The ways in which gender norms intersect with ideas about race and ethnicity

We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

In this essay I aim to examine how ideological and cultural assumptions and standards of femininity influence the construction of racial identity with regards to black feminine identity.

As Cuomo and Hall identify, the concept of race, like gender, is a socially constructed phenomena; ‘Racial categories are socially constructed and contextually defined. These deconstructive and reconstructive academic strategies help undermine popular acceptance of biological and other naturalistic understandings of race.’ (1999:2) and is therefore subject to the changing currents of attitude among social acceptance, desirability and respectability as well as shame, embarrassment and unacceptance.

The construction of an ideal form of femininity while shrouded in sexist stereotypes and outdated assumptions about the ability of women, is also constructed with ideas of racial identity with whiteness being celebrated in what is called white privilege or white solipcism and alternative racial identities facing gendered, sexualised oppression.

Mamma in Beyond the Masks (1995) discusses the way in which black women face ‘tripple oppression’ at the intersection of race, gender and class by the hand of dominant cultural ideology favouring white middle class men. (1995:121) Gender norms intersect with ideas about race and ethnicity in a way which encourages oppression of black femininity and sexuality through cultural imagery like stereotypes and the male gaze which are influenced by racism, sexism and orientalism.

The struggles of women in gender inequality are magnified for black women because of their race, as Mamma notes, ‘For black women, the dominant order is both racially oppressive in gendered ways and sexually oppressive in racialised ways’. Throughout this essay I aim to investigate some of the ways in which race and gender, particularly in regard to black femininity, and the manner in which they are culturally constructed have oppressed black feminine identities, how this oppression is manifested and upheld, and what effect this has on the visibility and embodiment of such identities. Read how surveillance can be performed through either stationary or mobile 

Adewumni (2011), addresses the influence of the history of slavery to the construction of racist attitudes and hierarchy of dark skin tones within black identities which can be traced back to attitudes from the times of Slavery.

The separation of black people as slaves from white people as their owners, or later on in history as their employers, constructed a gap between social groups, categorizing values and cultural identity of black people as socially inferior and powerless and white people as superior in power, more sophisticated, more deserving of a privilege created for themselves.

Following from racist separation of black and white people, a hierarchy was created of exact skin tone. The term ‘colourism’ refers to a form of prejudice within racist discourse which differentiates people in the same racial group by the exact shade of skin tone. The shade of skin tone ascribes assumptions of behaviour to a person; slave owners favoured slaves with a lighter shade of skin as safer, more reliable and more trust worthy. The lighter a slaves skin tone, the more obedient and receptive they might be to the acceptance of white privilege, especially slaves of mixed heritages who were labelled ‘half white’.

“Generally speaking on plantations, you had what you would call the house slaves and the field slaves. The delineation of shade in that regard would be those who were darker would be in the fields while those who were fairer or of mixed heritage would be the house slaves. Part of it was because of the fear factor; those who were more closely associated with being African or those who were new to the plantation would be darker and more resistant than those who were born on the plantation and therefore considered to be less aggressive, less rowdy.” Explains Ruth fisher, a project manager for the Understanding Slavery Initiative, speaking with Adewumni.

The favouring of lighter skin is prevalent in Victorian class differentiation whereby the lighter a persons skin tone, the wealthier they were assumed to be because they didn’t have to spend time outside; anybody doing manual work in a field would have a darker skin tone from being in contact from the sun.

These two out dated systems of classifications are still used to construct black identity through racist ideologies.

The history of black women in the civil rights movement, in struggles against oppression now influence attitudes which form oppressive stereotypes and how images of beauty and identity are constructed. In liberating themselves, black women have made efforts to assert their identity as active in political expression and challenging norms of white privileged culture.

Following this reassertion and redefinition of black identity, the cultural image of the black woman now depict ‘aggressive matriachs’ and ‘dumb domestics’ (Mamma, 1995:123); the dominant order places oppressive and restrictive categories of black women who are reduced to gendered subjects like maids, slaves, or nagging mothers who are often looked upon as figures of ridicule so as the ‘yo momma’ stereotype depicting black mothers as overweight, overly sexualised, tacky and uncontrollable.

