(A version of this essay was originally posted on De Clarke and Stan Goff's blog, Feral Scholar, on the 6th of February 2006. This 2008 version contains more material from Patricia Hill Collins than did the original piece.)
[image of this P. H. Collins' book cover is from here]
The Prison and the Closet--Racism and Heterosexism:
an Introduction to the Political Writings of Patricia Hill Collins,
by Julian Real
After participating in a rather long, unproductive discussion about racism and heterosexism, I decided to do “the research thing” and bring to light the subtle and sophisticated social analytic work of Patricia Hill Collins.
The first text to be introduced is Black Feminist Thought (2000), with focused attention on chapter 6 (”The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood”). This is but one chapter of Collins’ very important feminist work: this text should be considered a MUST READ by anyone who calls themselves feminist or pro-feminist, anti-racist, or progressive to radical. It should be required reading, in other words, for all who calls themselves “humanitarian”. Collins opens with a discussion about several factors that contribute to the phenomenon of heterosexism in some Black communities, examined within the context and confines of a Western white supremacist State. Dynamics of social phenomena such as heteronormativity and heterosexism vary from time to time, culture to culture, and ethnic group to ethnic group (often varying widely within any one ethnic group, depending on many factors, including class, religious affiliation, geography, political values, family values, etc.).
But here we find a deeply thoughtful and intellectually incisive discussion about a culturally specific phenomenon, that may serve as a lens into variations on this theme inside and outside other Black communities, especially where other factors of white male supremacist imperialist colonization and the oppression of ethnically marginalized people and Tribes exist.
We must note, regardless of its “usefulness” to other herstorical situations, this discussion is pertinent for all feminists because, well, Black women ARE women, and Black women’s lives, worldwide, are fully illustrative of how gender, race, class, and ethnicity, religion, and sexuality intersect in real time, in real psyches, in the real lives of real people, who suffer, survive, and endure. This is to say (to white feminists and white non-feminists, especially) the importance of reading this work, and other work by the same author, is not for its relevance to white women’s lives, however useful this work may be to untangling and examining those same intersections in ethnic white women’s experience. A primary and fundamental critique of 1970s popular feminism was that it assumed a centrality of experience, a normativity, a basis of theoretical formulation, serving as a launch-pad for various activist efforts and campaigns, while significantly and mistakenly viewing white women’s experiences as“representative” of what happens to women. What happens to white women is what happens to women, often. But it is also ethnic and partial, and this was not uncovered or challenged by white women in those early days of radical thought and action. The job of pointing this out was left, not surprisingly, to many women of Colour, including Audre Lorde, who wrote so eloquently about these struggles in her feminist classic, Sister Outsider. Critiques had been intensifying, for damn good reasons, before and after Audre Lorde’s contribution to the discussion. There have been many voices, of many sexualities and ethnicities, later including white radical women such as Mab Segrest and Marilyn Frye. Together, these voices of deep introspection and structural and post-structural analysis have created a compelling challenge to the racism, classism, and heterosexism of early white feminism. Those brave white woman warriors dared to articulate, at great odds, the real harm male supremacist culture inflicts upon and infuses into the lives of people made into patriarchally female girls and women. With this in mind, we turn now to Collins (Black Feminist Thought, p. 123):
As Evelynn Hammonds points out, “Black women’s sexuality is often described in metaphors of speechlessness, space, or vision; as a ‘void’ or empty space that is simultaneously ever-visible (exposed) and invisible, where black women’s bodies are already colonized” (1977, 171). In response to this portrayal, Black women have been silent. One important factor that contributes to these long-standing silences both among African-American women and within Black feminist thought lies in Black women’s lack of access to positions of power in U.S. social institutions. Those who control the schools, news media ,churches, and government suppress Black women’s collective voice. Dominant groups are the ones who construct Black women as “the embodiment of sex and the attendant invisibility of black women as the unvoiced, unseen--everything that is not white” (Hammonds 1997, 171).
