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In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.

Reflections On The Murder of Trayvon Martin: Stereotypes, Hypervigilance, & State-Sanctioned Racism

Source: Business Insider

On February 26th, 2012, around 7pm, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the white captain of the neighborhood watch where Martin’s father lived.  Martin was unarmed, carrying only the bag of Skittles and an iced tea that he purchased when he briefly left his father’s house.  Zimmerman, suspicious of Martin’s presence in the gated Sanford, Florida neighborhood, called 911 about Martin.  He was told by the 911 operator not to interact with Martin in any way.

Zimmerman followed him anyway, getting into an altercation with Martin when he questioned why Zimmerman was following him in his SUV truck.  By the end of the incident, Martin was face-down in the grass, dead, just 70 feet from his father’s house.  Zimmerman currently walks a free man proclaiming the incident to be self-defense, thus justifying the murder — an excuse that, at least on the surface, is legal under Florida self-defense laws.  However, many are calling for Zimmerman’s arrest for the murder, pointing to the role of racist stereotypes that can play out under these expansive self-defense laws.

Racist Stereotypes

Given Martin’s undeniable innocence in this tragic incident, the only thing he seemed guilty of was being a young black man.  As Dr. Rashawn Ray, a University of Maryland sociology professor, has pointed out, this incident, and many others like it, are evidence that black men are too often, and almost automatically presumed to be criminals.  He notes, drawing on sociological research on race, crime, and punishment:

[S]ociological research continues to show that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be disciplined in school and stopped by the police. While some may anecdotally argue that black kids are badder than white kids, studies show a more pressing problem — teachers and police officers monitor, profile and police black and Latino youth and neighborhoods more than white ones.

The arrest of Harvard University professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, in 2009 for trying to enter his own house gives us evidence that any Black man, no matter how wealthy, educated, or even respected in white America, may fall prey to being treated as a common thug or criminal.  In 2010, I was witness to a similar incident, when a fellow member of the Diversity Fellows Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Dr. Calvin Warren, was hassled by UW-M campus police because he was thought to fit the description of a young black man who police were looking for.  (It goes without surprise that the two look nothing alike, the police never apologized for harassing him, and an internal investigation of the incident dismissed Dr. Warren’s behavior as uncooperative and hostile while the police were just doing their job.)

Additional research by sociologists like Dr. Devah Pager points to other consequences, besides the potential for violence, unfair arrest, and harassment by police, of these racist stereotypes.  In her work, she examines differential treatment in hiring practices by race and criminal record.  In one study using audit methodology, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” Dr. Pager found that men who were Black, and men with a criminal record, were less likely to receive callbacks for jobs than men who were white, and men without criminal records, respectively.  However, the most shocking finding was that these race and criminal record differences interacted, wherein white men with criminal records were still more likely than Black men without criminal records to receive job call backs.  Black men with criminal records were the least likely to be called back, and white men without criminal records were the most likely to be called back.  You can see the graph below:

"The Mark of a Criminal Record"

Figure 6 from Pager, Devah. 2003. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology 108: 937-75.

So, in the event that there is any question as to why it matters that racist stereotypes still exist, the unjustified murder of Trayvon Martin, the racial discrimination in hiring, among other outcomes that constrain the livelihood, success, health, and well-being of Black people is your answer.  People’s beliefs, including prejudice, shape their behaviors.  This might even explain the consistent hostility toward President Barack Obama — criticism that has, at times, seemed greater than is warranted for his (perceived) failings.

The Other Consequence For Blacks: Hypervigilance

How do Black people navigate the stereotypes in everyday life they face — those assumptions that may lead to limited opportunities for work, unfair arrest or hostile treatment by the police, violence, unfair treatment in public service, and so forth?  These stereotypes range from the view of young Black men as criminals, young Black women as sexually promiscuous (“jezebels“), older Black women as comforting “mammies,” and so forth.  Dr. Ray, likely expressing the concern of many Black people, spoke frankly about these concerns for his children on The Young Turks.

For some Black folks, hypervigilance is the product of living with such (racist) realities.  One must constantly be alert and self-aware, ensuring that one is safe and avoiding fulfilling whites’ stereotypes about Black people.  Watch how you speak, dress this way, avoid these areas at these times, sit like this, etc.  Setting aside the debates between assimilating to white norms and challenging them momentarily, these are real matters to consider given the concerns for one’s safety and well-being.

