LINGUISTICS AND THE NORMALIZATION OF GENDER AND SEXUALITY
I want to offer two final, interrelated explanations for why Black women’s experiences and Black gay experiences are often peripheral – ized in antiracist discourse. First, male heterosexuality is normalized in antiracist discourse, as it is in other discourses. To be male and heterosexual is "normal" and "natural." Consequently, men are presumed not to have genders, and heterosexuals are presumed not to have sexualities. To speak about gender is to speak about women; to speak about sexuality is to speak about lesbians and gays. Thus, even when discussions about racism are focused on heterosexual Black men, those discussion are not always understood to be gendered or sexually oriented discussions; they are understood to be discussions about the plight or the crisis of Black America.
Discussions focused on Black women or gays, on the other hand, are often understood to be about something other than racial justice. Thus, when a Black lesbian asserts her gender and / or her sexual identity in the context of a discussion about race, the possibility exists that her assertion will be interpreted as irrelevant and/or antagonistic to the Black racial cause. She might even be accused of aligning herself with white feminists. She might be asked—explicitly or implicitly—to decide whether she wants to be Black or whether she wants to be a lesbian, whether she wants to be Black first or a woman first.
Heterosexual Black men are not confronted with this "ontological crisis." They don’t have to choose between being a man and being Black or between being Black and being heterosexual. Heterosexual Black men are not asked to be Black first and heterosexual second, or to be Black first and men second. They are not asked to fragment or to prioritize aspects of their identity. Heterosexual Black men are thus able to be "just Black" in a way that Black lesbians, for example, are not. Moreover, even when heterosexual Black men assert their identities as (heterosexual) Black men, that assertion does not raise questions about competing loyalties. To be a strong (read: heterosexual) Black MAN is a good thing. To be a strong (read: emasculating) Black WOMAN quite typically is not. Indeed, the literature on the Black family still, to some degree, attributes the instability of the Black family to single Black motherhood (i. e., "matriachal deviance") or the absence of strong Black men as heads of households.29
A related reason for the antiracist obfuscation of heterosexual Black women’s and Black lesbian and gay experiences is the linguistic limitations of identity terminology. For, when we say "race," we sometimes forget (or fail to realize) that we are also and already talking about gender and sexual orientation, even as we purport to be talking about race qua race.30 The employment of "race," "gender," and "sexual orientation" as mutually exclusive categories of identity with separate and distinct experiential realities contributes to the problem.31
But race—and, more specifically, here, Blackness—does not exist outside gender or sexuality; it is constituted by both. The assertion of Blackness, without more, linguistically submerges sexuality and gender as aspects of Black being.32 This linguistic submersion is particularly problematic in the context of a discourse in which maleness and heterosexuality function as default identities or unstated norms.
In the end, the reality of identity multiplicity—that, for example, one is Black and gay and male at same time—is not linguistically manageable. Indeed, even when we assert and claim our multiple identities, "we do so one at a time. . . : ‘James Baldwin was a phenomenal, black gay writer."’33 The limitations of language prevent Baldwin from being Black and gay in one discursive moment.
Significantly, none of the foregoing explanations, standing alone, fully explains why Black female and Black gay experiences are marginalized in antiracist discourse and, correlatively, why heterosexual Black male experiences are privileged. Cumulatively, however, they do shed some light on the subtle but significant ways in which the antiracist construction of Blackness as an identity and articulation of racism as an experience is hetero-male normative.