Gender with/out Borders; Discursive Dynamics of Gender, Race, and Culture

Lisa Flores. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

Invested in both the study of distinct cultures and the concept of culture, scholars have sought to complicate intercultural communication by identifying and examining various cultural enactments and communicative facets. As the discipline has evolved, those interested in the intricacies of culture have increasingly infused the literature with attention to differences, not just between different cultures, but within them. That attention to understanding and explicating intercultural and intracultural communication has generated diverse bodies of work investigating and exploring gender and race. Perhaps not surprisingly, culture and communication scholars “discovered” the theoretical insights of race/ethnicity before they gave sustained attention to gender and sexuality. After all, the study of intercultural communication initially was heavily influenced by questions of national difference, as its origins were largely practical (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1990). And in its evolution, the discipline remains committed to the practical, though it has been and is theoretically motivated as well. The practical concerns that impel scholarly analysis, however, shift and move with time, history, and context. And over the last few decades, as national cultures have fragmented and trans/national communities have developed, the terrain of culture and the need for various kinds of cultural knowledge have expanded such that gender and racial difference not only have become more visible, but the study of them is more imperative.

This chapter reviews scholarship on culture, communication, gender, and race as it explores the emerging relationships at play among them. More specifically, I emphasize a recent and evolving approach to culture and communication (critical intercultural communication) and attend to two bodies of literature within critical intercultural communication which manifest varying degrees of convergence and divergence. For instance, scholars from both approaches study the simultaneity of gender and race: One group attends to individual identity; the second examines ideologies. Presenting them as distinct, my categorization is necessarily problematic. That is, seen through different eyes, these studies may well be divided and discussed differently. That caveat aside, I detail varying conceptions of culture, gender, and race and offer examples of key research themes and questions that recur. I begin with literature that takes a micro approach to gender and race, situating them as aspects of individual identity and emphasizing marginalized individuals and their communicative and cultural practices. I then review studies that assume a more macro focus, defining gender and race as ideologies while conceptualizing culture as contested and negotiated. This perspective promotes discursive study of gender and race as it expands its focus to include dominant populations.

Gender and Race as Cultural Difference

A first perspective on gender, race, and culture, which I refer to as a cultural difference perspective, conceives of gender and race as aspects of identity and positions culture as social communities inhabited by diverse populations whose gendered and racial differences result in a diverse range of communicative behaviors. Seen as relatively stable aspects of an individual’s overall identity, both gender and race are pieces of a culture’s larger picture. Cultural boundaries are not necessarily limited by physical borders, such as those that delimit nation space. Instead, cultures are described in terms of populations, which may or may not share a physical space. While gender, race, and culture here are dynamic and shifting, they also appear relatively stable and recognizable. The relationships among them are multifaceted, with each providing insights into the other. For instance, examinations of ethnic minority communities become more complex when gender differences are uncovered.

Studies of Difference

A significant body of work in this perspective is devoted to the exploration of “difference.” For some, gender and race are differences to be unpacked (Spellers, 1998; Uchida, 1997). For instance, Philipsen (1975) traces a particular manifestation of urban, White working-class masculine speech. Others emphasize culture as composed of differences (Collier, 2003; Dolphin, 1994; Hegde, 1998a). Consider Folb’s (1994) depiction of the United States as encompassing various communities distinguished by gender, race, geography, and ability. Across both emphases, gender, race, and culture are givens. That is, little time is spent defining and/or theorizing gender, race, and culture as abstract concepts. Instead, beginning with assumptions that particular gendered and racial cultures exist (e.g., African American women), scholars attend to the enactments and features of particular cultures and communities as well as to the individuals within them.

For those scholars for whom culture is the primary intellectual focus, race and gender are markers of identity and difference whose exploration enhances and complicates the study. Culture is the site or space in which individuals, marked by gender and racial identity, interact. The communicative patterns of cultural groups can be identified, as they are thought to exhibit identifiable and perhaps predictable behaviors that reflect distinct gender and racial as well as other identities. Gender and race are important cultural differences, and the distinctions that result from them reflect the overall dynamic of culture and demonstrate the many micro dimensions of it that deserve scholarly attention. A limited body of work explores culture by examining intercultural communication concepts and theories through the lens of such differences. For instance, elaborating a theory of cultural identity, Collier (1998b) describes gender and race as two of many factors that make up an individual’s identity. In such work, the emphasis is on theorizing cultural difference rather than on gender and/or race. Studies are devoted to communicative practices, including nonverbal communication (Borisoff & Merrill, 2003; Dolphin, 1994) and discourse (Johnson, 2003; Rakow & Wackwitz, 1998), as well as to particular sites of communicative interaction, including the classroom (Gay, 2003; Le Roux, 2006) and the neighborhood (Philipsen, 1975). Other work elaborates theories of identity (Collier, 2003) and relationships (Collier, 1998a; Stringer, 2006).

