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April 1, 2010

Studying the intersection of race, gender urged

Racial and gender inequality are two strands of the same tapestry and researchers who treat them in isolation risk undercutting efforts to eliminate them, a national expert said.

Abby L. Ferber, professor of sociology and director of the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion  at  the  University  of  Colorado-Colorado Springs, discussed her research into the intersection of unequal social systems March 16 in a lecture titled “‘There Is More to Me Than White’: Theorizing White Privilege and Intersectionality,” sponsored by Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

“I first heard those words uttered last year bya white student of mine in a race and ethnicity class,” Ferber said. “You can imagine the defensive tone in which he said that: ‘There’s more to me than white.’

Abby Ferber

Abby Ferber

“They were really words of resistance. It was a defensive response from someone who didn’t want to recognize the privilege he experiences as a white person. He wanted to argue that he’d had a hard life, he didn’t feel he ever had anything handed to him, and he challenged why I was focusing on his whiteness.”

On the other hand, the student’s words also invoke Ferber’s own attempt to re-articulate privilege, specifically white privilege, from an intersectional perspective, she said.

“There also is more to me than white, but I am the beneficiary of tremendous white privilege that I experience day in and day out. So I want to situate white privilege within a broader social context,” Ferber said.

“By focusing on the victims of racism, historically, we generally fail to look at the experiences of whites and the way race also shapes their lives, often viewing the experiences of whites as raceless and as the norm,” she said. “But I think we need to take very seriously Toni Morrison’s argument that scholars need to look at the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it. Making whiteness visible allows us to examine the ways in which all white people benefit from their whiteness.”

There now is a burgeoning field of “whiteness studies,” Ferber noted, that incorporates perspectives from literary studies, psychology, sociology, social work and anthropology. But there is a danger that whiteness studies puts undue emphasis on whiteness as the norm, Ferber cautioned.

“And that’s why I use the language of white privilege. Bringing privilege into the picture means that we always focus on inequality and oppression, which are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have people oppressed without other people who gain privileges at their expense,” Ferber said. “White people fail to recognize that their experiences are not universal and common to everyone, but instead a result of their privileged status. People of color, on the other hand, are faced with racism and inequality on a daily basis.”

While enjoying white privilege, Ferber said she also is the victim of gender inequality. A handful of scholars, she among them, have employed an intersectional approach, arguing that gender is central to the dynamics of whiteness.

“Whiteness is also a relational category, one that is co-constructed with other cultural categories, for example, with class and with gender. Intersectional theory has been advanced mostly by women of color, who have argued that race and gender cannot be separated. They’re both affecting their lives on a daily basis,” she maintained. “You cannot look at one without the other, instead of viewing race, class, gender as these things that you add on to the picture.”

Scholars have dubbed this model the matrix of domination, she said.

What does today’s racial discourse look like?

“First, scholars continue to document the ways in which racial inequality is reproduced. The old Jim Crow system has been replaced by the ‘new racism.’ Unlike the old racism which was very overt and easy to see, the new racism is more covert,” Ferber said.

Despite civil rights legislation and policies, racism still thrives.

Recent housing audits indicate that African Americans are denied available housing 35-75 percent of the time, depending on the city in question, she noted. Racism and racial discrimination also have been documented in health care, criminal justice, the insurance industry and the workplace in terms of hiring, advancement and higher wages. “In other words, across institutions. People of color live with racial oppression from cradle to grave,” Ferber said.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many white people believe that discrimination is a thing of the past.

“For example, a recent study concluded that half of white people — half — believe that average whites are doing the same or worse as the average African American,” Ferber said. “People believe that civil rights legislation eliminated racially discriminatory practices, and that any problems blacks experience now are of their own doing. Central to this new racism, or post-racism as the media dubbed it after Obama’s election, is the belief that we live in a colorblind society.”

The colorblind perspective assumes a level playing field and denies that racial inequality still exists. “This approach argues that we need to see people as human beings rather than as racialized human beings, despite the fact that people are impacted by race every day,” Ferber said. “Many people naively embrace this view as non-racist, but we know it reinforces and reproduces racial inequality.”

The three main characteristics of this new racism, Ferber said, are:

• Inequality is seen as a thing of the past. Society is not having any impact on people’s life chances due to their race.

