ZNet Institutional Racism Instructional
Justin Podur (2002)

Parts of the Instructional

1. Society, Culture, and Communities

2. The Racial Caste System

3. Racist Economics

4. Racist Geography

5. Culture and Racism

6. Racist Politics

7. Racist Sexism

8. Antiracist Strategy

9. Antiracist Visions

Racist Sexism

Why are there races?

In the movie 'Bulworth', Warren Beatty's character, a US Senator who decides to fight racism the same weekend he decides to commit suicide, appears on a TV show.  He suggests as a cure to racism 'a free-spirited, voluntary deconstruction of racial identities'.  When the TV reporter stares at him as if she doesn't understand, he clarifies: 'Everybody keeps fucking everybody until we all look the same.'  It's worth thinking about why it never happened. 

Maybe it did happen.  After all, estimates are that in the US 1 in 4 whites have a black ancestor and 3 in 4 blacks have a white ancestor (Joe Feagin, 'Racist America', 2000 and Matthew Frye, 'Whiteness of a Different Color' 1998).  These numbers are even higher for native people.  Interracial couples exist.  And yet: barring some ambiguous cases, racist society manages easily to place the children of interracial pairings into its neat racial pigeonholes.  Generally speaking, a child with a parent of colour is a person of colour.  Part of this is physical, in that colour is inherited.  But most of it is social: the whole idea of 'race-mixing' depends on the idea that there are 'pure' races, which is biologically speaking, not true, but socially real.  But in a racist (or caste) system, anything 'impure' gets a lower status, while only purity gets full prestige. 

Controlling sex by controlling women

As important as assigning purity and impurity to people based on heredity is policing that purity and those boundaries.  Interracial couples might exist, but they face all kinds of difficulties and sometimes physical danger.

What this boils down to is that for racism to survive, a racist society has to control who has sex with whom and the fate of their children.  How lucky for racism that our society comes with a system for doing just that-- sexism, which does its job by oppressing and controlling women, and sexuality and parenting more generally.  Racism certainly helps sexism, by preventing unity between white women and women of colour (the same way it helps economic elites by keeping working people disunited).  But sexism helps racism as well, by creating a special 'double oppression' on women of colour, by creating boundaries and taboos of sex and intimacy, and ideas of racial purity that help maintain the biological fiction that there are races.

Double oppression

Those who suffer most from this intersection of racism and sexism are women of colour.  They face the institutionalized power of men: the sexual harassment, the curtailed opportunities, the objectification, the fear of rape and physical violence, the demeaning depictions of them in the cultural arena, a lack of political power, a disproportionate share of the work of caring for children.  They historically have faced sexual abuse by white men without much chance for redress through political channels (the history of rape of black slaves and the justice system's failure to protect them is told in Randall Kennedy's 'Race, Crime, and the Law').  And they face all the ills of racism described throughout this instructional.  When they fight for liberation, they often are stuck with a choice of male dominated antiracist movements or white dominated feminist movements or white male dominated labour movements.  If those who fought the system in one sphere, like class, also fought the system in other spheres, like race and gender, the system would be having a much harder time than it is having. 

Racist sexism rebounds

Because of racism, women of colour can be subjected to even worse sexist violence, in prisons or on the streets.  But this violence has effects on its perpetrators which rebound to the white community.  In Angela Davis's 'Women, Race, and Class', she suggests that in Vietnam, the US government encouraged the use of rape as a weapon of war, pouring the racism on to encourage soldiers to do it.  When the GIs came home, would they treat 'their' own women the same as if they hadn't committed these crimes?  (Angela Davis, 'Women, Race, and Class')  The US army is associated with prostitution around all its bases in colonial countries.  The devastating effects on the communities and the women are the worst impact.  But there is also an effect on the balance of power, and the violence quotient, between men and women at home.


One of many important things feminists do is study how cultural messages and everyday attacks negatively affect women's images of their bodies.  The use of sexualized images of women to sell products and the holding up of fashionable ideals of beauty have devastating effects on women's self-esteem, as do the way women get treated by their families, lovers, and co-workers.  Racist society's culture also holds up ideals of beauty and purity that are particularly devastating to women of colour, resulting in the need for slogans that proclaim the obvious (that Black is Beautiful) or children's books that teach the obvious (like bell hooks' wonderful book 'Happy to be Nappy', which teaches that nappy hair is beautiful), to counter an onslaught of images that say the reverse-- that beauty is white.

Sexual stereotypes

There is also a combination of racist and sexist stereotypes.  Blacks represent dangerous sexuality.  People of colour in general represent 'exotic' sexuality.  White sexuality is 'proper', 'normal'.  Asian women are stereotyped to be submissive, Asian men to be effeminate.  Whites 'project' their sexual fears and taboos on other cultures.  

Policing boundaries

The boundaries made by racist sexism are also enforced by violence.  Lynchings often were the punishment for being accused of having an interracial relationship.  Between 1882 and 1968, at least 4743 people were lynched in the US.  73% of the lynchings occurred in the south, and 72.7% of those lynched were black.  (Randall Kennedy, 'Race, Crime, and the Law')  These brutal responses not only show the hysteria that occurs when boundaries are threatened, but they serve to remove focus from sexism in the white community.  By portraying men of colour, here and abroad, as the true sexual predators and enforcers of sexism, the media lies to white women about where danger is likely to come from.  Most women are assaulted by men they know, and because racism segregates, this means most women are assaulted by men of their own colour. 

Next: Antiracist Strategy      Previous: Race and the State