What you see

Reading Michael Kimmel’s The Gendered Society. His argument is that the genders aren’t unequal because different, but different because unequal. The inequality is always justified on the basis of difference, but the inequality itself makes the genders different.

What’s different over the past thirty years – now forty: the book was published in 2000 – is making gender visible.

We now know that gender is one of the central organizing principles around which social life revolves. Until the 1970s, social scientists would have listed only class and race as the master statuses that defined and proscribed social life. [p 5]

Gender became visible because women became visible. That was the “radical” in the radical feminism of the 70s. In that sense I am a radical feminist and always have been. But are the women who oppose “radical feminism” really opposed to that? The visible ones, I mean? It’s hard to believe they are, given how visible they are themselves. It’s rather like Schlafly, out there speaking up in public and being intellectually active about it and all that – all in the name of keeping women subordinate to men. Hmm.

In a seminar on feminism in the 80s, Kimmel observed a black woman and a white woman talking about what they did or didn’t have in common.

The white woman asserted that the fact that they were both women bonded them, in spite of racial differences. The black woman disagreed.

“When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?” she asked.

“I see a woman,” replied the white woman.

“That’s precisely the problem,” responded the black woman. “I see a black woman. To me, race is visible every day, because race is how I am not privileged in our culture. Race is invisible to you, because it’s how you are privileged. It’s why there will always be differences in our experience.” [p 6]

Privilege or its absence determines what is visible.

Mind you, so do other things. Strangeness, for instance – being a foreigner in some way. It’s possible to be privileged as a foreigner while still being foreign – an outsider – not the norm. But still the idea seems like a useful heuristic.



  1. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    He recited this story in the same lecture where he made a complete ass out of himself on trans issues, but went one step further: he talked about when he woke up in the morning, he just saw a person, and wondered [at first] “Why can’t we all just be people?”

    Now, to be fair, he was telling that story to say it helped him get over this ignorance of the force of race and gender. But he was just way too satisfied with himself for taking that small step. Coming just a few minutes before his douchegabbing about trans folk, I still have a bad feeling about the anecdote that been transferred by association with the person.

    None of this is to undermine your point. I’m just kvetching about Kimmel.

  2. says

    Of course, when we get to the stage that everyone can look in the mirror and know that it is possible, safe, just plain OK to see just a person, then the animal-rights folk will start in on us. But, to have such a problem, I should wish…

  3. jackiepaper says

    Yeah, I notice that the only people I’ve ever met who claim to be raceblind are white. Similarly, those who claim to be genderblind always seem to think feminism has “gone too far”.

  4. says

    Mind you, the way he tells it, the woman wasn’t claiming to be race blind, only that being women was a bond, possibly one of several. But then maybe Kimmel left out parts. One never knows.

  5. hoary puccoon says

    I remember, when we lived in the Caribbean, coming home one night, after a day of being surrounded by dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed people, looking in the mirror, and being shocked by that bizarre apparition with pink skin and light eyes.

    And understanding, viscerally, for the first time, that I wasn’t the definition of normal.

  6. Landon says

    Following on Crip Dyke’s comment, I was wondering if someone could recommend a writer on oppression who is really good on all fronts? I mean, someone who can speak about misogyny without downplaying racism, or homophobia without alienating trans people?

  7. 'dirigible says

    “I mean, someone who can speak about misogyny without downplaying racism, or homophobia without alienating trans people?”

    To speak of one in any given moment is not to speak of the others.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    The whole ‘privilege’ trope is a tool to undermine basic sympathy and unity.

    No one’s objection to injustice is valid because ANY difference between them and the current example is dismissed as ‘privilege.’ All the anger at Dawkins’ foolish ‘Dear Muslima’ note SHOULD have taught us to stop allowing our moral sense to be suborned by appeals to separation and ‘specialness.’

  9. says

    No. It doesn’t have to be. It can be used that way, but it doesn’t have to be. And it does tell us things we’ve overlooked, because unless we’re outright miracles, we all overlook things because they’re not part of our experience. It’s not evil to point that out, and explain it, and show how it works.

    It can be done badly, or not. I realize that sometimes it does come across as a cudgel to beat people with. But it doesn’t have to. And it’s just futile, and a recipe for no progress, to pretend there are no categories that confer privilege and categories that confer its opposite.

  10. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Hey, folks: I said I was just kvetching. I have a specific response to Kimmel and to this anecdote, but I have never said it is impossible to learn anything from Kimmel.

    Hell, I’ve said lots of racist things in my time. I still believe that there are things others can learn from me. I don’t think I’m totally without intellectual value.

    Kvetching folks, not ostracizing or declaring worthless.

    As for johnthedrunkard –
    Your comment adds nothing.

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