In the following paragraphs leading up to the main theme of this chapter, Collins notes “Within U.S. Black intellectual communities generally and Black studies scholarship in particular, Black women’s sexuality is either ignored or included primarily in relation to African-American men’s issues. In Black critical contexts where Black women struggle to get gender oppression recognized as important, theoretical analyses of Black sexuality remain sparse (Collins 1993b; 1998a, 155-83). Everyone has spoken for Black women, making it difficult for us to speak for ourselves (123-24).
Collins next cites the work of Paula Giddings, noting the following:
[T]o talk of White racist constructions of Black women’s sexuality is acceptable. But developing analyses of sexuality that implicate Black men is not--it violates norms of racial solidarity that counsel Black women always to put our own needs second (124).
Citing the work of Nellie McKay, Collins quotes this passage, also on p. 124:
“In all of their lives in America... black women have felt torn between the loyalties that bind them to race on the one hand, and sex on the other. Choosing one or the other, of course, means taking sides against the self, yet they have almost always chosen race over the other: a sacrifice of their self-hood as women and of full humanity, in favor of the race (McKay 1992, 277-78).
“Taking sides against the self” requires that certain elements of Black women’s sexuality can be examined, namely, those that do not challenge a race discourse that historically has privileged the experiences of African-American men (124).
Yet another factor influencing Black women’s silences concerns the potential benefits of remaining silent (124).
Collins goes on to describe the costs of Black women and men speaking out about sexuality in a virulently white supremacist context.
The convergence of all these factors--the suppression of Black women’s voice by dominating groups, Black women’s struggles to work within the confines of norms of racial solidarity, and the seeming protections offered by a culture of dissemblance--influences yet another factor shaping patterns of silence. In general, U.S. Black women have been reluctant to acknowledge the valuable contributions of Black lesbian feminist theory in reconceptualizing Black women’s sexuality. Since the early 1980s, Black lesbian theorists and activists have identified homophobia and the toll it takes on African-American women as an important topic for Black feminist thought. “The oppression that affects Black gay people, female and male, is pervasive, constant, and not abstract. Some of us die from it,” argues Barbara Smith (1983, xlvii). Despite the increasing visibility of Black lesbians, African-Americans have tried to ignore homosexuality generally and have avoided serious analysis of homophobia within African-American communities (125).
[...] As a group, heterosexual African-American women have been strangely silent on the issue of Black lesbianism. Barbara Smith argues one compelling reason: “Heterosexual privilege is usually the only privilege that Black women have. None of us have racial or sexual privilege, almost none of us have class privilege, maintaining ’straightness’ is our last resort” (1982b, 171). In the same way that White feminists identify with their victimization as women yet ignore the privilege that racism grants them, and that Black men decry racism yet see sexism as being less objectionable, heterosexual African-American women may perceive their own race and gender oppression yet victimize lesbians, gays, and bisexuals (125-26).
Skipping now to a subsection of the chapter called “Heterosexism as a System of Power”, Collins continues:
One important outcome of the social movements advanced by lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals has been the recognition of heterosexism as a system of power. In essence, the political and intellectual space carved out by these movements challenged the assumed normality of heterosexuality (Jackson 1996, Richardson 1996). These challenges fostered a shift from seeing sexuality as residing in individual biological makeup, to analyzing heterosexism as a system of power. Similar to oppressions of race and gender that mark the bodies with social meanings, heterosexism marks bodies with sexual meanings (128).
In the United States, assumptions about heterosexuality operate as a hegemonic or taken-for-granted ideology. The system of sexual meanings associated with heterosexism becomes normalized to such a degree that they are often unquestioned. For example, the use of the term sexuality itself references heterosexuality as normal, natural, and normative (129).
Making heterosexism as a system of oppression more central to thinking through Black women’s sexualities suggests two significant features. First, different groups remain differentially placed within heterosexism as an overarching structure of power. Considerable diversity exists among U.S. Black women as to how the symbolic and structural dimensions of heterosexism will be experienced and responded to. African-American women express a range of sexualities, including celibate, heterosexual, lesbian, and bisexual, with varying forms of sexual expression changing throughout an individual’s life course (131).
