the black community in America makes possible the existence of the family structure of the larger white community, just as sexual prostitution in general maintains the respectable middle-class family. The black community is the outgroup that supplies the sexual needs of the white human family, keeping it functioning. And that’s why there is no family solidity in the ghetto.”

This is something to bear in mind when conservatives explain that the reason for black under-performance is black culture, black single mothers and absentee fathers and pimps and hos. It also reminds me very much of dear Charles, writing in the Communist Manifesto:

But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the bourgeoisie in chorus…

The Communists have no need to introduce free love; it has existed almost from time immemorial.

Our bourgeois…having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes…Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized system of free love.”

Now, as I said at the start, I don’t know enough to say how much this sexual take on racism explains – whether it simply shows them to be interlocking, or shows that sexism is in some sense more basic or fundamental to society than racism. I mainly just think it’s interesting.

It’s especially interesting to consider how it might apply to other cases. Where do USA-dwelling Latino/Latina men and women, East-Asian men and women, etc. fit into this? And is a similar structure replicated within other societies. Is there a sexual element to the Indian caste system? To the relationship between different races in China?

What about forms of white-supremacy where the non-white group is a majority, i.e. colonial systems? Where social stability demands that the family be replicated in the oppressed group, and where imperial power may depend on retaining the support of some key faction of local elites – who are unlikely to take kindly to any ‘insults’ to their manhood.

Finally, what about the other two pillars of white supremacy? This discussion of racism focuses on the racism of managing and controlling a population of an oppressed race, maintaining them in existence. It thus contrasts both with the kind of thing that happened to the native peoples on North America, who Europeans essentially tried to make not exist in order to settle on ‘empty’ land, as well as the kind of thing that works by developing a threatening, terrifying, exotic image of a foreign group who must be fought against for the fate of civilisation, as is currently happening to arabs/muslims. In relation to that last one, a phenomenon that cries out for analysis is of course the appropriation of feminist concerns by people pushing war – we must invade Afghanistan in order to liberate their oppressed women, etc.

Anyway, enough words for now.

2 Responses to ““Racism is a Sexual Phenomenon””

  1. J. Moufawad-Paul Says:

    Despite the fact that I like many aspects of The Dialectic of Sex, I do think this chapter, along with *everything* Firestone says about race/racialization is extremely problematic. Implicitly racist even. I think Angela Davis, in “Women, Race & Class”, did a good job refuting Firestone in this area – demonstrating how she was drawing on typical racist myths, etc. There is also the fact that Firestone, along with a lot of other white feminists at that time, ignored the voices of black feminists. In earlier chapters, when Firestone refers to certain leftist “politicos” it is clear who she has in mind… once again we have the tired trope of the white educator civilizing her non-white counterpart. Then there is her celebration of kibbutz life without any understanding of the colonial history of kibbutzes.

    In any case, whenever I read this chapter, its implicit racism – its conflation of two different types of oppression – just makes me angry.

  2. Nichelle Cobourn Says:

    Good post, I bookmarked your site so I can visit again in the future, Thanks


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