The global purpose of this paper is to explain race and gender in the context of power dynamics in modern society. Now that social justice movements are gaining as much traction as ever, the issues of race and gender find themselves in the spotlight, drawing the attention of researchers. More specifically, this paper endeavors to explain why sociology is still too rigid and susceptible to sexism, racism, and chauvinism to allow marginalized communities to make their contribution.
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One of the claims that this paper makes is that sociological tools and methods were originally created by White men to describe their own experience. Because of that, women scholars, and especially, Black women scholars struggle to conceptualize what they are going through. On top of that, these demographics still have poor access to academia where they could be sharing their thoughts and ideas.
Another issue is the twisted subject-object relationships that permeate the sociological field. Black people, women, and Black women often feel like an object that can be observed but that cannot do anything meaningful on its own. Lastly, this paper discusses at length the split personality that many marginalized communities have to adopt. This paper was put together by means of systematic analysis of the works by Smith, Collins, and Fanton.
As sociological topics, up until the 1960s, race and gender had only been touched upon but never thoroughly examined. In the second half of the 20th century, race and gender started to gain more traction in sociological scientific communities mainly due to the leverage of social movements fighting for the rights of women and people of color. As a result, sociology got closer to treating race and gender as fundamental categories shaping a person’s experience.
This was a more precise and quite refreshing perspective after seeing these two properties as nothing more than variables to be factored in or factored out of the analysis at a whim. Despite the tangible progress that sociology has made in the past few decades, there are still plenty of issues that it has yet to address. This paper argues that sociology is still a field under the White male hegemony that serves as a gatekeeper for Black and female theorists and practitioners.
Sociology and Female Experience
Once the topic of female liberation and empowerment has grown to be as prominent as ever, a logical question arose as to how sociology was supposed to conceptualize female experiences. According to Smith, it soon became clear that sociological tools and methods as is were not exactly apt for addressing women’s issues for a variety of reasons (Calhoun et al., 398). First and foremost, for the most part, women were excluded from the narrative.
Smith argues that White male sociologists were only interested in social and political structures that were male dominated while the rest was deemed not worthy of their attention. For example, household maintenance, child rearing, and taking care of the neighborhood are all still predominantly female social aspects. They are important parts of our lives, and yet, sociologist communities that consist mainly of men fail to analyze them properly and gain any meaningful insights.
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The main difficulty that arises from this limited worldview is that female sociologists are forced to adopt manmade tools and methods. To think, throughout the history of sociological thought, men explored the womanhood as the ultimate otherness. They could not be women themselves and take on their perspective, hence, they had to resort to treating women as an object of scientific inquiry without a proper understanding. Now that women are on the way to acquire their own voice, they face this objectification in science. This leads them to struggle with becoming an autonomous subject that creates knowledge and instead of serving for men’s observations.
This mode of being a subject rather than an object is called “the governing mode.” To Smith, to be in the governing mode means to have a better conceptual comprehension of reality, and studying sociology is one of the ways to enter it (Calhoun et al. 400). It should be noted that in the context of Smith’s work, the governing mode does not refer solely to the government and politics. Instead, it describes a position of power derived from deep knowledge, which allows a person to join the power elites analyzed by another author, Wright Mills (Calhoun et al. 229).
The question arises as to how different the chances are for men and women to enter the governing mode. Smith shows that in actuality, women struggle more with gaining self-agency and leverage in society (Calhoun et al. 400). According to the writer, there is a certain duality to human existence, on the one hand, we are cerebral creatures. We explore the world and try to conceptualize it; by doing so, we grow more capable of fulfilling our higher level aspirations. On the other hand, however, humans are physical beings that need to meet their most basic needs before ascending to the next level. This is where the skewed gender dynamics chime in and change the picture.
Even at present, men still do not pull their weight around the household, and women have to deal with chores and children all alone. I recall a rather traditional family that I used to know where the woman full-on neglected her career ambitions because of the workload that she had to deal with at home. Interestingly enough, recent studies suggest that these stories are not anecdotal: they are a part of a greater tendency. For instance, Barr cites a study that showed that in 8,500 young heterosexual couples living together, the women were doing the lion’s share of housework. In the context of the concepts described by Smith, it is safe to say that the weight of household chores prevents women from transcending their bodily existence and entering the governing mode.
