Episode post here. I’d like to give a warm welcome and thanks to Johanna Wiedenkeller, our new transcriptionist!
Hello and welcome to Elucidations. I’m Matt Teichman, and with me today is Tommy Curry, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, 1 and he’s here to discuss black male studies. Tommy Curry, welcome.
So a pretty common default assumption, in today’s day and age, is that being a man comes with a certain amount of privilege. You have certain social privileges that you can wield over women, if you’re a man. But of course, a lot of people have talked about how things become a bit less straightforward than that, when you look at the difference between being a white man versus being, for example, a black man, or East-Asian man, or different kinds of men. What would be an example of how the power dynamic changes, if you’re looking at e.g. a black man interacting with a white woman, versus a white man interacting with a white woman?
Well, there’s lots of different things that change the relationships that men have. I think one of the weaknesses of feminism and our study of gender in the United States is that it lacks the nuance and specificity of what it means when it talks about privilege. So when you look at the work from R.W.S. Connell, for instance, you see a division in the kinds of masculinity that exist within a given society.
Hegemonic masculinity is an ideological form of the ideas men should strive to, because they control things like wages and property, taxes and politics. It’s a form of masculinity that doesn’t need brute force or physical violence to make itself popular, or to make itself well-known, or to make itself present in the world. Subordinate masculinity, however, does not have that kind of power. Someone who is poor, someone who is black, someone who is ethnic or immigrant or migrant—these kinds of masculinities are marginalized in a given society, largely because they’re outside of the ruling class dynamics.
In the United States, there’s a view of manhood or maleness or masculinity (whatever term you prefer), that insists that simply by having the body, the biological body of a man, that society values you more. But when you put that into relationship with something like white women, the history of racialized men next to white women has largely been one of the rapist, or the deviant. There are images that go back to the mid-19th century that depicts racialized men, be they immigrants or even Asians, around the turn of the century, that suggested they’re coming to rape white women.
So if you ignore the fact that history has been full of ways in which racialized men have been made inferior to white women, have been constructed as threats to white women—this is part of the reasons for segregation: to make sure that white women are a fair distance from the dangers that racialized men pose—then you’re going to miss the picture.
Most of our analyses that talk about black men having more privilege than women is based purely on the analytic of maleness. I mean, just think about the empirical situation of white women versus black men. Black men in this society certainly make less than white women in terms of income. They’re less educated than white women. They’re more policed and incarcerated than white women. We can go down and down: they have the shortest lifespans, higher rates of mortality and homicide. So how does that specific group relate to a largely privileged group?
White women are the second richest group in the United States. And even though we talk about their income disparities in terms of wages, we’re not calculating that most white women overwhelmingly marry white men, and get some piece of that wealth. That is not the case for black households—black men are overwhelmingly pushed outside of the job market, sometimes to the extent that they actually are doing jobs that compete for migrant labor. So when you look at that situation, maleness doesn’t automatically translate into a hierarchical or social standing that’s above white women, just because they’re men. And I think when other people make comments like that, ‘well you’re a man’—what they’re usually talking about is a bourgeois or middle-class understanding of gender, where in the Academy, a white woman would say: well, people take you more seriously because you’re a black man. It’s interpersonal.
But what they forget is that in being a black male, in speaking authoritatively about anything, there’s also a high level of threat construction. So people like Robert Livingston, for example, talk about how even black male CEOs who are interviewing for positions have to have some kind of a disarming mechanism, where they have to have a baby face or have to crack a joke, because for them to appear authoritative or knowledgeable about anything is constructed as a threat. This is the different way in which racialized masculinity relates to something like white womanhood.
Now with white men, that’s going to be a different situation. Most white men have some form of hegemonic masculinity, even if they’re subordinate males, meaning that they’re poor white men. There’s an assumption in their culture that they should, in fact, will provide etc. for white women. It’s a patriarchal culture, it’s built on nuclear families—a certain kind of Protestantism that does not exactly mirror what you find in racialized groups.
So if you have white men, who are primarily the breadwinners and, they want to organize a home that way, you’re not going to find that when you look at black and brown houses, where women have always worked. And this makes a huge difference, even in terms of the attitudes that racialized men have towards gender. White men, for instance, measure pretty much exactly the same with white women’s attitudes on gender and sexuality. This is why you have this kind of conservativism amongst white people more generally. I think that what feminism has done is it has collapsed all women into this pool, where they all have the same views about gender and childcare, et cetera. But if anything, the Trump election certainly showed us that there’s a large portion of white women in this country that do not support the ideas of liberal feminism, and in fact choose race over gender.
When you look at black men, however, you find a radically different situation. Black men are generally progressive on gender issues, on non-traditional roles for women and working outside the home—and recognizing that sexism is a part of the constellation of oppressions that women suffer from. They support legislation to help women and reproductive rights, more so than white women—there’s a long literature of this dating back all the way to the seventies.
So we would ask ourselves: why, then, do we assume that simply because a white woman has a female body, that that reflects her politics? And this is part of the underlying assumption behind this question of male privilege and female disadvantage: that the body itself indicates the political and social standing of the individual that possesses it. When in reality, especially when you look at racialized men—and in some cases, you know, poor white men—you see that the male bodies are much more progressive than white female bodies. And here’s the other piece of that: because it’s in a disadvantaged situation, it’s also less patriarchal than the dominant forms of masculinity within the country.