The identity of black women as challenging and provocative which earned them respect during the civil rights movement is now used to oppress them by incorporation into the male gaze and is present in cultural images of black women as ‘wild, sexually licentious, prostitutes and entertainers’ (ibid)

Race is constructed through gendered ideals and also sexual oppression in the categorising of black female sexuality in an orientalist way; fetishized perceived characteristics of black women, their behaviour, desires allow the figure of dominance, in this case predominantly white men to watch them under surveillance as ‘the other’ like a foreign subject to be examined as a form of entertainment. Mamma notes ‘enslavement and colonialisation did not only materially exploit and politically subordinate African resources and ways of life but at the same time transformed and subjected Africans to the imaginings and caprices of imperial culture and psychology.’ (1995:17)

The ‘anachronistic images of black women as prostitutes and entertainers’ (Mama, 1995:123) form an idea of black femininity influenced by racist attitudes linked back to legalised slavery of black people and colonialisation where black people were seen as the property of the white people who they served, where women slaves were used as sex objects to entertain white men.

Typically, white women being associated with an asexual purity meant that black women as their opposite were associated with the opposite embodiments of sexuality, promiscuity, crudeness and ugliness. This fascinates the sexually repressed European male gaze being endowed with the taboo and fantasies to fulfil the male needs.

These constructions of black feminine identity have reinforced racist attitudes which problematise the black body and often restrict embodiments of black femininity to sites of sexual exploitation or humour.

Black femininity seems to accumulate pathologies of black skin being unacceptable in a society dominated by white values influenced by beauty, purity and respectability. The shame of black femininity is influenced by (in contrast) a history and heritage of racist oppression causing a need for self-surveillance.

In the film Dark Girls(2001) the self-surveillance of black women and the shame behind their dark skin tone is examined on a personal level. Adewunmi discusses the responses of women to growing up with the insecurity of being a black women, and how they aspired to having lighter skin. ‘One woman recalls asking her mother to add bleach to her bathwater so she “could escape the feelings that I had about not being as beautiful, as lovable”. (Adewumni, 2011)

We can examine how power is expressed through the discourse whiteness, which is used to legitimise racism and oppression using Michel Foucault’s notion of the biopower and the docile body from his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977). I want to examine how the attitudes towards race, in particular those held in the ideology of white privilege control the identity of black femininity.

Foucault’s idea of the docile body holds that power is expressed through invisibility of the body. In regard to race, the lighter the skin of the body, the more invisibility it possesses, which translates to strength and normality to pass without being noticed within social order. This idea of passing without being notices links with Foucault’s idea of society as a panopticon, like a prison where everybody is under constant surveillance by a figure of power who is invisible to those who are being watched. Inside the panopticon society of surveillance ‘Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment. Inspection functions ceaselessly.” (Foucault 1995:195)

The visible body in regard to race would be the darker skinned body which is subject to the power of white privilege which entails surveillance; being watched, being scrutinised by stereotypes, racist attitudes and beauty ideals develops the need for self-control and self-censorship. The discourse of white privilege holds whiteness as the superior identity and is normalised and reproduced through the surveillance of non-white identities.

The construction of an ideal femininity includes whiteness as an inherent arbitrary value for beauty and success. Mullen identifies this retraining and altering the body and changing of identity as ‘passing’, “The usual mechanism of passing, which I take as a model for the cultural production of whiteness, requires an active denial of black identity only by the individual who passes from black to white, while the chosen white identity is strengthened in each successive generation by the presumption that white identities are racially pure” (Mullen, 1994: 72)

The docile body is passive to the power shown by white privilege and this influences attempts to reinvent and improve its self by using beauty techniques to pass as lighter skinned such as skin lightening creams, hair straightening. “A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved” (1977:136) This enables the rejection of racial identities that don’t fit white European femininity as people can alter their bodies and their behavior to take on more characteristics of the white European feminine body.

The construction of race and gender is dominated by white femininity as the respectable and acceptable embodiment of female identity, other forms of gendered, racialised itentity is subjugated in order to support the racist social hierarchy which allows for white privilege and invisibility. This subjugation of non-white femininity is maintained by characteristics of power in the social structures.

