RACISM: THE SEXISM OF THE FAMILY OF MAN
The slave may be freed and woman be where she is, but women cannot be freed and the slave remain where he is.
Angelina Grimke, in a letter to Theodore Weld
What must be done, I believe, is that all these problems, particularly the sickness between the white woman and the black man, must be brought out into the open, dealt with, and resolved… I think all of us, the entire nation, will be better off if we bring it all out front.
Eldridge Cleaver, On Becoming
The first American book to deal specifically with the connection of sex and racism was Calvin Hemton’s Sex and Racism in America. The immediate popularity of the book in both black and white communities confirmed what everyone had known all along: that sex and racism are intricately interwoven. However, Hemton, not sufficiently grasping the depth of the relationship, merely described the obvious: that white men have a thing for black women, that black men have a thing for white women, that black men can’t respect black women and white men can’t get turned on by white women, that white women have a secret sympathy and curiosity about black men, that black
women hate and are jealous of white women, and so on. Even so, the book, as have the many such books and articles since, made instant waves. Why is this?
The early civil rights movement had hushed up the truth too long: Suited and tied, it had tiptoed about speaking in low tones on the “Negro Problem”; black people were “colored people,” they wanted only the same simple things white (uncolored) people wanted (“we’re just folks”). Whereupon whites obligingly filtered their vision to screen out the obvious physical, cultural, and psychological differences. Words like “nigger” were dropped. Statements like, “Would you want your sister to marry one?” became unforgivable bad taste, a sign of poor breeding. “You’re prejudiced!” was the accusation of the year. And Martin Luther King masterfully utilized this guilt, turning liberal Christian rhetoric back on itself.
But then came Black Power. A rumble of I-told-you – sos issued from the nation, especially from the working class, who were closest to the blacks: What they really want is our power—they’re after our women. Eldridge Cleaver’s honesty in Soul on Ice clinched it. The heavily sexual nature of the racial issue spilled out. Internally as well, the Black Power movement was increasingly involved in a special kind of machismo, as busy proclaiming manhood as protesting race and class injustice.
But it was not the machismo element of Black Power that shook up its enemies. This part of it was rarely questioned by the Establishment proper, by the liberal Establishment (in fact, Moynihan’s paper on “black matriarchy” can be said to have created that massive castration complex within the black community which he describes), or even by the New Left. It was eminently understandable, after all, that black men would eventually want what all men want: to be on top of their women. In fact this part of it was reassuring: black men might become interested in black beauty instead of white (the wave of recent articles bemoaning the black woman’s “double burden” and her lack of an appreciative mate are suspicious), a “purity” of home and family would lead eventually, per
haps, to conservatism and predictability. No, it was not black manhood itself that got whites up-tight—it was what manhood means in action: power. Black men were now out in the open in the male power struggle: we want what you’ve got, no more tap dances. White men breathed with relief and began arming: they knew how to cope with this. For once again, it was men vs, men, one (rigged) power force against the other. They drew the battle lines with glee.
What is this truth that was censored in order to make the civil rights movement acceptable to white America? What is the connection between sex and racism that makes any book on it sell so well? Why are the fears of the common man so sexual in nature when it comes to the Negro? Why does just the sight of a Negro so often evoke strong sexual feelings in a white man? Why do black men lust after white women? Why is racial prejudice so often phrased in sexual terms? Why does lynching (often accompanied by castration) occur as the most extreme manifestation of racism?
The connection between sex and racism is obviously much deeper than anyone has cared to go. But though the connection has never been more than superficially explored, already in the one decade of the new movement we have a new set of platitudes concerning sex and race, a new dogma for the “hip.” For example, in the Who’s Who of Oppression, a ranking of white man-white woman-black woman-black man is still in circulation, despite recent statistics of the Department of Labor. Then there is the Brains vs. Brawn Antagonism, as developed by Mailer, Podhoretz, et al., and continued by Cleaver, basically the mystique of the black man’s greater virility. And the Black Womb of Africa, Big Black Mammy in
African garb. But this superficial exposure of sex-racism was meant only to seal up the issue a different way, this time in the interests of the male Anti-Establishment.
In this chapter I shall attempt to show that racism is a sexual phenomenon. Like sexism in the individual psyche, we can fully understand racism only in terms of the power hierarchies of the family: In the Biblical sense, the races are no more than the various parents and siblings of the Family of Man; and as in the development of sexual classes, the physiological distinction of race became important culturally only due to the unequal distribution of power. Thus, racism is sexism extended.