If I’m looking at Appalachian men, for instance, who have some of the worst measures in terms of life expectancy and health, do I expect to find patriarchy there? This is the kind of nuance that’s completely missing from the configurations of male privilege in the United States right now, because the dominating force of understanding and studying men is feminism.
Okay. So we’re using the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ to refer to whatever form of power a man wields in virtue of his gender—when he has that kind of power—and ‘subordinated masculinity’ as a term for what happens when a man is not in that position of power, and maybe is even in a lower position of power. Is that about right?
Kind of. Connell defines hegemonic masculinity as the type of masculinity that rules by an ideological structure, and has control, pretty much, of the means of production. She believes that this exists in ruling class capitalistic white societies. Subordinate masculinity would be the masculinities that fall outside of that rubric; that would be subject to the power of those who control wages, and property, and politics. So there’s lots of different subordinate masculinities. What Connell’s new work is trying to show is that subordinate masculinities exist within patriarchal societies largely as challenges to the dominant masculinity. They’re often more egalitarian and equitable.
Here’s one of the funniest things. In the mid 2000s, Connell and Messerschmidt actually revised the theory of hegemonic masculinity to say that women were not only emphasized femininities. And what she means by that term is: if you have a patriarch, or if you have a hegemonic masculine group, you will usually have women of the ruling class—white women—create identities that complement the patriarchal order. So women who want to be taken care of—women who believe that they’re vulnerable to racialized men, believe they’re vulnerable to immigration, right?—women construct identities that facilitate and propagate the legitimation of patriarchy in those societies. But in the mid 2000s, she actually reformulated that to say that women perform hegemonic masculinity, in terms of social mobility, attempts for capitalist gain, etc.
So again, it’s interesting that in the United States, you have this discourse about gender where it’s based completely on the sex of the body, and how that determines politics or positions within the social hierarchy, versus the actual theory that people are using, where she implicates women, as well as certain forms of, well, ruling class men and women who not are only emphasized femininities, but aspire to have the same power as ruling class men. And that distinction is something that can’t be lost. Because despite us constantly saying that patriarchy is a system, a set of beliefs, et cetera, we don’t see panels dedicated to how women—especially white women—facilitate or propagate patriarchy. It’s more of a throwaway line.
Well, we don’t want to be called essentialists, so we’re going to say that it’s a system of beliefs, ideas, etc. But then when you say, well, look, how do women, especially white women (which is what I study) perpetuate or propagate patriarchy, or patriarchal dominance against racialized or colonized groups, suddenly we don’t have any answers. So I think that distinction’s important. But it’s not all encompassing. One of the reasons that I created black male studies is because when you look at Global South masculinities—masculinities that exist within colonies—you see very different configurations that are often absent of patriarchal dominance, in the same way that we mean it in the West.
So you can have an idea that people believe: well, men should rule. But that’s not going to be accompanied by militarism. It’s not going to be accompanied by capitalist structures—state configurations where men have controlled law, because in colonies, that’s not the history of that. And Connell makes this point quite early in her corpus, where she talks about white women coming to colonies, not only as breaking the boundaries of white men’s empire, but also invading the lands of darker races.
So there’s a way in which white women definitely participate in colonization and the construction of hegemonic masculinities in ruling class systems that are not highlighted in discussions that we have in philosophy. We still look at white women as virtuous, we still look at them as vulnerable, which is why we kind of give them the floor of their experience. We let feminist epistemology hypothesize the different ways that women experience the world. Not necessarily because we can verify it, but it explains ways in which their experience, relationship to other bodies, especially racialized male bodies, can be used to reconfigure what has traditionally been thought of as a kind of racial phobia.
So I’m intrigued by this idea that maybe there’s a different way of doing masculinity in certain cultures in the Global South. What would be an example of a way of being a man in one of those cultures, where we don’t see the subordination of women, or the subordination of people of other races, or where at least it’s different?
I mean, I use black men as a case study. I know—and here’s a great example of it—we have this stereotype that black men are sexist and misogynistic. But black men, when you test their attitudes, they basically test to be just as gender progressive or more progressive than black women. They’re great fathers, they share more at housework than most men do, they participate more in childcare than most races of men do. That’s a perfect case study of how the normal configuration of the nuclear family, and the disengagement of men from the labor of women in the home, just does not apply in the same way to black or brown men in this country.
If you look at more distant cases, like the case of masculinity in South Africa, what does a black masculinity look like under Apartheid or a post-Apartheid regime? You know, you have amazing rates of sexual violence against men and boys, in post-Apartheid South Africa. So what does that mean in terms of the vulnerability and the construction of maleness, if sexual vulnerability and racial violence is part and parcel?
Many of our understandings of femininity reside in vulnerability to sexual violation, but in these racially repressive regimes—and you can go all the way back to the early 20th century and the Armenian Genocide as well as the Jewish Holocaust—you see the very same thing: that Jewish men were victims of rape by German SS and kapos, that Armenians were victims of rape by the Turks. So how do you construct those masculinities and colonized spaces, where the assumption in the West is that to be male, is to be excluded or invulnerable to sexual violence?
The configuration of the vulnerability of racialized male bodies makes it very similar to how we think of femininity in the West. So I think that when we look at the history of how these racialized men—I mean, it’s not just one place in the global South—when you look at the constructions of racialized men around the world, their fights against coloniality their criticisms, right? Think about Frantz Fanon here, the criticisms of white maleness, right? The homoeroticism, the aspect of creating fears about the sexual virility of racialized men. You’re not going to get the fact that racialized men just want to imitate the people that’s colonizing them. So I think that’s one really good example.
