Gender vs. Race: A False Dichotomy

by Carmen Morgan

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Gender vs. Race: A False Dichotomy

It’s interesting. I’ve never really thought of myself as just “woman” or just “black.”  Long before I ever had a feminist or womanist thought, I knew myself to be both “woman” and “black,” and a few other identities as well.  It never occurred to me that I could parse out what it means to be a woman, from what it means to be a black woman.  My lens has always had to hold both.  Whatever racism I experienced, was gendered.  Whatever form of sexism or patriarchy I experienced, was racialized. Racism and sexism have always worked in tandem to have an impact on my life. This is the age-old conversation that women of color have been having since Sojourner Truth first asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?” as she addressed white abolitionists. Even back then, Sojourner was clear, as evidenced by her lived experiences, that patriarchy and race were inextricably tied.  Her identity as a black woman working against both sexism and slavery, proved this to be so.

How is it then, that 163 years after Sojourner Truth’s speech, we continue to have conversations about equity and inclusion that falsely hold these identities as separate?   Is it really possible to work solely on issues of race or to work solely on issues of gender equity? What then do we do with those of us who hold both identities?

Identity politics may have served us well in the past, and might still be used strategically today, but our conversations must become as complex as the way in which we live our lives. I’d like to sit around a table that allows me to bring my whole self—my whole cisgendered-hetero-Afro-Caribbean (and the list goes on) self to the table. Let’s not ask anyone to give up a part of themselves as we do the work of equity and justice in our artistic communities. Let’s not continue to pose a false dichotomy: gender or racial equity. We need both and more.

Years ago while I was working with an interfaith community in Los Angeles, we decided to host a large community dialogue addressing racism. I got a call from a woman who was excited about the event but noted that because the event was being held in a church and the focus was on racism, she wasn’t sure if she and her lesbian partner would be welcomed. “Will it be safe for us?” she wanted to know. My heart sank. This was all too familiar. Her experience had taught her that just because a group was willing to address racism, didn’t mean that they would also be working for gay liberation.  Furthermore, would a church space support her full identity?

I believe the days of segregated movements are gone.  Today’s generation, a generation of multi-identified, class-conscious, queer, people of color, expect more intersections, more interplay between issues of equity and justice.  As young artists support community-building, they expect a more complicated analysis that explores the contradictions and intersections of their lives.  They identify as queer feminists of color, or transgender immigrants living with HIV.  They do not identify solely as gendered or raced individuals.

My community work has necessitated a very clear philosophy of intersectionality[1]: an approach that recognizes that systems of structural inequity are bound together, and as such, they must be dismantled together.

As an arts community, I believe there is power in taking an intersectional approach to discussing and addressing issues of equity and inclusion. There is power in acknowledging both the places where we have privilege and the places where we have been marginalized. Inequity relies on systems of exclusion. Racism is strengthened when sexism is allowed to flourish.  Sexism thrives when heterosexism goes unchecked.  Inequity relies on one group being pitted against the next. This has to be interrupted in our work and how we discuss and address issues of equity.

Someone once asked me, “Well how broad does my analysis need to be? Do I have to address racism and sexism and classism?” My response: “Yes, and ageism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and ableism too! Your analysis needs to be as broad as it needs to be – broad to the tenth power. And then it needs to keep expanding.”

Some of us may remember the poignant moment at the Diversity Forum held last December at the Pasadena Playhouse. After much discussion about inclusion in terms of race or gender, a question was asked from an audience member to a panelist.  The panelist strained to see and hear where the question was coming from and finally asked, “Could you please stand up?” The audience member graciously replied from a wheelchair, “No I can not.”

That moment remains so vivid for me in its illustration that it takes an ongoing awareness and growing inclusive approach to support access for everyone around the table, and it will look different for each of us.  It will also require grace and patience from each of us.

It is clear that as we continue our work to address equity and inclusion in the arts, we will lose valuable ground if we do not frame issues of equity in the broadest sense.  We will need artists who have the ability to take on an expanding and inclusive analysis if we hope not to repeat mistakes of our past.

The topic of intersectionality will be explored further during the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders in San Diego at the session “REPRESENT: Measuring Change, Changing How We Measure.” This session will provide an opportunity to move beyond exploring intersectionality as a theory, to a close examination of how it can be practically applied.

Resource note:

For more context and insight on the concept of intersectionality read Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” by Kimberle Crenshaw.  It touches on a variety of issues and provides historical overview and context on the intersections of gender and race.

[1] From Wikipedia: The theory of intersectionality suggests that discrete forms and expressions of oppression actually shape, and are shaped by, one another. Thus, in order to fully understand the racialization of oppressed groups, one must investigate the ways in which racializing structures, social processes, and social representations are shaped by gender, class, sexuality, ability, and other identities.

Carmen Morgan is a national diversity consultant and has worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) for the past six years on structural and organizational equity. In addition, she serves as a senior consultant for Theatre Communications Group’s diversity and inclusion initiatives where she helped to launch their national Diversity and Inclusion Institute.  She also provides customized resources and trainings to theaters nationwide. Carmen is also currently the Program Director of Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations (LDIR). Carmen co-wrote and edited ExpandingLDIRship: A Resource Promoting Positive Intergroup Relations in Communities Through Awareness, Skills and Actions, which remains the center piece of LDIR’s community programming and training. Her leadership work in the arena of diversity and inclusion involves developing and directing program initiatives nationwide – programs that are proactive instead of reactive. She has presented at national conferences including the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, National Association for Multicultural Education, Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations, Americans for the Arts, United States Institute for Theatre Technology, and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, to name a few.  Carmen is a founding member of the California Chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME), a former Human Services Commissioner for the City of Pasadena, and is currently on the fundraising committee for Black Women for Wellness, a community-based organization serving women in South Los Angeles. She remains a committed community activist who has worked within the nonprofit sector, specifically around social justice issues, for almost over 20 years.

  • sarah bellamy

    Yes! Carmen this is absolutely beautiful! Thank you for your vision, experience, and leadership.

  • Megan Sandberg-Zakian

    Yes, yes, yes – co-signing Sarah’s comments. Thank you, Carmen.

  • Carl Atiya Swanson

    Thanks for this, and for your panel at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference last year in Portland on your work with OSF – the will and ability to bring our whole, broadest selves to our work is one of the most transformative tools we have as artists.

  • Glendalee Robinson

    Love it! that’s my cousin :-)

  • Patricia Garza

    Thank you Carmen for spelling it out. I have often found myself in a similar situation like you described with the young women at the church dialogue. Being a feminist queer woman of color myself! We need to not be afraid to dive all the way in.

  • Carmen Morgan

    Agreed! So glad you can fully and honestly represent. See you in San Diego.

  • Carmen Morgan

    Thank you (as always) for the love and support.

  • Carmen Morgan

    Yes. Our task is to continue to model this. Unfortunately, many of us do not have much practice in this regard. Thank you Carl, for also showing us another way.

  • Carmen Morgan

    And to you as well Sarah. Penumbra continues to be a beacon that models what transformative theatre can (and should) be. It’s legacy and future contributions are invaluable to this discourse.

  • Carmen Morgan

    Thank you Megan. Hope to see you in San Diego.

  • Lauren Yarbrough

    Thank you for this inspiring article!