Race, class and the contradictions of masculinity

1. Coconstruction

Race, gender and class need to be brought into a single theoretical frame that does not subsume one under another, nor flatten out the complexity of these concepts. Conceptualizing race, gender and class as independent axes leads to additive models (e.g. triple oppression) that do not do justice to how many people experience race, class and gender: not as separate or additive but as simultaneous and linked. Social categories need to be conceptualized as mutually constituting each other, under concrete historical circumstances. Thus, we need to think about masculinity as simultaneously constituting and being constituted by race and class.

2. Relationality, dichotomy

Race, gender and class are relational concepts, in whose construction representation and material relations are involved, power being a constitutive element in this construction. By “relational concept” I mean that categories such as white/black, man/woman are positioned, and therefore gain meaning, in relation to each other. These concepts are constructed as oppositions, which requires suppressing variability within each category and exaggerating differences between categories. These oppositions are dichotomies because the two sides of the oppositions are arranged in hierarchical fashion. In race, class and gender dichotomies, the dominant category is rendered normal and therefore transparent: whites are raceless and men are genderless. These dichotomies are not fixed. The meaning of dominant masculinity has varied as is has been contrasted to historically and regionally differing subordinate masculinities and femininities.

3. Hegemony

Hegemony denotes the predominance of one social group over others (e.g. bourgeois hegemony). This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant group to project its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’. This involves willing and active consent. Common sense may be seen as the way a subordinate group lives its subordination. There is a continous struggle for hegemony going on between different social groups. I propose to analyse the constitution of masculinities in the context of social conflicts over hegemony.

4. Struggles around images

One aspect of these conflicts is the struggle around images. While there are hegemonic images, such as that of the bourgeois man, for example, subaltern groups at the same time often try to put their own images into circulation, albeit with much less chance of imposing their perspective on things. For example, working class men attempt to circulate derogatory images of bourgeois men, to counter their own devaluation by hegemonic images of themselves. One could call this dynamic a conflict over attributions, where individuals and groups fight for power and self-esteem by attributing stereotypes to others, ascribing particular characteristics to them, thus devaluing or overvaluing them, demonizing or idealizing them, in this way calming their own fears or neutralizing their own emotional ambivalences and contradictions, exalting themselves or denigrating themselves…
Out of these struggles a dynamic and contradictory, yet stable hierarchical structure emerges that regulates the attribution of social value, the distribution of appreciation, that renders certain kinds of work, certain sufferings, certain wishes visible, others invisible.
A central element of this dynamic is internalized devaluation, where people from underprivileged groups internalize the negative stereotypes about themselves in the form of shame and self-hatred.

5. Abjection, dependence, ambivalence

One central concept for understanding the contradictory constitution of masculinities could be that of abjection. I use this term of psychoanalytic origin in a way that intentionally disregards the distinction between the social and the psychological. What one is dependent upon is abjected: Domestic labor is made invisible, men disavow identification with their mother, prostitutes are confined to certain zones…
Abjection produces ambivalence. No devaluation without fascination. To denigrate someone or a group means projecting some real or imagined negative attribute out of oneself or one’s group onto others. In the context of the production of an ”adult”, self-controlled, bourgeois subjectivity, that denies some of the most elementary human impulses and disavows physicality, dependency and connectedness, this means that people obviously remain attached to these split-off, denied aspects of themselves – and the more energy gets put into the splitting-off process, the more intense the fascination with the abjected.
In other words, the oppressor or member of a privileged group who hates and fears the others (blacks, whores, proles…) is still tied to them by unconscious bonds. Even the most genocidal white racist feels, albeit unconsciously, that he could never do without blacks, and the most misogynous man feels, albeit unconsciously, that he could never do without women. It is just this unconscious knowledge of their, not only economic (in the traditional sense of the word) and political, but also affective, dependence upon the Other, that often drives members of dominant groups into such a fury of denial of dependence and relatedness.

6. The inherently contradictory nature of masculinity and the sense of deficiency as motive force

I propose to analyse the dynamics of masculinity, which I consider always already racialized and classed, in relation to the dichotomies of body and mind, feeling and reason. This produces a concept of masculinity as inherently contradictory. This contradiction could be seen as the motor of patriarchy, the dynamic which keeps men on their toes and striving.
Masculinity is associated – not only in the West, but in many other regions of the world as well – with reason and mind on the one hand – yet as a category of sex/gender, it is, on the other hand, bound to the body, and is centrally expressed through the body and its emotions. This paradoxical set of associations makes it impossible for any human being to ever be a perfect example of masculinity.
I believe that the destructive dynamic of patriarchal societies is strongly determined by the fact that masculinity is perceived as fundamentally deficient, insecure and threatened. No matter what efforts at masculine socialization an individual may make, the degree of violence he may exert against himself and others in this process, it has no end: Life is struggle, against one’s own non-masculinity and all those who represent it.

