Of Race, Gender & Identity: A Revolution of the Obvious
Among progressives concerned with social justice, issues of race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity have become core concerns – factors that represent an inextricable part of how we view and understand the world.
Yet gender occupies a unique position in this understanding. Gender affects nearly every issue progressives care about, yet it is often ignored and overlooked. Decades of research have found that young people who buy into rigid gender norms have lower life outcomes in a cluster of related areas including education, basic health and wellness, intimate relationships, and economic security. To overlook its significance when discussing social justice seems to be actively overlooking the obvious.
Boys who think manhood is defined by qualities like strength, aggression, sexual prowess, and emotional toughness are more likely to drop out of school early, to believe pregnancy validates manhood, engage in violence and risk-taking with sex or drugs, avoid seeking health care until their bodies are in crisis, and have increased contact with juvenile justice systems.
Similarly, girls who internalized what I call the “three D’s” of traditional femininity – being deferential, dependent, and desirable – are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies, tolerate abusive partners, leave school early, and end up dependent economically and psychologically on an older, stronger male partner.
"Social institutions are often citadels of the most rigid and outdated ideals about womanhood and manhood."
Moreover, the systems that serve young people – healthcare, education, religious institutions, and the courts – tend to be deeply gendered and gendering systems; ones that anticipate, reward, and even punish specific kinds of masculinity in boys and femininity in girls. This is mainly because many of those who staff such institutions have also internalized many of the same rigid gender norms and enforce them both subconsciously and consciously. Social institutions are often citadels of the most rigid and outdated ideals about womanhood and manhood, and strongly resistant to change.
For example, numerous studies show that young women may delay healthcare seeking, even when ill, in part because of because they have been taught that their primary role is care-taking of others (particularly young siblings and infirm elders). They tend to prioritize the health of others at the risk of their own, and this can be particularly true for women in low-income communities (Anthony and Mendez Luck 2016; Confresi, 2002; Jolicouer and Madden, 2002; Mendez-Luck and Anthony K, 2015).
Even when women do seek early healthcare, studies show that on average their physician will listen to them for fewer minutes than if they were male, take their symptoms less seriously and systematically under-medicate them for pain – especially if they are Black or Latina (Sacks, 2018; Manuel, J.I 2018).
Similarly, we know that in school systems, low-income boys of color are punished more harshly than their White peers for the same infractions, are more likely to be disciplined for highly-subjective “attitude offenses” such as “being disrespectful or defiant behavior”, are more likely to be viewed as “future felons,” and are generally seen as about 4.5 years older than they actually are (Peguero, A. A. et al, 2018; Bryan 2018; Zimmerman 2018) . These attitudes feed the increasing criminalization of low-level schoolyard offences, and the tide of young Black and Latino males surging through the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP).
"In the United States, attention to gender norms lags behind."
Major International donor institutions including CARE, International Planned Parenthood Federation, PEPFAR, UNAIDS, UNFPA, USAID, and WHO** have all implemented “gender transformative” initiatives that challenge rigid gender norms—particularly addressing rigid or harmful forms of masculinity that help sustain unsafe sex and HIV, domestic violence, and the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Even the staid World Bank, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in increasing gender equity for women and girls worldwide, has undertaken a highly public, multi-year initiative to move social gender norms to the center of its work. As one Swedish manager there explained to me privately, “We’re not doing this because it’s trendy or politically correct—we’re data-driven economists—we’re doing it because the numbers show it works better.”
Yet in the United States, attention to gender norms lags behind. They are either siloed as solely a women’s or LGBTQ issue, or else disconnected from core concerns like race and class.
This is unusual, not only because many of the key studies around gender norms originated in US colleges and universities, but because both of the main theoretical frameworks we have for thinking about equity and inclusion are very much concerned with gender (even if they tackle differing aspects of gender).
Queer theory – the offspring of the ménage a trios among feminism, gay theory, and postmodernism – is deeply concerned with issues of gender and sexuality. It has been mostly concerned with the political effects of gender difference, particularly the exclusion and erasure of those bodies (such as trans, drag or nonbinary) whose identities are marginalized and silenced.
"Rigid gender regimes harm every young person and are not confined to any single identity."
Intersectionality—on the other hand— has helped us think more clearly about those bodies whose identities are recognized but, because they lie at the crossroads or borders of identity, are denied full rights and recognition. This critique was primarily launched by Critical Race Theorists like Kimberle’ Crenshaw with legal backgrounds, who had witnessed firsthand how US courts had historically failed to address blatant discrimination against plaintiffs simply because they were both Black and female.