This idea reminds me of what Wright Mills wrote in his article “The Power Elite.” The author coins the term “great men,” by which he means people who are able to escape mundane responsibilities. Wright Mills says that ordinary people are limited: everyday, they have to run their errands, and it is a never-ending loop. What they lack is power and leverage to delegate some of these tasks to others and start doing something more important. If only they could do it, their lives would change dramatically. Wright Mills explains that an ordinary person meets someone else’s demands; moreover, his or her well-being relies on the quality of their work and their compliance. “Great men,” on the other hand, are able to create demands: they are free to tell others what to do.
Wright Mills does not address the issue of gender in his article. However, taking into account what Smith says about the gender dynamics, I can tie these two frameworks together. It seems that a “great man” is great partly because he does not have to some of the tasks on which others have to spend a good share of their time. For example, if a man does not have to think about household maintenance or how his children are doing, he frees up time and even mental space to do something else.
Basically, this “great man” delegated a big chunk of his responsibilities to a woman and escaped the “loop.” This idea of mine is confirmed by another claim made by Wright Mills that “great men” are not solitary rulers. One person cannot achieve much on his own, no matter how smart or focused he is. So, bringing the gender issue back into the narrative, a man relies on his wife to provide a safe bay for him. If it were not so, he would disperse his energy and fall back in his career or other aspirations.
Another parallel that one may draw between the class readings by Wright Mills and Smith is the homogeneity of higher circles. Higher circles is a term used by Wright Mills interchangeably with power elites, and it denotes groups of people at the top of the hierarchy (Calhoun et al. 231).
The researcher states that higher circles are barely ever characterized by diversity. In fact, they are very homogenous: one will encounter the same type of people in the military, in politics, in economics, and other key social institutions. The people who belong to higher circles are so similar to each other that they can migrate between them without struggling much. Again, Wright Mills does not analyze this phenomenon from the intersectional standpoint that takes race and gender into account. However, it is possible to imagine that under homogeneity, one may mean the overrepresentation of White men in higher circles. They all hold relatively similar views, which helps them to bond and collaborate.
Interestingly enough, the gendered power dynamics fit the theory put forward by Marx. Namely, women’s labor is often alienated from them: they do not get to enjoy the positive results that their efforts yield (Calhoun et al. 408). Going back to that family I mentioned, from my observations, man benefited himself greatly by dedicating a bulk of time to his studies and his work. His wife, on the other hand, was not exactly benefiting herself by taking over housework. She only created a comfortable environment for her husband so that he could stop caring about menial tasks and concentrate on the work of his life.
I think almost anyone can think of examples similar to what I described. However, it remains unclear how to construct the new sociological knowledge that would take them into account. With regards to this issue, Smith explains that the female experience needs to become the new source of knowledge. Women should become independent storytellers not fearing backlash and resistance. When experience is accumulated, it can be transformed into perspectives. Smith draws a clear distinction between these two concepts: experience is factual and indifferent whereas perspective is more attitudinal.
On a larger scale, taking into account lived experiences will help sociologists to transform the relationship between the subject and the object in science. Smith argues that sometimes the positivist approach to scientific inquiry may as well be faulty: it is not always possible nor favorable to disengage from the research process (Calhoun et al. 406). This is why it makes sense for a sociologist to be both a knower and a discoverer. An example I would like to bring up is how sometimes we fail to perceive our cultures with thoughtfulness. When I was a kid, I used to think that Chinese people were arguing all the time because of their high-pitched, intonation-rich language.
With time, I understood that their language provided different tools for self-expression, and my understanding was wrong. This everyday example illustrates a relationship between the subject (me) and the object (another nation). Without understanding the linguistic intricacies of the Chinese culture, I made a snap judgment about people I did not even know. I imagine that this is what happens when a particular demographic serves only as an object of observation in sociology.
Another goal that considering real experiences might help to reach is to address the so called bifurcation of reality. According to Smith, bifurcation of reality happens when there is a schism between the real events and how other people perceive them (Calhoun et al. 404).