And I know that cuts against the way that we think about racialized men, because we think that black men and brown men just want to imitate the white patriarch. But those ideas are extremely racist, colonial ideas. Those ideas come from people that are reading Mannoni, and reading Adler and reading Freud and saying, look, if you’re a lesser man, there’s always going to be a form of masculine protest where you want to imitate the superior white man. And what we’ve done is: we’ve carried that logic on from the mid or the early 20th century into our gender theories now. There is no evidence that black men construct masculinity the same way that white men do.
There’s evidence that black men have some of the same expectations that men should lead the home or protect the family. You have that. But there’s no actual evidence that says that white men think of masculinity in X way and black men, because white men think of it that way, want to construct it. These are all our interpretations. These are theories, which is why we use psychoanalysis; it’s a hermeneutical device to interpret what we think people’s motivations are. Very little of this scholarship actually talks about the evidence or evaluates the belief structures of black men, who have their own notions of maleness and masculinity.
So when you’re looking at masculinities of the global South—and I put black men in America in that because of the history of slavery and colonization—you’re looking at people with different vulnerabilities, and how they construct a version of maleness that responds to that social environment history.
Okay. So, in other words, we need to throw out some of our standard assumptions about how ‘man’ always means ‘in power’ and ‘sexual violence’ always means ‘the woman is the victim’ and these sorts of things.
Absolutely. This is more of a historical point. Again, taking the case of black men in the United States, or even in Africa, how do you have a patriarch during slavery? The development of the idea of patriarchy—this is a very interesting point—so during slavery, black people did not have genders, right? They were not thought to be human. They were not thought to be male or female, in the mid 1850s and sixties. The theories about ethnology specifically said that black people were not evolved enough to have distinctions between men and women, or specific roles for them. They were all savages. So the men did the same kind of work that the women did, and that was actually a justification for slavery and imperialism. They would bring gender and Christianity to ‘save’ the savage women from the beasts of burden that accompanied them, which were racialized men.
By the time you get to the 1890s, you have a discourse by white feminists—by white suffragists, the suffragettes—that are suggesting that white women are more patriarchal. They’re more educated, they’re more civilized, so they deserve the right to vote, and that should be the basis of how all voting is done. They kicked black women out of the suffrage movement with the educated suffrage ideas, right?
So, if that’s the way the history developed, where white women were arguing for the basis of being more patriarchal and civilized than black people, how do we simply rewrite that? How do we say that men have always been in power? The white woman dominated the slave. The white woman dominated the black man in Jim Crow and segregation. So where do we get our history that fills in these dynamics? If a black man is looking at—you know, it was called eyeball rape—if a black man is looking at a white woman longer than five seconds he’s accused and prosecuted or killed for rape.
That’s the power of the relationship and the ideas about racialized masculinity and the vulnerability of white women. That if you looked at a white woman too long, that you were intending to rape her. So how do we configure this idea of power, where white women largely decided or at least participated in the designation of life or death for racialized men in this country? That’s what’s not usually taken very seriously. We eliminate the arguments that white women advance. We eliminate arguments that people like Charlotte Gilman, for instance, made, saying that they were in fact the greatest heirs to white supremacy and patriarchy, because white men grew in their wombs. I think the problem is that we exist in a world where nobody has to have historical content to the ideas that they use. So there is no knowledge that feminism—if we started in the first and second wave—actually sought to rule alongside white men. We don’t learn feminism as a colonial project, or a colonial endeavor.
We learn feminism like: ‘oh, equal right to vote’. But we don’t understand that in the 19th century, the right to vote was not an argument about equality. It was an argument of self-determination, who gets to decide what populations do. So when people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were arguing that black men were savage and would ruin the world—that they had too much savage and excess masculinity. Their argument was not that they should be equal. Their argument was that if we’re already dealing with the destructive mass and force of the Anglo-Saxon, nature always seeks to find balance. The natural balance to that is the educated white woman who could rule alongside the Anglo-Saxon. Savage masculinity had far too much excess, so there was no balance if racialized men got the right to vote—if black men got the right to vote. Now, these are key sections that you could look up on Google, basically—that are easily accessible, but we don’t contextualize feminism in that way.
And because we don’t, then we get these arguments about ‘all men have always had power over women’. And again, the shorthand for that argument is usually rape. And again, that excludes the histories of rape that we find with white women raping black men in slavery, the rape of black men during Jim Crow. I talk about the case of Willie McGee. I’m actually doing an interview of, of an older gentlemen who lived during Jim Crow and he wants to tell me the story of how the mistress used to bring little black boys back to her room to have sex with them. He grew up at the very end of it. So these dynamics exist, but this is not what we teach people, not just about white women, but the configurations of gender throughout the United States, during these periods of time.
See, that fundamentally changes the way that we think of sexual violence and sexual vulnerability. We simply cannot see it on male bodies. And we especially can’t see it on racialized male bodies, who we fundamentally believe are hypersexual and hyper-masculine. So there is no way that we recognize either historical victimization or the kind of sexual vulnerability these groups have today.
So we’re talking about superstitions people have about how a different body will endow you with a certain nature, and maybe how it’s a mistake to let those assumptions creep into your politics. It sort of got me wondering: how do black trans men fit into this story? Is black trans masculinity another example of a subordinated masculinity? Or do we want to think of that in a different way?