In fact, the courts had routinely turned away such women’s claims of workplace discrimination. They asserted that plaintiffs could not seek relief under sex discrimination laws anywhere jobs were provided to (White) women, nor under race discrimination laws anywhere jobs were provided for (Black) men. Intersectionality underscored the need for us to recognize the basic insight that bodies and identities of marginalized people often overlap the unidimensional categories we may use to think about them.
Yet queer theory has had little to say about race or class, just as intersectionality has had relatively little to say about queerness or gender nonconformity. This is another way of saying two of our most powerful theoretical lenses for thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion are still not yet entirely on speaking terms with one another. Moreover, neither has much to say about the impact of rigid gender regimes.
Perhaps this is because both of them, like US social justice movements themselves, are primarily concerned with issues of equity and identity. Yet rigid gender regimes harm every young person and are not confined to any single identity. It is a system of oppression, like race or class, but one that is universalist in nature. Since no one is excluded from them, and there is hardly a group unaffected by rigid gender norms from which claims of inequality could be raised.
Moreover, gender norms are not an individual property of bodies, like race, class, or sexual orientation. On the contrary, norms are the collective beliefs, attitudes, and practices held by members of a community. Since they are communally held, gender norms do not readily lend themselves to social justice analyses focused on issues of equity and inclusion.
"Gender norms are invisible guard rails."
This leaves us in a bit of a conundrum – a profoundly important social issue, with very well-documented effects, that has no natural constituency to speak out in its name and does not fit well into our current conceptual framework.
And it gets worse. We have decades of progressive political theory to deal with the more obvious and definable forms of centralized, formal and concrete power, so we know how to organize back against oppression from above represented by the nightstick, the gun, or gavel. We know how to fight back when a group is discriminated against or attacked because of who or what they are.
But gender norms don’t operate like that. Their power is exercised in a million daily interactions with one another and with society’s institutions – in families, the media, in the doctor’s office or the classroom, in intimate relationships and in the pew. They are capillary and are diffused rather than centralized, invisible rather than concrete, interpersonal rather than institutional, and bottom-up rather than top-down.
Indeed, harmful gender norms often operate more like negative power than actual discrimination: doors that just don’t open, behaviors we just feel we can’t or shouldn’t do, offers that just aren’t extended. They are more like invisible guard rails, constantly shaping our behavior and narrowing our choices in ways we barely perceive, and as a society, have yet to clearly understand.
Certainly, the growing number of young people claiming complex identities like boychix, pansexual, nonbinary, genderqueer, and trykes are taking us to new places around gender many of us could hardly have anticipated. Indeed, when it comes to gender, it seems likely we are at the bottom of a very long learning curve, one that may eventually shake the very outlines and contours of how those of us committed to social justice and equality think about programs, policy, rights, and funding.
PEPFAR - The United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief
UNAID - United States Agency for International Development
UNFPA - United Nations Population Fund
USAIDS - Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
WHO - World Health Organization
Anthony, K., & Mendez-Luck C. A. (2016). When caregiving gets pesado: Caregiver burden among
Mexican American women caregivers. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Bryan, Nathaniel (2018) Shaking the bad boys: troubling the criminalization of black boys’ childhood
play, hegemonic white masculinity and femininity, and the school playground-to-prison
pipeline, Race Ethnicity and Education, DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2018.1512483.
Cofresi, N.I. The Influence of Marianismo and Psychoanalytical Roles on Latinas: Transference and
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Jolicoeur P. M., & Madden T. (2002). The good daughters: Acculturation and caregiving among
Mexican-American women. Journal of Aging Studies, 16, 107–120.
Manuel, J. I. (2018), Racial/Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Health Care Use and Access. Health
Serv Res, 53: 1407-1429.
Mendez-Luck C. A. & Anthony K. (2015). Marianismo and caregiving role beliefs among U.S. born and
immigrant Mexican women. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. Advance online publication.
Peguero, A. A. et al. (2018) ‘School Punishment and Education: Racial/Ethnic Disparities With Grade
Retention and the Role of Urbanicity’, Urban Education. doi: 10.1177/0042085918801433
Sacks, Tina. 2018. Invisible Visits: Black Middle-Class Women in the American Healthcare System.
Zimmermann, Calvin Rashaud, "Before Black Boys Are Criminalized?: Race, Boyhood, And School
Discipline In Early Childhood" (2018). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 3076.
Gender Norms and Intersectionality
Connecting Race, Class and Gender
Riki Wilchins is an author, activist and gender theorist. Riki has been a leading advocate for gender rights and gender justice for 20 years, one of the founders of modern transgender political activism in the 1990s, and one of its first theorists and chroniclers.
Gender Norms and Intersectionality: Connecting Race, Gender and Class is available in all formats now.