Articles CPP Newsletter Online V11.2

War, Gender, Race & Class by Duane Cady

Cady, Duane. “War, Gender, Race & Class: 1991 CPP Presidential Address,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 11.2 (Fall 1991)


Let me preface my paper with a few personal remarks; I know this is unusual for gatherings of academic philosophers, but Concerned Philosophers for Peace is an unusual group.

I am both honored and humbled to have been elected President of CPP. I am primarily a teacher of undergraduates. I work in a department of three in a small, liberal arts college. Course variety and load are significant. My writing goes on around the edges. I say all of this to acknowledge that my work has come to light in large part because of this group. I doubt that my book–or even an essay on my war and peace concerns–would have been written and published were it not for many of you who have taken me in and taken me on. You know that our peace interests have been at the margins of our profession; without the encouragement of one another, few of us could persist in work so far from the academic center. I thank you.

While you have helped me take myself seriously, I don’t take myself too seriously. A couple of years ago a colleague of mine observed that she often heard academics account for the presence of a woman or person of color on a panel or program by reference to their race or gender; she wondered when the day would come when a white male would make such a self-reference as an account of his presence on a program. Although she’s not here to hear me, I do know that as a white, male, middle-class American I have had a great many advantages in our culture; those advantages certainly help account for my presence on this program. Although we did not create it, ours is a white-male privileged culture and it’s only fair at least to acknowledge it as such, better yet to challenge and change it. This leads me to my remarks for the evening.

War, Gender, Race & Class

In thinking about Nationalism, Militarism and Regional Conflict, in order to provoke a thought which might become my talk for this occasion, I caught myself reflecting on the chauvinism and arrogance that often accompany nationalism and militarism. From there the jump was small to racism, sexism and what I have called warism. Without pretending to exhaust the relationships between these, I explore some of them in what follows. My thesis is that something like what Marilyn Frye has named “arrogant perception” (Frye, 67) goes hand-in-hand with an attitude of domination which is common to sexism, racism, classism and warism. To me this means that these and other “isms of domination,” as Karen Warren has called them (Warren, 87), are variant manifestations of the urge to elevate or to defend oneself (or one’s race, gender, nation, etc.) by putting or holding others down where the put-downs are based solely on selected and politically structured differences that reflect apparent power differentials.

My effort here is to examine warism and its relations to racism, sexism and classism. I take warism to be the view that war is both morally justifiable in principle and often morally justified in fact.(1) It is sometimes held explicitly, by those who openly and consciously take just-warist positions. And it is held implicitly, by those who take war for granted as, simply, the normal and natural activity of sovereign states. Often warism is encouraged by manipulation and exploitation of ignorance, fears and prejudices of sexist, racist and classist sorts. I will argue that warism cannot be understood without grasping these isms of domination through which it functions and is sustained. Warism synthesizes racism, sexism and classism on a grand scale, holding them in place while depending on them for its own maintenance. Racism, sexism and classism are interrelated in warism; they are interconnected, mutually supporting and inextricably entangled, each with the others. To resist any one of them involves resisting them all; to ignore any one of them involves complicity with the rest.

I will confine my remarks to four aspects involved in maintaining and justifying the power and privilege of the isms of domination of racism, sexism and classism and their synthesis in war: 1) conceptual issues, 2) the institutionalization of race, gender and class identities, 3) epistemological issues, and 4) interconnections between isms of domination. My approach will be to draw from several important contributors to current discussion of these isms of domination to develop and exemplify the plausibility of my suggestion that warism both sustains and is sustained by racism, sexism and classism.

In The Politics of Reality, Marilyn Frye argues that various “cultural and economic structures … create and enforce elaborate and rigid patterns of sex-marking and sex-announcing which divide the species, along lines of sex, into dominators and subordinates.” Acts and practices which reinforce and support these structures are sexist (Frye, 38). For subordination to be efficient it is important “that the structure not appear to be a cultural artifact kept in place by human decision or custom, but that it appear natural …,” (Frye, 34, emphasis hers).

All of us, to varying degrees, reflect our culture’s sex-marking standards through our garments, hairdos, cosmetics, scents, “gait, gesture, posture, speech, humor, taste and even perception, interest and attention [all] that we learn as we grow up to be women or men…,” (Frye, 23-24). And we take these cultural constructs of gender to be reality and thereby to justify the double-standards. The point is not that there are no differences between women and men; there are subtle and complex differences, some of which are just beginning to be understood. Frye’s point is that the differences are largely limited to reproductive function, and, importantly, are exaggerated to suggest two distinct and sharply dimorphic sexes when in reality “people fit on a biological spectrum between two not so sharply defined poles,” (Frye, 25). So, gender is mostly political. But while our consciously chosen political acts explicitly reflect our conceptual frameworks, sexism implicitly does so, reflecting beliefs, attitudes and assumptions of which we may not even be aware. Sexism functions as a normative lens which shapes and filters all that we encounter to fit its contours.