I think, again, most of my work is not based in identity, but the ways that bodies are perceived and certain forces are imposed upon them. So I think that when you look at a trans man—or a trans black man, especially—you’re going to look at different configurations of how violence and social marginalization is imposed on that body, because that’s what the world is going to see. At an individual level, that psychology may be fundamentally different, right? Because when you read some stories of women transitioning to black men, there’s this kind of shock, like how people are afraid of this body. How there’s a lack of sociality around this body. There’s a increasing emergence of danger, right? And that’s going to be fundamentally different, I think, because that body, or the psychology around that, is not going to have the same kind of coping mechanisms that black men have developed over their lifetime to deal with that. It’s going to be a new experience, so to speak.
And it’s going to be perceived by the dominant power structure as a different kind of threat, presumably.
Absolutely. Right. And again, this is what I mean: when you look at the studies done about how black male bodies are perceived, even hearing a black male name triggers a threat response in whites. If you hear the name Jerome, you automatically imagine a big, deviant, imposing black male. If you see black men, you often think of them as being bigger, stronger, more aggressive than you are. These are things that we know with implicit bias studies and social psychology. So it becomes almost unfathomable to me that philosophy can continue to engage in such a static and almost uniform form of studying gender that doesn’t take into account what we know through social science and psychology.
If the argument is that a black man standing in a room of philosophers gets to argue, yell and be aggressive as their female or white counterparts with no consequences, that’s just false. I think that when you see the ways in which black men, even in philosophy, try to lessen the perceived threat of themselves being extremely congenial, extremely well-mannered, extremely sociable—these are all mechanisms and coping strategies to deconstruct or defuse the threat that they have with male bodies. And I think that it’s really interesting, because black men don’t have the ability to aggressively assert themselves in public spaces, the way that female counterparts do.
There are several agentic studies—which basically means how one can forcefully assert themselves either in executive or managerial positions—that show that the stereotypes of agentic black women are not construed as dangerous as if you do the exact same thing with black men. There are several studies of managers, where these types of attitudes have been measured as well, where white people respond much better to agentic black women than they would black men. There’s a penalty, so to speak, for that. And that’s not to say there are not stereotypes that affect black women when they are agentic—or being aggressive or loud, etc.—but it’s not the same kind of lessening that’s dangerous, irresponsible, or deviant that comes along with racialized males. So we have a lot of work to do to catch up with what our theories say, or what we’re allowed to say in philosophy, especially in theoretical fields, because we don’t have any evidence to support it. Just our interpretation versus what the actual social science and history is telling us.
So it seems like one of the broader ideas here is: when you’re looking at a political movement, don’t just treat the political movement as though it came out of thin air like, ‘Oh, here’s this project of feminism’, that just emerges out of the intrinsic nature of the human body and the rights that it has, for all time. You want to look at the way the political movement emerged in the historical context, what it was a reaction to, and what it was trying to do, and the aims it was trying to achieve in the moment. And maybe appreciate what you think it was doing right, but also be critical about some of the subtext, and so forth.
Exactly. You know, I recently gave a talk at Bard, and I told them it’s common parlance to say that feminism is not anti-male—but I was like, I think my research certainly shows it was anti-black male. The history of feminism in this country is not based in equality. That’s just a fact, starting from suffrage to Jim Crow, to segregation. Feminism was about aligning white women with dominant male power. And again, what I think is interesting about this is, when you look at the development—so the idea of ‘woman’ didn’t always mean ‘oppressed’. Women were not considered minority categories, or outgroups, the same way that black people and Jews were, in the early 20th century.
There were actually a series of articles where white women were trying to debate this. So you could look at Alva Myrdal’s work in An American Dilemma as an appendix, parallel to the Negro problem. You could look at Hacker’s piece in the American Journal of Sociology, I think it’s around 1951. And these white women are trying to say, okay, now that we’re coming to the close of the Imperial phase of the United States, how do we focus on domestic politics in such a way that women—they mean, of course, white women—are recognized as socially disadvantaged, ‘just like the Negro or the Jew’. And this is a profound moment in the literature, because before that period of time, white women were largely understood to be mothers, or be synonymous with home, or nation. Like, that’s how the feminine is articulated from 19th century ethnology to early anthropology.
So the assumption is like, they love this whole situation. They’re just all going along with it, or something.
Yeah! And this is what’s crazy about it: the history is that white women enjoy the privileges of racial domination. They didn’t align themselves with racialized people. And I mean this very seriously.
You know, we’re taught feminism as if white women want the right to vote. And then we talk about this as a privilege, that black men got the right to vote first. But if you look at those debates, if you look at those debates in 1867, 1868, 1869, that is not what you find. It was not that black men just woke up out of slavery and they automatically gave them the right to vote. This is people like Frederick Douglas and Purvis debating that black men are not savage, and that the right to vote is necessary to protect them from violence. That the reason that slavery—and probably that racism—exists is because they have no rights to determine the course of their own lives. That they still will be ruled.
