Gender, Blackness, and the Oppression Olympics

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten titled “Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora”

Main Hall, Lawrence University (Flickr: Roman Boed)

Some people think that once you get your PhD, you know everything. Certainly, as a sociologist whose research focuses on the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, I thought I knew all there was to know on the subject. That is why, when it came time to teach my Sociology of Black Americans course, I focused a large portion of the class on just that — race, gender, and sexuality. This was so I could play to my strengths and cover the ground I thought I knew best. Teaching the course at a small liberal arts college in a rural town in Wisconsin taught me that I had much more to learn. In fact, it taught me that the PhD is just the beginning of learning what you need to know.

The 2018-2019 school year was my second as a new scholar at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. This was the first year I taught the Sociology of Black Americans. Because the Ethnic Studies major had just been created that year and I was the school’s first and only tenure-track Ethnic Studies Assistant Professor, getting the class up and running was a top priority to me. I was tasked with creating the class from scratch, designing the syllabus, selecting the readings, and producing activities for the students to participate in during the term. This was a daunting task, but none the less, I wanted to rise to the occasion. This was because almost all the Black and Latinx students on campus (we are a very small college with approximately 1,600 students and even less students of color) took my courses, and I wanted them to have a class that reflected their wants and needs. This was also because as an Afro-Latino male myself who grew up in the predominantly Hispanic border town of El Paso, Texas, the African American Studies courses I took at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) under the leadership of the late Dr. Maceo Dailey were pivotal to my own personal development as a scholar-activist. I aimed for my classes to touch, challenge, and if possible, change my Black students for the better in the way my African American Studies courses did for me.

To do this, I incorporated different topics each week, from religion, music, and labor, to the criminal (in)justice system, education, and Black genius. Nothing in the class caused more controversy than the weeks dedicated to gender and sexuality. This was because of a divide between the Black men and women over who was more privileged than the other and who had it the hardest in life. While this seems like a trivial and counter-productive argument, Lawrence University, much like any other campus, became the location where Black men and women participated in a misguided “Oppression Olympics.” It never seemed to hit me that this debate over who was more privileged than whom was rooted in a colonial logic regarding gender that camouflaged the disregard both Black men and women experience.

And so, it was with this lack of understanding that led me to the Embodying the Black Diaspora Workshop at Carleton College, as I sought ways to improve Ethnic Studies and my Sociology of Black Americans course. It was also the reason why I paid particular attention to the “On Knowledge and Narrative: Teaching Africa Beyond Abjection” session hosted by academics Marlon Bailey and Thabiti Willis, knowing that I could potentially gain resources that would allow me to teach my students about gender and sexuality in a way that would help them to see the larger picture, so they don’t play the Oppression Olympics, as well as help me teach gender and sexuality beyond abjection.

The workshop was informative, inspiring, and most importantly, helpful. Marlon Bailey reminded all participants at the start of his session that “a PhD is an invitation to learn more,” which, ironically, was the lesson I needed to hear the most. The quote made me realize that I, like my students, was holding on to theories and concepts I liked but not allowing myself to move beyond them to something that might better explain different forms of inequality. The readings offered in the session as well as the commentary by the scholars provided an alternative path in which to understand gender and sexuality in relation to the Black Diaspora by asking us to first resist essentializing Africa, and to second, critique the colonized idea of White gender differences that can be reproduced in academic work.

Africa is a continent with various countries and billions of people, and essentializing everything about Africa to one thing is illogical. This was made ever clearer in the assigned reading, African by Kevin K. Gaines. How gender is constructed in one time and location can vary dramatically from how it is understood in another. This is especially true in the US, where, arguably, our current understanding of gender is rooted in the histories of settler colonialism and slavery. These histories distort our notions of gender and disguise the ways in which gendered groups can be oppressed by a murderous imperialist regime. Even today, some US academics fail to understand the ways in which gender operates within and through various racial and ethnic groups. Using Conceptualizing Gender by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí as an aid in illuminating the non-nuclear family model of the Yoruba tribe, Bailey and Willis revealed the way mainstream Gender Studies programs can reflect colonial ideas of gender difference without critique.

After discussing Conceptualizing Gender, I realized the root of the problem with the gender discussion in my class: we were making assumptions about the meanings of gender, namely Black masculinity and womanhood, that led us to create a hierarchy of Black people’s experiences of gender-based oppression. Feminist theory has become the foundational framework through which to understand gender in the US. Over decades, feminist theorists have worked to define and illuminate how masculinity operates. One of the most enduring contributions of feminist theory is the claim that there is a gendered hierarchy, with men occupying the highest social, economic, and political positions, in both the public and private spheres. While this claim has revealed how power operates in some circumstances, it does not fully account for the diversity of ways in which gendered power operates in varied racial and ethnic contexts. This is what Oyèwùmí’s work so clearly illuminates — the gender hierarchy that scholars have theorized for US-based articulations of gender is not universal, especially for various African, and Black diasporic, communities. In the traditional Yoruba tribe, for instance, “family can be described as a non-gendered family. It is non-gendered because kinship roles and categories are not gender differentiated.” Instead, age provides the hierarchy, not gender, and all groups can participate in familial labor, regardless of gender. Working with this perspective in mind forces those engaging in Gender Studies in Black communities to reconsider what is assumed to be true.

As Oyèwùmí states, the “difficulty of applying feminist concepts to express and analyze African realities is the central challenge of African gender studies.” Similarly, the “fact that western gender categories are presented as inherent in nature” and “operate on a dichotomous, binarily opposed male/female, man/woman duality in which the male is assumed to be superior and therefore the defining category, is particularly alien to many African cultures.” I learned I need to move beyond solely US-based feminist concepts in order to teach my students of color the complexities of gender, that feminist theorists who expand the geographical boundaries of our inquiries could help challenge narrow notion of gender hierarchies that lead to unfruitful debates and Oppression Olympics. This might have made the gender discussion less controversial and facilitated a more open learning environment. Luckily, my PhD wasn’t the end all to learning. No, my PhD is an invitation to learn more, and now I know better.

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Jesús Gregorio Smith

Jesús Gregorio Smith is an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at Lawrence University and an Associated Colleges of the Midwest Andrew W. Mellon Fellow. His expertise centers on the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality online and how they contribute to health behaviors such as condom use and sexual risk activity. He has written on issues of race and pornography, Latino LGBT issues, sex in the digital age, and race and racism online.