To a degree, this phenomenon took place in the example with the Chinese language that I provided. Another example that relates to bifurcation directly is an event and its description in the media. More often than not, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint what actually happened. Not everyone has direct access to real witnesses, and even the latter sometimes have fabricated memories that prevent them from sharing a truthful perspective. In sociology, bifurcation stems from treating a described demographic as an object. Therefore, to avoid this bias, the object needs to become the subject, which concurs with the aforementioned idea that women need to find their own voices amidst the chaos of modern sociology.
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Surely, gender is not the only dimension of power that is worth mentioning and analyzing in sociology. Another property that needs to become a fundamental category is race. Collins addresses the issue of Black epistemology in modern sociology and the reasons why Black knowledge remains largely subjugated (Calhoun et al. 408). Firstly, it is important to clarify the terminology used in Collins’ work. In layman’s terms, epistemology prescribes us what we need to do about knowledge. Whenever the question arises as to whether a certain fact, theory, or hypothesis deserve our trust and respect, we may want to consult epistemology to guide us.
In the context of power dynamics, epistemology turns into a race and gender issue. If women, and especially women of color, are mistreated by society, it is hard to expect that they will be listened to and taken seriously. This is why Collins calls knowledge produced by women of color subjugated knowledge – it does not bear the same value as the knowledge of White men.
In sociology just like in other sciences, epistemology provides guidance for choosing paradigms and methodology. Paradigms answer the question of how a phenomenon needs to be interpreted. For instance, one may wonder if the experiences of White men and Black women should be investigated similarly. A relatively recent paradigm, intersectionality, argues that every person stands at the intersection of the multiple power dimensions.
Therefore, the world of a Black woman where she has certain problems because of her blackness and womanhood is very different from the world of a White man even if they live in more or less similar conditions. Epistemology is supposed to help with drawing parallels between these two kinds of experience or, on the contrary, showing off the key distinctions. Methodology in this case refers to a broad set of tools and principles, the validity of which is also defined through epistemological constructs. Just like Smith, Collins highlights the schism in sociology: when it comes to Black female thought, theorists run into the inability to choose between dominant epistemology and epistemology of their own kind (Calhoun et al. 411).
The subjugation of knowledge becomes the most apparent when one studies the process of knowledge validation. This terms refers to a process during which it is decided whether a new knowledge is truthful and worth considering. As one may readily imagine, knowledge validation is heavily influenced by political forces and movements that define which groups of people get to have their opinions heard and who remain silenced. Collins states that Black women are often excluded from the process of knowledge validation, and their experiences are neglected (Calhoun et al. 410). The researcher argues that Black females are often stereotyped to the point where they are no longer taken seriously. Some of the common roles assigned to them include mammy, matriarch, and jezebel.
This reminds me of an article in Forbes penned by Grassam who addresses the stereotype of the “angry Black woman.” The author writes that since the segregation era, the public has often portrayed Black women as domineering and sassy, in a negative sense. They have been seen as emotional and self-expressive to a fault, which must have allegedly prevented them from making sound judgments. Taking this into consideration, one may easily imagine how a Black woman’s opinion can be dismissed because others would think that she is overreacting and being inadequate about the situation at hand.
The question arises as to if the system of oppression is so obvious, how come it is still in place. Wright Mills argues that the subordinates in the system still have the power to influence the social structure and rearrange it. Therefore, it would only be natural for certain demographics to unite and protest the inequality until it is removed. As Collins shows, things might not be as straightforward as one expects them to be (Calhoun et al. 409).
Researcher claims that education institutions like to actually allow some Black women in for the sake of meeting the quota. By doing so, they demonstrate to the public that they are accepting of minorities. In reality, they are only ready to let a limited number of Black women to enroll or do research while gatekeeping the rest. Moreover, Collins thinks that these Black women are picked on purpose: they are compliant and do not go against the rules. They know that if they decide to stray, they will easily be ostracized and disowned by the scientific community.
