“Just a reminder,” Dr. Adrienne Keene began, “the system in what is currently known as the U.S. isn’t ‘broken.’ It was designed by male white supremacist slaveowners on stolen Indigenous land to protect their interests. It’s working as it was designed” (Keene, 2018). Keene, an American and Native American academic, writer, activist, and member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, stands in contrast to several political actors across the world. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, often accused of serving the elites of Britain, told The Economist, “The political system is broken, the economy is broken and so is society. That is why people are so depressed about the state of our country” (Taylor, 2006. Economist, 2010). Using the same language, Former United States President Barack Obama addressed his nation, and the world, in 2014, saying, “today, our immigration system is broken – and everybody knows it” (Obama, 2014). When people utter this common phrase, they often do so with good intentions. For them, and those listening, by defining whichever human ailment is before them as an aberration of the system, something commonly unwanted, they enforce the idea that if only the system worked correctly, the present ills could be avoided. Yet, in doing so, they lose history in the process.
This piece argues against the linguistic problematics of saying “the system is broken,” regardless of intent. To prove this assertion, the following words, sentences, subsections, and subsections of subsections employ a historically driven, linguistically punctuated argumentative stance. By looking at three systems of global oppression – Perpetuation of Anti-Black Racism, Underpinning of Misogyny, and Immigration, War, and Moral Conveniency – this work finds that present circumstances point back to evolved and adaptive statutes of suppression. Within each system, of course, lies small and large scale examples of how cyclical discrimination manifests in real human lives. To match the grandness of the problem, a solutions framework concludes this paper. Turning away from a purely Marxist perspective, a starfish theory of reworking, demolishing, and rebuilding the systems at play demonstrates a strong antidote to this historical moment. Without further ado, a fair warning: This information is rightfully depressing, but endlessly indispensable. If need be, take a breather, take a bath, or write down five to twenty-seven positive things.
Perpetuation of Anti-Black Racism
Although the United States often leads the way in propping up racism against black people, societies on every continent have crafted structures that disproportionately impact these communities. Because of a lack of pages, as this one document can not hope to include every anti-black framework, this preface will briefly detail one configuration of racism per each continent – except, perhaps, Antarctica. Then, as mentioned above, this jump start will be followed by historical trajectories of systemic anti-black racism. In North America – The United States, the median black family, with just over $3,500, owns but 2% of the wealth of the nearly $147,000 the median white family owns (Inequality, 2019). In South America – Brazil, privileged neighborhoods in the infamous city of Rio de Janeiro are majority white, breaching 90% in some areas (Carless, 2015). In the European Union, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 63% of victims of racist physical attack by a police officer did not report the incident to anybody- 34% felt reporting would not change anything and 28% do not trust or are afraid of the police (EUAFFR, 2018). In Asia – South Korea, a nation widely known for their white standards of beauty, the first mainstream mixed black model is still referred to as “tuigi,” a racial slur meaning “cross-bred animal” (France-Presse, 2018). In Africa – South Africa, less than half of the working age black population is officially employed (Goodman, 2017). In Australia, Indigenous black people are being captured and murdered by police at an alarming rates (Cullors, Diverlus, 2017). This scourge occurs worldwide, is not rare, and must be addressed as such
The Construction of Blackness
“What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” Jonathan Lethem asked in his work “The Fortress of Solitude.” In CNN’s tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois, “The first time I realized I was black,” people answered. Singer Sebastian Kole knew when at a church camp the police were called on him (Sambou, 2019). Comedian W. Kamau Bell understood when a record shop employee threw him to the street after confirming he did not steal anything (Sambou, 2019). Musician AsaTheProdigy learned when his 4th grade white crush was afraid to tell her mother about him (Sambou, 2019).
Similarly, Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer from the French colony of Martinique, discusses when he found out he was black in his text “The Fact of Blackness.” He wrote, “For not only must a black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man. Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse. I say that is false. The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man” (Fanon, 2016). Compared to their white counterparts, these men had to learn that they existed as an aberration to the privileged norm. Another element of defining blackness surrounds the inability for individuality. A white person can falter on their own will without representing an entire group of people. Fanon brought up this point, noting, “When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my color. Either way, I am locked into the infernal circle” (Fanon, 2016).
The Construction of Whiteness and White Supremacy
On the other hand, the construction of whiteness depends on supremist egocentrism. Therefore, even discussing white privilege and whiteness for a non person of color is often done out of curiosity, rather than societally imperative. In her article “Understanding White Privilege,” Frances Kendall touched on this imbalance: “Understanding racism or whiteness is often an intellectual exercise for us, something we can work at for a period of time and then move on, rather than its being central to our survival” (Kendall, 2002). While acknowledging the impact of institutions such as government, health care, and immigration on the creation of toxic whiteness, education, the way a society tells their history, and who has control over this process of learning, has an immense place in this conversation
History books often describe slavery in two different ways: distorted and slimmed or aberrant and in the past. The former relies on an uninformed public (check) and willing ears (check). In other words, to widely underreport the atrocities of slavery leans on an assumption that people are uneducated about race and, in turn, prone to racism. As the above statistics show, people easily meet both of these qualifications. The latter, contrastingly, infers that the public can understand that slavery was bad – a low bar. However, educators who take up this strategy also believe that the present affairs of global racism are either separate from slavery or non-existent altogether. When looking at the first instance, W.E.B. DuBois elucidated, “One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over” (DuBois, 1962). Analyzing the second, Historian Walter Johnson unpacked the ways in which white onlookers wish to separate themselves from racism of the past while ignoring racism in the present. Johnson said on this concept:
“We are separating a normative and aspirational notion of humanity from the sorts of exploitation and violence that history suggests may well be definitive of human beings: we are separating ourselves from our own histories of perpetration. To say so is not to suggest that there is no difference between the past and the present; it is merely that we should not overwrite the complex determinations of history with simple-minded notions of moral progress. […] All this while implicitly asserting the unimpeachable rectitude and ‘humanity’ of latter-day observers” (Johnson, 2018).