Studies of Race and Gender

A second emphasis in this perspective comes from those whose primary intellectual focus is race and gender. Beginning with these differences, this work positions culture as a product of communication and interaction and argues that excessive attention to national culture can overlook the variations—such as race and gender—that exist within nations. A key early work reflecting this argument was Our Voices: Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication. Edited by Gonzalez, Houston, and Chen (1994) and now in its fourth edition (2004), this anthology of mostly narrative and personal essays chronicles the experiences and perspectives of ethnic and gender minorities. Situated as a disciplinary intervention, the book, and related publications, sought to extend the purview of intercultural communication by highlighting and centering voices and stories that mostly had been ignored. As Asante (1994), in the foreword to the book’s first edition, explained, “The appearance of the book … is a remarkable achievement. … It reflects the evolution of a field that has too long marginalized the voices of African, Asian, Latino, Native, Jewish, and Arab Americans” (p. vii). Authors contributed work designed to increase the visibility, experiences, and perspectives of subordinated populations. Given this goal, gender generally referred to women, while race mostly referred to people of color.

The explicit attention to race and gender, as well as to marginalized racial and gender identities, generated a conceptual link between race, gender, and politics. In many ways aligned with feminist and antiracist perspectives that emphasize what has come to be known as “identity politics,” authors writing in this group situate gender and race identities as significant facets of personal identity and community membership. Moreover, gender and racial identities signal political identity and affiliation. That is, gender and ethnic minorities construct identities and perspectives that emerge out of and reflect personal and historic experiences of discrimination and oppression. Much of this work emphasizes the political solidarity that comes from shared membership in groups and communities defined by gender and race. Generally situated in a broader, social constructionist paradigm, theorists position gender and race as socially and communicatively produced and evolving (James, 2004). Simultaneously, however, because one’s politics reflect one’s identity, gender and race— though broadly conceived as dynamic—are specific, concrete, and relatively stable. A seeming contradiction, this tension is best explained by the argument that individuals develop their gender and racial identities in and through their social and cultural experiences, which differ, often dramatically, both across and within groups. At the same time, members of traditionally disadvantaged gender and racial groups (e.g., White women, African Americans, Latinas/os) have some similar experiences, particularly discrimination. Such similarities foster connections and shape cultural identities that bind people together and come to constitute culture. For instance, Houston (2004) describes the shared experiences that Black women have in their friendships with White women and vice versa. She notes that while they may be engaged in one conversation they often hear two different cultural messages.

As scholars increasingly studied co-cultures and their racial and gender differences, they also reconceptualized culture. That is, the cultures that emerge from politically oriented communities are not just ones of racial and gender difference; they are also about political difference. González and Tanno (1997) argue that when we study race and gender from politically motivated perspectives such as feminism and antiracism, we begin to see culture at work: “‘Culture’ becomes visible only as interests collide and struggle” (p. 4). The study of culture then also becomes the study of marginalization, power relations, and social justice. Moon (2002), for instance, calls for an expanded vision of culture, one that “allows us to come to hear and perhaps appreciate the varieties of cultural experiences and views that make up what we understand as ‘America’ and gives us a way of thinking about cultural politics that can point us in the direction of social change” (p. 14).e

An important move in these studies on politicized cultures occurs in discussions of identity. Advocating pluralism, those writing here explicitly and implicitly theorize identity—notably gender and racial identity— and argue that the simultaneous study of gender and race means that the experiences, identities, and cultures of several groups are explored. Pluralism emerges as writings detail the differences within and among groups, and studies shift from discussions of women’s experiences or Latino communication to Black women’s experiences and White women’s communication. Unlike dominant populations, particularly White men, marginalized communities are described in this work as communicating in ways that reflect their historic and social marginalization. Long excluded from dominant public spaces and their respective communication styles, women of color, both within the academy and without, communicate and theorize through narrative and personal experience, emphasizing the mundane and everyday rather than more traditionally elite forms of knowledge. Significant research (James, 2004; Leland & Martinez, 1998; Tanno, 2004) details the stories of women of color and reflects varying experiences of identity, self, and marginalization. For some, identities are clearly marked by the simultaneity of gender and race (Davis, 1998; Spellers, 1998) and the particular insights that emerge from experiences of multiple forms of oppression. For instance, women of color describe the double consciousness they develop as they see the world through various lenses (Chen, 2004) and occupy particular standpoints (Harris & Donmoyer, 2000). Others note stages in their awareness of identity and the ways in which various experiences, for instance of class (Martinez, 2000) and history (Tanno, 2004) enabled them to delay social consciousness of their racial identity.


