Sex Roles in Black Society: Caste Versus Caste
Helen M. Hacker Previously unpublished
Any discussion of Black sex roles is charged with controversy. There is disagreement on the historical facts of the Afro-American family as well as its contemporary nature. In the triangle formed by family organization, discriminatory social institutions, and individual disadvantage, different analysts trace different trajectories. The ordering of the chain of causation becomes a political issue since the kind of social policy advocated may flow from one’s assessment of Black history and current Black experience. Indeed the temptation is great to evaluate statements about Black sex and family roles more in accordance with their implications for social action, race pride, and white guilt than in terms of their validity. Further, many statements are denied in one breath, and explained away in the next. Thus, one might conclude from some recent articles in this area that there is no Black matriarchy, but matriarchy is just as good, if not better than, patriarchy. Or, the Black man is not impotent, but whites castrated him.
Any analysis of sex roles, whether Black or white, must be modulated according to the interaction among structural, cultural, and social class factors. That white social structure and cultural values have been prime movers and distorters of Black sex roles has been long recognized, but it has been the task of Black writers to show how the oppression of Blacks has served to support the white segregation of sex roles.
This paper represents a selective abstraction from a projected textbook chapter, and thus will not pretend to fulfill the promise of the title except to concentrate on the problem following the colon—if race and sex are both indicative of a caste-like status, what is the relationship between them for Black people of both sexes, and does this relationship vary by class membership and/or aspirations? Most importantly, for whom do race-consciousness and sex-consciousness conflict or converge?
Whatever the imputed cause or combinations of causes—whether African survivals, the heritage of Black experiences during the slavery and Reconstruction periods, the transplantation from the rural south to urban centers, both north and south, contemporary ghettoization, including oppressive social conditions and discriminatory policies, conventional wisdom sees Black sex roles today as the dark mirror image of their white counterparts. It is summed up in the adage that in America only the white man and the Black woman are free.
The alleged greater freedom of Black women, as compared to white women, arose from their lack of opportunity of exchanging sexual fidelity for economic support from a Black man. Black men are considered unfree to the extent that they were prevented from acquiring the economic means to support a wife and family in the white middle class or working class manner and to enact a patriarchal role. Their inability to compete economically and sexually with white men has been termed their emasculation. But one can also reverse the valences, and view some characteristics of Black family forms, such as male-female egalitarianism, the sexual freedom of women, the non-stigmatization of out-of-wedlock children, as the unanticipated positive consequences of negative social action—in this case, white racism.
In Linton’s classic definition of a role as putting into practice a collection of rights and duties associated with a status the classification of a behavior as a right or a duty from the point of view of the actor may vary according to circumstances. Thus, it may be asked whether a husband has the right or the duty of kissing his wife.
Definitions of Black sex roles have been shaped largely by the confinement of Blacks to the lower class. Whether an “authentic” Black culture which may make Blacks the cultural leapers, rather than laggers, for mainstream society will survive the free passage of Blacks into middle class ranks and their structural assimilation into the dominant society is a question of dramatic importance, but for which present evidence is inconclusive and contradictory. Nevertheless, many analysts and social advocates have taken positions on one side or the other, or affirm both simultaneously. For example, in a study of Black families “above the lower class or underclass” Scanzeni reports that they are adopting the family forms of the environing society, and contends that the conjugal family in which the husband fulfills his chief role obligations as provider in exchange for the wife’s tendering of expressive rewards is not distinctively white but adaptive to a “modern, individualistic, achievement-oriented, acquisitive society.” He, as well as others, believes the evidence indicates that even lower-class Blacks share this aspiration as prerequisite to their participation in the “American dream,” and that their present way of life is more faute de miexu than positive affirmation of deviant values. He states further: “It is not a coincidence, for example, that the Black Muslims, once they adopted a work ethic virtually indistinguishable from that of the dominant society, have likewise evolved an identical family form.” Any difference between white and Black family patterns reflects only differential access to the economic rewards of the total society, he feels.
However, in another book, entitled Sexual Bargaining: Power Politics in American Marriage, he does not see the struggle of American women to become equal partners with their husbands, interchanging both economic and expressive roles, as incompatible with an achievement-oriented society. Of course a “transvaluation of values” along humanistic, non-material lines would obviate any necessity for sex role segregation for both Blacks and whites. In the meantime more research is needed on the lifestyles of middle-class Blacks, perhaps with samples stratified according to the length of time in middle-class status, to determine whether divergences between whites and Blacks of similar socio-economic status will persist.
Now returning to the problem posed by the subtitle “caste versus caste” we may ask whether Black women suffer more from racism or from sexism, and whether Black men must be sexists in order to carry on the Black struggle. To these two castes of sex and race a third status should be added—that of class. So the question becomes: Need there be conflicts among these memberships—sex versus class, class versus race, race versus sex? Movements professing the interests of minority members of each of these groupings have claimed, in what Lasswell has termed “an overgeneralization of protest,” that they will free the others. Marxist revolutionary parties say a socialist society will emancipate women from their social and economic dependence upon men by integrating them into public activities. The present barrier between Black and white fostered by the divide and conquer strategy of the capitalist class will be broken down when all must be workers, regardless of sex or race, and share according to their needs in the bounty of an unfettered production.