When these white women made the similar argument, Douglas’ fear—and this was a fear of people like Kelly Miller as well—was that the overwhelming racism of white suffragettes would impede the freedom and liberation of black people. And in fact, that’s exactly what was said in The Revolution, which is the magazine or newspaper that was dedicated to getting universal suffrage during a period of time. Well actually, it’s a backlash to the universal suffering—or suffrage for white women—that was funded by George Francis Train, who was a pro-slavery advocate, even after the abolition of slavery. These feminists sided with the Democratic party, they sided with people like Train, that supported the inferiority and demanded the continuous subjugation of black people. Even in the 1860s after the end of slavery, right? The late 1860s.
So why do we not see these connections? When these white women say the savage manhood is going to ruin white womanhood? When people like Belle Kearney writes thatwe can easily dominate the Negro because if we enfranchise the white women to vote, it sells the race question, right? These things matter—Belle Kearney was part of the national American women’s suffrage association. These are their founders. These are their leaders. And this doesn’t give us somehow context or insight into what the movement was about?
When you get to the 20th century, after they’d been trying to partner with white men through colonial ventures, and colonizing the world and taking on the white women’s burden, the mother of the darker races ideal, then you get this idea that suddenly they’re a minority group. And guess who they’re using as the basis of that: black people. So you can literally read these articles, and they’re saying, well, the Negro is treated like this, or the Negro is a victim of paternalism, the woman is a victim of paternalism, check. They’re the same. So it’s just a match, right? Every characteristic that the Negro has, the white women have the same characteristic. Hence, if the Negro’s a minority group, the white woman’s a minority group. This is what their arguments are.
So I asked myself and I asked people very seriously: if the position of black people, especially black men, are being used as a template for white women to construct the notion that they’re actually a minority—remember, cause this is a movement where the republic is white. You’re a white person, that’s how we’re defining race. So you have all the privileges of a white person. You’re subjugated to white men, right?
And this is what Alva Myrdal talks about in terms of paternalism. Not patriarchy, paternalism. Being subject to the benevolence and the wishes of white men in the society, just like the Negro is—which is why she calls it a parallel problem. But this is not ‘white women are fundamentally against white men the ways the black people are’—that discourse didn’t happen until after the change in the 1950s. And then when you get to the late seventies and eighties, the very same group that you use as the model to show women were a minority group somehow becomes patriarchs that dominate them. So you use black experience to say ‘hey, they’re victims of paternalism, just like we are. They’re victims of the kind of power dynamic that will never become patriarchy, just like we are. Hence, if they’re subject to it, and we’re subject to it, we’re minority groups like them.’
You fast-forward 20 years, and somehow the black men in the Negro group that was subject to patriarchy are now patriarchs? And the white women who always ruled over these groups and wanted patriarchy become the victims of it? You see, this is the craziness of history. And philosophers act like—this is a very public debate. You can go back and see this—they act like this debate didn’t happen. White women understood that they were patriarchal; that was their claim to civilization.
By the end of the 20th century, somehow they were its greatest victims. And black men, who were involved with them using as the rubric of what’s the pinnacle—what’s the subject par excellence of patriarchal oppression—get then cast as the perpetrators of the violence, even though they used their victimization to say, ‘hey, we too are oppressed by patriarchy or paternalism’. And we run with this as the basis of feminism—we run with this as the basis of intersectionality, without any true understanding of the development of the history of gender within the context of the United States, or even how what we now think of as white feminists manipulated the term using Jews and blacks and other groups as the basis of measuring their own oppression.
So they become the victim par excellence, and every other group, racialized male, who was previously thought to be weak, feminine and victims of patriarchy, now become their patriarchal oppressors. It’s one of the craziest sleights of hand in the history of the development of a theory, or a category. But because we’re so vastly ahistorical and our deployments of arguments about gender and sexuality, we simply can’t see that as an aspect of white manipulation, or of feminists’ assertions of power. They’re trying to change the logics, because with the fall of the Imperial project, then everything turns to the domestic front. Which is why you have them writing in the 1950s, the same time that blacks are spurring up the pieces of the civil rights movement.
Because now that the world has turned inward to try to figure out the race problem, the white woman now has a benefit in participating—and, in many ways, diffusing—the way in which we understand the subjugation of racialized groups. And I think that the best test of this is to look at which groups benefited from affirmative actions and civil rights legislation after the 1960s and seventies. When you’re looking at affirmative action, white women got all the jobs. Black men were largely unemployed, right? There was no preference for it. When you’re looking at the ways in which we define sexual oppression, all this changed in the 1970s. If this is the case, where’s this discourse in the 1800s? Where’s this discourse in the turn of the century? So you noticed when we study the history of feminism, we start with voting rights, 1920, they got the right to vote. Then we’re off to the civil rights movement. That’s a whole lot of years between the arguments about suffrage in 1860s, 1920, and the 1970s.
So what are white women doing during that period of time? In the late 1800s, they’re colonizing people. In the early 20th century, they’re justifying segregation. In the 1970s, they’re reconstructing the very idea of sex, so that they become part and parcel of the legislation on minority rights. But we don’t study that. We don’t see white women as having a deliberate stake in the building of empire, despite everything about their voting behavior, and their previous histories and writings from the 19th to early 20th century, telling us that that’s exactly what they were invested in.
So it seems like the argument here is that some kind of cultural appropriation took place. There was the struggle that black men were facing—which was a public topic of discussion in the 19th century—and then it’s like that rhetoric of how we’re oppressed was appropriated by white feminists. And suddenly it was turned around on the people from whom that rhetoric originated.
