Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont

Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3

It’s really telling to me that, while laziness and hypersexuality are stereotypes are applied to black people in general, so many of the evangelicals Emerson interviewed for Divided by Faith singled out black mothers  as specifically embodying and being the root cause of what they saw as black individual, family, and cultural dysfunction. This circles back to the gendered double standard discussed in the previous post: under the complementarian view of gender and sexuality, the responsibility for sexual and reproductive gatekeeping outside marriage is placed almost entirely on women. So again, though “promiscuity” and having “too many kids” are behaviors that require at least one man in normative heterosexual pairings, these labels stick to black women in different ways than they do to black men: the women sit home and have babies while collecting welfare checks, the mothers send the fathers away, etc.

I think this is worth noting because criticisms of racist narratives about black laziness or the failure or demise of the black family often overlook the fact that these stereotypes are fundamentally and profoundly gendered.  They’re implicit statements of what gender roles “should” be, based on white, heteronormative, classist measures, and statements that black women and men as a group fail to live up to these measures in gender-specific ways. There’s a reason the prevailing stereotype of black people on certain forms of government assistance is that of the “welfare queen.

It’s a critique of black femininity as a failed or less-than. The welfare queen is not only wanton in her sexuality and reproduction, she is also negligent in her attentions to her children – in effect pawns conceived for purely mercenary purposes (to get money from the government). The welfare queen is not bound to one man, doesn’t have her reproduction limited or controlled by one man, uses and neglects her children rather than nurturing them, and is therefore a bad mother. She stands as the foil to the “angel in the home” – the romanticized, infantilized image of the “true woman” and “keeper in the home” (a carry over of Victorian and other Western european notions of idealized, non-threatening, non-sexual femininity), whose only concern is for husband, children, home.

One of Emerson’s interviewees argued that the government perpetuates black inequality by “[making] it easier for somebody [read: black women] to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.” There’s quite a bit of irony in that statement when you juxtapose it with the fact that for many evangelicals, the highest display of femininity is precisely to “stay home and have baby after baby” after marriage and be a “keeper of the home,” while the husband acts as unquestioned leader and sole income earner (“provider” – as though homemaking and child-rearing aren’t “providing” for one’s family).

So in effect, when the welfare queen stereotype is leveled at black women by white evangelicals who believe that women shouldn’t work outside the home and should reproduce frequently, the criticism is really of black women for supposedly being “dependent” on the government instead of being properly dependent on and submissive to a patriarchal husband. Again, recall another one of Emerson’s interview subjects claiming that “we have paid their [black children’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.”

And by extension this is a critique of “the black family” as failed or in crisis, in implicit contrast to white families. And it’s specifically a criticism that black parents are not living up to their proper gender roles in the presumed heterosexual partnerships and heteronormative families. White evangelical attachment to the caricature of the absent black father who due to custom or culture doesn’t “provide for” or “lead” his family is an implicit statement about the superiority of white fatherhood and white family culture. So too is the attachment to the caricature of the negligent, unattached black mother, often also depicted as loud, violent, and contentious, an implicit statement of the superiority of white womanhood and motherhood – by the standards of white evangelical conservative culture – characterized by a “gentle and quiet spirit” and a self-negating submission to the sexual and emotional ownership of one man and a likewise self-denying level of devotion to children and the home.

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Interlude: Class and true womanhood

NaBloPoMo Day 7: Success at posting every day for a week! It feels good even if the last two posts have been written before I go to bed ;)

In other news, AWH now has a page at Google+. Check it out.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the ways “true womanhood” specifically excludes black women. But as I’ve noted a few times before, this is a model of femininity that erases and maligns so many identities and experiences that it ultimately denies the “realness” of the vast majority of women.

Class is a huge axis along which women are allowed or denied the label of true women, though not in a simplistic way that pits the rich or the middle class against the poor. Rather, socioeconomic status intersects with race, and geography (among other factors) in terms of which kinds of women are seen as exemplifying natural or godly femininity.

As I see it there are at least two fairly distinct, though not without overlapping ideas and influences, cultures in the white true womanhood movement. There’s the rural, almost homesteading culture, which seems to emphasize the role of wives in labor and production in the home (reproductive and otherwise). It’s a culture that preaches a particular kind of self-reliance and adherence to old-fashioned, “traditional” ways that to a degree deliberately isolates them from the rest of society, physically and culturally.

