Racial, Gender and Sexual Identity

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In the article “Fluid and Shifting: Racialized, Gendered, and Sexual Identity in African American Children,” by Denise Isom, the author talks about a study on African American children and racialized gender identity. The researchers used various methods to conduct their research, including: 1) questionnaires, 2) face-to-face interviews, 3) ethnographic observation. The first part of the study was conducted from 2001-2002 in a “lower/working class African American community near a large mid-western city” (Isom, 2012). The subjects of this study were African American children participating in a local after-school program.

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The researchers selected children from the 5th, 6th, and 7th grades, aiming to identify early origins of self-perception as well as perceptions of others based on sexual orientation and race.

Of the 75 children selected from the program, all but one — a white female in the 7th grade — were African American. As for gender distribution, “the 5th grade room enrolled 14 boys and 10 girls, the 6th grade room 13 boys and 16 girls, while the 7th graders were equally divided at eleven each” (Isom, 2012).

On average, approximately 50 students regularly attended the 5th, 6th, and 7th grade rooms. From the 25 students whose parents granted permission for them to participate in the interview portion of the research, a random selection of 2 boys and 2 girls from each grade level was conducted. The selection process and numbers were designed to establish diversity across gender and grade levels. However, the absence of consenting and available 7th grade males limited the total number of interviewees to 10, comprised of 2 males and 2 females from the 5th and 6th grades, and 2 female 7th graders. “Those interviewees reflected similar levels of programmatic participation and social variables as the broader population of students in the after-school program” (Isom, 2007).

Based on the findings of this study, the researchers identified 7 different categories: 1) Blackness, 2) Maleness, 3) Ideal Maleness, 4) Femaleness, 5) Racialized Gender and Shifting Identity, 6) Homosexuality and Fluidity of Identity, 7) Morphing, Shifting, and Investing Language and Theology.

When the researchers asked, “What is blackness?” they were shocked by the children’s response, which was “It’s just a race” or “It’s just a color.” They noted that the children’s initial comments regarding notions and operations of race were not expressions of racial neutrality or insignificance, but profound statements. They referred to being black as “It’s just a race” or “It’s just a color” (Isom, 2012). This response indicates that they were speaking about their feelings of existence. When the African American children spoke about blackness, they often described it as a struggle, marked by triumphant overcoming. In doing so, they operated out of willful self-creation (Isom, 2012). In this part of the study, when initially asked their thoughts and perspectives during interviews and group meetings, the young men responded in typical ways, describing maleness as rough, tough, funny, and athletic.

The females of the study portrayed maleness as a performance, using expressions such as “they think they’re supposed to,” “they attempt to act like,” and “they don’t want to seem.” They saw maleness as a facade, a consciously externalized act. However, their understanding varied significantly from mainstream explorations that often portray Black males as hyper-masculine. When asked how they would define masculinity, they articulated a socially oriented, responsive, and responsible version of masculinity, describing it as “helping an old woman with her bags,” “being someone others could talk to,” and “being someone people can look up to.” Responding to what they wished their teachers knew about them, the boys in the study mentioned their “heart.” They identified themselves as “funny and caring” and expressed their desire “to be a good man.” They seemed to suggest that boyhood was defined by pop culture’s constructs of “masculinity,” but mature masculinity meant living beyond these constructs, transcending narrowly defined masculinity.

When the researchers asked about their male heroes, both males and females emphasized the idea of connection. The males identified their family members, such as their fathers and brothers, as their heroes. In contrast, the young women tended to speak more generally about adversity, absence, and need. Among the responses were “Denzel Washington” and “Martin Luther King.” One young woman stated that the ideal man was “the one who does not abandon his children, has a wife, lives in a nice house, and takes care of his family.” These women spoke critically about their surroundings and about the men in their lives. They discussed a sense of not knowing, and of not being known by men. In the first study, when asked to “write down the first words that come to mind when you hear the word ‘girl,’” a third of the female responses reflected positive behavior, citing words like “good,” “nice,” and “friendly,” while another third included relational descriptions such as, “people to converse with” and “having a boyfriend.” This suggests a social understanding of femininity and the concept of the “good girl.” The female responses contrasted starkly with the male responses, which were primarily focused on appearance and the female body. More than half of the expressions provided by boys referenced appearance, including terms like “pretty,” “makeup,” “hair,” “body,” and “concern with clothes.” The second most common type of male response, about a third, reflected behavior, employing words such as “nice,” “gentle,” and “talkative,” which harked back to the idea of the “good girl.”

Males remained consistent in largely utilizing external domains to define. Oppositional defining loomed large in the answers the girls gave during the interviews. When asked what it meant to be female, their remarks included, “girls are smarter,” “girls are better,” “more mature,” “more sophisticated,” “more responsible,” and “better leaders,” due to their superior character” (Isom, 2012). This present in their comments represents the theme-assuring line for defining femaleness. Seemingly, from this set of reactions, females saw themselves as progressed individuals. However, female defining did not stand on its own; its excellence did not exist in and of itself, but emerged from a comparison to, and in resistance to, maleness. Alongside this notion of comparative femaleness, a sense of male complexity presented itself as well. Though most of the girls’ responses to what female meant focused on a male comparison, the moment’s most common set of answers uncovered females mixing numerous capacities and states of mind. Where boys were examined playing as it were “boy sports,” girls saw themselves as “playing all kinds of games” (some even made a point of saying they play basketball as well). And whereas females talked of guys as continuously having an attitude, regularly prepared to fight, they can put on masculinity, be girly, or be superior individuals. For one young woman, femininity was not just when a girl wanted “to do her nails,” but also when she did not want to play basketball. Doing both was femaleness, limiting oneself was femininity. Though defined in comparison to maleness, a female was occupying multiple positions, a younger version of the complex African American womanhood described by Hooks (1981) and Wallace (1990)” (Isom, 2012).

