Colonization and the Gender Binary in the US

Written by Mallory Culbert

Prior to the late 1600s, European doctors and philosophers only believed in the existence of one sex: male. “Females” were males but with inverted penises. From 1688 to 1815 Western society adapted to a two-sex system edifying/solidifying the “two sexes” as physical, anatomical, and physiologically different categories of human.

The gender binary as we know it today is rooted in colonialism. Across the world prior to colonization, cultures accepted and even venerated trans, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people. Gender was not based necessarily on sex organs or reproductive capacity, nor were there only two genders. For example, Vodou deities and spirits may present as feminine, masculine, agender, trans, or genderfluid. When possessed by spirits, “women can temporarily ‘turn into’ men by being inhabited by a masculine spirit and vice versa.” In cultures indigenous to what is now North America, two-spirit and intersex individuals served important roles in religious ceremonies. However, violent cultural assimilation stifled these views surrounding gender and sexuality. Colonizers erased this to establish and maintain dominance—the “appropriate social order.”

Similarly, gender roles were heavily influenced by colonization. In pre-colonization Africa, female agricultural labor and reproductive ability were so highly valued that husbands had to pay a Brideswealth to the bride’s family to offset their loss of income. However, in Europe, the bride’s family paid hefty dowries because the husband took on a financial responsibility who couldn’t provide for herself.

The use of white female sexuality—of the trope that maintains white women as feeble and helpless—to justify racist violence is part of the legacy of slavery and colonization that Europeans left around the world. In the late 1800s, the idea that Black men were innately driven to rape white women “justified” the lynching of Black men in the eyes of the white public; sexual access to women is a signifier of social power. In 1955, to maintain the aforementioned “appropriate social order,” 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for supposedly flirting with a white female grocery cashier. The Rape Myth, perpetuated in the southern United States, positions white women’s purity (read: whiteness) in opposition to Blackness above all else.

Race and gender in the United States are inextricably linked. While one part of a person’s gender is how they identify, how that person is socialized or hierarchized is based upon how they are gendered by other people. Gender goes beyond self-identification because it sets the expectations for how people of different gender identities should act, which is heavily informed by race. Black women, for example, have served as the stark contrast to the white “ideal woman.” While white women were stereotyped as fragile, Black women were “biologically” hard-wired for hard work. Postbellum white women were discouraged from working outside the home while Black women were expected to support their families. The “two sexes” are only recognized for white monied men and women. Because Black women deviated from whiteness and expectations of white femininity, they were considered both racial and gender “others.”

Similarly, in the 1800s, Chinese men immigrated to California to work the mass railroad construction. Anti-Asian racism in this era stemmed from fear that the immigrants would take their jobs and marry all the white women. Targeted racism relegated these men to food service or laundering, traditionally feminine and in contrast to the ideal “masculine white men.”

These femininizing stereotype endure today. Racism and gender discrimination work together to de-gender people of color and relegating them to gender non-conformity, a stigmatized class.

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