Black power, by putting an end to discrimination against Blacks, will secure the position of middle class Blacks, unchain lower-class Black men from poverty, and thereby provide the Black woman with a confident and responsible male partner. Further, the white man will be relieved of his burden of guilt, the white woman may step down from her pedestal, and the productivity of the whole society be enhanced by the development of Black talent.
The women’s movement will benefit Black and lower-class white women through the economic upgrading of all women, giving them control of their own bodies in sex and reproduction, and equalizing the burdens of homemaking and childcare either by redistribution of tasks in the home or collectivized services. Men will acquire female partners to share their responsibilities and be permitted more expression of their “feminine” feelings.
Not only does each of these three movements based on one of the class, race, or sex memberships claim to liberate the other two, but it also attributes competing allegiances to false consciousness. Thus, in appealing to poor women feminists say that socialism will not necessarily free women, or at least has not done so in Marxist countries, nor will Black power terminate discrimination against women. Black nationalists say that male-female relationships in the Black community have been distorted by whites, and that women’s liberation, if not a direct attempt to coopt Black women away from the Black struggle, is at best irrelevant to the primary interest of the Black woman in economic opportunity for the Black man. (Their concern with white women appears limited to interracial marriages.) Socialists say that although capitalists have set whites against Blacks, only working-class solidarity can end the oppression of Blacks, while Black Nationalism which does not overthrow capitalism perpetuates their exploitation by a white ruling class and its Black bourgeois allies.
In taking these positions they are implying that it is necessary for each minority group to organize around its own oppression in order to counter the resistance of the dominant group which may stand to lose both materially and psychologically. Let us look at the situation from the standpoint of the poor Black woman, one of triple jeopardy. In acceding to her demands as a woman, men, both white and Black, will lose their monopoly of scarce resources, dominance in dyadic relations, exemption from domestic responsibilities, one-sided services, sexual privileges, deference from a subordinate caste, and feelings of superiority. In granting her full equality as a Black, whites, both male and female, have the number of their competitors increased and suffer a prestige loss. In lifting her out of poverty, middle-class people, both white and Black, lose a source of domestic help and cheap labor, and may have to pay higher taxes, in addition to having competition increased and prestige diminished. (Of course, as already suggested, these dominant groups have much to gain as well.)
Or, putting it another way, will it serve her better to join forces with poor whites, middle class women, or Black men? It is not just a question of priorities because of conflicting interests of the beneficiaries of these movements. Thus, Black Liberation and Women’s Liberation make Black men and white women competitors for the same jobs. A Black writer, for example, complains that Black postal carriers have been displaced by hippy-type white college girls who have an easy educational advantage. As for socialist and revolutionary parties, there have been instances when immediate Black interests were jettisoned or exploited for propaganda purposes, of labor unions which used Black support without due reward. Still it would seem that the more salient conflict for Black women is that between Women’s Liberation and Black Liberation, with its male-dominant overtones. Can the two battles be waged simultaneously or does an advance on one front mean a setback on the other? Let us examine first the argument for the precedence of Blackness over femaleness.
The Black Power movement assumes that the fate of the Black woman is inextricably linked to that of the Black man, and that her interests will be served best by promotion of his. It therefore concentrates on her role as wife and mother rather than as wage-earner. In this role she does not receive as much financial and emotional support as her white counterpart. Although considerable progress has been made in the last decade, the Black man has not been able to achieve economic parity with the white man. He is prevented from doing so by the discrimination he encounters in the white opportunity structure—educational, occupations, legal, political, etc.; and by a lack of achievement motivation and crushed feelings of manliness engendered both by discrimination and early childhood experiences in a matri-focal family in which he lacks an adequate male model and suffers other deprivations stemming from poverty and ghettoization. (I recognize that every statement in this stereotypical account is subject to scholarly dispute.) As long as Black men are made to feel the mark of oppression, the Black struggle will by stymied and Black women, along with Black men, will be consumed in the crucibles of identity and ambivalence. Therefore, in their own self-interest Black women should concentrate their efforts on building up Black men, even at the cost—or seeming advantage—of a retreat into domesticity. Their burdens as Blacks, both directly and as foisted upon them through the deficiencies of Black males as husbands, fathers, and providers are of far greater importance than the small advantages over Black men which they have wrested from the white power structure or may hope to do in the future. They have far more in common with Black men than with white women.
This approach would counsel Black women to emulate the family patterns which many middle class white women are now seeking to break out of—with the exception that birth control through contraception, abortion, and most emphatically, sterilization should be resisted as genocide. Of course, in addition to playing a traditional family role, Black women would be devotedly supportive to Black men in the Black Liberation Movement.