Next, we turn our attention to Collins’ newer book, Black Sexual Politics (2004), to see where she goes in her examination of heterosexism and racism. I will be focusing on chapter 3 ("Prisons For Our Bodies, Closets For Our Minds: Racism, Heterosexism, and Black Sexuality"):
Despite important contributions of extensive literature on race and sexuality, because much of the literature assumes that sexuality means heterosexuality, it ignores how racism and heterosexism influence one another (88-89).
In the United States, the assumption that racism and heterosexism constitute two separate systems of oppression masks how each relies upon the other for meaning. Because neither system of oppression makes sense without the other, racism and heterosexism might be better viewed as sharing one history with similar yet disparate effects on all Americans differentiated by race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality (89).
Noting the importance of critiques of Black sexual politics both from feminist and gay perspectives, including, in both camps, Black lesbians, Collins offers this:
Both groups of critics argue that ignoring the heterosexism that underpins Black patriarchy hinders the development of a progressive Black sexual politics. As Cathy Cohen and Tamara Jones contend, “Black people need a liberatory politics that includes a deep understanding of how heterosexism operates as a system of oppression, both independently and in conjunction with other such systems. We need black liberatory politics that affirm black lesbians, gay, bisexual, and transgender sexualities. We need a black liberatory politics that understands the roles sexuality and gender play in reinforcing the oppression rooted in many black communities.” Developing a progressive Black sexual politics requires examining how racism and heterosexism mutually construct one another (89).
In the next section of this chapter, called "Mapping Racism and Heterosexism: The Prison and the Closet", Collins begins with an astute quote by Nelson Mandela:
“We regarded the struggle in prison as a microcosm of the struggle as a whole. We would fight inside as we had fought outside. The racism and repression were the same; I would simply have to fight on different terms.”
The absence of political rights under chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation and the use of police state powers against African Americans in urban ghettos have meant that Black people could be subjugated, often with little recourse (89).
African American reactions to racial resegregation in the post-civil rights era, especially those living in hyper-segregated, poor, inner-city neighborhoods, resemble those of people who are in prison. Prisoners that turn on one another are much easier to manage than the ones whose hostility is aimed at their jailers (90).
The experiences of people in prison also shed light on the myriad forms of African American resistance to the strictures of racial oppression. No matter how restrictive the prison, some prisoners find ways to resist. Often within plain sight of their guards, people who are imprisoned devise ingenious ways to reject prison policies. As Mandela observes, “Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve. To do this, the authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are” (91-92).
Collins notes that hip-hop culture has been one form of resistance. Many creative voices speak, through rap and other cultural forms, to the outrage of oppressed people living “freely” in places that are more like prison than paradise.
Collins observes: What is freedom in the context of prison? Typically, incarcerated people cannot voluntarily “come out” of prison but must find ways to “break out” (92).
But once “out” what world is one released into?
Racism may be likened to a prison, yet sexual oppression has more often been portrayed using the metaphor of the “closet.” This metaphor is routinely invoked to describe the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. Historically, because both religion and science alike defined homosexuality as deviant, LGTB people were forced to conceal their sexuality. For some homosexuals, the closet provided some protection. Passing as straight fostered the perception that few gays and lesbians existed. The invisibility of gays and lesbians fueled homophobia, and supported heterosexism as asystem of power. During the era of racial segregation, heterosexism operated as smoothly as it did because hidden or closeted sexualities remained relegated to the margins of society within racial/ethnic groups. Rendering LGBT sexualities virtually invisible enabled the system of heterosexism to draw strength from the seeming naturalness of heterosexuality (93-94).
Since the 1980s, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people have challenged heterosexism by coming out of the closet. If the invisibility of sexual oppression enabled it to operate unopposed, then making heterosexism visible by being “out” attacked heterosexism at its core (94).
Collins describes several approaches the LGBT community has taken to break apart the mythology of heterosexuality as both natural and normal: transgression, “queering” sexuality, and assimilation haveall been explored extensively in queer lives lived bravely in the context of larger cultural communities of rejection, hostility, and punishment.