And then there’s the kind that centers on the trappings off white suburban life: owning a nice home, keeping that home looking nice and respectable, in the name of “hospitality” and “fellowship,” and keeping oneself looking nice and respectable (both stylish and modest!). It’s a model of true womanhood that requires being able to afford a certain level of consumption.

This is the culture I grew up in. Most of the families at church were financially comfortable. I’d say the majority of the church was upper middle class, and a not insignificant minority of the church was squarely upper class (new suburban rich persuasion). There were families who struggled financially, but the vast majority of the church was comfortably middle class or wealthier, and most people were from families that had been in middle class for some time.

Both official teachings and church events as well as the church culture reflected assumptions that everyone was fairly well-off. For example, it didn’t occur to me until I went to college and met people from different socioeconomic backgrounds that being a “good” member of my home church required expenditures that many people simply could not afford. Being fully “invested” in the church as a family with children meant sending or accompanying kids on myriad youth retreats, excursions, and missions, attending at least one out-of-town conference a year (often more), joining the evangelical versions of Boy or Girl Scouts, buying several books a year for discussion at bible studies, and numerous other literal investments of money – speak less of all the time away from home and work that had to be set aside for such things.

True womanhood as understood in this context makes similarly significant demands on families’ time and money. Women are expected to stay at home once they became mothers, and to homeschool their kids. Home ownership is also expected. I can’t tell you how many women from my former church have blogged ad nauseam about how they’re learning to “trust God” through the “trial” of not yet being homeowners. The cluelessness and privilege, it is rather epic.

Homes are to be tastefully and fashionably decorated. Women are expected to be frequent and accomplished cooks of healthy meals. And they’re expected to have larger families than average for suburban communities – 4 or 5, sometimes as many as 7 or 8 or 9 kids. To successfully do all this on one income in an area where cost of living and house prices are high (or even average) often requires a considerable income on the part of the husband and considerable labor at home as teacher, child-care provider, home decorator, chef, etc., on the part of the wife.

More thoughts on this coming.


Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont

Part 1
Part 2

Sexualized stereotypes about black women are not isolated to my former church or denomination, but rather representative of beliefs about black sexuality and family life that remain common among white evangelicals. Michael Emerson, a white sociologist of religion, writes of encountering these same attitudes in his (highly recommended!) book Divided by Faith, an examination of racial segregation in American evangelicalism and of factors in the white evangelical church that contribute to and perpetuate such segregation. [The following quotes and paraphrases from Divided by Faith can be found on pp. 100-104; emphases are mine]

For example, Emerson notes that white evangelicals often see “bad choices” on the part of black people as being primarily to blame for racial disparities between U.S. blacks and whites; among these choices are “having too many children.” He writes:

In their use of these cultural reasons [for racial inequality], white conservative Protestants do not mean patterns of behavior rooted in values (e.g., blacks have many children because they highly value large families), but rather that blacks are making poor choices (e.g., black individuals do not exercise responsibility in child-bearing, faith, or speech).

White evangelicals interviewed by Emerson repeatedly linked welfare to “bad choices” with respect to sex and family life that produce racial inequality. One woman saw unrestrained black reproduction as the problem:

So many black people have beaucoup [large numbers of] kids. I only had two because I feel as though that’s what I can afford. And, I mean, sometimes I think they just don’t use the brains God gave them.

Similarly, a Baptist woman argued that black women have children to collect welfare payments:

[She]…linked welfare to family dissolution: ‘I think ultimately it goes back to the fact that they have a lot of single parent homes. [When asked by authors why this is] Well, in a lot of instances there was no family to start with…I mean the AFDC payments. A woman gets money for each child she has and there is never a husband involved. In this area it is very common for a black girl in her late teens to be having her third or fourth baby, unmarried. My daughter works in OB (obstetrics), that is how I know. Very common, because they get their AFDC payments.

