race ,” two modern social analytical categories W r i t i n g
In the last two weeks, we started investigating “what does it mean to be human” by looking at the living experiences of those people that are categorized by the social norms as less human, subhuman, or the “missing link” between human/culture and animal/nature. These dehumanized beings (re)presented by Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, Chris and other black folks (in “Get Out”), and Cash and his people-of-color underclass comrades (in “Sorry to Bother You”) are pushed into a liminal space of the society by different forces that share the same, or at least similar, logic. As this logic has been carefully historicized by many ethical and responsible thinkers (, including all of us here), this logic has been called in many names: coloniality, neocolonization, racial capitalism, fascism, color line, racialization, the sociogenic dependency and inferiority complex, so on and so forth. People that are being sociogenically (in Fanon’s term) segregated and categorized by the social norms fell into this liminal space that provides them with a good opportunity to empathize, understand, and eventually make coalitions with each other. This liminal space is represented by the basement of underclass telemarketers (in “Sorry to Bother You”), the mesmerized status (in “Get Out”), the in-betweenness of mimicry that kills a person’s self (in Black Skin, White Masks), and the ontological and biological dyselected space-time (in Wynter’s article). Science fiction as a literary and cinematic genre is powerful in using speculative methods to extend our imagination about what science and technology can do to access this liminal space. As this liminal space is usually hidden by the positive discourse of how human beings and science are co-prosperous and co-evolved, science fiction trains our vision on “human” and “science” to be more flexible, creative, and critical.
This week, we will practice our speculating ability by adding one more element: gender. It does not mean that “gender” is conceptually separable from other dehumanizing social categorizations such as “race.” On the contrary, they are intermeshed. They came into form with the same history, but they are made separable in discourse and became very hard to deal with. By “adding one more element” I mean we are now uncovering how dehumanization really works in complexity and the fact that dehumanization is for a long time being simplified in our analysis as if the gender issue is merely additional.
Many women-of-color thinkers such as Kimberley Crenshaw discovered that they are made invisible by both feminists and black civil right/black lives movements. In the mainstream feminisms, it seems that there is no race issue. “Women” is claimed to be a universal concept applicable to every society and community. “Woman” defined by the modern social norm, instead of being a useful tool to analyze the dehumanized societies and communities, became a disciplining, colonial tool that describes the relationality and sociality in those societies and communities in an inaccurate and ahistorical way and erases other possible understandings of human relation. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”, voiced out from the liminal space, helps us to see this disciplining and erasing power of “gender.”
Truth’s speech took place in 1851, the moment that both white women and black men were both fighting for their civil rights. (***I tentative uses “she” as the pronoun for Truth, but it is obviously problematic and debatable.) Truth told people the truth that she had never been categorized as a “woman.” Instead of being reduced to a reproductive machine that reproduces a modern Man’s bloodline and capital and being confined in the private/domestic space as feminine and cultured human being, she does heavy-duty work in different fields. However, she was not considered as a human being in the public sphere like a working-class man either, because she was biologically fixed as an animalistic being that was not entitled to be properly paid. Another aspect that was not revealed as much in her speech but is definitely noteworthy is that while having no gender in front of modern men and women, many Black women have to be submissive, feminine, and hyper-sexualized in front their Black male counterpart. According to many “scientific researches” such as the Moynihan Report, the black communities (and extensible to the black civilization) cannot “evolve” or “prosper” because the modern gender system that frames the “correct” social division and power relation is not enough applied and operated. Thus, it was Black women’s duty to learn how to be proper women for their own good. The question “Ain’t I a Woman?” was a cry deep inside Truth’s mind. She was disoriented by the social norms that categorized her into a “female,” which is not yet (or never will be) a woman because she is not yet (or never will be) fully human. Nonetheless, she clearly knew that she was not graspable by the social norms. She was more than the norms. Just like Frantz Fanon, she was calling for a new way to understand humanity.
Truth’s simple, demonstrative speech makes us reflect upon not just what we see, but how we see. If we do not change the way we see the world, we cannot change the game. “Intersectionality” as a method is Kimberley Crenshaw’s influential experiment to change the game. She points out that when we intersect “gender” and “race,” two modern social analytical categories in front of the law, we can see nothing in the intersected area. The intersected area is the zone of nothingness. It is not that we are adding on “gender” and “race” together to make ourselves able to see those people like Sojourner Truth, but rather we discover the fact that we are unable to see them. To the people like Truth, “gender” and “race” are never separable. To assume that these two categorial tools are separable is to deny those people’s existence.
Man / Woman (Human)
Male / Female (Non-human)
I hope Truth’s speech and Crenshaw’s article are helpful for you to think with the characters in Octavia Butler’s short stories. Apparently, many of them cannot be comprehended if we do not have the vision of intersectionality and the differentiation between man, woman, male, and female. How do we understand the ability of pregnancy, a translator, people of communication disability, a diseased, and a god-like figure with the vision of intersectionality? Octavia Butler tells us: use your imagination.
1. Read the following five selected stories from Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories: “Bloodchild”, “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”, “Speech Sounds”, “Amnesty”, “The Book of Martha.” Delete “Crossover.”
2. Read Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
3. Read Kimberley Crenshaw’s social analysis, “Mapping the Margins.
Please use two materials uploaded.
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