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February 22, 2011 / JV

Kendall Thomas on Sex/Gender Politics, Understanding Race, and the Violence of the Law

The most difficult task in writing this post proved to be choosing a title. There is so much covered in this interview for BOMB Magazine between Lynne Tillman and Columbia Law Professor Kendall Thomas; the key was to avoid an exhaustive post title, which, with a lot of re-wording, I think I finally did. Though the interview was published in 1997, it handles questions that are equally pressing today, such as women’s reproductive rights, the psychic structures of racism, and the shortcomings of a politics that fails to engage deep-seated human beliefs and desires.

Here are some excerpts from Thomas:

On the public character of heterosexuality…

I always find it remarkable that no one thinks to question the very public dimension of normative heterosexuality. Very often the sexual family, to use Martha Fineman’s term, is not viewed as such, so in political life—take the recent presidential campaign—the emphasis on family is not understood to be an emphasis on the public character of heterosexuality or the ways in which heterosexual relations are underwritten, subsidized, endorsed, supported, and promoted by state policy.

On public/private in the abortion debate…

It’s important to think about how much the supporters of abortion rights have lost by appealing to the language of privacy to protect an interest in women that has very many public dimensions and which is ultimately about gender politics and the ways state policy can or cannot be fashioned to regulate women’s lives. Every feature of the decision to have an abortion is marked by public concerns. The relationship between a pregnant woman and her doctor is a market relation. It takes place in the public sphere of the market. It’s not a purely private decision, then, simply by virtue of the fact that health care is distributed in this country through the mechanisms of the market. Another public dimension of the decision to terminate a pregnancy has to do with a pregnant woman’s relationship to the man, or men, in her life. One of the most important, and I think insightful, parts of Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion in the Casey case from Pennsylvania had to do with the risks that women who decide to have abortions face when their partners disapprove of that decision. The very real physical risks, the violence that is associated with that decision, and the ways in which public policies that make the choice a woman’s and a woman’s alone are very much implicated in a woman’s decision. In the same way, no adequate account can be offered of sexual politics, whether it’s questions of gay/lesbian rights, or questions of reproductive rights—no adequate account of those issues can ignore their public effects and implications.

On the psychic structures of racism…

The psychic structures of racism are the subject of collective denial in this country. We like to think that reasonable people of goodwill, acting reasonably, can forge a rational public policy that will make notions of racial equality a reality. But that rational-choice model of how we go about overcoming racial domination ignores the deeply embedded psychic structure of racism and the ways in which racism is secreted through and between individual bodies and the perceptions of physical difference whose social meanings are a function not of rational judgment, but of deep, deep psychic processes. It’s really made the problem of explaining racism, much less addressing it, immensely difficult for those of us who are trying to offer critical perspectives on race.

And lastly…

Whether it’s anti-racist, anti-sexist, or anti-homophobic politics, the challenge in the contemporary landscape is to try to negotiate a politics of difference which understands that identities are always identifications; that identifications are always situational and therefore provisional; and therefore must always be open to and actively pursue interrogation and examination; and must always be willing to concede their provisional and regional relevance. That seems to me the challenge. Post-identity politics does not mean an eschewal of the politics of identification.

Check out the full interview here.


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