With the emphasis on personal and cultural identity comes a discussion of reflexivity. Authors address reflexivity in terms of the research process, examining both methods and author positionality. Exploring knowledge production, scholars engage in explicit questioning of traditional assumptions—of what counts as evidence, experience, authenticity, and legitimacy. Considerable work centers narrative as a valid and valuable epistemological tool. One’s personal stories are not simply descriptions of varying experiences that provide insight into cultural differences. They are situated as the “stuff out of which theory gets made” (Leland & Martinez, 1998, p.86). Madison (1993) notes that stories of gender and race serve resistive functions, as they “privilege agency and interrogate notions of… ‘voiceless victims’” (p. 214). Making visible and prominent the lives and experiences of women of color, narratives and counternarratives become tools through which women of color write themselves into existence and offer strategies for survival (Flores, 2000; Halualani, 1998; James, 2004). Elaborating on the theoretical importance of this work, authors ask for scholarly skepticism about traditional forms of evidence, arguing that everyday experiences—cooking, kitchen table gossip—have epistemological value (Davis, 1999; Flores, 1996). Reflexivity is also turned inward as writers ask, even demand, that authors implicate themselves into their work. Delineating the politics of positionality, or the ways in which authors’ identities are implicated in the work they do, those writing in this perspective argue that scholars gain insight into the workings of gender and race when they reflect upon the gendered and racial ways of thinking they bring to their own work (Cooks, 2003).

Extending the reflexivity debate further, many argue that work on race and gender should be seen as opportunities to expand the province of both. In other words, women of color writing about race and gender identify the limitations of work that addresses either gender or race. Dobris (1996) argues, for instance, that Black feminism extends feminist theory by challenging assumptions of sisterhood. By accounting for the differences among women, she argues, possibilities for solidarity become greater. Similarly, Dace (1998) calls upon African American studies to attend to the ways in which analyses of blackness negate and/or ignore underlying sexism.

These studies make inroads into what will later emerge as an emphasis on intersectionality, or what K. Crenshaw (1991) identifies as “the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed” (p. 1245). That is, authors begin to unpack the multiplicity of gender and race, noting the ways in which women of color simultaneously experience them. Elaborating on what Spelman (1988) labeled the “ampersand” problem (p. 115), attention is given to the struggle to talk about women and people of color in complex ways that account for race and gender. Houston (1992) clarifies: “the parts of non-dominant women’s identities, their experiences of oppression cannot accurately be conceived as separable, summative, or ‘piled on.’ For example, women of color do not experience sexism in addition to racism, but sexism in the context of racism” (p. 49, emphasis in original). Demonstrating Houston’s point, Patton (2004) identifies the particular face of racism and sexism as experienced by a Black female professor.

In an explicit, early account of intersectionality in communication, C. Crenshaw (1997b) argues that intersectionality, as both theoretical and methodological lens, shifts the analysis, providing a means of rethinking gender as an analytic frame and category. As illustration, Lee (1998) identifies the contextual nature of race and gender as she examines how meanings surrounding Chinese women’s identities constantly change as these women move in and out of different communities and contexts. Further, intersectionality provides one means of recognizing the political importance of identity politics while it enables critics to move toward coalitional practices (Allen, 2004; Harris & Donmoyer, 2000). The turn to intersectionality also enabled a shift in the configuring of gender and race, for as scholars explicitly expressed commitment to intersectionality, they engaged more directly in theorizing race and gender. One clear manifestation of this shift is in the small, but growing body of literature on marginalized masculinities. Masculinity studies examine the experiences (Jackson & Dangerfield, 2003; Orbe, 1997) and common representations (Orbe & Hopson, 2002) of Black men as they begin to question how men and masculinity relate to existing research on gender, women, and femininity.