On the psychological side especially, Black Nationalism may be seen as improving the relationships between Black men and Black women. During the long generations in which they lived in the shadow of white society their interaction was disrupted in two ways. First, having interiorized white standards of attractiveness, they could not develop a concept of themselves as beautiful. The desirability of a woman grew in proportion to her approximation of white physical features. In extreme form this feeling led to the fantasy of converting Blacks into whites, as so dramatically expressed by Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice, through the medium of a character he dubs “the Lazarus:” “Every time I embrace a black woman I’m embracing slavery, and when I put my arms around a white woman, well, I’m hugging freedom.”
Secondly, the frustrations endured by Black men could not be relieved in aggression towards the dominant whites, but had to be vented against Blacks—oneself, other Black men, or Black women. Black women retaliated with whatever weapons, physical or psychological, they had at hand. This sex antagonism, derivative of the color caste system, has been characterized as “hateful partners in a harrowing dance.” In recent years, however, the impression garnered from the Black press and television shows is that the Black movement with its “Black is beautiful” emphasis is bringing about a new honeymoon between Black men and women. Helen H. King, writing in Ebony, March 1971, speaks of the new “lovemaking” between Black men and women which leaves little room for women’s liberation. Indeed white women who steal scarce Black men are often regarded as the real enemy by “together” Black women.
But there are many Black spokeswomen who feel that making the economic advantage of the Black man the highest priority will not serve the immediate interests of Black women, nor even hasten the Black Revolution. First to be noted is the short supply of eligible Black men, whose ranks are depleted by higher mortality rates, homicide, long prison sentences, war casualties, long journeys in search of a job, lesser propensity to marry, etc. The ratio of Black females to males increases for every age after fifteen, and in the crucial age range 25-34 the 1970 ratio was 84.3. Thus, unless they dare to flout the double standard of the Black community by marrying white men, large numbers of Black women will have to remain husbandless.
Secondly, whether living with a husband or not, the Black woman’s earnings are vital to herself and her family. In 1971 29% of Black families were headed by a woman, compared with only 9% of white families. Among husband-wife families, 54% of the wives in Black families were working, in comparison to 38% of white wives, and in these dual-earner families Black wives contributed 31% of the family income and white wives, 26%.
Thirdly, if Black women ever held a relatively favored positon over Black men, it can no longer be said that they are outpacing them. Black men are better represented in the professions and high paying jobs, are more likely to have baccalaureate and advanced degrees, and earn more money than women, white or Black. In the words of a Black feminist and professor of American civilization, Dr. Pauli Murray:
“In the face of their multiple disadvantages, it seems clear that black women can neither postpone nor subordinate the fight against sex discrimination to the Black Revolution. Many of them must expect to be self-supporting, and perhaps to support others for a considerable period or for life. In these circumstances, while efforts to raise educational and employment levels for black males will ease some of the economic and social burdens now carried by many black women, for a large and apparently growing minority these burdens will continue. As a matter of sheer survival black women have no alternative but to insist upon equal opportunities without regard to sex in training, education, and employment. Given their heavy family responsibilities, the outlook for their children will be bleak indeed unless they are encouraged in every way to develop their potential skills and earning power.”
Fourthly, apart from the fact that the advancement of Black women in itself represents more than half the Black population, the freedom and independence of the Black woman constitutes a vital asset in the Black movement. Using her as a “slave of the slave” has the effect of reinforcing the color caste system by providing a safety valve for the frustrations of Black men who might otherwise channel their energies into the Black struggle. More importantly, Blacks need all the resources they can muster. Female talent and productivity must not be lost to home chores and a torrent of babies.
Lastly, it should be noted that beyond equal pay for comparable skills and other demands relating to economic opportunities, some of the specific planks of the feminist platform have special application to the situation of Black women. These include: abortion on demand without sterilization, twenty-four hour daycare centers, collectivization of social services, redistribution of domestic tasks, and other measures calculated to meet needs of Black women which are even more pressing for them than for white women.
Even though large numbers of Black women, like their white sisters, have not been drawn into the female liberation movement, Black women appear to be even more sympathetic to feminist strivings than white women. Some of the findings of a 1972 poll of a national cross-section of women (3,000) and men (1,000) conducted by Louis Harris and Associates for Virginia Slims are illuminating in this regard:
Favor efforts to strengthen or change women’s status in society.
Sympathize with efforts of women’s liberation groups.
Feel that being a woman has prevented me from doing some of the things I had hoped to do in life.
(Agrees frequently with the following feelings)
To get ahead in this world, a woman has to be twice as good at what she does as a man is.
I hope that my daughter will have a more interesting career outside the home than I have had.
My education is being wasted, since I never get to use what I learned in school in my everyday life.
If I had been a man, I would have gotten a lot further in this world.
Men are better at economics and business than women.
Moreover, Black women in a number of other questions think a woman president would do a better job in dealing with problems of the poor, avoiding war, supporting the arts, handling criminals, managing the economy, and living up to her principles.
Time does not permit the presentation of other evidence, such as the disproportionate number of Black women as compared to white who obtained legal abortions in New York City and New York State in 1972.
In conclusion, we may say that although poor black women suffer triple exploitation, their struggle against discrimination as women should be of immediate vital importance to them.