Is Racism 'Sexism Extended?' Feminist Criticism, 'Moral Panics' and the Grass Is Singing

By Gardner, Susan | Hecate, May 31, 1985 | Go to article overview

Is Racism 'Sexism Extended?' Feminist Criticism, 'Moral Panics' and the Grass Is Singing


Gardner, Susan, Hecate


Moral panics" of the "Black Peril" ("Not a White Woman Safe!") variety are a staple of much more than the stock South African conversations that Doris Lessing irritatedly noted in Going Home:

There is no psychological quirk or justification or rationalisation that is new or even interesting [about "all these colour attitudes and prejudices"]. What is so terrible is the boring and repetitive nature of "white civilisation".(1)

Nearly fifty years before, Perceval Gibbon made the same observation in Margaret Harding:

Margaret had started a subject which no South African can exhaust. They discuss it with heat, with philosophic impartiality, with ethnological and eugenic inexactitudes, and sometimes with bloodshed, but they never wear it out.(2)

Inter-racial sexual encounters, coerced or consenting, and often culminating in social crisis, provide a plot for much colonial and post-colonial fiction, hence fuelling literary criticism. They have, moreover, provoked debates within colonial social psychology and social history.(3) My purpose here is to examine how some American and Australian feminist literary criticism over the past decade has wrestled with the radical feminist contention, asserted in Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex that "racism is sexism extended".(4) Lessing's The Grass is Singing(5) will be my major literary reference.

The concept of "moral panic" is fully detailed by Stanley Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. But Stuart Hall has provided a useful resume of this spiralling, amplifying sequence: socio-structural conduciveness and strain; growth and spread of a generalised fear; precipitating factors and a dramatic event; public disquiet; "moral enterprise"; mobilisation of the control culture, resulting in increased, even more punitive social control. Although Hall and his colleagues were not totally satisfied with the concept when writing Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, they were unable to replace it as a description of ideological configurations and processes which both foster and aggravate acute social distress. "The crisis always assumes the form of a collective projected fear of a society disintegrating or being invaded, or about a nemesis at work unlocking it."(6) One distinctive feature of moral panics is that the "dramatic event" -- in the instance considered here, inter-racial sex and murder -- need not even occur. Apprehension that it will may be enough to instigate or keep the sequence in motion.

A striking aspect of sociological, psychological and historical expositions of moral panics has been recourse to fiction when customary professional documentation, however assiduously assembled and ingeniously interpreted, cannot answer questions of special interest to feminists. Why, in situations of acute socio-structural strain, are conflicts among groups divided and stratified by class and colour fought out in monotonously predictable sexual imagery, however varied the historical circumstances? (These include the "syndrome" of recession-political uncertainty-industrial action identified by Charles van Onselen for the Witwatersrand between 1886 and 1914; Timothy Keegan's analysis of "lapsed whites" and deracinated blacks as the "folk devils"(*) of the ideological crisis over segregation in South Africa during 1912; the tense transitions from frontier to settlement in a variety of Pacific "beach" communities, such as those described by Amirah Inglis and Caroline Ralston; and Angela Y. Davis' association of the tactics of lynching with the over-exploitation of black labour after the Reconstruction period in the American South.(7) Is class/colour being ideologically displaced by this recourse to a rhetoric of sexual threat, or may gender conflict be a material precipitant of such crises? Feminists further note the vast discrepancy between the inflated symbolic role of "the" white woman during a moral panic contrasted with her attenuated presence in most historical accounts (although not necessarily, as social history has demonstrated, in the records themselves.

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Is Racism 'Sexism Extended?' Feminist Criticism, 'Moral Panics' and the Grass Is Singing
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