Reflections and Conclusions on the Culture as Difference Perspective

Without question, literature written from the culture as difference perspective has broad significance. Complicating limited notions of gender, race, and culture, authors writing in this paradigm provoke conversation between gender(s) and race(s). Their work challenges the idea that there is a “woman’s” experience that is shared widely, if not universally, and identifies instead the many women’s experiences and the connections and distinctions among them. By attending to gender and racial identities, scholars uncover the complex ways women of color make sense of their lives, their histories, and their stories. The “double vision” (Chen, 2004) that many women of color develop gives them access to a wide range of ways to understand and live in the world. Martinez (2000), for instance, emphasizes personal experience and narrative and explores the various degrees through which she came to understand gender and race. Through such narratives of identity and struggle, authors writing in this perspective describe how marginalized communities face and resist oppression, often “making the best with what [they] got” (González & Flores, 1994, p. 37). Such details on both oppression and resistance are vital. As Ono and Sloop (1995) explain, “without an examination of the rhetoric of those struggling to survive, no significant social statements can be made about political, social, and cultural liberation” (p. 40). Moreover, the emphasis on personal experience highlights the everyday aspects of cultural knowledge and exposes the very cultural constructedness of unquestioned and unexplored patterns of daily life. This perspective turns to individual experiences of gender and race so as to trace and make culture visible. Much of this work challenges, at least implicitly, arguments dominating postmodern conversations proclaiming the “death of the subject.” In response, these scholars loudly pronounce the existence of the gendered and racial subject. They argue that postmodern and poststructuralist critiques of identity and essentialism fail to account for the political significance of cultural groups. Social change emerges when communities, often united because of gender and racial identities, act together.

Although the move to localized knowledges and experiences serves to identify the many differences that comprise cultures and to challenge essentialist ideas of gender and race, that emphasis has limitations. By demonstrating how individuals experience race and gender in their everyday lives and through their bodies, scholars rely on fixed concepts of gender and race. Theoretically, the move is from singular conceptions of gender and race to multiple ones. Studies now describe the many ways women experience gender but provide little critical reflection on gender as a concept. Instead, gender and racial identities are presumed to be outcomes of biology, even as they are culturally informed. In other words, while we may not be able to describe women’s experiences, we can describe White women’s, Black women’s, and Latinas’ experiences. This work adopts intersectionality, but it does so in limited ways.

The privileging of marginalized identities and experiences also has potential limitations for theories of power, oppression, and resistance. By locating gender and race identity at the individual level, these studies offer limited views of larger contexts and power dynamics. The individual voice of marginalization takes precedence, and subordinated identities, as they are added to the larger population of voices, are less likely to be directly challenged. Instead, there is a tendency to celebrate those stories unreflexively and to presume that the very experience of marginalization means that one’s voice is politically informed and productively resistive to dominant culture. Noting the dangers of such assumptions, Delgado (1998) reminds us that even those who speak from the “margins” may perpetuate existing hierarchies of race and/or gender; their voices, like those of dominant populations, should be subject to careful analysis.

In sum, the cultural difference perspective draws attention to the complexities within cultures, notably as those differences emerge out of gender and racial identities. Privileging the voices, perspectives, and experiences of gender and ethnic minorities, authors expand the theoretical and conceptual boundaries of culture as they challenge and extend traditional and elite standards for assessing culture, knowledge, and theory. Culture, both the space in which individuals and communities come together and the outcome of that communication, is made up of difference. And that difference is productive, both in its ability to generate culture and in its tendency to provoke contestation. Rejecting essentialist perspectives on gender and race that fail to account for the many ways in which individuals and communities experience and understand themselves, this work situates gender and race as aspects of individual identity and argues that attention to different gender and racial identities renders political and personal experiences more visible.

Gender, Race, and Culture as Contested Ideologies

A second perspective on gender, race, and culture shifts toward a discursive and ideological frame. Culture, gender, and race are configured as performances, circulating in and among social narratives. While the first perspective centered bodies and populations by, for example, examining the communicative dynamics of Latinas as a means of uncovering cultural patterns, bodies in this other perspective are only part of the focus, as attention is also directed to larger ideologies invoked and evoked by those bodies as well as by discourse about them. In this sense, then, culture becomes what Martin and Nakayama (1999) identify as a “contested site” where meanings converge and diverge in constant dynamic flux. Gender and race are as likely to be constituted as ideologies, discourse, and performance as they are to be captured in marked bodies. Cultures emerge more as a result of conflicting and complementary narratives than through a population of particular people, and their boundaries and borders “are increasingly murky and overlapping” (Collier, 2000, p. 3). Collier identifies a shift in theoretical interest away from an identification of cultural differences and toward a politics of difference that seeks not just to give voice to marginalized communities but also to identify the political, discursive, and cultural contestations in play. This turn in emphasis provokes a macro approach to the study of gender, race, and culture.