Althusser contended that the individual was born into a ‘pre-existing ideological structure with which he comes to identify’, (Mamma, 1995:123) where the social practises and attitudes are inflicted onto an individual which is what forms ideas of acceptable forms of behaviour and identity in order to be successful within particular systems in society. When faced with institutionalised racism, and ethnocentrism, black identity must be adapted in order to fit into a system of white privilege, where the individual has to learn how to inhibit aspects of their personality and appearance in order to survive as a subject, knowing that they are being constantly watched and judged. Our behaviour is spread to individuals by systems of ideology (such as white privilege) which is built up of institutions integral to the functioning of the community such as family and the education system, otherwise known as ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’. (Althusser, 1970:135-139)

This assumption holds that black identity is learnt and the body modified and trained by its relation to white identity which is universally accepted and institutionally valued and trusted. This seems to be true of black masculine identity and values which are often perceived as a threat to white control and are therefore self-muted and self-modified. One only has to look at antagonisms between young black men and police (as an ideological state apparatus) such as that reported in the London riots in summer 2011 which were heavily motivated by anger over mistreatment of ethnic minority groups by the police.

During this time, black men were scapegoated by the police as trouble makers and targeted for arrests and searches resulting in police abuse, such as in the case of one twenty-one year old black man, who after being arrested faced racial and physical abuse which he recorded evidence of on his phone ,’ Scotland Yard is facing a racism scandal after a black man used his mobile phone to record police officers subjecting him to a tirade of abuse in which he was told: “The problem with you is you will always be a nigger”. (Lewis 2012)

This treatment just fuelled further anger by marginalising young black men and showing an overtly racist attitude within agencies of control however it resulted in the increased self surveillance of black identity in order not to be victimised in the same way, in order to pass as innocent, unthreatening and obedient.

Another structural factor which seeks to maintain and legitimise the white privileged construction of race and gender is the notion of cultural hegemony, (Gramsci, 1999). The subjection and oppression of black female identity by white privilege is hidden, and inequalities among race and gender relations are upheld as natural, correct and essential by currents of hegemony. The state of hegemony is crucial to establishing control by transferring values of the dominant social group into accepted ‘common sense’ which becomes internalised as values of the wider population.

Hegemonic control legitimises the construction of race through gendered and sexualised oppression by structuring oppression as a norm, therefore protecting it with invisibility.

The surveillance of non-white feminine identities is an integral part of their subjugation. In popular culture and the mass media, women are subjected to the Male Gaze, a theory put forward by Mulvey. (1975) The gaze placed on women in the media displays them as objects for viewing pleasure and this objectification allows the viewer to isolate parts of their body which are individually coded for erotic pleasure, ‘In their traditional exhibitionist role, women simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact…” (Mulvey, 1975: 203)

This gaze reinforces the hierarchy of racialised femininity with whiteness portrayed as pure, sophisticated and successful. It is no wonder then, that non-white women with so much attention paid to them in the media show such a high level of self-surveillance and docility that they lighten their skin colour, In order to pass as white in attempt to enjoy the success related with lighter skin tones. One such example is singer and actress Beyonce Knowles who when featured in a L’oreal advert, had her skin digitally lightened, along with actress Gabourey Sidibe who had her skin lightened when she featured on the cover of Elle magazine in 2011. In both of these cases the digital lightening of their images was against their will yet it reproduced the ideology of lighter skin being associated with success as both women are celebrated for their talents in the Arts.

However there has been ongoing speculation that Beyonce Knowles had used skin lightening products since her skin tone appeared gradually physically lighter in candid photographs for years and on the cover of her latest album her skin tone is very light. Alibhahi- Brown identifies this behavior as denial and betrayal in an article from The Daily Mail; ‘”Betrayal: Beyonce’s change of skin tone appears to deny her heritage and send out a bad message to the youngsters who see the images” (Alibhai-Brown, 2011).

The lightening of dark skin tones to promote beauty by cosmetics companies such as L’oreal and fashion magazines such as Elle is an institutionalized display of racism and white privilege. The beauty industry while constructing white femininity as the acceptable female identity enforces this idea by reproducing and circulating altered images of women to adhere to their standards and also offer damaging treatments to coerce women whose self-esteem they have lowered to alter themselves so that they can pass as lighter skinned and less visible.

Adewumni disputes the lightening of skin among black women as a response to white beauty ideals, with a response to the ongoing public debate over Beyonce Knowles’ skin colour.

