Cheryl Harris “Whiteness as Property”
Linda Martín Alcoff “What Should White People Do?”
bell hooks “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination”
Friedrich Engels “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”
Heidi Hartmann “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism”
Angela Davis “Women and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation”
Whiteness, Marxism and Angela Davis
The last readings were interesting, thought provoking, angering and very smart. There are several themes that manage to interweave their way throughout each of these topics, namely the law, humanity, Marxism, race, property, coalition building, male/female relations including marriage, confinement and liberation.
In Harris’s article for example, she speaks about the construction of race as property, and describes the relationship between whiteness as property and black slaves as “subjugated and treated as property” by whites. (77) The idea that black slaves were considered property to white slaveholders was not new to me, but the idea of whiteness actually being property blew my mind. It makes sense, whiteness as something that can gain in interest, as something of fiscal import; it is just not something that would have otherwise occurred to me. It really is a great way to articulate something I have been feeling recently.
A couple weeks ago in my US Women of Color class, my professor asked us to share with her a little about growing up looked like to us in relation to Nellie Wong’s poem “When I Was Growing Up.” I am usually very careful to speak last and not too often in that class since I am the only women’s studies major and I am also one of the few white students-I like to provide room for the women of color to learn from one another. Well there is another white female student in the class who is a self identified anarcha-feminist who speaks a lot and takes up a lot of space. When we were sharing about growing up, she decided to say that she doesn’t identify as white because race is a social construction. I had a lot of complicated feelings about this remark and made sure that when I shared I spoke about my complicated struggle with my whiteness.
I felt and feel that not identifying as white is part of white privilege because only white people have the opportunity/choice to ignore race. People of color can refuse their color all they want, but will constantly be reminded that they are not white. What I am trying to get across I think is that this revelation about whiteness as property helped me to pinpoint even more how whiteness functions, whether purposefully or not. Martin Alcoff also specifically spoke to this on page 264 when she said, “[r]ace may be a social construction…yet it is real and powerful enough to alter the fundamental shape of all our lives.”
Going back to Harris’s article about property-whiteness as and slaves treated as-leads me to Engels’ discussion of how black slave women belonged “unreservedly to the man.” (167) The implications of this are that “their” (white men) white wives were oppressed by one sided “monogamy” and “their” black slave women were oppressed through slavery including forcible sexual slavery. So white men essentially owned all property including whiteness, land, their monogamous wives and their slaves, all of which were at their disposal for any form of exploitation they decided to employ.
Lastly, Davis spoke about how in the present day the US prison system parallels with and is impacted by slavery due to its (continued) oppression of black women and men. Though she mentions that the number of black women prisoners is rising rapidly, she speaks mainly about young black men being under the direct control of the criminal justice system. (98) Being “under the control of” and “being the property of” are two separate ways of explaining away human beings as being in the state of non-freedom also known as slavery or incarceration depending on the historical context.
Davis’s radical stance of prison abolitionism and decarceration as well as her view of black slave women as the “caretakers of the house of resistance” were very new and inspiring ideas to me. I have always heard criticism of the mushrooming prison system in the United States, but until reading Davis’s articles, I have never heard anyone advocate to completely do away with them. Her argument is very convincing however, and I am officially recruited as a prison abolitionist. As I said in class, crime is a social construction and it is created with a white supremacist bias implemented by white supremacist institutions and by racist law enforcement, attorneys, and judges.
Davis’s socialism informs her abolitionism since were we to be a socialist government, ideally there would be no need for many of the so-called crimes we have now such as theft, vagrancy, and urinating in public which is rumored to soon be considered as a sexual offense. These crimes, were poverty to cease to exist, would look very different and would hold different meaning.
The law also holds a large part in each group of readings: Harris speaks of race as legally defined as blood-borne (82), Haartman and Engels speak of marriage as a legal form of oppression, and Davis speaks extensively about the role of the law in the continued oppression of people of color especially in relation to the prison system. These acknowledgements of the importance of the law allude to the ideas that even with a Marxist analysis, legal reform is still looked to as an immediate goal perhaps on the way to the real revolutions that would take down the “patriarchal capitalism” as Haartman called it. This I am sure is debatable, but since the theorists speak of the law’s progression, the implication is that as it becomes less institutionally racist, there has been some measurability of success in the struggle to end oppression.
These articles call for a recognition of the humanity and necessity for equal rights among all peoples, and the need for coalition building in order to attain the ultimate goal of liberation.