Performativity and Ideology

Work in this perspective takes a performative and ideological approach to gender, race, and other aspects of identity, emphasizing the study of ideologies of gender and race. As noted in the introduction to the Handbook and in chapters by Bell and Blauer, Sloop, and others, a performative view begins with the assumption that identities of gender and race, for instance, emerge and are (reproduced discursively. To study gender this way is to study historic and contemporary enactments and performances of masculinity and femininity. Also reflecting a social constructionist frame, this work disrupts the connection between bodies and ideologies that informs much of the difference perspective. In other words, although performances are often embodied and individuals perform masculinity and femininity, such embodied acts are not necessarily linked to the biological/sexual bodies. Whereas those who are labeled “women” because of biology may be more likely to perform femininity than masculinity, they do not do so necessarily. Indeed, much of this work investigates the tensions and dilemmas that come from mediating “the materiality of the body” and the argument that bodies are “constructed through a ritualized repetition of norms” (Butler, 1993, p. ix-x). As ideologies and discourses, gender and race are sets of images, circulating narratives, and embodied performances (Butler). Neither stable nor unified, they may simultaneously conjure images and conceptions of physical bodies—of men, women, African Americans, Whites—while also remaining theoretically almost distinct. Shome (2001) notes that “White femininity … is not meant to suggest a physical body or a property with some ontological origin. Rather, I use it to mean an ideological construction through which meanings about White women and their place in the social order are naturalized” (p. 323). Theories of intersectionality are extended so that gender and race are partial, contradictory, and incomplete, and references to men and women become references to, for instance, White masculinity and Latinidad. In other words, gender is enmeshed with race, class, and sexuality (Ashcraft & Flores, 2003).

As in the first perspective, this work examines identity. Rather than emphasizing identity and voice, however, the ideological perspective seeks to subvert the idea of individual gender and race identity and to emphasize the instability and fluidity of performances. Shome and Hegde (2002b), for instance, argue that identity is “above all a performative expression of transnational change” (p. 266). In other words, attention shifts from the fact of identity, gender, and race, to its invocations, uses, and expressions; “the issue is how they matter, how they are evoked, how they are produced, where they are produced, and how they are reconstituted” (Shome & Hegde, 2002a, p. 176). Gender and race, along with culture, sexuality, nation, class, and so on, are constantly being negotiated, and these negotiations illustrate both the possibilities of identity and the limitations of traditional identity categories, such as male/female, Black/White. Zimmerman and Geist-Martin (2006) describe the queer body as one that exceeds gender categories, for it is never fully masculine nor feminine, man nor woman: “A queer gender body, then, disrupts this binary of all male or all female, creating a dialectical tension” (p. 79). Exploring identity, authors examine authenticity (Liera-Schwichtenberg, 2000), hybridity (Kraidy, 1999), and passing (Squires & Brouwer, 2002) as they highlight doing over being and situate gender and race as two of many facets.

The performative take on gender, race, and culture leads to considerable study of “the problem of ideology,” as scholars in this perspective seek to “give an account… of how social ideas arise” (Hall, 1996, p. 26). Studies emphasize the circulation of social ideas and trace the dominant stories surrounding gender and race to uncover the meanings at work. Assessing larger cultural discourses, scholars turn somewhat away from individual bodies and toward mediated ones, examining what Valdivia (1998) identifies as the “politics of representation,” or the need to reflect critically on the production, circulation, reception, and mediation of images (p. 247). This work details representations of gender and race, noting the circulation of reductive stereotypes of Latinas (Molina Guzmán & Valdivia, 2004) and Latinos (Calafell & Delgado, 2004), of Asian American women (Halualani, 1995) and men (Nakayama, 1994), and of African American women (McPhail, 1996) and men (Watts & Orbe, 2002). Across this work, scholars trace not just these representations but also the ideologies in play. One interesting conclusion reached by several authors is that, for all the diversity among mediated representations, gender and race are commonly linked to sexuality such that women and men of color are often depicted as highly sexualized, generally in ways that align non-White racial identities with deviant, hyper, and “primitive” sexualities (Ashcraft & Flores, 2003; Molina Guzmán & Valdivia, 2004), while White femininity and White women emerge as pure but endangered through exposure to non-White masculinities (Shome, 2000).

The theoretical shift in this perspective toward ideologies of gender and race has considerable implications for the conceptualization of culture. Not just a composite of people or a manifestation of patterns and behaviors, culture is an ideological production infused with assumptions of gender and race. Scholars influenced by interdisciplinary work in cultural studies, feminist theory, and critical race studies argue that cultures and nations are gendered and raced (Berlant, 1997; Young, 1995). In her key account of the cultural shaping of citizenship through politics, social institutions, and practices, Bederman (1995) identifies historic patterns in masculinity, race, and nation that enable a conflation of White masculinity as civilized masculinity and thus “truly” American, and a linking of Black masculinity with primitive, savage, Other. Centering the discursive construction of gender, race, and nation, she argues that if competing ideologies come to constitute bodies and cultures, studying those ideologies provides insight into the assumptions that guide social perception and practice. Likewise, Shome (2001), examining media spectacle surrounding Princess Diana, traces discourses of gender, race, and nation and argues that the abstract concepts are infused with overlapping ideologies such that the ideal nation is embodied by White femininity and its aura of purity, domesticity, heterosexuality, and motherhood. Gender, race, and culture function as (in)distinct ideologies. Their intersections, while not necessarily intentionally and strategically designed, are rarely innocent or insignificant. Instead, affiliations among them sustain larger hegemonic narratives. Buescher and Ono (1996) identify similar dynamics in Disney’s Pocahontas; here, a story of colonization and control becomes a romantic tale of love across cultures that legitimates civilized White masculine protection of savagery, associated in this case with Native Americans. Femininity, mostly captured in Pocahontas, is earthy, spiritual, “natural,” an identity that can only be enhanced by its affiliation with civilized whiteness.

Gendered and racialized bodies in these discourses—whether of Princess Di or Pocahontas—are repositories for meanings. As represented in discourse, these bodies legitimize existing hegemonic relations, justifying capitalism (Cloud, 1996) as well as war and violence (Stables, 2003). They also invest culture and nation with gender and race such that the study of cultural and national identity is almost simultaneously the study of femininity, masculinity, and whiteness (Owen, 2002). As this work investigates nation it also disrupts that category, revealing the permeability of national boundaries—both geopolitical and ideological. Adopting postcolonial and global perspectives that theorize gender, race, and nation as hybrid sites, authors explore the implications of transnationalism and its invocations of gender and race (Lee, 1998; Supriya, 2001). They identify the ways in which ideologies of consumerism, desire, whiteness, and femininity are mobilized globally to reinscribe the ideal body as that of White femininity (Zacharias, 2003).

Studies of Dominance

As the study of gender and race becomes the study of ideologies, the scope of it expands to include analysis of dominance. Here we see a marked conceptual shift away from the race and gender as cultural difference perspective that almost exclusively highlights traditionally subordinated groups (women, people of color). Scholars interested in dominance have begun to examine masculinity (Ashcraft & Flores, 2003; Carillo Rowe & Lindsey, 2003; Nakayama, 1994), whiteness (C. Crenshaw, 1997a; Ehlers, 2004; Moon, 1999; Shome, 1999), and heteronormativity (Squires & Brouwer, 2002; Zimmerman & Geist-Martin, 2006). Several core questions drive studies of dominance. For some, depicting the landscape is key: What do masculinity, whiteness, and heteronormativity look like (Moon, 1999)? Others inquire into operations: How does dominance work (Warren, 2001)? What strategies secure its privilege (Carillo Rowe, 2000; Zacharias, 2003)? What communicative dynamics disrupt its hold (Flores & Moon, 2002)?

Across these studies is an examination of ideologies of dominance. Centrally, dominance is problematized such that static relations of oppressor/oppressed are challenged as the complexities of identities, voices, and locations emerge. Condit (1993) explains: “It is no longer so easy to identify single categories of victim and victor. Who is the villain? the Black female lawyer? the White unemployed male construction worker? the Norwegian homosexual college professor? the happy homemaker?” (p. 187). Studies that detail the complexities and disjunctions replace analyses that identify clear boundaries between the haves and the have-nots. For instance, representations of “exotic” Others are often managed through ambivalence, which allows simultaneous and competing senses of desire and disgust to circulate through those representations (Cloud, 1996; Durham, 2001). That ambivalence seemingly mediates racist and hetero/sexist representations as it fosters the appearance of appreciation for nondominant populations while masking the commodification and consumption of difference (Lalvani, 1995; Watts & Orbe, 2002).

In the literature on dominance are studies of how discourses of gender and race operate and secure culture, even if only momentarily. Ideologies of gender and race, particularly in their interimplication, become significant for what they reveal about larger power dynamics, notably privilege and hegemony. A major impetus behind this shift is the theoretical goal of visibility, which was also a theme in the first perspective. Visibility functions differently for scholars writing in this vein. Whereas in the first perspective it highlights giving voice and raising the profile of marginalized communities who had traditionally been ignored, in this camp visibility is focused on a different absence—the invisibility of the norm. Arguing that dominance operates through invisibility—that it gives whiteness, masculinity, and heteronormativity their persistent power—scholars seek to make dominance visible and disrupt its presumed universality (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995; Projansky & Ono, 1999). The examination of privilege has also generated research examining its seductive pull—how and why individuals, even from subordinated communities, participate in power structures, including those that foster their own oppression. Here, scholars address what Lipsitz (1998) identifies as the “possessive investment” in privilege. While Lipsitz focused on whiteness, detailing the ways in which people of color participate in whiteness even while relegated to its margins, others have directed similar attention to gender and sexuality. Carillo Rowe (2000) identifies White women’s contradictory position at the intersection of whiteness and femininity, as they “negotiate between gender oppression, on one hand, and racial privilege on the other” (p. 68). Following others interested in power and oppression, Carillo Rowe argues that the examination of tensions in White femininity uncovers the complexities of power, privilege and domination, pushing scholars to trace how individuals are simultaneously implicated in privilege as they also experience oppression. Brookey (1996) identifies similar contradictory tensions in queer representations, in which gay male culture is made palatable and mainstream through its affiliations with whiteness, class privilege, and family values. Finally, McPhail (1996) brings a critical eye to contemporary representations of Black masculinity that conflate blackness and masculinity in ostensibly productive ways, offering new visions of Black culture while reinscribing hetero/sexist ideologies that relegate Black femininity to tired scripts emphasizing Black women’s alleged hypersexuality. Exposing the pleasures of privilege, this work complicates ideas of power, its maneuverability and its appeal, suggesting perhaps that there is no, or at least little, avoiding complicity.

Reflections and Conclusions on the Ideological Perspective

In sum, in its turn to performativity, the ideological perspective expands the scope of the study of gender, race, and culture in productive and provocative ways. Disrupting the assumption that to study gender and/or race means to study women and/or ethnic minorities, scholars trace gender and race ideologies and examine assumptions and enactments of femininity, masculinity, and whiteness. Moreover, they look at the manifestations of these ideologies in social discourses and so advance the argument that institutions themselves— nation, media, family—are gendered and racialized. This work begins to uncover the complex ways in which these ideologies are woven into the very fabric of culture. Masculinity, whiteness, and heteronormativity emerge as foundational assumptions that constitute what we experience as culture. Yet, while such patterns of domination are described as pervasive, scholars also trace the connections between dominant and subordinated discourses. Relations of power emerge as negotiations between seemingly contradictory positions. Neither individuals nor institutions appear guilty or guiltless, oppressor or oppressed. This work contests arguments that conclude, for example, that it is men who promote hetero/sexism and Whites who practice racism. White women and people of color also participate in ideologies of dominance. Further, individuals are just one small part of the larger culture. In their attention to the discourses of cultural contestation, authors expand the terrain of culture and offer a holistic and intertextual account of tensions and contradictions, acknowledging that those contradictions may well be at the core of culture. Extending the intersections of gender and race, this work positions them as just two of the major ideologies in play and looks to the connections among gender, race, class, hetero/sexuality, and nation.

The turn to the institutional and ideological has not gone unchallenged. Authors who assess dominant discourses sometimes neglect those produced by subordinated communities. If the argument advanced by the race and gender as cultural difference perspective is correct and marginalized communities develop strategies for resistance in their everyday lives, the emphasis on dominant discourses may well miss the lessons of that resistance. What’s more, the separation of gendered and racialized bodies from ideologies of gender and race can lead to what K. Crenshaw (1991) calls “vulgar constructionism.” She argues that when scholars shift too dramatically toward ideologies and away from the material bodies at play, they potentially reduce everything to discourse, as if there are no actual populations experiencing material social struggles. If the goal of critical scholarship is to promote social change, it must retain its grounding in the materiality of everyday life (Cloud, 1994). As Ono and Sloop (2002) note, while the deconstruction of dominant discourses is necessary, that alone is insufficient. Critical scholars of gender and race must be willing to take a stand, to judge, and to delineate possibilities.

Viewing race and gender as cultural ideologies offers an accounting of them as they interact with and permeate social structures and institutions. Writers expand the terrain to include masculinity, whiteness, and heteronormativity, trace the strategies of dominance, and reveal the complex workings of power. Conceding the perpetual struggle of culture, this perspective advances what might be considered a multicultural feminism which, as Shohat (1998) describes it, is “not an easy Muzak-like harmony but rather a polyrhythmic staging of a full-throated counterpoint where tensions are left unresolved. It does not offer … a single ideological position” (p. 3).


