Friday, April 26, 2013

“You have a Black President”: So What?

How do we think of the narrative of “you have a Black president”? What understandings of power, belongingness, and justice are embedded in this narrative? Janni Aragon and I take up these questions. We won’t be able to answer all of what is rolled into this narrative, but hopefully we can spark an ongoing critical conversation.

In a prior post, I wrote about my recent experiences with gendered-racism in this era of so-called post-racialism (this is part of the narrative “you have a Black president). Today, I want to focus on how such narratives hide the invisibility of Black women, particularly in the area of academic research. While I focus on academic research, we can also think of how this narrative hides the invisibility of marginalized and minoritized groups in health studies, such as HIV/AIDS and conversation on economic “recovery” among other issues.
            Simply put, Black women are disappearing as research subjects within our “leading” academic journals (Alexander-Floyd “Disappearing Acts” 2012) and within intersectionality research specifically. Many credit intersectionality research as an outgrowth of Black feminist standpoint theory and remind us that Black feminist standpoint theory is crucial to intersectionality, but in many cases a mere footnote or sentence makes this acknowledgment. However, as intersectionality travels and becomes increasingly popular, Black women are not being researched and if they are it’s in a rather limited manner. As a result of the often omission of Black women in research we have to ask: What story/stories is/are conveyed in not including Black women as research subjects? Finally, we have to ask what are the implications for our understanding of politics? Including Black women in our studies of politics, by centering their social, political, and cultural understandings, can broaden and (re)shape notions of how we study and ultimately understand politics.
I argue that this seen/not seen inclusion of Black women as research subjects, in intersectionality publications, is the result of the politics of research. Research is a political act and intersectional research is no exception. Researchers make decisions, which have political consequences, when they decide who can speak, whom they speak to, what they can speak about, what questions are asked, how we observe behaviors, and also how we measure such behaviors. The theories employed and the manners in which they are deployed and the method/methodological approaches utilized, like a picture, tell a story.
Black Woman and Intersectionality: The Politics of Research
As a concept intersectionality has gained increased popularity among some feminists and other scholars. This is occurring at the same time that Black women seem to be disappearing from political science scholarly works. The “early” works of Black feminists, specifically the works originating in the late 1980s/early 1990s, is sometimes cited—but not necessarily critically engaged by feminist scholars—and this is a form of distortion. Additionally, Black women are rarely treated as research subjects, particularly in intersectionality research. In my recent explorations of Black women as subjects in research length articles that employ intersectionality, I discovered that Black women are rarely, if at all, the sole subjects of such research projects, with and emphasis on the US. I focus on journal length articles as it allows me to identify trends and because “publications in leading journals are an important marker of professional status and a key conduit for the diffusion of ideas.” (Munck and Snyder 2007, 339) Additionally, the number of articles appearing in these journals serves as an indicator of the extent to which such studies are accepted by the scholarly community.
The data suggest that: research on intersectionality tended to treat Black women in a monolithic manner; only a certain group of Black women served as research subjects (primarily elected officials) and Black women were often researched in a comparative manner (particularly in comparison to other racial/ethnic groups of women). Comparative studies can be informative; however, they can also be limiting (see hooks 1991). Such studies can result in reinscribing differences and further marginalization as they can mask differentials in power relations between and within groups. This is not to suggest that all dimensions of comparative studies are inherently problematic for Black women.
Our analyses are also limited in terms of exploring how Black women create unique and specific narratives outside the formal institutions of politics. Consequently, questions such as: how are Black women who are not elected to office engaging and grappling with issues of intersectionality? How are they defining and responding to a multitude of issues that influence their daily lives? And, how are they defining themselves? tend to be ignored.
While we (Black women) are sometimes recognized vis-à-vis our contributions to intersectionality as a theory and concept, our scholarship and political work are blurred and if incorporated it is done in a manner that hints at a particular form of racial inclusiveness within a rather confined critical space. At the same time, it appears as if intersectionality as a method has become a catchall sort of term/method that includes everyone and everything. As a result of what we study and how we study Black women and even who is allowed to study Black women, the complexities of Black women’s politics remain underexplored. Excluded is the specialized knowledges produced by diverse Black women. This is what gets hidden in the narrative of “you have a Black president”.
This post is based on the article “Now you see me, now you don’t: My political fight against the invisibility/erasure of Black women in intersectionality research” published in Politics, groups and Identities (2013).

Works Cited

Alexander-Floyd, Nikol G. 2012. “Disappearing Acts: Reclaiming Intersectionality in the Social Sciences in
a Post-Black Feminist Era.” Feminist Formations 24 (1): 1–25.

hooks, bell. 1991. “Narratives of Struggle.” In Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing, edited
by Philomena Mariani, 53–61. Seattle, WA: Bay Press.

Munck, Gerardo L., and Richard Snyder. 2007. “Who Publishes in Comprative Politics? Studying theWorld
from the United States.” PS: Political Science and Politics 40 (2): 339–346.

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