‘Get Out’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, and the Different Dimensions of Racism: Some Parallels to Kate Manne’s Misogyny Concept

Posted on July 20, 2018 by

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When a semester is in session I try to avoid reading philosophy outside of work hours. Usually, I prefer easy reads on topics related to science fiction, fantasy, and popular science. But recently I made an exception to this, as I started reading Kate Manne’s Down Girl (OUP 2018). I heard a lot about the book from friends and its overall online reaction has been good. So, why not? As I was reading the book, it was inevitable to connect its compelling discussions about sexism and misogyny to one of my interests in (as you might already know from previous posts see here and here) race and racism. In particular, I was struck by the fact that nothing like the distinction between sexism and misogyny appear in discussions of race and racism. Still, there seem to be some obvious parallels between that distinction and two dimensions (or expressions) of racism in society. In what follows, I will use Manne’s work to tease apart these dimensions of racism. The hope is that an explicit separation of these dimensions might contribute somehow to an even better appreciation of racism as a complex system of oppression. Along the way, I will use the movie Get Out (2017) and the Black Lives Matter movement to illustrate my points.

One of the main contributions of Kate Manne’s book is her distinction between sexism and misogyny. Manne re-conceptualizes sexism and misogyny in a way that helps us to better understand the different dimensions of the patriarchal order as a system of oppression. Her distinction is thus part of an ameliorative project: it reconceives concepts to make them more useful for specific purposes (in this case, to better understand and fight the patriarchal order). At the same time, Manne recognizes that some feminist groups already make the same distinction – more or less consciously – as suggested by her. In her own words, misogyny should be understood primarily as

“a ‘law enforcement’ branch of the patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing norms and expectations” (2018, p.78, her italics)

Misogyny is about keeping women “in their place.” Given how women are represented in the patriarchal order (submissive, emotional providers to men, housekeeping, etc.), misogynistic behavior aims at ensuring that women will act accordingly. This behavior configures verbal or physical retaliation towards women who do not fit the norms of patriarchy. These women are seen as a threat to men and therefore must be punished. In contrast, women who already live by the patriarchal norms receive praise. They are the “good wives,” “good girlfriends,” “good mothers,” etc. At this point, I am sure you can think of dozens of examples of misogynistic behavior, right? This behavior should not be conflated with sexism though.

Kate Manne defines sexism as the “justificatory branch of the patriarchal order.” (2018, p79) In other words, sexism provides a theoretical ground for patriarchy and its norms. Sexism is first and foremost a set of beliefs that aim at justifying the existence and maintenance of that system of oppression. For instance, sexism naturalizes sex differences to explain why men have and should have some special treatment over women in social institutions such as family and workplace. Hence, while misogyny focuses on the distinction between women that deserve retaliation and those who deserve praise (the “good” and the “bad” women), sexism focuses on the difference between men (strong, rational, etc.) and women (weak, emotional, etc.). While misogyny perceives women as potential threats, sexism characterizes women in general as inferior to men. This contrast motivates the question of whether the distinction between sexism and misogyny find parallels in racism.

Let’s start with the basics. According to the Oxford dictionary, racism is

“prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”

or

“the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

These and similar dictionary definitions of racism parallel to sexism. In the first definition above, it seems that ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism’ are expressions of racist beliefs, much like prejudice, discrimination or antagonism are expressions of sexist beliefs. The parallel with sexism is even more evident in the second definition. In this case, racism is largely a set of beliefs about the inferiority of races just like sexism is largely a set of beliefs about the inferiority of women. But if racism is parallel to sexism, does it also have a parallel with misogyny?

To answer this question, I want to talk about one of my favorite American movies of 2017, Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele). Spoiler alert, okay?! In this movie, an African-American photographer agrees on spending a weekend at the fancy countryside house of his white girlfriend’s parents. Making a long story short, the photographer and other African-Americans were hypnotized and sold at an auction of white people. Almost literally, African-Americans become slaves again. This fact is not how the movie ends, but this is the end of my spoiler. One way to interpret Get Out is to assume that everything that happens to the photographer and other African-Americans in the movie is solely an expression of racist beliefs. In this interpretation, the objectification of African-Americans (the hypnotization and selling) is a consequence of the white people simply considering them as belonging to an inferior race. African-Americans are seen as deprived of autonomy, personhood, and moral worthiness. Hence, they should be treated somewhat like disposable object and workforce. This interpretation of the movie seems obvious, but let’s consider another possibility.

