This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.
Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought offers an enticing tool for investigating identity formation. This text is grounded in the experience of black femininity. It is from this position, specified as the antithesis to the hegemonic matrix of whiteness, heterosexuality, maleness, slimness, etc., that we are able to recognize how certain identities become sources of domination.
Beyond one’s name, there is never any one identity qualifier that encompasses the whole of a person’s being. Subjects are given multiple identities: race, sex, gender, sex orientation, and disability. Bodies are gestated into these pre-established forms which are thought to accompany the subject throughout her experience. These qualifiers are compounded by the social identifiers that the subject, to some degree or another, chooses to adopt. These include religious and political affiliations, professions, personal interests and social milieus.
Studying the intersection of these various qualifiers discloses the hierarchical way bodies are imported into the imaginary realm, into images. Hill Collins offers the figure of the welfare mother as an example. This stereotype is composed of three distinct registers: race, class, and gender. It portrays the black woman as lazy, using her womb as a source of capital (public assistance) for herself and only offering a subpar product (black bodies) in return. As with all ideological maneuvers, this stereotype has a specific function in the socio-economic order. Socially and economically, black female identities are constructed so their bodies will create an undesirable class. Socially, the fetish-images of black bodies (thick/fat/muscular, unintelligent, lazy, etc., all to an “excessive” degree) are the antithesis to the white ideal (slender, intelligent, motivated, etc., to the “perfect” degree). The denigration of blackness allows the population of that subaltern class to serve in all of the most undesirable social, political, and economic corners of society, which whites no longer wish to reside in. Stereotypes are fantasies used to repress the reality of human material circumstances. The stereotypes pertaining to blackness, construed as biological “facts,” hide the dependency of capitalist social and economic structures on the existence of a subaltern class.
These identity signifiers become even more interesting as we turn to the stereotype of the “hoochie,” which is used to govern white women’s sexuality and self-conception as much as black women’s. The hoochie is characterized by her excessive sexuality, her willingness and forceful desire to transgress the limits of heterosexuality, i.e. the primacy of copulation and (by extension) reproduction as the ends of a sexual encounter. The image of the hoochie is a tool for censorship. It corroborates the narrative of heterosexuality as the natural aim of human sexuality and represses the fact that human sexuality exists on a spectrum
The welfare mother and the hoochie are both instances of domination through identity. These representations limit how black female subjects can understand themselves and be understood by their communities. The hoochie’s shameful association with hyper-sexuality, as the excessive pursuit of sexual pleasure, limits and directs sexuality towards procreation. Characterizing the welfare mother as desiring to leech off the system serves to ward off laziness. An ideal subject then is one who is productive both economically and for the species. The mixture of biological and socioeconomic signifiers imputes a sense of necessity into these images. They depict impoverishment and hyper-sexuality as the result of necessary qualities of blackness i.e., laziness and excessive lust. In reality, black women are thrown into these positions for the sake of regulating behavior and disguising systemic economic oppression. Throwing blame upon black women deproblematizes turbulent socioeconomic conditions as a whole. The solution to poverty is portrayed as hard work rather than systemic change. Thus, the oppression of black women discloses the oppression of all economic subjects. Everyone, regardless of their race, is beholden to the myth of rugged individualism, which states that anything is available to those willing to play by the system’s rules. Social domination is key to the smooth functioning of capitalism. Capitalism needs a bourgeois and a proletarian, dominator and dominated. Sequestering bodies into these functions from birth ensures that capitalism can endlessly reproduce itself without being questioned.