‘But what exactly is Beyonce’s “usual colour”? She is a fair-skinned black woman. And, like most other people on earth, her skin tone changes with the seasons. For example, I – a dark-skinned black woman – am a lot darker in summer. At the risk of sounding condescending, black people tan too. Personally, I tan quickly and deeply. And in the winter, I get as “pale” as my dark-brown skin gets; enough to see the green veins at my wrists. And then let’s add in the other pertinent factors: makeup, studio lighting, airbrushing. I’m fairly certain everybody in the business with any kind of promotional budget gets sculpted, “smoothed out” and tightened in post-production.”(2012)

Adewumni points out, rather than an attempt to conform to white beauty ideals, the tone of skin is a factor which can change naturally without manipulation or motivation. Furthermore, when skin lightening does occur with post production techniques, this is not necessarily at the request of the person in the photograph. The lightening of Knowles’ skin colour for the L’oreal advertising campaigns was more likely a display of racism within the beauty marketing industry rather than a self-hatred and denial of heritage on Knowles’ part.

‘Yes, there’s no denying that shadism or colourism still exists. Is there a noticeable bias towards a certain aesthetic – fair skin, light-coloured hair, skinny, but with a (proportionally) large bottom? Definitely. And is there a correspondingly high number of fair-skinned black women in the public eye? Again yes.’ (2012) This acknowledgement makes us question whether the changing visibility of black femininity and the influence of white beauty standards are a product of a conscious change, an actual retraining of the black gendered body due to Ideological state apparatus in an effort to conform to ideals of white privilege, or whether it is another form of oppression by the dominant white ideals which seek to protect certain cultural values by controlling the way in which the black gendered identity is constructed and embodied.

What effect this has the oppression had on the visibility and embodiment of such identities? (pathologisation of black identity, multi identities, self surveillance, beauty ideals, embodiment race and gender in black feminine identity conforming to ideology of white privilege)

The intersections of race and gender as two oppressed groups produce a constantly scrutinised image of the black female body and therefore an identity and embodiment of black femininity which is under constant change as a result its on-going persecution and controlled expression of beauty to fit to white cultural standards.

Therefore the culturally constructed image of black femininity by write privilege is not the only image of identity which is embodied and displayed among black women. Multiple forms of black identity exist, as identity does regardless of race or gender. Whether as a conscious reaction to racism or not, these constructions of race and gender all differ and can be performed sometimes interchangeably to fit the differing requirements of shifting social spheres.

Mamma points out the regularity of this performativity in order to best adapt to different ideologies within institutions of society. ‘This juggling of different identities is sometimes expedient, something that one has to engage in, for example is one wants to get a job’. (1995:121)

This poses a new question; are different constructions of raced, gendered identities an attempt to subvert the effects of racist oppression? ‘being multiple in this way would be pathologised within psychological discourse but can be reconceptualised once we view subjectivity as multiple and dynamic’ (ibid) One could argue that Knowles’ lighter skinned appearance, if a conscious choice of her own, might be a case of her exploiting the racist and colourist bias of the beauty and music industry in order to achieve greater success, and that having the freedom to perform different identities is actually a liberating act which challenges the strict boundaries of race.

However, performing different racial identities is frowned upon on the most part in popular culture, as noted in Alibhai-Brown’s comments on Beyonce, (2012) and received as a betrayal. Once a black identity identifies which might be seen as too closely with white values they face being an outsider within both systems of values, being discriminated against from both groups for not being ‘truly’ affiliated with either.

In conclusion while there is on-going debate over the effects of constructions of raced gender, the meanings we can deduct from the controversy are complex and bound in contextual meanings depending on the point of examination and the layers of visibility for black femininity. Mamma points out that as new discourses are created and individuals share the social changes, this brings with is ‘gains in social power as growing numbers of people take it up and position themselves within it’,(1995:64)

It is apparent that while the currents of racism and white privilege ideology still construct the raced and gendered identity, new constructions are created from the experiences from those individuals who might be subjects in white privilege but create for themselves new expressions of raced gender. ‘we see black women abandoning colonial integrationist for black radical positions, infusing and enriching these with new notions of femininity’ (Mamma, 1995:165)

As social events coincide and resonate within collective communities and social groups, more understanding of the dynamics of raced and gendered identity are developed past those restricted to white privilege and the inscription of racism, enabling individuals to escape subjectivity and control their own embodiment of their own constructions of identity. Whilst performativity can reproduce ideals of white privilege and racism it can also subvert these ideas and create new values, enabling the constructions of race and gender to be influenced by choices of positivity and pride of cultural difference.

Get help with your homework

Haven't found the Essay You Want? Get your custom essay sample For Only $13.90/page

Sarah from CollectifbdpHi there, would you like to get such a paper? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out