Get Out acquires a more shocking connotation when we analyze it in a broader context. This context is the contemporary America in which the movie was made: a context in which people and the media are increasingly vocal against racism, the context of Black Lives Matter and the protests and against racial violence in the last three years. This is also the context of white-supremacist movements gaining visibility on the wake of the 2016 election. In this broad context, the movie seems to show African-Americans being put “in their place.” The hypnotization and auction do not look at a mere expression of African-American’s inferiority and lack of autonomy. Instead, these are ways to enforce basic norms of the racial system of oppression. Precisely because African-Americans are autonomous and are gaining more space and voice in American society, they become a potential threat, and some policy enforcement is needed. Hypnotizing and selling them is a way to assure that African-American play the role that is they should play in a racist system (namely, of passive, 2nd class citizens, disposable work force, etc.).  Maybe this interpretation is not as straightforward as the previous one, but it captures what the parallel between misogyny and racism is. Unfortunately, this parallel is not only fictional.

There are many examples of misogyny-like racist behavior all over the world. I wish to discuss some examples in Brazil (my home country and one of the most racists in the world), but let’s stick with America for today. Obviously, Americans will immediately recognize that Jim Crow laws literally functioned as the “law enforcement” of the racist system of oppression in the US.  Those laws sat and enforced the place of African-Americans in society. Also, the usual practices of lynching at that time, as in cases like Emmett Till, were clear cases of misogyny-like racism: African-Americans were punished because they allegedly should not flirt or interact with white women.  One might rightly point out that Jim Crow and lynching are past though. Are there misogyny-like racist behaviors in America today? Here is where the Black Lives Matter movement comes in.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) started as a hashtag in 2013. This decentralized movement was a direct response to the death of African-Americans by the police or while in police custody. In particular, the movement took off after the death of Michael Brown and violent protests in Ferguson in virtue of his death. Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot multiple times by a police officer who claimed self-defence. In fact, the unarmed Brown was moving towards the office, while the officer was moving backward while firing. The police officer might well have feared after his life, as he said, even though he was the one in possession of a gun fire. Anyway, the death of Brown and other African-Americans by the police has a sad feature: they could have been easily avoided and show an incredible disproportionate use of the police force. African-Americans who are usually unarmed or already under control died by the hands of a strong apparatus. The basic idea of the BLM movement is precisely to denounce how “black lives” seem matter less than others when it comes to police behavior. In this sense, it denounces the basic racist belief that African-American lives are less worthy. But there is more to that.

The BLM movement has brought more attention to the fact that African-Americans receive a discriminatory ‘special treatment’ by the police. This treatment is not necessarily because African-American lives are less worthy, but because African-American lives present an eminent threat. When African-Americans run from the police, or run towards the police even when unarmed, they are seen as a threat. When African-Americans show any signs of resistance to the police approach, like in the case of Eric Garner, they are seen as a threat. In contrast, White Americans who engage in mass shouting are taken in alive in many cases, as they should. My point is that, under the eyes of the police and many others, the ‘suspect’ behaviors of African-Americans seem prima facie more threatening than the ‘suspect’ behaviors of Caucasian or White Americans. This perception of immediate threat is what calls for a ‘special’ or disproportionate use of the force.  So, when African-Americans display ‘suspect’ behaviors and receive special treatment, the message is that they should be punished proportionately to the amount of threat that they represent to society. And the amount of threat that they represent to society is linked to the role that it is expected from them in society.  As in the movie Get Out, or in Jim Crow era, African-Americans are expected to be second-class citizens, passive to the racists laws and beliefs, and under more stringent and restrictive social norms for this reason. In sum, African-Americans need a strict law enforcement mechanism to ensure they keep doing what is expected from them. Because often times police is playing this enforcement role against African-Americans, police is often times displaying misogyny-like behaviors.

According the Kate Manne’s sharp analysis, the distinction between sexism and misogyny captures two dimensions of the patriarchal system. Sexism gives the primary justification for patriarchy, while misogyny provides the enforcement of these beliefs. Similarly, racism is a system of oppression that has justifications and enforcement dimensions. The parallel to Kate Manne’s distinction helps to highlight the systemic nature of racism and how racism could exist without racists. Just like misogyny, the misogyny-like racism does not rely on people holding racist beliefs. You might not hold racist beliefs but still contribute to putting African-Americans “in their place.” All it takes is a sort of reactive behavior in the face of you feeling consciously or unconsciously threatened by them. Actually, not even the feeling of threat is necessary. You might as well reproduce the reactive behavior of people in a particular environment that is hostile, demeaning, and punitive towards non-white people. Furthermore, this environment does not have to be openly hostile, demeaning, or punitive. All it takes is the existence of tacit racists social norms that need enforcement.

Much more has to be said about the parallel between racism and the distinction sexism-misogyny. Much more has to be said about its importance and payoffs to understand racism. But this requires more careful thinking, reading, discussions and space. These are invitations for another blog post, I guess.

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements: I thank my friend Joe Mcdonald for helping with some revisions. I like to give a special thanks to Josh Stein who gave me great suggestions and was probably the first person who told me about Manne’s book.