This apathy towards the long-standing preference of whiteness through intentional education has real impacts on the rise of white supremacy around the world. Speaking to the recent mass shooting in New Zealand, The Southern Poverty Law Center argued that white supremacist terrorism is increasing globally (SPLC, 2019). The numbers support their position. According to a 2017 ABC News and Washington Post poll, 9% of Americans call it acceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views, equivalent to about 22 million people (Langer, 2017). Likewise, Euorpol reported that right-wing extremists arrests on the European continent nearly doubled in 2017 over 2016 (Levin, 2019). In short, the creation of blackness as opposed to whiteness composes a system-wide hysteria rife with violence against people of color.
Built On the Backs of Slaves
“By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy,”Author Ta-Nehisi Coates blatantly maintained in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” (Coates, 2014). The United States ranks #1 in size of economy (Bajpai, 2019), but how did they get there? Imagine this: two ten year olds – Sam and Raj – have lemonade stands. Sam, being a troublemaker, steals their neighbors lemonade stand, equipped with made lemonade, and begins selling it for a dollar a pop. Raj, unlike Sam, hires their younger sibling for a dollar an hour to build the stand and make the lemonade necessary for Raj’s business. In this scenario, Raj’s sibling spends ten hours making the required infrastructure. Sam, having no start-up cost or time restrictions, sells for ten days straight and makes $200. While Raj sells at the same cost and frequency, a dollar and twenty a day, respectively, they started later and paid their employee. Despite these circumstances, Sam goes to school and boasts of their lemonade empire, claiming to be leader of the citrus-selling world. What’s a little healthy competition, right?
Parallelly, America stole Indigenous land, enslaved hundreds of thousands of black people to build infrastructure, and now boasts of its economic success. America’s current economic landscape ought to be analyzed within this historically conscious framework. Taking lead, Former First Lady Michelle Obama caused controversy when, in a Democratic National Committee Speech, told, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn” (Waxman, 2016). Although the lawyer, academic, and writer is accurate in her claims, people remained uncomfortable with her bluntness about America’s past. Without admittance that the U.S., and other colonial nations systems began and continue because of the imprisonment of human lives, their successes become solely emblematic of merit. This assertion does not intend to belittle all economic advances within Western nations. Rather, noting that entire foundations of economic powerhouses were built on free and coerced labor, allows scholars to begin to answer the global problem of disparate wealth (Inequality, 2019). For reference, moreover, the U.S. Capitol Building, Wall Street and Trinity Church, UNC-Chapel Hill, Monticello, Castillo de San Marcos, Mount Vernon, the University of Virginia, Washington & Lee University, along with large scale infrastructure like roads and railroads, were all built by slaves (Sisson, 2016).
Colorism and the Market Economy
In Shirlee Taylor’s piece “Colorism,” she defines the term as “a form of intragroup stratification generally associated with Black people in the United States but present among all peoples of color. Colorism subjectively ranks individuals according to the perceived color tones of their skin” (Webb, 2017). Colorism and the deep discriminatory effects of such can be found all around the world. Branching off from anti-black racism globally, colorism impacts people with darker skin within racial groups. As Taylor noted, this concept is often discussed in the context of blackness in America. From this perspective, colorism often exhibits itself in beauty standards and, successively, cosmetology. The documentary “Dark Girls” details the first instance, talking with dark-skinned women across the nation to unearth how expectations of beauty have altered their lives. In Nerisha Penrose’s article “It’s 2018. Why Is It Still A Struggle to Find Foundation For Dark Skin?” she interviews Makeup Artist Monica Veloz. Veloz, mentioning the ways in which the beauty industry values whiteness, told, “It came to a point where I started to see a blueprint of who beauty companies wanted to represent their products” (Penrose, 2018).
Across the world, India has a long history of associating darkness of skin color with beauty and worth. For centuries, India ran on a caste system – with Brahmins at the top, Dalits on the bottom, and thousands of subsections dispersed intermittently (BBC, 2017). Although legislators deemed discrimination based on their deeply rooted systemic past illegal, persecution continues (BBC, 2017). Although rarely formally acknowledged, the caste system in India followed, and continues to perpetrate, color lines in the nation. As darker Indians remained mainly in the lower castes when discrimination was legal, colorism within society today sustains disenfranchisement from the past. In fact, the situation crystally points back to this work’s overarching point: A system which is built on certain tenants will continue to work as designed, unbroken yet flawed. To this idea, Udit Raj, an Indian politician known for his commitment to serving the underclasses, said, “Colour prejudice is an offshoot of the bigger evil of casteism in India” (AJ, 2003). Expectedly, these color categorizations seep into classifications of beauty, as well. Epitomizing the obsession with lighter skin, a 2012 study conducted by a women’s health charity in India found that “childless couples often insisted on – and paid more for – surrogates who were beautiful and fair, even though the woman contributed no genetic material to the baby,” Mary-Rose Abraham shared, writing for The Guardian.