In this era of modern racism, where racial prejudice is covert, even unconscious and implicit, it can feel like one is walking on a field covered with landmines of little (or big) racially-tinged events.  Unfortunately, the hurt of these events, ranging from microaggressions (e.g., “you’re not like other Black people!”) to racist violence is compounded by the denial that racism continues to be a problem today.  This makes for conditions similar to schizophrenia, I would argue; you do not know who might harm or offend you in terms of race and, once hurt, you might be told you are being hypersensitive or playing the “race card.”

State-Sanctioned Racism

How does one’s prejudice, even if implicit, translate into the death of an innocent, unarmed 17-year-old Black man?  Without attempting to assess the racial attitudes of Zimmerman, especially given his history of criminal behavior, we can at least talk about how racist attitudes are allowed to become racist behaviors.  Today, with civil rights and non-discrimination laws, discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, health care, and so forth, is illegal; hate crime laws sometimes tack on harsher sentences in the case of bias-motivated violence and property damage.  Of course, more minor, everyday forms of discrimination are not illegal, for they are not seen as damaging to marginalized groups’ well-being, despite evidence that suggests otherwise when these events accumulate.

There are some laws and policies that are blatant in their intent to discriminate against people of color, for example, the new law in Arizona that allows the racial profiling of Latina/o people or those perceived to be Latina/o in an effort to crack down on illegal immigration.  Other laws, like the self-defense law in Florida, may not explicitly implicate race, but can be exercised in ways that facilitates racial discrimination and racist violence.  A post at Feministe does a great job of explicating this point:

A “reasonableness” standard is important in evaluating a self-defense argument. The key, though, is reasonable to whom? In many jurisdictions, deadly force is only justified if a reasonable person in the same circumstances would believe it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. What’s interesting — and troubling — about the Florida statute is that it doesn’t include any duty to retreat (instead allowing force to be met with force), and it doesn’t require that a “reasonable person” would find the circumstances potentially life-threatening. It requires that the individual who used deadly forced “reasonably believed” that the use of force was necessary. It’s a small distinction, but an important one (and it’s Bernie Goetz all over again). A “reasonable person” would not think that a young black man walking down the street was a threat to his life. But an individual with a particular set of experiences and views might be able to convince a jury that he reasonably believed that. In a racist society, you can find a racist person who “reasonably believes” that the existence of a black kid is dangerous, and that a confrontation with a black kid — even if the white adult started it — is life-threatening.

One point that has come up time and again in my dissertation research (on the health consequences of discrimination) is that when laws and policies are less standardized and rigid, there is more room for people in power (e.g., managers, supervisors) to use their own discretion.  This may mean that their biases may sneak in.  For example, in an audit study comparing hiring practices of gay male compared to heterosexual male potential employees, sociologist Dr. Andras Tilcsik found preference given to heterosexual men because they are assumed to be more decisive, aggressive, and ambitious than gay men.  However, when policies and laws are more standardized, leaving little room for personal discretion, there tend to be fewer reports and complaints of discrimination.

Things We Can Do

Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin is dead.  So, what can we do now?

  • You may consider signing the Change.org petition to arrest and try George Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin.
  • As Dr. Ray points out, we could work within ourselves to challenge our stereotypes and assumptions:

Socially, when individuals meet a “good” black man, they can be seen as the rule and not the exception. Most black men are not criminals or untrustworthy; they are law-abiding citizens. People need to start recognizing social class cues that signal professionalism and decency instead of ubiquitously categorizing black men as dangerous.  It is high time that individuals see not just a black man, but a man who could be a doctor, lawyer, neighbor or even the president. These changes in individuals’ perceptions will a go long way to solve the criminalization of nonwhite bodies.

  • Also, we can challenge others’ assumptions and stereotypes.
  • We can assess whether the expansion of self-defense laws may lead to greater protection or greater harm.  In particular, we should ask whether these laws open the door for greater violence against marginalized groups.
  • We should ensure that the media paints a holistic picture of Black people in America, rather than promoting the usual stereotypes of Blacks as criminals, stupid, lazy, or, on the “positive” side, only good at entertaining.
  • Rather than remaining complacent, we can continue to advance discrimination and hate crime laws to protect marginalized groups from differential treatment, especially in this era of covert prejudice.
  • We must begin to talk more frankly about race, rather than skirting these conversations in this so-called post-racial era.  President Barack Obama’s presidency should be seen as re-sparking the conversation on race and racism, rather than ending it.