One may wonder as to what exactly these Black women struggle with in academia. It appears that the methodologies do not quite fit with what Black female thinkers might want to communicate in their works. Namely, Collins critiques the positivist approach to research (Calhoun et al. 410). Surely, in many other fields, positivism makes absolute sense; however, when it comes to sociology, it ends up on a shaky ground. One of the primary premises of positivism is reliance on hard data and objective facts. Yet, when it comes to power structures, sometimes, some oppression practices can be so subtle, they cannot be easily pinpointed, logged, and quantified to really prove anything.
One example that I can provide to show that positivism cannot quite describe some sociological concepts is microaggressions. Microaggressions are a legit form of oppression that is very subtle and seemingly innocuous. This makes the victim of this type of aggression question whether they would be in the right to speak up and retaliate. For example, DeAngelis from the American Psychological Association tells the story of his two Black colleagues. They were flying first class and were free to choose any spots in the front. However, when three White men, flight attendants suddenly changed their minds and asked the Black passengers to change their seats and move to the back. The staff explained that it was done for the sake of safety; however, it is easy to notice racial undertones as well.
From my own experience, I remember partaking in a conversation between me, my Black acquaintance, and an elderly teacher from the school we all used to go to. The acquaintance mentioned that her father was an engineer, and the teacher was surprised. Now that I think about it, it might have been her presumption that Black people cannot excel in well-paid industries such as tech. If I imagine setting an experiment or an observational study to investigate racism, I see how one may struggle with monitoring such occurrences.
Some other characteristics of the positivist approach include the observer’s total disengagement from the process in terms of feelings and emotions. Apart from that, research ethics state that such categories as social justice cannot be the subject or the motivation for a study. It is clear how Black feminist thought is not compatible with feminism. Collins states that because of this tangible distinction, Black feminists resorted to alternative methods of knowledge creation and validation. This led to the emergence of Black epistemology that relies on four pillars:
- experience as the source of knowledge;
- the use of dialogue;
- the ethics of personal accountability;
- ethics of caring (Calhoun et al. 414).
One of the main functions of Black feminist thought is to help Black women to embrace their truthful identity. Therefore, denying Black women their alternative epistemology actually shows how racists academia may be.
It seems to me that faulty methodologies are not the only reason why academia fails Black women. Studying the article by Collins compelled me to research a bit more into the factors that influence Black women’s success in academia. The magazine Conversation features an interview with Mcunu, a Black female PhD candidate who talks at length about the various obstacles that people like her have to overcome in universities (Patel). Just like Collins, Mcunu thinks that Black women struggle with identity issues. Some faculties and departments are predominantly White, and Black students or researchers might struggle to find a role model that would provide a sense of belongingness.
Not only is it hard for them to find a mentor with which they could connect, but they also start doubting if pursuing this path is even possible for a Black woman (Patel). Interestingly enough, Mcunu mentions that Black women often fell victim to the stereotype about what real science is and what is not. The interviewee says that very often, engineering and medicine are put on the pedestal while other fields are not seen as lucrative. It is readily imaginable how pervasive ideas like this one could prevent a Black woman from entering the field of sociology. In summation, Blackness and womanhood result in many hurdles on the way to academic excellence, which in turn, robs sociology of refreshing female-centered and Black-centered perspectives.
White Masks of Black People
As it has already been shown in this paper, Black experience is often about making a distinction. Black feminist scholars have to choose between their unrecognized Black epistemology and sociological tools developed by White men. Black women in academia face another difficult choice: on the one hand, they need to comply with the predominant paradigm. On the other hand, it contradicts their lived experience and promotes the subjugation of their Black knowledge. Fanon addresses another compelling point proving that Black people often have to “balance” between two worlds (Calhoun et al. 418).
The researcher argues that people of color change and police their linguistic self-expression. Namely, Fanton explains that a Black person talks to people of the same race in one manner and changes it to accommodate White people.
At first glance, it might seem that changing one’s linguistic code is no big deal. For instance, I do not speak in the same way to my parents, my professors, and my close friends: each time, I have to assume a new identity and transform my demeanor. However, as it appears, when race comes into play, these linguistic phenomena gain more importance. Fanton says that when a person speaks, they actually bear the weight of their culture and their civilization. From this, I can conclude that when Black people have to change their manner of speaking, they deny themselves their own cultural heritage. In a way, they erase their own identities to please the dominant class.