Absolutely. And it’s not just the rhetoric, it’s the very category itself. Like, when you read these articles, they’re talking about the category of minority group. So again, we don’t have a very good understanding. We’ve envisioned white feminism and white women as absolutely powerless, just doing whatever white men say. And that’s just not accurate; these women were leading newspapers and propagandas and citizen councils against integration. They were fighting against integration, saying: ‘how would you feel if a black boy slept with or married your white daughter’, or ‘protect white womanhood’. That is something that was said in opposition to integrating, or giving black people civil and social rights.
This is not an accident. White women didn’t stumble on and accidentally misappropriate the rhetoric. They didn’t want anything to do with black or brown people. They wanted nothing to do with savage races throughout most of history. Their arguments were that they were better rulers than these people and should in fact rule them, because they’re white. So to take all that history, and all that evidence, and reformulate it into a narrative of universal and historical vulnerability and powerlessness—when they were claiming that they were in fact the natural handmaids of white supremacy and imperialism—is just grossly dishonest.
So at this point, I imagine that our black female listeners are wondering how they fit into all this. I’m thinking back to Episode 92 of Elucidations, where we talked to Kristie Dotson. She expressed a concern that black women kind of get crowded out of the popular imagination of what it means to be black. Do you think it would be fair to say that?
It depends on the context, right? If you’re looking at conversations about say, something like domestic violence, then black women are certainly more present than black men, as victims of domestic violence. If you’re talking about police killings, then you’ll have a different story there. I think the logic or the theory that that argument comes from is called intersectional visibility. Intersectional visibility suggests that—and this was an article that was written by Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach in 2008—suggests that recognition or the lack of recognizing a group is just as bad—if not worse than—the actual death of another group. So Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach make this argument.
There’s a theory called social dominance theory, that was developed by Sidanius and Pratto. Their argument was: under capitalist, patriarchal societies, racialized out-group men are going to be the direct targets of lethal violence, more than out-group women. And they provided an impressive amount of evidence to that effect. Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach suggested: that empiricism is true. Black men are incarcerated more, black men are killed more, etc. But we can read that death as a kind of male privilege. And here’s why: in a patriarchal society, the idea was that men are more valued than women. So the dominant male group does not fear women, it fears other men. So the logic of the intersectional visibility argument says, well, because you pay attention to men more than you pay attention to women, these out-group men are targeted for more violence and more death. So them targeting these men for death and with more lethal forms of violence is actually a form of patriarchal privilege, because that’s why they’re being recognized and targeted more than women.
Now, why does this matter to the previous comment? The argument is: black women get left out of conversations. So you don’t focus on some of the issues with black women. But as Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach say, the advantage of that is that that’s why they’re safer. That’s why you don’t see the same amount of incarceration, police brutality, racial profiling, etc. The question is: do we really think that that’s a privilege? Is the killing of a group because they’re more feared really indicative of privilege? And then saying well, we’re not killed as much, so that means that we’re somehow oppressed.
This is what I meant earlier when I said that I think it’s morally deplorable to use death as a standard of privilege. I talk about this in my book, the kind of violence and the logics that entails. Are we willing to say that victims of genocide are privileged next to their the perpetrator because they were killed more? We of course would never say that; we would never talk about the fact that Jewish men were killed first in the genocide as a function of privilege. But when we talk about black men and their condition, we’re certainly willing to make that argument. When we focus too much on the deaths of black men, despite the fact that they’re a hundred-fold greater than black women, do black women get ignored sometimes? Absolutely. It depends on the context, it’s not across the board.
And I would challenge such logics with this. In the university, black women far outnumber black men. And we’re talking about over 30, sometimes 40,000, depending on which set you’re using to talk about it. They get over 70% of the degrees from associate all the way to PhD, JD, MD. Black men have nothing to do with whether or not those representations are dictated within academic literature. They’re the minority. But we don’t conceptualize them that way, despite the fact that they’ve been outnumbered by black women in colleges and universities since the 1970s.
So what does it mean to say that when we get pushed to the side—is there a representation, especially in the early years, where the focus was on race? Absolutely. When there were not gender distinctions made as rigidly as there are now? Absolutely. But that’s not a function of black women just being excluded— that’s a function of how we didn’t have rich concepts of gender in the 1950s, sixties and seventies that carried the kind of intellectual and categorical weight that they do now. This is what Kathleen Cleaver talks about with the Black Panther party. She’s like, you know, people analyze the relationships between black men and women in the Black Panther party now through the lens of gender, but that language didn’t even exist back then.
There was no intersectionality—intersectionality came about in the late eighties. So what does it mean to be intersectional in political groups in the 1970s? This is what I mean about the revisionism: you’re holding people accountable for concepts and terms that didn’t even exist. And again, this is not to say that we should not focus on black women. But it’s to say that in discourses about race or racism, part of those studies have to be contextual and empirical. So if I’m studying black male victims of rape, or black male victims of domestic abuse, black women are wholeheartedly talked about more. There are more services, more recognition, more literature; they’re conceptualized as being a victim.
When you’re studying black men, you have to convince people that they can even be a victim of sexual violence, or domestic abuse, or intimate partner homicide or violence. It’s a completely different situation, so how do we talk about that? See, the problem is that in philosophy, we say these blanket statements—we make these blanket assertions about whether or not certain groups relate to other groups in that way, and it doesn’t hold up. There’s no reason that it will always be the case that black men are talked about more in this society, and in the cases where they are, it’s usually negative. I mean, think about the stereotypes that exist for black men: bad fathers, rapists, criminals, deviants, hashtag black men are trash. You don’t see these hashtags or conversations around black women being endorsed by black intellectuals or black academicians. But you see these hashtags shared by people, employed all the way up to Yale when it’s concerning black men.
