How does anti-Blackness shape the ways we understand gender itself?

Last month, I discussed the story of Mary Jones, the first woman known to be transgender in U.S. history. Jones’ story vividly illustrates how racism, transphobia, and sexism combine to shape the lives of Black transgender women. This month, I’m answering a question I posed at the end of that article: how does anti-Blackness shape the ways we understand gender itself?

To tackle this (huge) question, I’ll summarize some of the key frameworks that Black feminists and Black queer and trans thinkers have offered for approaching this topic. After I introduce each framework, I’ll reflect on what they can tell us about the story of Mary Jones.

Framework 1 – Intersectionality:

This is the framework you’re probably the most familiar with – and for good reason! Intersectionality is a critical concept in Black feminist thought. The term was coined by lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw, but its roots extend way back into Black women’s history.

Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to specific modes of discrimination and privilege that cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts. I made this video to explain more.

When we use intersectionality to understand the life of Mary Jones, we can see how she was trying to survive an entire web of violence. She was targeted as a Black person, as a woman, as a poor person, as a sex worker, and as a trans person. But more than that, she was all of those things at once. That means that she wasn’t just more at risk, she was at risk for specific forms of violence that resulted from the combination of all of those systems.

Framework 2  – Scientific Racism:

Some Black thinkers have analyzed the relationship between anti-Blackness and gender and sexuality by considering the impact of scientific racism.

Scientific racism refers to the intellectual field that justified the oppression of people of color through scientific claims about the body and racialized populations. Social Darwinism, eugenics, and phrenology are all a part of this field.

Scientific racists created hierarchies that were gendered, sexualized, and racialized. To give you one specific (and horrible) example, they believed that both Black women and white queer women had enlarged labia – and that Black queer women had the biggest labia of all. This alleged physical difference was said to explain why Black women (again, allegedly) were “hypersexual.” The jezebel stereotype stems from this scientific racist belief.

It should go without saying that these beliefs were hogwash, but they had profound impact.

Scientific racism is part of the reason that the white men who had sex with Mary Jones were ashamed of having sex with a Black person – and why they were able to defend themselves. It was commonly thought that white men couldn’t help themselves around Black women because Black women were extremely seductive (this, of course, justified profound sexual violence against Black women). The men who had sex with Jones were able to defend themselves as hoodwinked, trading on a version of this logic.

Framework 3 – Ungendering:

The idea of “ungendering” is the most complex concept I’ll talk about today, but it’s also the most illuminating. Hortense Spillers argues that slavery involved the violent “ungendering” of Black women. Because Black women were treated not only as property but as reproductive resources, white people regarded them as not really women at all. They were treated as, in Spillers’ words, female flesh ungendered.

Other Black thinkers have applied this idea to explain a range of Black women’s experiences. For example, Sarah Haley talks about how Black women’s exclusion from the category of womanhood shaped their criminal punishment in the South.

Black trans thinkers are also applying and adapting Spillers’ ideas to explain their experiences. C. Riley Snorton draws on Spillers to consider Mary Jones. His reading deserves more space than I can give it here; you can read it in chapter 2 of his book Black on Both Sides.

When I consider Mary Jones through the idea of ungendering, the phrase “man monster” stands out to me. By calling Jones a monster, the lithographer castes her outside of humanity and does so to make a profit (his pictures were very, very popular). Further, Jones is called a man while being pictured as a woman. That’s ungendering, for sure.

These frameworks each provide a different way to understand the relationship between anti-Blackness and gender. I see them as different but largely complimentary. Like lenses, each allows different parts of the picture to come into focus. Together, they show us that gender and race are tied together; we have to consider both at the same time, always.

Next month, I’ll be considering a lighter topic in transgender history. Cross-dressing cowboys, anyone?