update on the socialization of bodies
March 21, 2016
Quite a few years ago I wrote “on the socialization of bodies” with a follow up post. I want to expand and further break this down because its an old post that continues to get attention but I don’t think I did a great job of articulating my point of view.
The follow up post isn’t as popular but it is important because it addresses the primary criticism that people have of the original. Mainly, that how people perceive you, and based on this how they treat you, is a non-trivial part of socialization.
My basic thesis is that ‘male’ and ‘female’ socialization is untenable because it is too simplistic or, if we are to insist on their existence, they split into an amount of socializations equal to the number of people socialized (as in, we all experience a unique form of socialization that cannot be generalized). Relatedly, people insisting that there can be a ‘male’ and ‘female’ socialization are simply wrong about what socialization is and how it functions.
One of the clearest ways to illustrate this is from one of the basic insights from Black feminism: what it means to be Black and a woman is not equivalent to what it means to be white and a woman. Its funny. A lot of ppl are willing to toss around ‘intersectionality’ these days but aren’t, it seems, willing to actually understand the implications of this insight.
On one level, this insight speaks to the reality that there is no shared, universal experience of womanhood. Of course, then, what this means is that there cannot be any shared, universal ‘socialization’ of women. Black women are socialized different than white women. What it means to be a Black women isn’t identical to what it means to be a white woman.
All of this seems obvious enough, no?
But we can take it even further. What it means to be a Black woman raised in america isn’t equivalent to what it means to be a Black woman raised in england. Further yet: the experiences of a Black woman in the american south aren’t interchangeable with those of a Black women in the pacific northwest. Let’s get deeper though. A millenial Black woman in the american south will have been socialized differently than a baby boomer Black woman in the american south.
You see what I’m doing here? All of these factors play into socialization: race, gender, geographic location, ethnicity, temporality, etc. And these are just the large pieces. Each family creates a different environmental context for each individual. This is why even identical twins aren’t even the exact same person, despite being the closest thing we have to two people with identical contexts (inclusive of genetics and other biological factors).
But wait, you might say, this all might be true, but aren’t there any points of similarity between what it means to be a woman? Black or white? Maybe. But… if you’ve been listening to Black women talk about their experiences for, say, the past few hundred years, it becomes quickly apparent that there aren’t many similarities and those that exist aren’t really the most influential aspects.
Listen. Anti-Blackness scholarship these days is pretty clear that white humanity is predicated on Black unhumanity. In other words: white people are human because Black people can never be human (they are ontologically precluded from it). You tell me: how many similarities there can be between the being socialized as a white woman and being socialized as a Black woman who cannot even be human, much less a woman?
Its not for nothing that the white radfems who most heavily push the notion of ‘male’ and ‘female’ socialization, in addition to a notion of a universally shared womanhood, tend to be the exact same people who mock ‘intersectionality’ as a concept. Who, ever since Black radical feminists began to interrogate them, have basically stuck their fingers in their ears and sung ‘la la la’.
Although, none of what I say above quite addresses the issue of how other people’s perceptions and treatment of us. I noted that this is one aspect of socialization. But… in my view, its one of many. And it isn’t more weighted than anything else. In part because some of the other aspects of our socialization (beyond the gendered kind) are intertwined with other visible aspects.
How a person perceived as a white woman is treated is different than someone perceived as a Black woman. Similarly, how a woman perceived to a a man is treated is different than one perceived to be a woman. I’m really not sure what differences between these two situations are supposed to exist.
This is what I mean by most people defending the ‘male’ socialization view are either too simplistic or simply wrong.
The whole argument requires the flattening of a lot of important differences and distinctions. Differences and distinctions which have been articulated by various groups for a long, long time.
A more concise way to put my thesis is: if there is no universal, shared womanhood, then there is no universal, shared female socialization.
The only way you can deny the antecedent of this conditional is to basically ingore what many different kinds of woman have been saying for a long time. Its to insist on enforcing the hegemonic view of this, rather than articulating a meaningful truth about reality. Because that’s the thing: trans women aren’t the only group of women to insist that female socialization isn’t a thing (or at least a shared, universal thing). Nor are we the first group of women whose received a great deal of pushback for articulating this (although it is undoubtedly true that white radfems have a specific axe to grind with us).