A Non-Post-Racial World
“Unfortunately, ‘post racism’ is also a myth, like unicorns and black people who survive to the end of a horror movie,” Justin Simien, a writer of “Dear White People,” quipped. After the election of the United States’ first African American president, commentators across the nation, and around the world, declared a post-racial society. In doing so, they reinforced two false claims. First, proclaiming that the act of one individual in society now represents the social standing of an entire race bolsters stratifying exceptionalism. Racial exceptionalism, for all intents and purposes herein, refers to the systemic way in which one notable member of a racial group is highlighted to prove a point about the rest of their group – often serving as a conduit for delegitimating widespread racism in a given society. In the case of Obama, a Harvard Law graduate, people used his election to project an end to racism globally. Yet, this attempt to ameliorate current racism with those fighting against the system is both based in falsehood and influencing hardship.
Later in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations,” he tackles this factless-assumption. In retort to post-racial rhetoric, he argued, “In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good – and enduring twice as much” (Coates, 2014). The second false claim, interwoven with the first, regards the idea that if things are “better now,” whatever that means, people ought not to complain about their present circumstances. Translated to everyday life, this means people of color facing discrimination are accused of influencing their own situations, separate from historical influence. Further entrenching the notion that the system as it stands today is broken and not serving those disproportionately as intended, the genuineness of a post-racial society eliminates black people’s past and current testimonies in favor of moral relativism. To bring back a quote from Johnson, mentioned above, when social actors remake reality, they legitimate a flawed system as broken, while “implicitly asserting the unimpeachable rectitude and ‘humanity’ of latter-day observers” (Johnson, 2018).
Underpinning of Misogyny
When delving into the feminist statutes that have manifested across time and location, it is difficult to believe that hindsight is really 20/20. For if this cliché were doubtlessly true, as so many assert, then how can incessant discriminatory practices against women across the globe be explained? How can it be assumed that since humans have the capacity to look back on failure and call it by its name, that humanity is somehow endlessly inclined to a perfect equilibrium? This rhetorical strategy chooses to posit the now as so different from the then, and the here so different from the there. In the earthly system of oppression that regards masculinity, substitute “here,” at the top, perpetual erasing of history and ignoring of injustices is not only to be expected, but is likely to be praised. To combat this misogyny, the following typifying examples demonstrate the importance of a cross-cultural analysis on this phenomena; particularly when, as has been expounded above, the happenings do not respect boundaries or borders. With this mindset, these subsections dive into different manifestations of anti-women ideologies in geographical, temporal, and contextual spheres. As a disclaimer, whenever the term “women” is used within, all people identifying as women are included. On the same wave as anti-black racism, the foundation and continuation of misogyny tracks directly back to the point at hand: the systems which cause, enforce, and perpetuate inequality towards societies’ most subjected, were built to do just that. Globally ingrained modes of stratification, misogyny included, are but continuing to build upon their blueprints. If only for the sake of prefacing the subsections to come, providing a few statistics regarding women’s issues globally proves helpful to eradicate any hovering skepticism. Because of this reasoning, peruse these truths found by United Nations Women:
“In the least developed countries, barely 60 percent of girls complete primary school and just 30 percent enroll in secondary school; young men are more likely than young women to obtain stable employment and find formal work, in all 10 countries studied; globally, over 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday; 1 in 5 women and girls aged 15-49, reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period” (UN, 2019).
A Sex Symbol Who Can’t Be Erotic
A large part of feminism includes taking stigmatized words that have been used in a patriarchal environment to oppress women and reexamining them to take hold of a new definition. Audre Lorde goes on this locutionary journey in her essay “Uses of The Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Throughout her reclamation, she speaks to the ways in which eroticism has been used to oversexualize and demean female bodies, and then intentionally shifts that denotation. Instead, Lorde protests, “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our work, our lives” (Lorde, 2000). An energy, she notes, that is not detached from the spirituality and political power of women:
“The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic – the sensual – those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings” (Lorde, 2000).
Attempting to dissociate women from their spiritual energy, as hypermasculinity embedded in a patriarchal atmosphere is keen to do, is attune to taking a harp away from a harpist and cutting the string one by one with toenail clippers: nonsensical, long-winded, and painful to observe.
Of course, as Lorde makes clear, women so empowered are dangerous. The system knows this. Architects of global misogyny, at least deep in their subconscious, know that a woman realized is a force to be reckoned with. To avoid this unwinnable confrontation, fragile masculinity reinforces systems which attempt to separate women from their innate spiritual eroticism. One key aspect of the erotic that Lorde wants to return to is that of work. Automatically, reading Lorde speak to experiencing work as an erotic experience, at once enjoyable and beneficial to society, challenges assumptions of labor within a capitalist, patriarchal, global system. She notes that the same system which suppresses women’s right to enjoyment, empathy, and eroticism, similarly devalues emotional and feminine-deemed labor. Lorde communicated these processual value judgements:
“The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need – the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment” (Lorde, 2000).
Privatization of Feminine Labor
Exploring similar concepts as Audre Lorde, Susan Gal’s “A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction,” argues that privatization occurs in a fractally recursive manner. Meaning, public and private distinctions occur in patterns which create themselves through a process of widening out or contracting inward. Throughout Gal’s claims making, she exhibits that “‘public’ and ‘private’ are not particular places,” but are always relative, dependent for part of their “referential meanings on the interactional context in which they are used.” Taking a feminist perspective, Gal emphasizes that throughout past centuries patriarchal power dynamics have persisted in pigeonholing women to the private, and thus devalued, sector of work and life. This reformation of exclusionary, systemic units transcending temporal and geographical boundaries falls in line with the other clarities represented amidst the examples herein. “Rather, the definitions of public and private are partially transformed with each nested dichotomy – each indexical recalibration – while (deceptively) retaining the same label and the same co-constituting contrast,” Gal argued. Due to its fractal nature, gendered dynamics within the privatization of labor continue unendingly transcendent and, because of such, must be infiltrated from a comparable amount of angles, as will be delved into further in later sections.