So how do we talk about visibility? Yes, we do talk about black men a lot. Usually either as corpses because they’re dead, or as fact that they’re trash. We use genocidal language to talk about a group of people that are oppressed in this country. Because we don’t view them as oppressed and having humanity; we view them as perpetrators of violence. When we talk about domestic violence in this country and the disproportionate rates of domestic violence in this country, we’re talking about how the disproportionate rates are due to the fact that black men are more hyper-masculine and abusive and murder women. That has nothing to do with what the social science actually says on it. Right? Child abuse, alcoholism, going in and out of jail, poverty: all of these things correlate much more with domestic abuse than sexist attitudes, and they haven’t done so in the literature for the last 20 years.
But we don’t talk about that. So when we say things like black women are usually excluded, are put on the margins, my question is: in what case? And if black women have been dominating the intellectual discourse and writing about black women—not saying in general, but like specifically about black women—then why haven’t they been present in it, given the numbers, or how many black women outnumber black men in the university, right? There’s one journal published on black male issues. I mean, you can count the number of feminist journals and journals that accept work on intersectionality and black feminism, or you can count the numbers of jobs in that area. There are no jobs available for people studying racialized masculinities in this country. Most universities don’t even have courses on masculinities unless it’s taught from a feminist lens. So, you know, we have a lot of work to do to add some specificity to what we’re actually talking about: we’re talking about gender and the relationship between black men and black women.
So I have to say I’m intrigued by the idea that if we really want to understand gender-based opression, we need to make the oppression of black men part of that discussion. That seems right, and I’m kind of fascinated by this idea: what if every gender studies department in the country opened up a wing for black male studies—hired an expert in black male studies? Would that be a way of addressing this? Or is maybe something more radical called for, like just building the movement anew, from the ground up?
Well, yeah, the first way wouldn’t work. Putting black men—especially straight black men—in departments with white women is not going to be a good idea. That’s just always historically failed. Especially in gender departments that often exude the idea of white female vulnerability. Yeah, that’s just going to be a political catastrophe. I think we need something much more radical. And again, the radicality of the position is not really that radical when you’re looking at the previous work, right? The works of Anthony Lemelle, people like Robert Staples and Sylvia Wynter. These arguments about feminism, both conceptually and historically, have all been made before.
The problem is that those are not the people we read—that’s not how we read them. You know, I’ve seen people read Sylvia Wynter as a feminist, when she’s absolutely adamant that she does not participate in black feminism. She has crazy critiques of it. People read Elaine Brown as being a feminist. Well, Elaine Brown basically says that black feminists are a bunch of angry Bs, and that they claim they’re revolutionary, but it’s anti-revolution to make or believe in anti-male statements. There’s no comraderie when you’re fighting a systems and structures—there’s tons of examples of black men and women making criticisms against these kinds of things.
So I think you need a place—a disciplinary home where racialized men can study themselves. And this is not that different from what goes on in other countries. If you’re in Australia or the UK, there are tons of people, either within certain departments or in a home department, or interdisciplinary department, that are doing concrete studies of masculinities. Aboim’s work, that looks at Portuguese men, and how the concept of hegemonic masculinity doesn’t really apply to them.
There’s other examples throughout the world with this kind of project working. The problem in the United States is: given the racialized discourse and logics, there will never be a place for racialized men to actually be able to discuss themselves without impositions of certain assumptions from feminism. And again, that’s not to say that feminism doesn’t have its own benefits if you’re studying women or certain groups of people. It’s not that kind of blanket statement. There have been benefits to the ideology, or to the paradigm, whatever you would like to call it. But at the same time, you have to concede the limitations, the glaring blind spots, the lack of clarity and definition idea or the term of intersectionality.
When I read Patricia Hill Collins saying: ‘I was in a graduate course and we didn’t know what intersectionality was, but we knew it when we saw it’, that’s going to give me some pause, because the arguments that intersectionality makes about black men, and about other racialized men, is that they’re privileged advantaged groups. And even when, again, going back to intersectional visibility, even when black men are more unemployed, and less educated, and less socially mobile, and incarcerated more, and have a shorter life span—all these things, falling out of the economy—and suffer from worse health consequences. How much empirical disadvantage outweighs the idea of being privileged? That’s what I’m—if you compare the groups, line by line, and say, ‘well, then why, if black men are privileged, why they have all these terrible and much more severe consequences in terms of their demographic health?’ And then you say, ‘but that’s a privileged group, and then this group is not’, I don’t understand that logic, because we don’t do that for white people.
And we talk about white privilege. We don’t say, hey, white people have more household wealth, live longer, are more educated, own more property, but they’re a disadvantaged group, compared to black people, who have none of that. We say no, the empiricism shows that black people, racially, are disadvantaged. But when we talk about gender, it has nothing to do with the empirical relationship between groups of men and women. It’s all about the idea that there’s just male privilege and hence being male is to be privileged. That makes no sense to me—your claim has to have some kind of substantive content to it. So yeah, I think that because of the radicality that these ideas have to some of the founding premises of feminism and gender studies in the United States, that it has to start off as something separate. It has to be something different.