The multiple dimensionalities in femaleness also appeared in the males’ interview answers to what it implied to be female. Their reactions included, “go to the mall,” “hang out and bond,” “strong,” “same strength as men,” “attitudes,” “read books and not go to the ‘Y’ and swim,” “get boys in trouble,” and “do housework.” Unlike maleness, which the boys surrounded with behaviors, femaleness for them extended well beyond actions into attitude, character, and strength. Included in one young man’s answer was, “it’s the way they can get a man and possess a man, the way they hold themselves up. Like a strong Black woman gets her own work done, independent, and goes to college, gets her degree – everything like that. She is everything – smart, successful, sexy – a superwoman.” The questionnaire of the first study asked the children to name the first words, images, and/or descriptions that came to mind when they read the words “Boys,” “Girls,” “Black Boys,” and “Black Girls.”

These questions addressed one of the primary formal opportunities the primary study’s participants had to explicitly discuss racialized gender – the intersections of race and gender. During both informal and formal conversation, the children would assume an African American personality when they or others talked about sex. This made their responses to the questionnaire even more puzzling. Often, they would draw on popular culture representations of “Blackness”. Their reactions reflected race as a debasing constraint. The boys used words such as “pretty,” “booty,” “nice,” “friends,” and “talks a lot,” when asked to describe “girls”. However, when the category was changed to “Black girls,” their responses became “hootchie,” “booty call,” “nice butts,” “crazy ghetto,” and “talks stuff”. These reactions were not overtly sexualized but reflected an exploitative non-relational viewpoint of women, echoing prevailing culture’s depiction of the Black woman as the video lady or “Jezebel”.

When the young girls of the primary study experienced sexualization through boy’s language or behavior in group settings, these usually verbose females fell silent. In the secondary study, the older teenage girls responded to similar events by verbally affirming their virtue or virginity. This concept of sexual purity served as social control, allowing them to talk back to boys and put down other girls. In analysing interview notes, it became clear that boys justified their engagement in sexualized activities, even those potentially homosexual in nature, by their “need” to make others laugh or their claim of typical boyish behavior. These actions were only undertaken by boys with social leverage, as a way of maintaining their status.

Homosexuality was typically disparaged in most settings. Associated terms were often used to demean others. However, when a male group member was mockingly asked, “Can you do that any gayer?” his response was to humorously exaggerate the action further. He faced no more ridicule, challenging such criticism by embracing the idea of homosexuality rather than ignoring or pushing back against it. His social status allowed him a broader range of self-expression. When asked about homosexuality and the church, some boys surprisingly said they had “learned about God from gays,” characterized homosexuals as “seeking love,” and one even expressed the belief that if homosexuality was indeed a person’s identity, then God would still love that person. The surprising tolerance in their words contradicts the conservative theology of their Baptist church, hinting at a potential counter-narrative about sexual identity. However, the girls in the church study never publicly referenced homosexual behavior for themselves. Instead, they often expressed sympathy and solidarity with girls who did.

In interviews and discussions about homosexuality, two young ladies detailed serving as a distraction for girls in a relationship who each had disapproving parents. Being forbidden from talking to each other by one or both guardians, one young lady would call the member from my study, who would in turn use a party line to call the other young lady and thus allow them to speak without their parents knowing. Another young woman spoke of inviting a “stud” friend to church. This young lady wore a rainbow belt buckle, went forward for prayer, and was greeted by an older woman of the church who, the subject reported, “looked like she didn’t know what to do with her.” Yet another spoke of a place where the transgendered students at her school felt safe and she would occasionally join them, as she said the teacher “was cool.” Issues like these arise frequently.

To address both organizational and personal sources of bias and discrimination within the settings and circumstances in which the participants in the program or movement learn, work, and live, we should examine the impact of individual behaviors, including their motivation and ability to influence others, and not limit ourselves to efforts to increase knowledge and awareness. We ought to use various strategies as part of learning activities that are valued and incorporated throughout the school or college. These strategies should explore similarities and differences across and within racial and ethnic groups, including disparities related to social class, gender, and language. They should recognize the value of bicultural and multicultural identities of individuals and groups, as well as the challenges faced by people living in two or more cultures. Our methodologies should debunk myths that support stereotypes and prejudices. Careful and comprehensive training of those implementing the learning activities should be part of these strategies. Techniques should be based on thorough evaluations of the learning needs of participants and on ongoing assessment of outcomes, especially impacts on behavior, and provide opportunities for adapting strategies to specific settings. They should also acknowledge that lessons related to bias and its effects for any specific racial or ethnic group may not apply to other groups.


  1. (Teach to learn 1991-2019) Strategies for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Prejudice: Essential Principles, retrieved From https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/strategies-for-reducing-racial-and-ethnic-prejudice-essential-principles
  2. Isom, D., (2012) Fluid and Shifting: Racialized, Gendered, and Sexual Identity in African American Children”. International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. 6 (11), p127-137. 11p. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.18848/1833-1882/CGP/v06i11/52193
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Racial, Gender and Sexual Identity. (2021, May 10). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/racial-gender-and-sexual-identity/