• The focus is shifted to individuals. People’s status today is a product of their own choices; in other words, the victims are themselves to blame.

•Based on these two assumptions, any perspective to redress inequality is defined as reverse racism.

“If everyone is on the same playing field and you do anything to help people of color, that’s seen as discriminating against whites,” Ferber explained.

A parallel discourse, often referred to as post-feminism, has emerged. One scholar argues that whiteness is embodied racial power, the visible uniform of the dominant racial group, Ferber said. “I like that: whiteness as a uniform. But we’re not all the same under that uniform,” she said. “If you look at me, you don’t only see a white person. I’m always seen as a white woman. The post-feminist discourse argues that gender inequality has been remedied, that sexism is dead.”

To the contrary, Ferber said, overwhelming evidence of continued gender inequality includes alarming statistics of women as victims of violence and the persistent wage gap. “Despite the successes of the women’s movement to advance formal legal gender equality, we know that gender inequality remains entrenched,” she said.

Moreover, post-feminist theories that strive to discredit feminism are remarkably similar to arguments in the post-racial discourse. Post-feminism assumes a gender-blind world, that men and women are treated the same, that people are not treated based on gender and that society has moved past the need for pursuing women’s equality.

“Like colorblind racism, this discourse tells us that women’s status today is a product of their own individual choices or inherent differences between men and women,” Ferber said. “We’re told that women simply choose to work temporary or part-time jobs or choose less-demanding careers so that they can spend more time with their children. We’re told women have the same opportunities as men, and if women are more likely to be found in lower-paying jobs, it must be because of their own choosing. Social forces are erased from view.”

Similarly, job segregation and the persistent wage gap are explained away by saying that women by nature are better caretakers and want to spend more time in child care, housework and elder care, she said.

“As an extension of women’s caregiving nature, that explains why women predominate in fields such a nursing and teaching and social work. Cultural differences also are invoked to rationalize gender inequality. Men and women are seen as partaking in different cultures. Women are seen as more caring and altruistic and peaceful and as valuing connections to others,” Ferber said.

“We’re told that the push for equality has gone too far and now men are the victims of ‘feminist frenzy,’” she said. “The problems facing women are now defined as the result of feminism, rather than gender inequality itself. In this way feminism is discredited and claims of ongoing inequality are dismissed.”

Given their remarkable similarities, both colorblind racism and post-feminism need to be examined together, and need to be seen as parallel components of a framework that denies the realities of inequality, she said.

“Both are part of what I call a defense of the culture of privilege. It’s important we see colorblind racism and post-feminism as part of this overarching ideology, if we’re going to work against social inequality across social identity,” Ferber said.

Ferber is expanding her own research agenda to include yet a third system of oppression, that of religious or Christian privilege, which also shares the same justifying platform as the new racism and post-feminism, she said.

When she wrote a blog last December summarizing the feelings of oppression she gets as a Jew during the pervasive Christmas holiday season, the responses she received had all the earmarks of the colorblind racism and post-feminism defense, she noted.

“They felt that I was choosing to be bothered by that and I should just choose to ignore it,” Ferber said. The structure of the resistance rhetoric is the same, she noted.

“Why does that matter? It reveals that these systems of inequality are all interconnected and they need to be understood intersectionally. Race, gender, religion and other social systems intersect and demonstrate that our theories must also integrate these systems,” Ferber said.

“I gain privileges because of my whiteness, but the form those privileges take and the way I experience them and where and when I experience them are also shaped by my gender, by my sexual orientation, by my nationality and other identities. Failing to look at how these systems intersect inhibits our efforts to work for social justice and social change,” she said.

“Inequality is a tapestry, and you can think of race as one strand. You can pull that one strand out, but the rest of the tapestry still remains whole. What we need to focus on is unraveling the entire tapestry.”

Seeing privilege from an intersectional perspective helps to pre-empt and address a lot of the resistance that bringing up white privilege tends to raise, Ferber said.

“Everyone plays a role in the dynamics of privilege and so everyone needs to be a part of creating the solution. Race is not just about people of color, it’s about white people. We’re the ones who are experiencing the benefits and the privilege. We’re part of the problem; we need to be part of the solution.”

—Peter Hart

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