In developing her notion of the pervasive influence of culture on our sense of gender, Frye describes the “arrogant eye,” her name for the sort of perception dominant in Western Civilization. The philosophic question, ‘what is man’s place in nature?’ is answered, ‘everything exists for man’s purposes.’ Those seeing with arrogant eyes organize everything with reference to themselves and their own interests (Frye, 67).

Importantly, most of those in positions of power and privilege doing the theorizing about “man’s place in nature” have been men. In Is Women’s Philosophy Possible? Nancy Holland points out not only that women’s experience has been almost entirely left out of consideration in traditional philosophy; beyond this neglect, male norms from experience “are offered as examples of human behavior” and “function as standards that exclude those with different experiences from the realm of the human,” (Holland, 12). Those falsely universalizing from male experience to standards for humanity may be unaware of “the power hidden in universalization, the power to say who and what other people are, and the power to ignore their self-definitions and their own experience of themselves and the world,” (Holland, 2).

Feminist considerations of theorizing, of philosophy itself, expose the dangers of perceptual arrogance: we may not only be misled about the reality we seek to know, but we may also contribute to splitting humanity into dominant and subordinate divisions. This is so no less of race than of gender.

In a remarkable essay called “On Being White: Thinking Toward a Feminist Understanding of Race and Race Supremacy,” Frye describes her feelings about the dilemmas of struggling against racism: “…racism is so systematic and White privilege so impossible to escape, that one is, simply, trapped,” (Frye, 126).

Frye tells a story of her work with a number of White women who formed a consciousness-raising group to identify racism in their lives with hope to understand and dismantle it. Some women of color suggested that it was racist of them to form a group of White women only, and one Black woman confronted them angrily for even thinking they could achieve their goals working only with White women. It seemed to the White women that doing nothing would be racist, but that whatever they did would be racist just because they did it. Frye realizes that as a White, whatever decision she makes will be an exercise of race privilege.

For Frye, race–like gender– is cultural.

Many people whose skin is White, by which of course we don’t really mean white, are Black or Mexican or Puerto Rican or Mohawk. And some people who are dark-skinned are White. Natives of India and Pakistan are generally counted as White… Whiteness is, it seems pretty obvious, a social or political construct (Frye, 114).

To be White is to be a member of a privileged group which is self-defining. In America, by law, if you are part Black, you are Black, but if you are part White that does not make you White. The privileged group decides who its members are.

Certainly, there are differences between the phenomena of gender and race, even if both are cultural constructs contained within our conceptual frameworks; but the similarity may help some of us recognize ourselves as members of one or more privileged groups. If membership is political–as it must be since the privileged decide membership–then it is not dictated by nature. If the privileges are unwarranted–as surely they must be regarding gender and race–then our advantages come at the expense of disadvantages to others. Racism and sexism are so systemic and their privileges as well as burdens so impossible to escape, that we are, simply, trapped. Or are we? After all, if racism and sexism are cultural constructs, then even if we number among the privileged we have the option of resisting the cultural constructs. Here’s where Frye finds hope:

I have enjoined males of my acquaintance to set themselves against masculinity. I have asked them to think about how they can stop being men, and I was not recommending a sex-change operation. I do not know how they can stop being men, but I think it is thinkable, and it is a counsel of hope. Likewise I can set myself against Whiteness. I can give myself the injunction to stop being White (Frye, 127).

As Whites, we must never claim not to be racist, but only to be anti-racist (Frye, 126); as men we must never claim not to be sexist, but only to be anti-sexist.

A year ago I had the good fortune to meet Katie Cannon, the Black feminist theologian (one of a handful of Black women to hold a Ph.D. in religion) and author of Black Womanist Ethics. Interested as I am in the relationships between varieties of domination and subordination I could not resist asking her how she saw the relationships between racism, sexism, and classism. As a Black woman raised in a working-poor family she would have a privileged access to the interplay between these isms of domination. I was amazed and moved when she related her experience.

She said that as a child she was sure that racism was the fundamental oppression; she hadn’t yet felt the sting of sexism and she didn’t realize how poor her family was until she was older. By the time she got to seminary she was pretty sure sexism was a bigger problem than racism; her peers and professors seemed more bothered by her gender than by her race. Years later, having completed her Ph.D. and having taught for several years in Boston, she made a major presentation before a large and affluent audience. After her talk she met several Black women whose body language and voice inflections seemed to put her down. Confused and hurt, Professor Cannon realized later that the women had heard her working-poor background in her voice; it wasn’t race or gender, but class prejudice which she then felt (2).

