New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity - Studying Inequality: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality
"We're just not quite getting it," Lisa García Bedolla told the audience in a May 11 meeting on "Studying Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality." The meeting, the third in the Division of United States Studies' series on New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity, focused on García Bedolla's work on the self-identification and self-perception of individuals whose race, gender, class, and/or sexual orientation put them in multiple marginal communities. The question of how inequality crosscuts these identifications sat at the center of the discussion, along with questions of how to evaluate group identification in a nuanced, rather than binary, fashion.
Prof. García Bedolla began by asking, "which identity weighed more?" for African-American girls in the Jim Crow South who were told to use the "Colored" rather than the "Ladies" restroom. In that instance, their race considered more salient to their identity than their gender, and their identity was determined externally, without regard for their individual self-perception. García Bedolla suggested that power and stigma are important determinants of forced identification, which in turn can be a tool used by the majority to marginalize the Other. While race, class, gender and sexuality are arbitrary categories, she reminded the audience, they have real meaning for peoples' lives and for the ways in which they see themselves, and social scientists must not undervalue the ways in which external ascription to a marginal group can reproduce social inequality. If social scientists are to understand marginalization, she argued, they must focus on multiple oppressions and their effects.
In proposing a new framework, García Bedolla suggested four dimensions that must be considered if social scientists are to give sufficient nuance to their work. First, they must adopt multi-faceted identity measures that permit accurately sensitive consideration of individuals, such as Latino men or homosexual white women, who are powerful in one respect and marginal in another. Second, they must consider the stigma that emanates from the socially imposed hierarchy, as identification with certain groups comes at a higher social cost than identification with others. A key question here is whether people believe that something negative comes with their identification as members of a particular socially constructed category. Third, an examination of identity must include the factor of social networks. The networks to which individuals have access directly affect future mobility, as those networks can facilitate future opportunities. At the same time, however, people tend to gravitate toward those who are both racially and ideologically similar to them, so social networks can be both expanding and limiting. Finally, García Bedolla called for an examination of the sociohistorical context in which people's identity is defined. The historical moment can either enhance or negate the sense that reidentification is either possible or insurmountable; if there is precedent it can seem possible, but if the notion is innovative it can seem overwhelming.
Suggesting a potential strengthening of García Bedolla's approach, Rodney Hero suggested that she might take a more institutional approach to her work, looking at the ways in which these overlapping identifications affect individuals' participation in institutional life. He asked whether stigmatization is different from prejudice or intolerance, and whether using the concept of stigmatization adds anything to a discussion of inequality.
Jennifer Hochschild commended García Bedolla for undertaking the study of intersectionality itself and for the attempt to construct a tool than is currently available. Like Hero, Hochschild argued that a focus on individual perceptions and self-identification necessarily limits a consideration of structures and institutions, or history—and, she suggested, it is often the structures that are imperceptible can cause more insidious marginalization than obvious discrimination. She also warned that an emphasis on self-definition would make historical research virtually impossible, as data on individual self-conceptions of the past is not available in the same way that binary racial data is.
Drafted by Ann Chernicoff
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129