Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Intersecting Race and Sexuality

By Nick Webster, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

There has been an unfortunate story from Ohio running through all of the major news sources recently -- police officer from Canton has been charged with the murder of his pregnant girlfriend and her nearly full-term fetus. The woman was missing for a week before her body was found, and the national media has been fanatically following the case throughout the search and the investigation. Although it is difficult to say why any one story becomes media gold, I was struck by this particular story's popularity because it so clearly fits a pattern that seems to unfailingly capture the attention of the American public.

You see, the man accused in this case is Black, and his deceased girlfriend was White. Many commentators have rightly pointed out that searches for missing women of color are rarely publicized to the same degree as those for White women, and that Black-White crime is often sensationalized above crime within minority communities. But in addition to both of these points lies the fact that, like in the recent Duke rape controversy and the O.J. Simpson case, this story involves an interracial sexual relationship. The fascination with which American viewers follow stories involving sex between racial groups (and the persisting social taboo of such actions) points to the salience of intersections between race and sexuality.

Even in today's era of "colorblind" rhetoric, when many Americans claim that they "do not see race," newer, subtler forms of racism continue to incorporate sexual undercurrents. Interracial relationships remain rare and fraught with challenges, racially-charged pornography sells continually well, "sex tours" to a variety of developing countries are packed with eager American citizens, and, of course, news stories with any hint of sexual relations between persons of different races (as long as one participant is White) skyrocket in popularity. Clearly, adding sexuality to the already turbulent waters of race in America can produce a variety of interesting results, from covert disgust to the fetishization of the "exotic."

I believe that the intersection between race and sexuality provides an important avenue for examining the ramifications of "colorblindness" precisely because it can serve to destabilize the foundations of this form of racism (i.e., "colorblindness"). Discussing race and personal sexuality can bring the implications of a racialized society close to home for many White Americans, while adding the sexual dimension to popular discussions of race may help expose some of the more hidden aspects of structural racism. I hope we can continue to take advantage of intersectionality in this and other forms to advance and challenge our work fighting racism.


  1. I think the coverage had more to do with the fact the woman was 9 months pregnant than that her boyfriend was Black. Lacey Peterson generated an enormous amount of coverage and there was no race issue there.

  2. Since you included the "sex tours" term, I would like, or may be hate, to comment on sex tourism that satisfies those who travel (both straight and homosexuals) to poor countries searching for "exotic" sexual adventures. This might motivate us to broaden our perspective from locally- to globally-sought justice.

  3. Advancement ProjectJuly 20, 2007 at 2:30 PM

    Hi, I wrote a blog about the use of race in the media, and the media's fascination with white victims. You may find it interesting:

    "...The racial disparities in the media are everywhere, but they are perhaps most pointed in the coverage of missing person cases. There seems to be a hierarchy of importance placed on missing persons when it comes to media coverage—White females, White males, females of color, and, lastly, males of color. Victims of color are hurt by the mainstream media’s fascination with White victims—searches for victims of color are usually less broadcasted, and therefore less successful, then those for White victims. Cases involving discrimination or crime against minorities are also underreported in the mass media. On the flip side, criminal acts by people of color are over reported, and race takes center stage, which is obviously not the case if the criminal is White..."

    Advancement Project