By blindly accepting private work as gendered, societies assume women will complete this labor, as well as the plethora of other responsibilities they carry. Although women are making strides in gaining prevalence in the workforce economy across the world, systemically enforced expectations of private labor keep them doing double. Termed the “Second Shift” by Sociologists Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, the phrase refers to women who work throughout the day, then return home to, in effect, work a whole additional round (Hochschild, Machung, 2003). This systemic issue is rampaging families around the world, surviving past its original reasoning. For centuries, due in large part to the overarching devaluing of women’s ambitions, men worked outside of the house and women tended home. Once some walls began to fall, other expectations triumphed. Until both of these subsets of labor – women working in and out of the home – are culturally valued, and women are not assumed to do both, the system will work forever as designed. To this point, Sarah Jane Glynn, a sociologist and expert in work-family policies, gender wage inequality, and family economic security, wrote:
“There is a general cultural awareness that in most families today, all of the parents in the home are employed, and labor that is done for pay—that is to say, work—is often the focus of conversations around work-family dynamics. While paid employment is an important and time-consuming aspect of most individuals’ lives, unpaid household labor and caregiving are also vital to the overall functioning of society” (Glynn, 2018).
Sexual Violence and Global Conquest of Indigenous Women
Indigenous women still deal with the indescribable destruction imposed centuries ago, continually paying a for a debt inflicted entirely by those who colonized them. A debt charged for simply existing on the thing someone wanted to place the flag into. A debt that is gendered, steadfast, and relentless. Andrea Smith, an activist who focuses on issues of violence against women of color, specializing in Native American women, details the actions through which Native women have been, are, and will continue to be colonized in her text “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.”
Smith portrays gendered domination ideology when she explains that colonizers believed that “Because Indian bodies are ‘dirty,’ they are considered sexually violable and ‘rapable,’ and the rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty simply does not count” (Smith, 2015). The boldness of this statement is frightening, for not too long ago these words were not experienced as bold at all. They were lived, breathed, and acted upon by hundreds of men, and continue to be implemented through both implicit legislation and explicit sexual violence. To further display the disrespect of oppressors on Native peoples, Smith, in an especially difficult portion of her book to read, calls upon historical accounts:
“When I was in the boat I captured a beautiful Carib woman … I conceived desire to take pleasure … I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such a manner that I can tell you she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots” (Smith, 2015).
This verbiage is not, as so many would love to claim it is, left in the past; this rhetoric is not fleeting in the wind; and this blatant exploitation of Native women’s bodies has not ceased. In this current historical moment, one which, as mentioned above, is nothing near post-racial, Native women are at the greatest risk of sexual violence (RAINN, 2019). According to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, American Indians ages 12 and older experience 5,900 sexual assaults per year; 41% of sexual assaults against American Indians are committed by a stranger; and American Indians are twice as likely to experience a rape or sexual assault compared to all races (RAINN, 2019). Even more sickening, this is just the behavior that is being reported. Being a system built on the colonization of Native land and sexual conquest of Indigenous women, the U.S. and other Western superpowers continue to reinforce this abusive dynamic daily. These actions depict that the system they built, again, is working as designed.
Fleeing and Met With Violence
So long as women fleeing sexual violence are further met with sexual violence, the system is working as it was designed. One key indicator that systemic misogyny is flawed yet not broken can be deduced by the way global actors treat their women in need. For women fleeing sexual violence in Latin America, their welcome is answer enough to any question regarding the connectivity between systems of gendered oppression. Contrary to popular beliefs, often held by white, right winged Americans, once an immigrant enters into the U.S., it is not all rainbows, sunshine, and smooth-sailing. The reality holds that immigrants, most commonly immigrants of color, are persecuted daily in a idiosyncratic and controlling way. On top of this discrimination, women immigrants face additional layers, due to their gender identity. Stated differently, women immigrants of color coming from Latin America to the U.S. are subject to omnipresent persecution, an ironic fate for a population fleeing violence. Whereas these pages could not possibly expound upon all the avenues down which immigrant women face inequitable situations in the U.S., below are but a few examples of how Latin American women’s troubles persist regardless of geographic location. These eye-opening statistics were unearthed and made available by “Existe Ayuda,” an organization whose mission is to “produce and disseminate replicable Spanish-language outreach materials to help improve the cultural competence of service providers and the accessibility of services for Spanish-speaking victims of sexual violence,” according to their website, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation,
- 77 percent of the Latinas surveyed said that sexual harassment was a major problem in the workplace.
- Immigrant Latina domestic workers are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they depend on their employers for their livelihood, live in constant fear of being deported, suffer social isolation, and are vulnerable to their employer’s demands.
- Latina girls reported that they were likely to stop attending school activities and sports to avoid sexual harassment.
- Married Latinas were less likely than other women to immediately define their experiences of forced sex by their spouses as “rape” and terminate their relationships; some viewed sex as a marital obligation.
The Creation of Third World Feminism
Egocentrism is principally inbred into North Americans in such a way that it is put into schools, churches, and other institutions. “The War Effort,” a wholistic mobilization of society’s resources, both industrial and human, towards the support of the military, provides a keen model. Take the emblematic lyrics of the tune “Over There” by George M. Cohan in 1917 for instance:
“Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there,
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware,
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over over there.
Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Johnnie show the Hun, you’re a son-of-a-gun,
Hoist the flag and let her fly,
Like true heroes do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit,
Soldiers to the ranks from the towns and the tanks,
Make your mother proud of you,
And to liberty be true” (Cohen, 1917).
The rhetoric oozing from this century-old chorus is almost too preposterous to parse. Almost. Looking at the verbiage alone – “grab your gun, send the word to beware, and we won’t come back till it’s over over there” – is enough to give someone ceaseless déjà vu. For, treacherously, hoards of people on United States’ soil are still shouting these words in relation to Syria, Afghanistan, and other infiltrated lands.
As with almost all power imbalances, adding the layer of gender identity amplifies and intensifies the dynamic at play. Chandra Talpade Mohanty notes and expands upon this truth in her document “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” As the title hints, Mohanty probes into the different ways in which Western feminism places itself at the epicenter of morality, and in doing such, automatically instills a hero-saves-victim pattern to action. This sequence, being incessent by nature:
“discursively colonize[s] the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third-world, thereby producing/representing a composite, singular ‘third world woman’- an image which appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of western humanist discourse” (Mohanty, 2000).
Fundamentally, by employing a first-world versus third-world disposition, feminist scholars attempt to paint over the peculiarities of these individual women for the, admittedly sometimes unintentional, purpose of enforcing the savior complex of systemic, misogynistic Western thought into women’s equity movements. The same system that has painted locales as third world, posits those women as less fortuitous – judgments seen widely to this day.
Immigration, War, and Moral Conveniency
What a better way to illuminate global systems of oppression working as designed, than to look at the ways in which people are allowed to move across imagined borders – and the long term impacts of those suffrages. The processes of immigration and refugee movements – built on and marketed as humanitarian gifts of generosity, rather than fulfillments of human rights – present a window into a nomenclatured broken system fulfilling its always intended desires. By the numbers, in this past year: 68.5 million people struggle displaced worldwide. Out of that statistic, 40 million internally displaced people tried to feel at home, with no real home; 25.4 million refugees fled certain prosecution or death; and 3.1 million people sought asylum and help from nations of strangers (UNHCR). When looking at the following subsections – Family Tree Immigration, Psychological Warfare of Children: Continuing the System, and Exacerbate War and Then Say “You’re Full” – hold the following testimony from Alia close, for she stands as an example of those damaged by these persevering systems of global oppression. Alia is a 7 year old Syrian refugee, currently living in Lebanon:
“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. To calm me down, my grandfather told me they were mean people, but I still prayed for them, because even if some considered them mean, they were still dead human beings. Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari, but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before”
Family Tree Immigration
In employing both history and biography, there is a clear correlation to be found in various immigration law. In other words, when researchers take sociohistorical landscapes in tandem, they illuminate rhetoric spanning centuries. To better illustrate this connection-incubator, below is a comparative look at the 1790 Naturalization Act and Secure Communities. Before continuing on, it is important to note that when explaining these two governmental actions, that 1790 and 2008 were vastly different times concerning race, gender, and class. However, this subsection will not fall privy to previously debunked ideas of a post-racial world, wholly separated from its discriminatory past.
In “Protecting America’s Borders and the Undocumented Immigrant Dilemma,” David Gutiérrez explains, “the logic of privilege, exclusion, and sharp racial and gender boundaries that lay at the heart of the nation’s original political community was also expressed in the United States’ first laws regulating immigration and naturalization” (Gutiérrez, 2014). One said law, that stuck until 1848, allowed the rights of citizenship only to “free white [male] person[s]” (Gutiérrez, 2014). The primary goal, whether stated officially or not, was to define citizenship, in large part, by who would be excluded: people of color, women, and slaves. More than 200 years later, Secure Communities was piloted in 2008 under Former President George W. Bush. The American Civil Liberties Union, founded in 1920, describes how the action works:
“In jurisdictions where S-Comm has been activated, any time an individual is arrested and booked into a local jail for any reason, his or her fingerprints are electronically run through ICE’s immigration database. This allows ICE to identify people who may be non-citizens—including lawful immigrants and permanent residents—and potentially to initiate deportation proceedings against them” (ACLU, 2010).
The goal of Secure Communities was to foster a pipeline of information from local to federal governments, for the purpose of simplifying the practical difficulties attached to finding non-citizens in individual communities. Yet, when played out, S-Comm jurisdictions aided in solidifying and reproducing racial stereotypes which posit some as inherently outside the desired parameters of the United States. Looking at these two policies with the intentionality attached to every venn diagram, there are foundational similarities and differences. Metaphorically, it is beneficial to think of the U.S.’s immigration system as a family tree, with all the irony this analogy allows. Just as ancestral DNA passes down characteristics to subsequent generations, so immigration legislation bounds itself to prior iterations. It is in this evolution that the system persists. As legislators attempt to fix “broken” immigration systems – alluding back to Obama’s assertion: “today, our immigration system is broken – and everybody knows it” – they recycle old ideas with new-enough alterations to appease those decrying the system, wanting reform.
Psychological Warfare of Children: Continuing the System
To craft a situation where onlookers can scream, “The System is Broken,” until they are blue in the face, political and social actors must actively put in place statutes to continue systemic oppression for decades to come. The easiest and most cruel way to do this? Go for the kids. Nearing the beginning of summer, when children leave school and are free to run around to created worlds, United States President Donald Trump’s administration slammed the door of opportunity for thousands of immigrant children. In effect, Trump and his cohorts, through their family separation policy, were impacting generational change on whole Latin American communities (Hegarty, 2018). Implementing a “zero-tolerance” policy, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained in the crudest of terms, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” at an event in Scottsdale, Arizona. Sessions continued, “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border” (Williams, 2018). Not only do these statements disregard the ways in which immigration often has less to do with convenience and everything to do with fleeing imminent violence, persecution, or death, they also foster an environment in which children are deemed as chess pieces in a political game to prop up an existing oppressive system.
