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Excerpted From: Frank Rudy Cooper, Against Bipolar Black Masculinity: Intersectionality, Assimilation, Identity Performance, and Hierarchy, 39 U.C. Davis Law Review 853 (March, 2006) (276 Footnotes) (Full Document)


FrankRudyCooperWhen I try to convince students that hierarchy is not inevitable, I often face resistance. “Isn't it true,” they say, “that if we raised children on the moon they'd still find a way to separate into groups?” No. Kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley demonstrated that hierarchy is not in fact natural. For example, children in kindergarten are often assumed to “naturally” exclude some classmates from their playgroup. When Paley made the rule “you can't say 'you can't play,”’ children learned to include everyone. It turns out that hierarchy is not an immutable characteristic.

When we think of hierarchy, we tend to imagine discrete systems of racial, gender, sex orientation, and class oppression. Critical Race Feminism's intersectionality theory reveals that those systems overlap to create additional, hybrid forms of oppression. For instance, black women sometimes experience forms of race-sex discrimination suffered by neither black men nor white women. In this Article, I ask whether we might not expand upon that insight by analyzing the effects of the intersection of race, gender, and sex orientation upon popular representations of heterosexual black men. Those representations are especially important to me because I am not only a chronicler of heterosexual black men, but also a member of that group.

I am aware that intersectional analyses are usually applied to the multiply subordinated. The multiply subordinated are those who are denigrated within more than one major system of oppression, such as women who are also of color. The singly subordinated are those who are only subordinated along one major axis of identity, such as economically privileged heterosexual black men. Extending intersectional analysis to the singly subordinated risks creating a false sense that our subordination is equivalent to that of the multiply subordinated. It might then become difficult to recognize heterosexual black men's subordination of black women and gays as an exercise of power by a relatively privileged group.

Subordination by the singly subordinated can be both recognized and critiqued. Doing so requires recognizing the shared interests of the multiply and singly subordinated in destroying the system of the scaling of bodies. The scaling of bodies is the Western epistemological system of ranking identity characteristics against a norm and organizing society according to the resulting hierarchies. The assumption that identity hierarchies are inevitable undergirds racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. If we are working to defeat those hierarchies, analysis of the singly subordinated does not contradict the interests of the multiply subordinated. Instead, intersectional analyses of the singly subordinated recognize and critique such groups' subordinating acts as part of a general strategy for disrupting the root source of all oppressions: the system of the scaling of bodies.

An intersectional analysis of representations of heterosexual black men finds that the predominant images depict us as either the completely threatening Bad Black Man or the fully assimilationist Good Black Man. The Bad Black Man is animalistic, sexually depraved, and crime-prone. The Good Black Man distances himself from black people and emulates white views. The images are bipolar in that they swing from one extreme to another with little room for nuanced depictions. Threatened with the Bad Black Man image, black men are provided with an “assimilationist incentive” to pursue the Good Black Man image. The bipolarity of the images is an intersectional phenomenon because it is the product of the combination of narratives about blackness in general and narratives about black masculinity in particular.

Although some scholars have discussed the contents of the Bad Black Man and Good Black Man images, they have rarely fully analyzed their combined function. The Bad Black Man image warrants surveillance and containment of the masses; the Good Black Man image conditions inclusion upon affirming white norms. Jointly, these bipolar representations provide a mechanism for resolving the white mainstream's “post-civil rights anxiety.” The mainstream's anxiety results from the conflict between its relatively recent public creed of inclusion and its continuing subconscious belief that most black men should be excluded. Many whites expect the Good Black Man to assimilate as the price for his inclusion into the mainstream. Consequently, they feel no guilt when the nonassimilating Bad Black Man is consigned to the lower-classes or jail. Bipolar representation of black masculinity thus protects the status quo of exclusion of most black men into the lower-classes and jail and the inclusion of only a token few assimilationists into the white mainstream.

A hidden effect of bipolar representation is that it disciplines black men into accepting the present hierarchies as inevitable. First, the Good Black Man image suggests to black men that we should assimilate by means of emulating the white men who occupy the normative place in this culture. Second, the normative masculinity heterosexual black men are to emulate is based on proving one's worth by subordinating those further down in the various identity hierarchies. Third, emulation of normative masculinity thus contributes to heterosexual black men subordinating women and gays as a form of compensation for our own oppression. Finally, that process represents the seduction of heterosexual black males into accepting the principle that identities must be hierarchized, which is the basis for our own subordination in the first place. If heterosexual black men want to successfully challenge our treatment within the racial hierarchy, we must give up taking pleasure in exercising dominance over those below us in the gender and sex orientation hierarchies.

My thesis is that bipolar black masculinity both assuages the mainstream's post-civil rights anxiety by preserving the status quo and seduces heterosexual black men into accepting the present identity hierarchies. In Part I of this Article, I argue for utilizing a theoretical framework that merges insights gained from intersectionality theory with insights gained from recognizing the existence of the epistemological system of the scaling of bodies. In Part II, I describe the bipolar images of black men and how they create an assimilationist incentive. In Part III, I explain why post-civil rights anxiety and the desire to justify the status quo treatment of black men lead to bipolar representation. In Part IV, I reveal that bipolar representation seduces heterosexual black men into accepting the present hierarchies. In Part V, I conclude.

[. . .]

Given my focus on culture, what is the place of the law? Law is for the meantime. Now more than ever, we need laws to limit police discretion to act on the stereotypes of the Bad Black Man image and laws allowing difference in the workplace to counter the assimilationist assumptions of the Good Black Man image. Only when we get beyond bipolar black masculinity might we have arrived at the point when we can get beyond law.

How might we get beyond bipolar black masculinity? We might ask, “Where is a model of black male sexuality and self-pleasure that can narrate itself without a concurrent narrative of dominion, which apes the very system it abhors?” We will be able to answer that question when heterosexual black men disrupt the idea that masculinity is based on dominance of socially marginalized groups. Such a disruption would not only help us, but also women and gays. The representations I imagine would resist exercising compensatory subordination and challenge the assumptions of the system of the scaling of bodies. In that sense, a post-hierarchical black masculinity would take us back to the Introduction to this Article and enact Paley's rule that “you can't say 'you can't play.”’

Associate Professor, Suffolk University Law School. J.D., Duke University; B.A., Amherst College.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law