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The whiteness of gender and people of colour

by Helen Weeres

I, the writer of this paper, am a white woman and I will not deny that this affects the writing and analysis performed in this paper. Due to my being white I have lived a life of certain privilege and obliviousness, so please keep this in mind as a critical perspective on my writing as you are reading this paper. Additionally, I admit that I am not necessarily the person that should be given the opportunity to write a paper on this topic that might be published online, for I believe that a person of colour would provide the reader with more ‘real’ and insightful thoughts on this specific topic.

Nicolaas Porter – Amania.

A brief introduction to a large topic
We live gendered lives in a gendered world and the lives we live in this world are gendered according to specific roles. Nowadays there is a multiplicity of genders and gender roles that have sprouted from a non-conformity with the classic binary male/female and the gender roles that developed out of this binary. All these genders and gender roles, however, have not come into being in a colour-blind setting. Many people do not agree with (or understand) the notion that slavery has effects that persist nowadays, which affect us all as a global society. However, as Wayne Modest said, “the slavery past isn’t not present, it is invisibilised, hidden in plain sight by the narratives we create.” This paper attempts to avoid and counter this hiding effect and instead ‘visibilise’ the present effects of slavery in relation to gender.
The enslavement of populations and the trading thereof and treatment of these populations as if they were not people, not human beings, but something other, has for a very long time left many populations out of the picture in many developments of social and behavioural codes amongst and between what was considered as ‘people’. In her paper on this topic called ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe’, Hortense J. Spillers called this the “dehumanizing, ungendering, and defacing project of African persons” (1987: 72). For a long time – especially in times of slavery – solely white people were regarded and treated as ‘proper human beings’ and, as slavery was abolished and inequalities between white people and people of colour started to slowly – very slowly – lessen (although never disappearing), people of colour were forced into the white gender roles that had evolved and the social and behavioural codes that came along with them. This paper addresses the whiteness of gender and gender roles and their social and behavioural codes in relation to the gendered lives of people of colour nowadays.


Enslaved African Americans hoe and plow the earth and cut piles of sweet potatoes on a South Carolina plantation, circa 1862-3 (James Hopkinson. Image courtesy of Library of Congress).

Gendering the enslaved as objects
In times of slavery, men and women of colour were considered in the binaries male/female and boy/girl just as white people were, however, their human-ness was not considered in the same terms. Scientists tried to legitimise this consideration of people of colour by, per example, analysing the skull diameters of people of colour and the influential scientist Carl Linnaeus created a ‘scientific’ classification of different races. An example of how people of colour were perceived is the plan for the arrangement of enslaved people on the transporting ship named The Brookes, which stated that “five females be reckoned as four males, and three boys or girls as equal to two grown persons” (qtd. in Spillers 1987: 72). This quote demonstrates how enslaved people were ‘comprehended’ in contrast to how white people were. Their bodies and embodied-ness, even though labelled as male/female or boy/girl, was perceived and conceived completely differently from those of white people. By reading texts such as the arrangement plan for The Brookes “creatively” and in doing so “reading against the archive” – meaning reading with an awareness of the archive providing us with more information on the creator of it than on its subject – we can read the de-humanizing that was being done and see the white dominance in the development of the perception of people, and thus also of gender (Modest Lecture).
Seen as the enslaved were not considered in ‘human terms’, their gender was not either. In other words, in the perception of white people, the enslaved possessed a ‘sex’, not a gender, but they were ‘gendered’ either way through the language used to refer to and address them. Spillers argues that “’gendering’ takes place within the confines of the domestic” but proceeds to spread “its tentacles for male and female subject over a wider ground of human and social purposes” grounding itself in the naming of things and people which then situates them in their surroundings (Spillers 1987: 72). Thus, the language used to refer to and address the enslaved was gendered through the white understanding of gender as applied to objects. Even though the arrangement plan for the ship refers to what was considered as “cargo”, it is nevertheless gendered, as was the ship itself (which was commonly seen as a ‘she’) (Spillers 1987: 72). The undisputable and obvious difference here being that the enslaved were human beings, whereas the ship was not.



Johann Friedrich Blumenbach skulls. (Special Collections and Rare Books, University of Minnesota Libraries.)

Gendering people of colour as people
Later, once slavery was abolished and equality movements started to result in people of colour actually being treated as people, they were expected to conform to white gendering as applied to people instead of objects. The genders and gender roles that had evolved in a dominantly white society were assumed to ‘suit’ people of colour as well. However, gender, gender roles and their social and behavioural codes were completely developed as an exclusionary project to people of colour. Any gender was (and usually still is) assumed as going along with a white body, whereas people of colour were considered black first, human later. Thus, for a person of colour to be perceived as a man or a woman first, their manhood or womanhood would need to outshine their blackness. As Hari Ziyad makes explicit in her article ‘My gender is Black’: “black people are out of step with womanhood and manhood. Black gender is always gender done wrong, done dysfunctionally, done in a way that is not ‘normal’” (Ziyad’s own emphasis).
In this forcing oneself into these predominantly white genders and gender roles and in the current gendered world goes at the expense of further boundary and binary breaking in the spectrum that is gender. As Ziyad iterates, the forcing of oneself into the white gender binary of people of colour in many cases results in overt expression of masculinity and femininity because it must be shown to be there, which goes “at the expense of trans, non-binary, and queer Black folks alike.” In other words, because of this exaggerated expressing of the binary masculinity/femininity, there is less space for the non-binary genders and gender roles. Additionally, the genders and gender roles that have developed that discard the binary have also developed and evolved as a countering of the binary white genders, possibly implying that these genders and gender roles are equally (or at least to some extent) exclusionary to people of colour. As Ziyad addresses, one could seize the discrepancy between blackness and gender as an opportunity to evolve and bring about a new openness to non-binary and non-coloured genders, however, these must transcend blackness as it has been perceived up to now. Where the gender spectrum is the main field of judgement of white people today, blackness still takes the upper hand over gender in the field of judgement of people of colour.
Step by step into which direction?
We must ask ourselves: how do we transcend blackness as it has been perceived up to now? Are we to work toward a similar situation for people of colour as is the situation for white people, to be judged mainly on gender? And if so, are we to do this by developing ‘black genders’? Or are we to work toward moving away from gender in general? For Ziyad’s critical but just analysis of gender in relation to blackness could lead in the direction of an overamplified focus on gender first, colour second. In this situation, there would still be focus on gender and on colour as a basis for judgement instead of focussing on people simply as people. In that case, what needs to be taken into consideration is that, before we start to move away from gender and gender roles in general, the move away from colour as a premise for judgement must be made. If not, the struggle over moving away from the confines of gender and gender roles will be one mainly focused on white people, for gender is still predominantly white. As Modest emphasized in his lecture, we must look for creative resistance. Not only in looking for new ways to visualize slavery, but also in looking for ways to move forward within the world we live in which is still affected by slavery.


Works cited
Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 65–81. JSTOR, JSTOR, Accessed 7 Jan 2018.
Stone, Michael C. “The Journal of American Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 110, no. 438, 1997, pp. 451–454.,
Ziyad, Hari. “My gender is Black.” Afropunk, 12 Jul. 2017, Accessed 7 Jan 2018.


[Dit is deel 7 in de reeks papers Side Wings of Slavery & Colonialism; zie ook deel 1,  2 , 3, 4, 5, 6 en 8.]

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