From an interview with Kyla Schuller, author of The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the 19th Century.
Black Lives Matter is directly challenging the disposability of black bodies and black lives, and specifically how emotion and physical sensation is part of how we imagine how bodies function differently and deserve different rights. One of the ways of seeing how this idea plays out, which started in the 19th century, was that racialized bodies don’t have the same sensory capacity as white bodies.
They don’t feel as much—they’re not as sensitive to pain, and therefore they’re not capable of the kind of refinement that civilization is. Civilization is understood as an emotional reflection after a physical sensation. By saying that racialized people don’t feel sensation the same way, you not only legitimate abusing a labor force, you also can make the argument that these bodies are not capable of progressing and are not capable of mental reflection. Their feelings remain brute, animal sensations. We see the pervasiveness of that idea in a recent study at Duke of medical students: The question was, “Do you think black patients feel less pain than white patients?” Sixty percent of first-year medical students argued yes, they see black patients as less capable of pain than white patients. That’s an example of the longstanding impact, not just of the idea that white emotions matter more, but on this really fundamental level, black bodies are less capable of sensation.
Schuller makes a fascinating argument about how, in the 19th century, the categories of “man” and “woman” as fundamentally binary rather than dimorphic (that is, sharing significant overlap) were both being invented, and being refined to exclude non-white and specifically black bodies:
I’m building on arguments that black feminist theorists made in the 1980s that gender is a racial structure. Womanhood is not a universal category, but instead is an aspect of whiteness that was positioned by definition as unobtainable for nonwhite women, specifically black women. I looked at the scientists who were inventing and codifying the idea of sex difference in the 19th century—not just the cultural role of gender, but the idea of physiological and anatomical sex difference, the binary of a male and female body. These folks argued that full sex differentiation was only achieved by whites. No other races have achieved the level of evolutionary specification where they were able to differentiate between the distinct roles of men and women.
This is super-surprising, because we assume that the idea of male and female as two opposing categories is universal—at least in Western thought. But before the 19th century, male and female bodies were described as more alike than different. For example, in the 18th century, the vagina was often described in medical textbooks as an internal penis. It’s not arguing that bodies are identical, but it’s arguing a fundamental similarity.
In the 19th century, one of the things that emerged was the idea that male and female were fully different capacities and bodies at every level. It’s helpful to imagine the idea of “male” and “female” as racial categories—not just as gendered roles but as actual physical, anatomical, and physiological difference. This suddenly makes projects like white feminism in the 19th century extra-suspect, because many white women were only arguing for the rights of white women—“woman,” in that sense, is part of an overdetermined category of whiteness.
Of course, there were white feminists who were arguing against that, and black feminists were trying to expand the category of womanhood itself, but it helps explain some of the reasons why liberal feminism still does such a terrible job accounting for race, because to some degree their idea of woman itself has always been elaborated as a quality of whiteness, not a universal quality of people.
Schuller elaborates further on this idea in this blog post:
53% of white women voted for Trump a mere four weeks after video emerged of Trump bragging about sexual assault. 63% of white women voted for Roy Moore in December’s Alabama Senate special election, despite mounds of credible evidence of Moore’s molestation of young teen girls. Why, the narrative muses, would white women betray their own interests? And why are black women—98% of whom voted for Moore’s opponent Doug Jones—seemingly immune to electoral self-sabotage?
I wish to suggest a frame that has not emerged in the mountain of copy addressing the problem of white women. Feminists have generated many useful analyses – white women’s investment in patriarchy, the class structure, the racial status quo—underlining the material benefits conservative politics offer white women. There is a deeper, more structural reason why white women vote for misogynist, white supremacist candidates despite a century and a half of feminist organizing, however. Simply put: sex difference is itself a racial structure.
Work like Schuller’s exemplifies why university humanities and social science departments are reflexively loathed by conservatives in general, and in particular by the proto-fascist reactionaries who now control the Republican party. These parts of the university are by definition set up to critique conventional social self-understanding, which is to say the traditional status quo. That, from a conservative viewpoint, is by definition a socially subversive activity. This is what the war against “political correctness” in the university has always actually been about.
On a related note, check out Natalie Wynn’s devastating (and as always very entertaining) takedown of the current darling of reactionary centrists everywhere, Jordan Peterson: