Gender History and Black Lives Matter

The Centre for Gender History adds its support to growing Black Lives Matters protests in the United States and United Kingdom. As a centre committed to the study of inequality, resistance and social history, we collectively condemn the racist police violence inflicted disproportionately on Black people, in the USA and also here in Scotland.

Christine Whyte

Gender history plays a key role in understanding the militarisation of policing on both sides of the Atlantic, state-sanctioned violence towards poor and marginalised people of colour, particularly trans people and sex workers, and how ‘white womanhood’ has been historically deployed to reinforce white supremacy.

Constructions of masculinity are central to the construction of the carceral state. Frequent mention has been made of the role of popular culture, particularly police procedural TV shows, and popular cop movies, in validating and promoting the role of police. A study by Color of Change showed that endless crime programming, “glorifies, justifies and normalizes the systematic violence and injustice meted out by police, making heroes out of police and prosecutors who engage in abuse, particularly against people of color”. This cultural portrayal relies on particular brands of toxic masculinity which are popularised through these shows.

Historically, in both the US and the UK, the origins of policing are mired in the defence of slavery. The website offers a glimpse into 18th century British society at the time that the British police force was being developed. Enslavers used the media to defend their property rights over other human beings and encourage racist ‘citizen policing’ of Black people’s mobility. White supremacist ‘citizen policing’ of Black people in public spaces continues today. Convenient access to video-cameras has ensured that some incidents are shared and the culprits shamed, and from these widely-publicised examples there are clear gender, as well as racial, hierarchies at play. White women are at the centre of many incidents, appealing to authorities, usually the police to restrict Black people’s access to public spaces.

The deployment of ‘white womanhood’ to reinforce white supremacy has many historical manifestations. One particularly pernicious panic was the early 20th century ‘white slavery’ scandal, which interacted with the imposition of national border controls to generate an intensely hostile environment for sex workers of colour or with migrant status, while reinforcing myths of white victimhood. Today, Black sex workers fall into one of the most vulnerable categories of people facing police harassment. Working to support and protect them is critical.

In the UK, the hostile environment towards migrants and refugees poses particular threats to women of colour. The 1993 death of Joy Gardner during an attempted deportation shows that targeting of Black people extends further back than the Windrush scandal. Gender history allows us to understand the specificity of how Black British, Caribbean and African women are targeted by immigration policy and border control.

How can scholars and activists rally to support Black Lives Matter? What kinds of new solidarity can be built, which are attuned to the complexities of how gender, race and class have been mutually co-constitutive? And what vision of the future can we project where we are free of oppressive policing? I’ve picked out three texts that I think help answer those questions.

Some suggested reading

  • Keisha N. Blain, ‘Violence in Minneapolis is rooted in the history of racist policing in America’, Washington Post, 30 May 2020.
  • Robyn Maynard, ‘Do Black Sex Workers’ Lives Matter? White-washed Anti-Slavery, Racial Justice and Abolition’ pp. 281-291 in Elya M. Durisin, Emily van der Meulen, Chris Bruckert (eds.) Red Light Labour: Sex Work Regulation, Agency, and Resistance (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018).
  • Julia Sudbury, ‘Transatlantic Visions: Resisting the Globalization of Mass Incarceration’, Social Justice, Vol. 27, No. 3 (81), Critical Resistance to the Prison-Industrial Complex (Fall 2000), pp. 133-149.


  •  tiles squiggles

First published: 3 June 2020

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