And again, you know, this is a position that’s looking to engage the argument. It’s not adopting a moralistic strain that black men are always the most oppressed. But it does, building off social dominance theory—and I think what has been a pretty consistent finding in genocide studies, specifically looking at low level conflicts and racially repressive regimes, that there is something about patriarchy and dominant groups that target males first and foremost, in an attempt to extinguish the rest of the group. And if we have this dynamic and we’ve seen it for a hundred years, why is that not part of any discussion that we’re having on gender in the United States? For the life of me, I cannot understand that.
And I think that that becomes part of the reason that we’re so hesitant to do something new: because feminism has become a kind of morality where anyone who speaks against it or criticizes it automatically becomes a bad person. And the names we have for those bad people are anti-woman, misogynist, sexist, etc. etc. etc. But it’s a discourse that suggests that you can’t analyze it, you simply have to accept it. And think about this: this is being weaponized by groups of white women, who form literally half the Academy. Half the university is practically white women. There’s like 625,000 white women in the Academy. It’s like 650 to 700,000 white men. There’s 70,000 black women, and 47,000 black men. So then how does a group that is that dominant get to utilize the same language? That’s what I’m saying. It still instructs realities of race and racism, segregational logics.
In philosophy, white women compete for the exact same jobs in non-Western Africana or non-traditional philosophies that minority groups do. Despite there almost being 6,000 of them in a discipline. There’s about a hundred black people, right? Like, how do we see this? And how does this open us up? White departments who traditionally have a problem dealing with black people, especially black men, are not going to say hire the black male. They’re going to say, look, it’s easier just to hire the white woman. We have our issues, but I’m much more comfortable with a white woman. More white women in that department are more comfortable with another white woman.
So black male studies is trying to point out that kind of relational discord, not only in the ideas of discourse, but in the configuration of bodies within departments. There’s an undesirability—an unwantedness—to black bodies, be they straight or gay, that makes people uncomfortable, because of what it means.
And I think that when you look at the research on what employers say about black men and women competing for the same jobs, you can see that danger, fear and threats are constantly associated with black men, in ways they are not with black women. And even the stereotypes of black women can be read as positives if they’re trying to decide between black women and black men. Again, context, specificity. And I think that that’s the area of black male studies that’s so powerful: that you can draw comparisons between groups, female groups, other male groups throughout the world, and actually try to get at the bottom of why you see the repetition of some structures and the dissolution of others.
So I think the big question here now is: where do we go from here? Is there some way to incorporate some of what you’ve uncovered into the feminist project and set things right? Or do we have to start over?
I think when you’re talking about feminism, you really have to start over. I think that this is the arguments that you’re getting out of decolonial and anti-colonial work. Feminism still has certain assumptions about the subject position of women that’s largely based on the threats and theories that white women hold. And if you take feminism to be birthed by racial discord, and imperialism, and colonization and the murder and rape of other groups, we throw out theories like that. We say we should not use theories that justify rape or murder, etc. But feminism gets the exception; it’s exceptional in that sense—not because of the way that this theory has served oppressed racial groups, but because it’s supported overwhelmingly by white female groups. And that’s again, part of the racial dynamic and power that white women have, alongside white men in a patriarchal society.
One of the things I constantly say is that as much as we like to think of feminism as a challenge to patriarchy, it was in fact patriarchy’s perfection. The idea that a patriarchal racial group could both rule over other groups, male, and female together, not just male. So even though we have rhetorics of equality and sexual harassment which feminism is immensely useful for understanding, the larger question is: what kind of understandings are coming along with the imposition of the theory? Where is the accounts? Where is the compassion? Where is the empirical real-world sentiment between some of these women groups—even if they’re intersectional—and racialized males? Migrant workers?
Because the political assumption is that feminism as a paradigm allows you to see the connectivity between different kinds of women, especially with the push of intersectionality. But even within that push, somehow, male groups and immigrant groups get excluded. Why? And my argument, largely, is that it’s because of what their bodies represent. Here’s a great question: when we talk about equal pay, white women make more than black men and black women, and Hispanic women, and Hispanic men. Yet, the paradigm for talking about solving the wage gap is with white women. But all the other groups don’t get paid as much as white women. So why are they natural partners? When you look at the ways that white women have historically voted in the United States, overwhelmingly conservative in the 20th century, why are they the natural feminist partners when their politics as a group go contrary to the progressivism that you find in black and brown voting blocks? They traditionally vote conservative. Black men traditionally vote democratic and progressive, but you don’t see them as natural allies.
Despite the politics, the category of male does more work than the reality of what that group actually believes and does. So even though white women are an extremely conservative group, their body somehow makes people imagine that they’re liberal. How do you fix that? That’s not going to be an overnight thing like: ‘oops, you’re wrong; the evidence shows that you’re wrong’. There is no introduction of criticism within that system, because the logic of it is about power. It’s about domination. It’s about being the best, if not the second best, in the white supremacist system that’s constructed in the United States.
So I think that black people—brown peoples, people throughout the global South—have to reconfigure the basis of gender, and sexual violence, and sexual exploitation. Black male studies is a piece of that. It’s not the only piece of that. But yeah, feminism as it exists—with the participation of white women and the construction of the gender category that various intersectional paradigms utilize, they really are based on the history of white women, and not the histories of other racialized groups of men and women—don’t really serve the purposes of those groups. So we need to start with something completely new.
Tommy Curry, thank you so much for joining us.
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