Patricia Hill Collins posits a thesis in her essay, “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation” (Hypatia, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1998), that the aspects of gender, race, class and nation are not separate social hierarchies, but integrated or intersecting lines that, as she puts it, “mutually construct one another.” We are all, in other words, profoundly influenced by our life experiences, and most of those influential moments happen within the structure of a family, which is a microcosm of society.
She begins her essay by discussing the concept of family values. For several decades now, and over the course of many election cycles, family values has been the hot button issue of the Republican Party. In 1992, former Vice-President Dan Quayle used his bully pulpit to attack a fictional television character named Murphy Brown who had become pregnant, gave birth, and decided to raise her child on her own as a single parent. Quayle used this character and her struggles with whether or not to have the child as an example of liberal, anti-family values in the entertainment industry and the Democratic Party. Of course, the character should have been celebrated for not having an abortion, a particularly important family value among conservatives. She put her child above the needs of her demanding career in journalism. The father did not want any part in the raising of the child, so the character decided to go it alone as a single parent. Yes, family values are often embodied in the structure of a husband and wife and children, the so-called nuclear family, but the character was courageous to take on the parenting alone. For these things, Quayle gave her no credit.
Now, in a new age, we see the Republican frontrunner for the 2016 nomination to be president spit in the face of those family values. Donald Trump has been married several times. He has denigrated Latinos, women, and a host of other people in our society, yet he is winning. Why he has not been attacked by those on the right who profess to advocate for traditional family values, I do not know. This is a guy who announced on the television program, The View (ABC, March 6, 2006) that if Ivanka Trump were not his daughter he’d “probably be dating her.”
Collins identifies family as the “fundamental principle of social organization,” but this seems like family, then, is an artificial construct rather than a fully formed system with all its foibles and problems into which we are born. To discuss social issues within “family rhetoric,” as she puts it, postulates a structure that in many cases is deeply flawed and often dysfunctional. Blood does not draw people together, necessarily. Friends often can be more of a family than blood relations. In addition, family could also be a source of oppression. Therefore, I disagree with her statement that “The traditional family ideal projects a model of equality.” We hope for this, but the actuality is far from perfect. Collins writes that “Individuals typically learn their assigned place in hierarchies of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nation, and social class in their families of origin.” Yes, they do, but they also learn racism, prejudice, and discriminatory behaviors from family authority figures like parents and older siblings. Many children are encouraged to continue the ignorance of their parents. Here, Collins seems a bit idealistic because she presents people in a family working in concert, and in support of, one another. Within families, members are preprogrammed for patriarchal power structures embodied by the father figure. Collins says this “naturalizes masculinity as a source of authority.” Also, racist behavior is often justified using these family hierarchies—whites become the “parents” in the greater family of society and blacks become “the children,” for example—and this is again fostering and perpetuating ignorance.
The danger in this is the we-were-here-first mentality so apparent in white, Anglo-Saxon views of the world. The history of immigration in this country discounts those indigenous cultures who were, in fact, here first, and makes them subservient to Europeans while asserting the fiction that whites have power because they brought civilization and culture to these allegedly godless pagans. The prevalent notion in the racist paradigm is that those native cultures were lost animals until the refined and cultured whites arrived when in fact, they had a vibrant culture of their own which was, in many cases, wiped out by the arriving white-skins.
Collins asks the readers to examine the concepts of black-on-black violence as a way to “permit patterns of Black male violence targeted toward Black women,” in the form of abuse and sexual harassment, “to remain hidden and condoned.” Really? If anything, the endless news footage in the media of violence in black communities seems magnified to diminish the humanity of those involved. For example, the Central Park rape allegedly committed by a group of young black men who were, as they put it, wilding, in the park that long ago spring evening in 1989, only served to reinforce the ignorant stereotype of the black man as predatory animal out to violate the white woman, in this case a jogger out for an evening run. After spending anywhere from six to thirteen years in prison for the crime, new evidence surfaced that exonerated the now no longer young men and their convictions were vacated in 2002. The atrocity, however, had already been committed, doubly so if we count the victim of the original rape and the victims of prejudicial law enforcement and the legal system that prosecuted the young men.
In many ways, America is the grand experiment when it comes to race, mainly because almost every culture represented in American society comes from somewhere else. We lack the homogenous racial congruity of a China or North Korea where the face of the Other would stand out significantly. American society is a heterogeneous and multicultural melting pot or salad bowl (choose your metaphor). As each wave of immigrants reach our shores, they forget, as the generations mature and assimilate, that they were once the new arrivals. When Collins argues that people of a given nation find a commonality in blood ties, America lacks those ties and therefore, we have a country still roiled by racism and discrimination. To go a step further, money influences the criminal justice system and the opportunities offered to those in this democracy. People with deep financial resources often have more favorable outcomes in legal issues because they can afford the best representation. The Constitution may “promise equality for all American citizens,” Collins writes, and “all citizens stand equal before the law,” but the number of incarcerated blacks and Latinos in this country, the sheer totality of our prison population tells a different story. The classic example is the way powdered cocaine—used predominantly by whites—once had a different sentencing guideline than crack cocaine—used predominantly by blacks and poorer segments of society. This disparity was reduced with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
It is also significant, as Collins points out, how race affects entitlement and other programs prevalent in American society. In the 1930s when Social Security was developed, there were certain occupations that were excluded from receiving benefits. For example, those working in the agriculture or domestic assistance industries were left out. Collins identifies African-American women as the demographic most affected by this, but today, many Latinos working in agriculture are not eligible to receive Social Security, either because they work only seasonally or because they are undocumented. The greater realization is that the American dream, so mythologized in our culture, is largely out of reach for most middle class and poor people. So-called “Old Money” is passed from generation to generation whereas many poor people in this country cannot free themselves from economic oppression to amass enough resources to pass on to future generations. The greatest lie of the Reagan administration was that wealth would “trickle down” to poorer people in American society. This was all empty rhetoric to justify cutting taxes for the wealthy while the poor languished in their poverty. It is also why the property bust and recession of 2008 was so devastating for middle class and poor people. Just when the economically oppressed found a way to purchase their own homes, the market crashed. Many people found themselves underwater on their mortgage and either walked away from the property, or faced foreclosure proceedings.
This assault on the poor and marginalized is clear in the Supreme Court case of Buck vs. Bell in 1927. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority opinion that “society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” This decision “held that sterilization fell within the police power of the state” and that the “principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” This forced birth control could be utilized to prevent the mentally challenged, those carrying genetic defects, and even welfare recipients from procreating. The debate has raged in this country and in Britain for years leading to charges of eugenic thinking in public policy.
This constitutes the intersection of a number of cultural areas into a scaffolding that constructs a cultural milieu. As Collins points out at the end of her essay, this white domination is not the only discussion. Even in the African-American community, there has been “a yearning for a homeland for the Black racial family,” a desire for a way to return to a “mythical Africa.” We are all a product of our experiences, our cultures, our traditions, our faiths, and yes, our families. No one cultural influence can be taken on its own. Where we meet up, the intersections of our worlds, that makes us who we are. And for those of us searching to understand the Other, the intersections are the keys to comprehending and surviving in our multicultural world.