Racism and heterosexism, the prison and the closet, appear to be separate systems, but LGBT African Americans point out that both systems affect their every day lives. If racism and heterosexism affect Black LGBT people, then these systems affect all people, including heterosexual African Americans. Racism and heterosexism certainly converge on certain key points. For one, both use similar state-sanctioned institutional mechanisms to maintain racial andsexual hierarchies. For another, the state has played a very important role in sanctioning both forms of oppression (95).
Racism and heterosexism also share a common set of practices that are designed to discipline the population into accepting the status quo. These disciplinary practices can best be seen in the enormous amount of attention paid both by the state and organized religion to the institution of marriage. If marriage were in fact a natural and normal occurrence between heterosexual couples and if it occurred naturally within racial categories, there would be no need to regulate it. People would naturally choose partners of the opposite sex and the same race. Instead, a series of laws have been passed, all designed to regulate marriage. For example, for many years, the tax system has rewarded married couples with tax breaks that have been denied to single taxpayers or unmarried couples. The message is clear--it makes good financial sense to get married. Similarly, to encourage people to marry within their assigned race, numerous states passed laws banning interracial marriage. These restrictions lasted until the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1967 that overturned state laws. The state also passed laws designed to keep LGBT people from marrying. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a "legal union between one man and one woman." In all of these cases, the state perceives that it has a compelling interest in disciplining the population to marry and to marry the correct partners. (96).
Interracial and gay marriage has each had their time in the hot, hot spotlight of public scrutiny--white heterosexual male supremacist public scrutiny.
Back to Collins:
Racism and heterosexism also manufacture ideologies that defend the status quo. When ideologies defend racism and heterosexism become taken-for-granted and appear to be natural and inevitable, they become hegemonic. Few question them and the social hierarchies they defend. Racism and heterosexism both share a common cognitive framework that uses binary thinking to produce hegemonic ideologies. Such thinkin grelies on oppositional categories. It views race through two oppositional categories of Whites and Blacks, gender through two categories of men and women, and sexuality through two oppositional categories of heterosexuals and homosexuals. A master binary of normal and deviant overlays and bundles together these and lesser binaries. In this context, ideas about “normal” race (whiteness, which ironically, masquerades as racelessness), “normal” gender (using male experiences as the norm), and “normal” sexuality (heterosexuality, which operates in a similar hegemonic fashion) are tightly bundled together. In essence, to be completely “normal,” one must be White, masculine, and heterosexual, the core hegemonic White masculinity. This mythical norm is hard to see because it is so taken-for-granted. Its antithesis, its Other, would be Black, female, and lesbian, a fact that Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde pointed out some time ago (96-97).
Within this oppositional logic, the core binary of normal/deviant becomes ground zero for justifying racism and heterosexism. The deviancy assigned to race and that assigned to sexuality becomes an important point of contact between the two systems. Racism and heterosexism both require a concept of sexual deviancy for meaning, yet the form that deviance takes within each system differs. For racism, the point of deviance is created by a normalized White heterosexuality that depends on a deviant Black heterosexuality to give it meaning. For heterosexism, the point of deviance is created by this very same normalized White heterosexuality that now depends on a deviant White homosexuality. Just as racial normality requires the stigmatization of the sexual practices of Black people, heterosexual normality relies upon the stigmatization of the sexual practices of homosexuals. In both cases, installing White heterosexuality as normal, natural, and ideal requires stigmatizing alternate sexualities as abnormal, unnatural, and sinful (97).
[...] [T]hese two sites of constructed deviancy work together and both help create the “sexually repressive culture” in America described by Cheryl Clarke (97).
Collins concludes this section of her chapter on page 98 with this question: How have African Americans been affected by and reacted to this racialized system of heterosexism (or this sexualized system of racism)?
I believe that whatever ethnic and cultural groups folks in the U.S. are a part of, we must contend with these questions as they apply to each and every one of us.