From April 19 to May 31, some 1,995 children were separated from roughly as many adults at the U.S. border, officials shared with reporters. As of July 9, 2018: Up to 1,000 children separated from their parents were not included in official numbers; between 1,425 and 1,720 still being held; and about 520 already reunited. Out of those reunited: Three parents had criminal violations; three adults were not the parent; nine parents were already deported; nine parents were released into the U.S.; twelve parents were in criminal custody; four parents were identified for sponsor reunification; one was an unknown parent; fifty-four would be reunited that week; five would be reunited soon; and only two were reunited (Williams, 2018).
These numbers have life-long impacts on the children.
As reported in a Washington Post article entitled “What separation from parents does to children: ‘The effect is catastrophic’” by William Wan, “research on child-parent separation is driving pediatricians, psychologists and other health experts to vehemently oppose the Trump administration’s new border crossing policy” (Wan, 2018). Wan divulged just what is happening inside of these innocent, young migrants:
“Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain” (Wan, 2018).
On top of the very real stressors of being forcibly removed from your family, these children faced further persecution at the hands of law enforcement once in the concentration camps. In fact, mental health experts are reporting that depression and suicidal tendencies are climbing at exponential rates at these locales. Borrowing from history, Psychology Today cited studies which looked at children’s mental stability after wartime. They expressed,
“Studies found that children evacuated during the war who received poor foster care were at greater risk of depression and clinical anxiety. Ruptures to our attachment to early caretakers can have lifelong effects on our ability to relate. Like children kept in orphanages, the children currently being kept from their parents are likely being denied necessary experiences for their optimal mental and physical development” (PT, 2018).
In this way, Sessions, Trump, and those complicit in this violence are actively repressing thousands of children’s futures. This violence is not a one punch, but a continual onslaught on the most vulnerable of society. History will rebuke the United States by recalling Nelson Mandela’s humbling words: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Exacerbate War and Then Say “You’re Full”
In the Summer of 2014, U.S. military went on a mission in Syria to rescue hostages, but did not find them. In September of 2014, Former President Obama launched an air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, just one month after doing the same in neighboring Iraq. In the late months of 2015, the first American ground troops enter Syria, initially 50 go to the nation, yet today the official total hovers around 2,000. Fast forward to December 19, 2018. President Trump shares via Twitter that his intention to withdraw troops from Syria will be piloted within the next few weeks. A video accompanying the tweet says, “Now it’s time for our troops to come back home” (AP, 2019). Over more than six years of involvement in the Syrian war bookends itself soon, or so the American President says. Yet, how much better off are the Syrian people today then at the start of this decade?
According to World Vision, around 5.6 million current refugees are of Syrian descent. Despite unideal economic situations in the surrounding Middle Eastern nations, they report that these locales are shouldering much of this crisis:
“Most of the 5.6 million Syrians who are currently refugees remain in the Middle East. Turkey hosts 3.6 million, the largest number of refugees hosted by any country. Syrian refugees are also in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. During 2018, 1.4 million refugees returned home to Syria. Returnees face a daunting situation, including lack of infrastructure and services and danger from explosive devices. About 6.2 million Syrians are still displaced inside the country” (World Vision, 2019).
Occurring concurrently, President Trump included Syria in his “Travel Ban,” restricting immigrants and non-immigrants from traveling to the U.S. (Griffiths, 2018). Put concisely, Trump, in the same breath, abandoned nearly all funding to rebuilding Syria, helping its people, and ending the almost 7-year involvement in the wars, and closed America’s door to all those impacted by United States intervention (AP, 2019). Now, this argument does not center itself around supporting U.S. military involvement in foreign nations. Yet, and an important yet at that, being deeply connected to years-long violence, deciding that your soldiers are suddenly in danger, leaving abruptly, and turning a blind eye to all of the blood on your hands is inexcusable and but another example of systematic subjugation going as planned. While Former President Obama orchestrated the system in part, and ought to be held accountable for such, the situation has exponentially worsened since Trump entered office. For reference, in fiscal year 2016, the U.S. government let in 12,587 refugees, while in 2018, the number was a mere 62 – .001107142% of the total 5.6 million (Silva, 2019).
Turning Away From a Marxist Critique
In a society where women of all socioeconomic distinctions report sexual violence at alarming rates, distinguished professors of color are criminalized in their own homes, and women of color are dying due to pregnancy-related causes at three to four times the rate of white women, it is insufficient to align oneself with a solely class-based framework to explain deep-rooted societal inequality (Bennett, 2018, Goodnough, 2009. Reeves, Matthews 2016). This section explores the lack of nuanced racialized and gendered analysis within Karl Marx’s “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” through the use of an intersectional and historicultural approach to the past, present, and future. By use of this procedure, the following exposé argues that Marx’s bourgeoisie and proletariat are no longer relevant today, nor were they astute enough before or during the time of their conception.
