ESSAY: The co-constitution of gender and race

Texto ensaístico escrito no primeiro semestre de 2017 para o curso Women and Society ministrado na The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

The images of White and Black women across Western societies are constituted with gender expectations that constrain and condition women’s behavior and freedom. Although women’s struggles have similarities despite race, the battle faced by Black women highlights the racial component in the construction of gender images. Therefore, it will be argued in this essay that gender and race are not only intersectional issues when regarding Black women (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1244), but are co-constituted and affect society’s expectations towards gender. This is because White women’s Whiteness lends them the male privilege of sexual autonomy until they are viewed as not conforming with patriarchal gender norms, in this moment their Whiteness is lessened with a shift to being treated as Black women, a sexual object (Hernandez, 2000, p. 209).

The co-constitution of gender and race has specific relevance to be debated because the discrimination and violence suffered by women of color is not only based on gender. Hence, to better understand women’s reality and formulate efficient strategies to overcome gender inequalities, the fight for equal rights and treatment cannot only consider gender based discrimination, but also race. Otherwise, only White women will be emancipated, and this is likely to happen in the expense of colored women’s freedom.

It is important to clarify that this essay uses the term women of color to address Black women, Latinas and Asian women. In other words, every non-White woman is here in the same category as they are judged by society under similar “racialized gender stereotypes that conceptually distinguish “pure” White women from “wanton” women of color” (Hernandez, 2000, p. 185). With this conceptual definition in mind, first, a historical perspective from the United States expanded to Latin America will be presented to trace sexual-racial stereotypes origins. Secondly, the societal aspect in European countries, during the nineteenth-century, that led to the imaginary construction of Blackness will be contextualized. Thirdly, the prostitution paradigm will be used as a key concept to connect gender and race and explain their co-constitution. Finally, the intersectional character of the issue will be debated.

Tracking the sexual savage in America

Through centuries, different dominant narratives have been adapted and used to obscure sexual violence against women of color and construct them as property. During the beginning of the colonization process in the United States and in other former American colonies where slavery was used, Africans were reduced to sub-humans and property which determined the physical and sexual treatment of women. For instance, the state of Virginia, in 1661, when officially recognizing slavery referred to enslaved or free African women as “nasty and beastly” (James, 1999, p. 128).

Furthermore, European settlers would justify their superiority over native peoples with the need to civilize sexual savages, therefore, whites imposed the image of a beast-like sexuality on black, justifying rape of black women and the lynching of black men (James, 1999, p. 129). These stereotypes of sexual depravity originated in the white middle class evolved during the decades and were reinforced and shaped by class and racial hierarchies, englobing Mexican and Native American women in the United States (James, 1999, p. 129). In other American countries, for instance Brazil, race and class are extremely linked as the biggest part of lower class is black. In this context, women of color in general are perceived as promiscuous while poor-White women, as their behavior and dressing is similar to Black women’s image, are also discriminated.

European societies’ degeneration and the idea of Blackness

Although some scholars argue that the scientific discourse of degeneracy, pathologizing the Other, developed in relation to non-European peoples as an expression of fears regarding corporeal difference, Magubane presents a different approach. The author argues that the degeneration discourse “was a response to fears about the blurring of class and status differences within the European polity” during the nineteenth century (Magubane, 2001, pp. 819–820).

The societal changes in vogue during the period were considered more threatening than the racial and sexual alterity of non-European peoples. In fact, equality and democracy were perceived as symptoms of degeneracy, because they could usurp all boundaries of recognizable identity (Magubane, 2001, p. 820). Therefore, alleging the Other’s degeneration was a social instrument to secure Europeans’ identity in an uncertain point of the continents’ history. Hence, when analyzing the discourses on Blackness mentioned above, it is imperative to consider social relations, as internal inputs led to the ostracization of a huge part of world population under the disguise of physiological arguments.

The Prostitution Paradigm

After presenting the historical and societal aspects of race discourses, it is important to explain how the co-constitution of race and gender happens. For that, this essay considers that assumptions about prostitution determine societal attitudes towards violence against women. In this logic, the perpetuation of violence is informed by the “prostitution paradigm”. It reflects a dichotomy between “respectable” and “degenerate” women, securing legal protection only for women who demonstrate their respectability by distancing themselves from the image of prostitution (Hernandez, 2000, p. 194).

Moreover, as Black women are stereotyped as wanton, provocative, over-sexed, and thus typically assumed as prostitutes, this racialized gender stereotype is instrumental in the maintenance of the prostitution paradigm. Therefore, through the inflexible construction of the virgin/whore dichotomy along racial lines, the idea of womanhood was deeply rooted by slavery and patriarchy. What’s more, the use of the prostitution paradigm in the co-constitution of race and gender also positioned Latinas and Asian Pacific women as lascivious (Hernandez, 2000, pp. 196–198).

Yet, it was possible for light-skinned women of color to mitigate their racial classification when dressing and behaving in a hyper-feminized, White-like way. On the other hand, the White patriarchy could also regulate White women gender images by precluding them from their privileged treatment when their clothing and behavior assimilates to women of color image.

The intersectionality problem and statistics

Although identity politics is a useful strategy to unify and give voices to similar groups, because race and gender are co-constituted, and Feminist and anti-racism’s agendas do not intersect, the identity of women of color is relegated to oblivion. Hence, because of their intersectional identity as both women and of color, they are marginalized within both discourses, which complicates the protection of this minority (Crenshaw, 1991, pp. 1242–1244). In this context, Black Feminism gains importance in the fight for equal rights and treatment, the deconstruction of a stereotyped image of women of color and thus, for women’s true liberation.

Therefore, the interpenetration of Feminism and anti-racism agendas is necessary, as well as the strengthening of the Black Feminism movement, to secure that the liberation of White women is not anchored on underpaid labor of women of color (Taylor, 1998, p. 21). This is of key importance as, in 2014, Black women’s wage in the United States was 80,2% of White, non-Hispanic women’s wage (Women’s Bureau, 2014). A similar pattern was observed, in 2016, for Hispanic women in the country, as they receive 72,2% of White, non-Hispanic women’s payment (Women’s Bureau, 2016).


Crenshaw, K. (July of 1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), pp. 1241–1299.

Hernandez, T. K. (2000). Sexual Harassment and Racial Disparity: The Mutual Construction of Gender and Race. Gender, Race and Justice, 183–224.

James, J. (1999). Depoliticizing Representations: Sexual-Racial Stereotypes. Em J. James, Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics (pp. 123–149). New York: Palgrave.

Magubane, Z. (December of 2001). Which Bodies Matter?: Feminism, Poststructuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoretica Odyssey of the “Hottentot Venus”. Gender & Society, 15, pp. 816–843.

Taylor, U. Y. (1998). Making Waves: The Theory and Practice of Black Feminism. Journal of Black Studies and Research, 28(2), 18–28.

Women’s Bureau. (2014). Black Women in the Labor Force. United States Department of Labor.

Women’s Bureau. (2016). Hispanic Women in the Labor Force. United Stated Department of Labor.