Even today, the phenomenon of so-called code-switching is alive. Ocbazghi explains the distinction between the Standard American English and the African American Vernacular English. According to the author, Black people are forced to sound “White” to get ahead in life. In particular, he cites a study in which Black and White people were calling landlords asking if their apartments were still available (Ocbazghi). It turned out that Black people were less likely to get callbacks; they were often told that apartments were no longer on the market.
In his work, Fanton mainly addresses the issue of colonization and colonized nations’ adoption of the colonizers’ languages. The researcher describes the situation with regards to the French language in certain African countries. He says that colonization imprinted the notion of inferiority into Black people (Calhoun et al. 418). Now they have to deal with the reality that they will only be taken seriously if they adopt the elements of the colonizers’ culture such as their language. When Black people interact with each other, they are safe from these power dynamics: they do not judge each other based on criteria imposed by White people (Calhoun et al. 418). However, once a Black person has to talk to a White person, there emerges the sense of “otherness” that does not go away easily.
Just like Smith and Collins, Fanton also speaks about the confusion that comes with existence within two frameworks of reference. One framework is what Black people are familiar with: their family, their culture, their customs, and traditions. The second framework is superficial: it is based on White people’s prejudice and contempt. Each Black person has to decide for him- or herself how it may be possible to survive in this duality. According to Fanton, what is really difficult is that the two frameworks merge into each other. A Black person ceases to understand when he or she is being watched and when they can relax.
It is possible to draw another parallel between Fanton’s article and those by Smith and Collins. All three researchers talk about objectification of people based on their race and gender. Moreover, they show how one particular gender and one particular race may be seen as something negligible and undesired. A Black man himself, Fanton discusses his own experience of being turned into an object (Calhoun et al. 423). He describes his trip to the United States were he derived quite an unpleasant reaction from White passers-by. Children were pointing at him with their fingers, calling him the N-word, and acting frightened (Calhoun et al. 423). From this, Fanton concluded that his otherness turned him into an object and deprived him of any personality.
In his article, Fanton puts forward another idea worth mentioning that also somehow concurs with what has been said by Smith and Collins. The author states that at some point, it became apparent to him that his Blackness was seen by White people as a disease or malformation. In other words, if being White is default, being Black is a mistake or an error. Fanton goes as far as claiming that White people would be glad to eradicate Blackness altogether.
He uses the metaphor of a scientific lab where they make experiments to “denegrificate” Black people (Calhoun et al. 424). Surely, it sounds exaggerated, but one may wonder how exaggerated it is really. Black people already lose a part of their identity when they are forced to switch to colonizers’ languages. Later, their culture, customs, and traditions are frowned upon if not completely downtrodden. They are further deprived of their identities through having to comply with the framework of Whiteness. Lastly, it is nigh on impossible for a Black person to prove the existence of oppression because the existing scientific methods and paradigms are not apt for doing this.
Previously marginalized groups were finally finding their voice through anti-colonialism, gay liberation, feminism, and anti-racism. What made a world of difference back then is that social categories were tied to fundamental identities. Through female and Black thought, underprivileged communities were able to make well through-through and concrete demands, seeking acknowledgment and recognition.
Yet, sociology has yet to become more accommodating for Black people, women, and Black women. One of the main issues that exist today is the lack of specialized methodologies for describing marginalized communities’ experience. Another problem is the poor accessibility of educational institutions for minorities. Lastly, women and people of color suffer from being treated as an object of observation and not as a participant of the dialogue. All three authors mentioned in this paper address the issue of otherness and alienation that being a woman or a person of color implies.
Barr, Sabrina. Women Still Do the Majority of Household Chores, Study Finds. Web.
Calhoun, Craig, et al. (Eds.). Contemporary Sociological Theory. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
DeAngelis, Tori. Unmasking ‘Racial Micro Aggressions.’ Web.
Gassam, Janise. Overcoming The Angry Black Woman Stereotype. Web.
Ocbazghi, Emmanuel. Is ‘Talking White’ Actually a Thing? Web.
Patel, Ozayr. Pasha 18: The Struggles of Black Women in Science. Web.