In this chapter, I have reviewed literature broadly conceived of as contributing to the study of critical intercultural communication with an eye toward that which assesses and theorizes race and gender. As I noted earlier, the boundaries I impose may well be as permeable or murky as those examined in this literature. Still, I identify two primary perspectives that frame gender and race, and I argue that scholars tend toward either a micro perspective, which emphasizes difference, or a macro approach, which concentrates on ideologies. I conclude by considering these two bodies of work in conversation with each other, both noting their overlapping and distinct arguments and contributions and proposing productive tensions resulting from that conversation.

Scholars working in both perspectives begin with an interest in race and gender. The studies reviewed here contest, implicitly and explicitly, universal assumptions about gender and race by making both particular. In other words, whether studying individual bodies or abstract discourses, authors expose the many faces of gender and race. In the cultural difference perspective, authors position race and gender as identifiable and relatively stable aspects of identity; culture is both the site in which differences play out and a primary constitutive space that generates difference. In the cultural ideologies perspective, authors define gender and race as fluid, dynamic, and constantly negotiated, their negotiations being the very stuff of culture, which is itself an ideological enactment infused with gender and race. Scholars using either perspective look to the intersections of gender and race. The first is a micro approach that centers individuals; the second is more macro and turns to discourse and ideology.

Regardless of their emphasis, authors situate scholarship within the larger realm of politics and social change. The study of gender and race is not a neutral intellectual inquiry. It is motivated by a larger, sometimes peripheral, sometimes central, commitment to social justice. This often explicit agenda emerges in the careful attention to power that pervades this work. Though relevant across the literature, power is defined differently in the two perspectives. The cultural difference perspective illustrates the juridical dimensions of power, noting how dominant populations oppress subordinated ones who develop creative tactics for resistance. The cultural ideology perspective frames power as pervasive and seductive, such that individuals and communities participate in it in varied ways. The cultural ideology perspective looks to the institutional dimensions of power and seeks to expose its subtle manifestations. Scholars in both perspectives assess representations. While authors in the cultural difference perspective work to increase representations of marginalized communities, those writing in the cultural ideologies perspective critique those representations as well as dominant ones. The political emphasis extends to include a general critique of scholarly activity, as scholars in both perspectives implore others to reflect upon the research paradigm and account for our implication, as writers, in the critical work that we do.

Both perspectives extend the boundaries and borders of ways of thinking about and doing gender and race. Shohat (1998) describes this work as “a polyphonic space where many critical voices engage in a dialogue in which no one voice hopefully muffles the others” and which envisions “dissonant polyphony” rather than harmony (p. 2). If she is correct, critical intercultural scholars might be best served by exploring the productive tensions in play across these perspectives. Authors writing from either the micro or macro perspectives yield knowledge as they simultaneously obscure vision. Despite considerable criticism of the essentialism of identity politics, social movement scholars illustrate the power for social change that comes from a group of like-minded or like-bodied individuals working together. The material changes that emerged from U.S. women’s rights and civil rights groups are significant examples of that power. At the same time, gender and race scholars chronicle the dissolution of social groups when the foundation of their presumed unity of identity is exposed as shaky (Spelman, 1988). A second productive tension may well be the attention to voice and resistance of the cultural difference scholars versus that paid to power and dominance by the cultural ideology authors. Where writers in the first perspective may overemphasize the possibilities of resistance, those writing from the second perspective tend toward a paralyzing power-is-inescapable argument. Each group offers useful correction to the other by pointing out possibilities.

As research continues to examine gender and race in critical intercultural communication, new perspectives may yield insights. The study of identity and difference has begun to push beyond assessment of women of color to include study of masculinity and race. So far, attention to the intersections of queer identities with racial identity is limited. It is crucial that gender be expanded to include the range of gender identities. Calls for reflexivity must be met with sharply critical assessments of the ways in which marginalized communities marshal what limited privilege may be available to them, sometimes in ways that perpetuate logics of domination. Meanwhile, analysis of social discourses must continue to push national borders and examine the global implications of domestic relations. A growing body of literature has argued that ideologies of gender and race exceed national boundaries in ways that have profound implications, particularly for third world cultures. That literature challenges U.S. scholars to extend definitions and conceptions of race and gender to at least recognize the limitations of domestic analyses (Hegde, 1998b; Supriya, 2002). Undoubtedly, work along the lines suggested here, as well as other work, will continue. And as it does it will likely reconfigure what it means to study gender, race, and culture.