Before providing a temporal retort, it is vital to establish a clear and concise understanding of Marx’s main point. In short, Marx asserts that capitalism, or a system that values power, is an inherently unequal economic paradigm; one that, through the attainment of capital, aggrandize the bourgeoisie – those who own the means of production – and degrade the proletariat – the modern wage laborers (Marx, Engels, 1901). Be advised, the subsequent critique is not defending capitalism. No, rather, it likewise notes that capitalism thrives on inequity, while not mistakenly resolving complex social phenomena in a reductionistic manner, claiming large found systemic oppression to be due entirely to one’s class residency. Thus, with this definition in mind, the first leg of this journey begins in a recently colonized America: early 1600s.
About a decade after the first settlement in Jamestown, White Indentured Servants began trickling in. An Indentured Servant, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance.” While their life was not a walk in the park, it was not on the same scale as the tribulations faced by black slaves during and after this period. Here exists a two fold distinctness. First, slaves were taken against their will, having committed no crime, while white indentured servants were specifically paying off owed debt or gaining passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues (Hall, 2019). Second, black slaves were required to do more work for no quantifiable advance towards freedom, yet white indentured servants were often treated like employees, cheap assets for a country budding with the type of economy existent due in large part to the acquisition of free labor, as detailed above.
As mentioned in Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” during the earlier years of America’s colonial period, white indentured servants and slaves “had much in common” and “white servants were flogged, tricked into serving beyond their contracts, and traded in much the same manner as slaves” (Coates, 2014). Yet, even though they were of the same class and occasionally received similar treatment, this both did not last long and should not imply overarching equality between the two groups. One area of stark delineation surrounds citizenship and the rewards which come with such an identification. White indentured servants belonged to the crown and were granted citizenship – a classification based in great part on the color of their skin, as black people were unable to become citizens even once they were freed – while black slaves, considered aliens, were rejected basic human rights granted to their white counterparts (Hall, 2019). Regardless of any class-based movement that arose or could have arisen during that historical moment, there was and would continue to be the roots of underlying inequity based upon race festering in America; a nation which began, as depicted above, “in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary” (Coates, 2014). In short, people of color, women, and other disadvantaged groups – referencing colonial America, but not leaving it exclusively in that time frame or geographic location – have not merely been excluded from the table for the political debate about whether or not they should have fundamental civil enfranchisement, but were deemed unable to even be let into the house that contains the table – a discriminatory phenomenon irreducible to class relations.
Earlier in this portion, three anecdotal instances were alluded to: one regarding a black man, another a generation of young women, and the last a prominent black mother. While these stories, unfortunately, are neither new nor rare, they are illustrative of the ills of racism and sexism still intertwined in everyday life and deserve a brief expounding. The first tale began in 2009 when Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent scholar of African-American history at Harvard, returned home from a trip to a slightly stuck door (Goodnough, 2009). Logically, he began attempting to open the entry with slight force, assuming a good bump would open it up (Goodnough 2009). His neighbors, however, assumed something different due to his pigmentation. In short, authorities were called on an upper class man because of nothing else but his race. Next, in light of the #MeToo movement, The New York Times posted an article entitled “45 Stories of Sex and Consent on Campus,” which detailed the testimonies of young women – all of different socioeconomic status – who have been impacted by sexual violence (Bennett, Jones, 2018). One woman, Olivia from Illinois, told “Here is what they ask: ‘Did you tell him no?’ Here is the truth: You can only say ‘no’ so many times before whatever you say next is a lie.” Another young woman, Freya from New Zealand, commented in frustration:“My curiosity and flirtation are not grounds to expect sex from me. I would love to be able to go out and enjoy myself without feeling self-conscious about whether or not I am ‘leading someone on’” (Bennett, Jones, 2018). Their stories had nothing to do with their class and everything to do with the disproportionate amount of violence against women reported daily. Lastly, Serena Williams, a world-renowned tennis player with more than her fair share of disposable income, nearly died last year at the hands of doctors who did not believe she knew her own body (Salam, 2018). During birth, “hospital employees did not act on her concern that she was experiencing a pulmonary embolism, a sudden blockage of an artery in the lung by a blood clot,” the article explained (Salam 2018). Whereas inequality exists in health care for all women, women of color – regardless of income bracket – die at higher proportional rates (Hall, 2016). These instances scream clear problematic occurrences in Marxist ideological analytics.
As delved into above, a purely Marxist critique of disparate social structure, one which finds its cornerstone in the dichotomization of the bourgeoisie and proletariat, was incompetent and is still not relevant in modern society. This assertion is not to say that class struggles do not torment the world. In fact, as reported in 2016, in the United States, the average income of the poorest fifth of all households rose 12.1% to $12,943, while income of the wealthiest 5% saw a 30.6% increase to $375,088 (Bloomberg, Deprez, 2015). This imbalance is one major reason why Marxist thinking is still very active in academic and revolutionary circles. The argument made throughout this text is in no way refuting that class imbalances exist and are inherently involved in the large scale oppression seen today around the world. Instead, analysts must ascertain wide and far that an ideological obsession with only class allows intersections of privilege to be absolved of blame.
Returning to the piece “Understanding White Privilege,” Kendall focuses on white privilege’s overt and subtle repercussions. She notes, “White privilege is an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions” (Kendall, 2002). It is this institutional advantage, as well as other premiums held by cisgendered men, heterosexuals, protestants, and other advantaged groups, that influences economic status in the first place, and disregards the same status in other sociocultural situations. Put differently, racialized and gendered violence, as well as other attacks on individuals outside of the mythical norm, influences income inequality while deepening wealth disparity when advantageous for the perpetrator. Thus, a future guided by the simplified idea of an upper class – the bourgeoisie – and a lower class – proletariat – as the epicenter of all societal injustice, seems not only incomplete, but in many ways displayed above, allows racism and sexism to continually transcend every level of economic stability.