Other views offered in these interviews:

  • One woman described government programs to address [black] poverty are “no different from slavery.”
  • Another “was not shy in implicating the government, even while making welfare recipients seem less than admirable: It has to be blamed on the government. The government makes it easier for somebody to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.
  • Still another woman claimed that under welfare, “we have paid their [black people’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.
Interestingly, all of the comments on black motherhood that Emerson includes came from women. This is probably just an accident of selection, since he says that these views were expressed by a many people he interviewed, not just the five women he quotes. Still, it’s striking that so many white evangelical women, speaking out of a cultural context where performing “traditional” gender roles is so important, would choose to comment on the ways in which black women fail to live up to their [white evangelical] standards of proper femininity.

Emerson also found that some white evangelicals saw a feedback loop relationship between black poverty and welfare. On the one hand, “it is blacks who, perhaps because they are seen as having less initiative or moral fortitude, are more likely to receive welfare” (despite the fact that the majority of Americans on welfare are in fact white). But at the same time “it was common to link welfare directly to the demise of individual initiative and responsibility among African Americans.” In other words, there’s circular reasoning at work here: black people are more likely to be on welfare because of lack of initiative, and welfare creates lack of initiative in black people.

As the quotes above show, most white evangelicals Emerson interviewed cited “choice” rather than natural lack of ability as the reason for racial disparities between blacks and whites. Yet these quotes also show that “choice” is framed in such a way as to be almost indistinguishable from “natural” racial inferiority. When you see an entire race as habitually “not using the brains God gave them” or habitually choosing “the easy way out” of “taking” government support (which, again, is really not so easy as some imagine), and habitually choosing not to provide for their families, make “moral” decisions about family life, or exercise sexual or reproductive self-control – when you see an entire race as suffering because of habitual “bad choices”  you’ve framed “choice” as something that so completely characterizes a group of people that it’s not much different from a natural trait.

Bringing this back to the notion of “true womanhood,” then, the implication of the attitudes Emerson describes is that black women flout the norms of “real” femininity so regularly and to such a degree that we are basically not real women. Or at the very least, the “realness” of our femininity is always in question in the cultural context of predominantly white evangelicalism. We have to prove, in a different way and to a different extent than white women in the same contexts, our sexual “purity,” our competence and maturity as mothers and wives in a patriarchal (and white privileging) system, and our ability to show a submissive, “gentle and quiet” spirit in a context where black women are stereotyped as loud, unruly, and uncouth. The bar for showing ourselves to be “real women” is higher (and as other commenters have pointed out, similar stereotypes and double standards apply to Latina women in the white church).

More thoughts on the interviews in Emerson’s Divided by Faith in the next post on this topic.


Sunday news roundup

Some religion, gender, and sexuality news from the past week:

Freedom for Christian Women Coalition calls on Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to apologize for harmful teachings of female submission.

Argentina legalizes gay marriage despite opposition from Catholic leadership.

A federal judge upheld Eastern Michigan University’s decision to expel a Christian student in their counseling program who refused to work with gay patients.

In a similar case, a Christian student at Augusta State University’s school of counseling has alleged that she was threatened with expulsion because of her religious views on homosexuality, and is filing suit against the school. Jennifer Keeton claims she was ordered to take sensitivity training or face expulsion after she stated in class that homosexuality is an immoral lifestyle choice.  More on these two cases in a future post!

Phillis Schafly claims President Obama is “subsidizing” illegitimate babies to increase his voter base. Great commentary from Robin Marty at RH Reality Check: “Remember, these are the people who fight against birth control, and say that there should be no access to abortion. Oddly enough, it doesn’t look like they want people to have babies, either.”

Encouraging news:  New poll from Public Religion Research Institute finds slight majority of Californians support marriage equality. Latino Catholics were the most supportive out of religious groups of gay marriage (57%), followed by white mainline Protestants and white Catholics (54% and 51%)  Latino Protestants were much less likely than Latino Catholics to approve of marriage equality (22%).

Anne Rice Quits Christians, Still Dates Jesus. More at Huffington Post: “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control . . . In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

I think we’ll see a lot more Christians making this choice in the future (and many already have).  I have a lot of respect for progressives who work for change within the institution of the church, and I think their work is tremendously important.  But for some people remaining in the church feels tantamount to endorsing oppressive doctrines and discrimination, and working for change outside the church seems a more coherent option.