Noticing Gender and Racialized Oppression through the Exploitation of the Body

Educating oneself is as meaningful, if not more, than one who’s instructed, but to do this one must be critical to their own thoughts, beliefs and perceptions. In the class Medicine and Racism in literature, knowing ourselves and challenging our preconceived notions of what we think we believe is important. By doing this self-check consistently we will be able to grow as an individual, and learn at a greater capacity.

In understanding race, it is important to notice the conundrum of defining it. The source of the instability is articulated by Geraldine Heng in her book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages when she states that race is used “to distribute positions and power differentially to human groups”. Therefore, race as a biological concept may be disproven, as shown in the film Race the Power of an Illusion, while having social repercussion as a result of the oppressor’s insistence on a difference that isn’t biologically verified. As a result, the oppressed are in a position of constant upheaval and chaos because others ignorance is affecting themselves.

In the book, Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates presents the way he came to reason with this upheaval and tumultuous oppression, and that is through an insistence that “the struggle to understand is our only advantage over the madness”. Educating yourself and others can help to bring words and verify that racialized oppression is distressing, but knowing why and how it operates can alleviate the hold it has upon yourself.

For this class, we are assigned readings from the book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present written by Harriett A. Washington, and in the readings thus far I’ve been shocked by the horrors experienced by Black Americans in medical settings conducted by professionals. I learned about a term called Iatrophobia, which means the fear black Americans have of medical institutions and professionals. Learning about this fear and the history that engendered it is shocking and disturbing. It also is key to understanding medical disparities between white and blacks skinned people in the past to the present.

In an assigned reading for my Canadian literature class a reference to the book, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the aesthetic by Elizabeth Bronfen was made, and it led me to pick up a copy at the library. In the preface, she outlines her argument that the display of dead feminine figures conjures an aesthetic, which is capitalized by patriarchal hegemonic enforcers. Drawing from psychoanalytical theory, Elizabeth Bronfen explains that female bodies are used, or rather, exploited to preserve an individual’s fragile and delusive sense of immortality in western culture.

Defining femininity and the oppression women experience is quite a conundrum as it is, for different and specific reasons, for racial oppression as well. For example, in the preface of Over Her Dead Body, Elizabeth describes a similar ironic phenomenon of oppressed women to racialized oppression through stating that “duplicitous by nature, a symptom [ or an oppressive act] tries to maintain a balance of sorts, but does so by obliquely pointing to that which threatens to disturb the order”. In Over Her Dead Body, the disturbance of order would be the female gender. In Medical Apartheid, the black community would be the threatening force. This quote relates to black people being exploited in the medical field and the medical community’s use of people of the African American community to practice procedures and teach doctors in training. The irony here is that racism had led to the practice of using people with black skin to train doctors because they were considered inferior, yet the biological basis for the difference isn’t present to be having the doctors learn on their bodies. Instead, it just shows that their racist practices are the result of white medical professionals being “taught to view these bodies as expendable” and as practice when it came to truly treating the white race.

Interestingly, both texts, Medical Apartheid and Over Her Dead Body, seem to encapsulate and condemn the exploitation of bodies to further the oppressor’s agenda. In Medical Apartheid, readers learn about Saartjie Baartman, a Khoi woman, who was displayed by scientist who exploited her to support their racial hierarchy construction. They would examine her body inappropriately and use their supposed findings to show that the Khoi people are a lower race. The examinations would make these women’s features out to be overly sexualized compared to white women.

In Over Her Dead Body, the oppressors are predominantly male figures who are artists and writers who use a woman’s body to be kept in unity with death for aesthetics. The phenomenon of overly sexualizing women extends into a woman’s death through the aestheticism of art. In Over Her Dead Body, Elizabeth Bronfen brings up the western aesthetic of women being joined with death. The sexualization of death through this aesthetic is fundamentally wrong, yet it is common place in western culture through art, films and literature.

The aesthetic of women joined with death goes as far back as ancient Greece. In the play, Antigone Sophocles, the playwright, conceives of a character who in search of autonomy goes against a decree and commits suicide through this act of rebellion. Creon criticizes Antigone for her rebellion by saying she’s in love with death, because she knew that acting against the law would cost her life.

Connecting the interstice of race and gender in women being overly sexualized shows that this is also prevalent in those who are oppressed and it could increase their feeling of otherness from people who don’t look like themselves or identify in their way. Exploitation comes in many forms and being overly sexualized by groupings of people is one form of it.

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