Why We Can’t Wait: Integrating Gender and Sexuality into Antiracist Politics

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

For years I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[1]

selves, demanding "Integrate Now!" I wonder what it would take to fully integrate gender and sexuality into Black political conscious­ness. What would it take for our public intellectuals, the self-ap­pointed spokespersons, the opinion leaders and the like, to go be­yond lip service given to "unity" and "common interest" to articulate a political sensibility that embraces substantive equality as a value within our community?

There are now several edited volumes exploring the role of men in feminist theory, each of which might very well be entitled "White Men in White Feminism," given the general silence of voices of color in their pages. Some readers might expect this book to be the African American answer to the "White Men in White Feminism" dis – course—that is, a collection of essays debating the substantive role of African American men in Black feminism. Yet, despite this unique and important gathering of essays by Black men on race, gender, and sexuality, this is not, in any conventional sense, a feminist text. In­deed, this volume will surely attest that one can "read" gender and sexuality within the Black community and not be a feminist.

Significantly, though, several of the essays in this volume—most notably in Part IV—explicitly address the question of Black men’s re­lationship to Black feminist criticism. And Devon Carbado’s provoca­tive epilogue, "Straight Out of the Closet: Men, Feminism, and Male Heterosexual Privilege," offers concrete suggestions for how men might integrate feminism into their antiracist practices to contest and resist male heterosexual privileges. My sense, then, is that this collec­tion may very well become a canonical centerpiece of Black male fem­inism.

The collection, at any rate, is a serious and significant contribu­tion to Black antiracist theory. It is a must read for people interested in identity politics around race, gender, and sexuality. The book pro­vides a clear indication of the ways in which gender and sexuality are negotiated in Black antiracist politics and how that negotiation mani­fests itself in specific contexts, including but not limited to the Million Man March, the Mike Tyson rape trial, the O. J. Simpson murder trial, and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy.

For decades, African American feminists have interrogated the intersecting patterns of patriarchy and racism as a dynamic that has shaped both the oppression of Black America as well as African American institutions and social practices. Save for the allegation of

male-bashing on the one hand, or on the other the ritualistic inclusion of "gender and sexual orientation" to the list of oppressions to which good Black progressives are opposed, examples of serious substan­tive engagement with Black feminist analysis by Black male intellec­tuals are few. This book begins to fill that gap by soliciting from Black men their views on the relationship between gender, sexuality, and liberationist politics.

Framed as an investigation of how Black men situate themselves within discourses about gender and sexuality in Black antiracist poli­tics, readers here encounter a full spectrum of perspectives, ranging from those who essentialize Black identity to those who recognize and affirm Black identity multiplicity—that is, intraracial Black dif­ferences around gender, class, and sexuality. There is a serious and engaging debate among the men in this book—between those for whom racial suffering remains singularly represented by "the hetero­sexual Black male," and those who worry about the political conse­quences of such an exclusive construction; between those who would deploy patriarchy to the service of antiracism, and those who believe that any defense of patriarchy is fatal to the interests of the Black community; between those who view racial inequality as founda­tional to all other oppressions and those who believe this position to be as indefensible as that of white feminists who argue that patri­archy is the linchpin of all forms of social domination.

These tensions should not, however, overshadow the fact that the debate is not so sharply delineated by two poles, as it is dispersed across a continuum of opinion. As in most political contestations, there are conservatives, apologists, reformers, and uncompromising critics. This makes for interesting parallels even among oppositional pairings. For example, one is not at all surprised to find echoes of the standard sentiments that Black feminism is nothing more than African American women performing on the knee of white racism. Yet, it seems that ventriloquy is not limited to Black women: sexism within the Black community is just as easily framed as Black men mimicking behavior also learned from dominant society. In neither view does Black patriarchy constitute a reality that can in any way be thought of as independent of, or marginal to, white social power.

These essays reflect waves of agreement and diversion, common rhythms and discordant rifts. There is no doubt that power is at issue here, power to define, to center, to validate and to prioritize. It is no surprise that as a Black feminist I say a hearty "amen" to many of these essays, am impressed but not persuaded by some, and remain surprised by the ideological grounding of others still. Surely anti­feminists will find essays in this volume to stabilize the centrality of the male, heterosexual subject of Black politics. This does not, how­ever, diminish the value of the text as feminist and an antiracist inter­vention. As the oppositional character of any act is often contextually determined, the backdrop against which this volume is read is defin­ing. Black feminism has challenged the long-standing pattern of de­ferring concerns about patriarchy and heterosexism. Yet such efforts are stymied by definitions of racial solidarity that are so rehearsed as to become cliches. This book’s centering of gender and sexuality within African American discourses simply defies the space to which these matters have been traditionally relegated. There is a challenge embodied in this text for which the all-too-easy deflection of male bashing will no longer do. Of course, the revolution may not be tele­vised, but the laundry is being aired—and by the men, no less! It sure makes me want to holler. But I’ll settle for dusting off my "Integrate Now" button.

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

Columbia Law School and

UCLA School of Law

NOTE

1. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Penguin Group, 1964), 80, 81.