7. The articulation of the dichotomies of body/mind, feeling/reason with race and class

Within this social logic, modern heterosexual middle class white masculinity tends to be masculinity-deficient – because it is “too far away”, too alienated from blood, passion and physicality. In my eyes this explains the often disavowed fascination of many “sober”, educated men of the middle and upper classes with images of “raw” physical strength and wild, “animal” masculinity. The great popularity of Gangsta Rap with many younger men from the white middle classes in the USA is just one example of how hegemonic masculinity draws sustenance from consuming images of subaltern masculinities.
Middle class men are hardest hit by privileged “masculinity deficiency”, because they are less able than men from the upper classes to compensate the ascribed and felt deficit by the symbolically masculinizing effects of wealth and power.
Within the ruling social logic, subaltern masculinities are also deficient in masculinity, albeit in a very different way than white and/or middle and upper class masculinity. Some kinds of subaltern men tend to be viewed as feminized in all or most aspects of their being, the best example being effeminate gay men. Others, (heterosexual) African-American men in the US for example, are represented as hypermasculine in many ways. At the same time, their representation is masculinity-deficient because it contains too much of the physical, the animal etc. Black male sexuality is fantasized as more potent, thus more masculine. But being a sexual being means being less rational, less controlled, less autonomous, thus less masculine.
The representations of East Asian men work differently again: In Western discourse, Japanese and Chinese men are traditionally painted as servile and effeminate. Their lack of individualism makes them less than manly from a Western point of view, they lack the aura of independence so central to Western images of the ideal man. Many modern Western representations of Asian men paint them as hyperintellectual, inhibited and asexual. Jewish masculinity is another matter again. In traditional antisemitic discourse, the Jewish man is always horny, always ready to seduce an innocent non-Jewish girl, but at the same time lacking in sexual potency. The Jewish man is sexualized not in the way the African or the Pacific islander are sexualized, not because he is closer to nature than the non-Jewish white man, as they are, but because he is, on the contrary, farther away! To the antisemite, the Jew represents all the evils of modernity, among them the degeneracy, immorality and overstimulation of modern city life…

8. (Post-)Colonial masculinities

The hierarchization of humanity has, and has always had, gendered and sexual components that are indissoluble from national, ethnic, racializing and other components.
The logic of patriarchy entailed that colonial, neo-colonial and imperialist devaluation of populations was expressed through the symbolic feminization of the men of the dominated groups, a feminization which could of course take very different forms. The leaders of the British military of the 19th century for example regarded the ethnic groups of the Sikhs and Gurkhas as inferior by nature to themselves, members of the master race, and in need of guidance by the white man etc, but at the same time respected them as manly warrior races, while simply regarding most other populations of the subcontinent as effeminate and childish subhumans.
In the ascription of gendered symbolism to populations subjugated by colonialism/imperialism two tendencies cross and combine: on the one hand, the tendency to express devaluation simply in terms of feminization; on the other hand, the tendency which I postulated above, namely, to see men of subaltern groups as a source of true masculinity: natural, passionate, physical… masculinity.
This gendered and sexualized charge of national, ethnic and racial stereotyping entails that anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance is inevitably imagined as the remasculinization of a collective robbed of its symbolic masculinity by the foreign oppressor; many male members of such oppressed collectives experience anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance as the regaining of a masculinity expropriated by the invader.
The centrality of heterosexist and misogynous myths of masculinity in the discourse and practice of many men revolting against colonialism and racism is, in my eyes, a reaction to symbolic feminization, as well as being determined by the profoundly heterosexist and masculinist character of nationalism, that invention of modern Europe that to this day remains the unquestionable format for the creation of collective subjects.
Reactive and nationalized “protest masculinities” may in their turn be very fruitfully utilized in the capitalist exploitation of difference that organizes the cultural consumption of the Other in general and the periodic rejuvenation of hegemonic masculinity in particular. Particularly, of course, once the threat to the stability of racism and capitalism, which the real social movements which produced these masculinities once posed, has been removed by some appropriate combination of integration and repression.

9. The consumption of the Other, or: Cultural Cannibalism

Aspects of other, subaltern masculinities need to be newly integrated into current projects of hegemonic masculinity again and again, of course without compromising male reason, male control and male autonomy. This re-production of dominant masculinity can take the most divers forms, but identificatory pleasure in the consumption of images of subaltern masculinities is definitely one of them.
I believe this kind of feeding of hegemonic masculinity is part of broader social processes in which socially dominated and/or marginalized groups are symbolically and culturally exploited and dispossessed in the interest of the collective affective stabilization of privileged groups. Ideally, these forms of cultural and symbolic exploitation should be analysed in relation with other types of exploitation: sexual, emotional, economic.

10. Conclusion

Critiquing the homogenizing and excluding effects of gender categories should become part of the “program” of men’s groups, and of antisexist men working in mixed settings, much more than it has ever, to my knowledge, been. In my eyes, this means first and foremost, dealing with the differences between men. For example, when speaking of “men’s groups, men’s ‘movement’”, the term “man” calls up the association “white heterosexual man from the new middle classes” – this needs to be addressed as a problem and taken more seriously than it has been up to now. White bourgeois groups of heterosexuals should call themselves just that – or something else, but not simply “men’s groups”. The issue of class differences and the debate about different types of masculinity (subaltern, complicit, hegemonic…) needs to get more attention than it has. It’s necessary to try and (re)start dialogues between straight, bisexual and gay left, antisexist men. Another huge issue, of course, is the narrowness of the “ethnic spectrum” of “traditional” men’s groups and of the left scene they grew out of, and the sidelining of ethnicity as an issue in their practice. Differences among men of different ethnic backgrounds and the potential for emotional injury when communicating across such divides should be taken into account much more than they have ever been in my experience (or my own past practice, for that matter). One precondition for better communication between white men of the majority population and men from a migrant background would be for the former to take a hard look at and and really deal with internalized racist and antisemitic stereotypes, images of “other men” and the tendency to project “bad”, disavowed and split off aspects of oneself onto “other men”.