Looked at in this way, the lack of nuanced racialized and gendered analysis within Karl Marx’s “Manifesto of the Communist Party” solidifies that his bourgeoisie and proletariat are no longer relevant today, nor were they astute enough before or during the time of their conception. Moreover, the future calls, no begs, for an intersectional approach which recognizes, acknowledges, and responds to situations of injustice in such a manner that all forms of inequality, and the amalgamations of such, do not get lost in the chitter chatter of dollars and cents.
A Starfish Solution
In this conversation surrounding all stratified systems of human interaction, it is vital to not only look at the specific historicity of these concept, but also at the perpetual nature of such. This continuation occurs within and despite different humanitarian movements that have taken place across the years. The ability of oppression to maintain one’s form and prosperity likens to the starfish’s ability to regenerate its appendages when they are severed in an inopportune fashion. While they do have the capacity to rebuilt their composition with part of their core destroyed, most often they are only able to grow an arm back when the core is not damaged (National Geographic, 2019). Allegorically, the same process occurs within oppressive power dynamics – racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. In other words, when the core of systemic discrimination stays whole, attempts to carve the sectors will be often well-intentioned, but not entirely effective.
Further, scientists have found almost an equal amount of starfish species as there are oppressive power dynamics- around 2,000 (National Geographic, 2019). In order to adequately divulge into this metaphorical scenario, it must be an intersectional endeavour that depends upon a commitment to including all of the arms. Solution and change makers must avoid the rhetoric of a universal person with streamlined experiences, for it paints the body monochromatic and make it one size fits all. In this same line of thought, each arm of oppression, and in this discussion specifically those that alter the quality of life of individuals who identify as oppressed within global power structures, deserves its due time for analysis. Because of this, the below examples will analogize different starfishes in this society and their respective arms, honing in on women’s oppression to provide a window to other systems detailed above.
To begin, imagine a starfish that represents all of the women that live on this earth. Now, envision each arm as a “category” of women – white women, black women, asian women, transgender women, latinx women, any combination of those and more, and on towards eternity. Just as starfish are not limited to five arms, women are limitless in their forms. In the course of feminist theory, there has been an unfortunate tendency to focus on cutting off the white women arm. This ideology, and even one that claims that other groups of women will “follow,” or “trickle down,” whatever that means, claims that giving white women equal rights to white men is a sufficient accomplishment for feminism. They are missing the mark. As Audre Lorde notes in “Sister Outsider,” “There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (Lorde, 1996). Now, her words are not spoken to imply that sisterhood should be null and void; no, rather, they call to look deeper into the layers of race, class, gender, and trauma to create an encompassing mission that throws out the whole starfish.
In a similar manner, some postmodern theorists assert that global citizens should do away with racial and cultural titles in order to level the playing field. However, giving a crisp $100 dollar bill to Paris Hilton has a wholly different effect than that of a hardworking blue-collar member of society. In her exploration, “Problematics of Transnational Feminism for Asian American Women,” Eliza Noh explains this eloquently:
“I believe that one of the most irresponsible postmodernist interpretations of transnationalism is the idea that the social constructedness of race and culture means that they are also superficial, and therefore knowable as a ‘play’ of ‘difference’ – particularly within the context of globalization, wherein cultural and national differences are supposedly made obsolete” (Noh, 2003).
Even further, ignoring the differences between women also occurs within discourses surrounding men and the equality of the former and the latter. By delegitimizing the idiosyncratic stories of women who have different walks and grouping them as a collective to become equal to men, you also assume that men are equal. A fact that in actuality, just is not true. bell hooks unearths this concept in her text “Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center.”
“Most people in the United States think of feminism, or the more commonly used term, ‘women’s lib,’ as a movement that aims to make women the social equals of men. This broad definition, popularized by the media and mainstream segments of the movement, raises problematic questions. Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to?” (hooks, 2000).
By removing the arm that represents inequity ailments, which are based in unequal power dynamics, from the starfish only for that of white men and women, or for black men and women, you are in no way eliminating the iniquitous disparities between white and black men, nor white and black women. Trying to gain equity in a space that was manifested upon the cornerstone of disenfranchisement, mimics attempting to ruin a starfish by simply cutting off one leg. In other words, other here means Audre Lorde’s, “that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power” (Lorde, 1996).
The final starfish to allegorize as an example can be found in unending privatization of feminized labor. These situations, which will be exemplified in a moment, provide the perfect example of needing to look farther than the first arm. From Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch,” to modern day wage gaps, sexists deem the feminine, the empathetic, and perhaps Lorde’s the erotic, as private, and consequently, unimportant towards the larger spheres of various societies around the world (Federici, 2014. Neate, 2018. Lorde, 2000). Contrary to popular belief, oppressors do not do this as a passive process. It is not natural that women be policed and regulated within their sexuality and their labor. It is not natural that femininity be synonymized with one-purpose of pleasing masculine, patriarchal, capitalist needs. It is not natural that empowered women be viewed as whores. In this way, by trying to attack one arm, either by negating femininity or ignoring the private delineation all together, theorists simply miss the lineage of systemic, global oppression as something both persevering and destructible.
In all these matters, this work finds an existing single thread: a negotiation instead of a revolution. Before continuing, this argument must clear its intentions. Societies ought to fight for legislative action now, be in the conversation now, and plant activism in the now. But, and a clear but at that, there needs to be an eventual holistic overthrow of the starfish – a looking beyond one arm, economics, as Marx does. As Lorde articulated, “For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectations and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
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