Professor Cannon’s own experience had convinced her that it was a mistake–a trap–to be pushed to choose between racism, sexism, and classism. In her mind none could be thought to be more (or less) important than the others. Black Lesbian feminist Barbara Smith took a similar position as early as 1977 when the Combahee River Collective wrote:

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives (Smith, 95).

The synthesis of these oppressions–that is, how they come together–creates the conditions of our lives whether we’re among the privileged or the subordinate when the conditions are cultural. This synthesis is a subtle and complex business; here we are looking only at one of the ways this synthesis is maintained, namely, warism. There may well be a good many other cultural structures which sustain a similar synthetic function: economics, education, history, etc. The analysis of such conditions–that is, how we take them apart–may distract us away from the very synthesis which holds them together to create a network which sustains existing privilege and power. As I have tried to make clear above, recognizing, engaging, and trying to overcome this synthesis is a problem for all of us, not only for those disadvantaged by the status quo.

With “A Fierce and Human Peace,” Sara Ruddick provides a critique of military masculinity as she develops her feminist peace politics. She exposes the ‘male’-defining misogynous and homophobic norms of masculinity invoked by militarists to train, shame, and inspire soldiers. Ruddick notes the use of racial and ethnic slurs in the process and extends her critique to challenge military femininity. Her objective is to urge a sturdy, public suspicion of organized violence even in the best of causes (Ruddick, 3). Applied to regional conflict, each of us can readily cite exploitations of racism, sexism, and classism in various contexts. Popular media coverage of the Persian Gulf War provided innumerable examples. It is important to recognize that “good” wars, if there can be any, would not rest upon such synthesizing of isms of domination. Perhaps better said: the acceptability of a given war may be proportionate to its dependence upon synthesizing isms of domination to sustain itself.

In Philosophy of Liberation, Enrique Dussell points out the ways in which dominant conceptions of geo-political reality reinforce status quo power and privilege at the expense of people of the so-called Third World, extending the considerations of class into a world-wide arena. On Dussell’s model, our present global order consists of a culturally dominant “center” and a culturally dominated “periphery.” Those of influence in the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan constitute the center; the peoples of the periphery include women, children, the aged, the racially and ethnically oppressed, and the populations of Latin America, Africa and most of Asia. Domination of the periphery by the center is political, military and economic, and goes deeper to entrap ideologically, psychologically, spiritually, scientifically. All relationships are contaminated by the center/periphery split.

Dussell asks all theorists to begin anew with the primacy of the other as the foundation rather than to presume objectivity and thus help to sustain the theft of all value from the people of the periphery. The implications are radical and revolutionary: economics becomes service to the other rather than maximization of profits; nature becomes a global home and not mere exploitable matter; choices must respect the periphery and not merely impose themselves onto the periphery from the center, and so on.

Applied to the global reality described in Dussell’s terms, warism synthesizes sexism, racism, and classism on a grand scale to perpetuate the power and privilege of the center. It “justifies” itself by marginalizing the disadvantaged, that is, by arrogant perception. As long as the privileged and powerful perceive the “reality” formed by the isms of domination, the normal and natural thing to do is constantly prepare for, threaten, and undertake war to preserve the status quo. The isms of domination together form a status quo network which is both self-sustaining and oppressive of the periphery.

In “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception” Maria Lugones takes off from Frye’s notion of arrogant perception to insist on the need to understand and affirm racial and cultural plurality as central to feminist knowing. Her concept of ‘loving perception’ avoids the fusion and erasure of difference characteristic of traditional (false-universalizing) philosophy. In place of the tradition’s ‘unity’ which she shows to be conceptually tied to domination, Lugones offers plurality which celebrates difference and is conceptually tied to solidarity. Noticing and appreciating pluralities turn out to depend on “‘world’-traveling,” “understanding what it is to be [another] and what it is to be ourselves in their eyes,” (Lugones, 17). This is no sentimental, utopian suggestion that world peace will reign when everyone learns to appreciate everyone else. There are ‘worlds’ which we enter at risk, in which we are uncomfortable at best and which have “conquest and arrogance as the main ingredients in their ethos,” (Lugones, 17). But while not all loving perception yields the same in return, at least there is hope beyond the domination of arrogant perception.

In “On the Logic of Pluralist Feminism,” Lugones goes further to argue that plurality must be stressed in the very structure of any theory. Otherwise the theory distorts by missing complexity, and, in its arrogance, offends those it excludes while privileging its simple, narrow source. Humble perception is the antithesis of arrogant perception.

I have tried to show some of the ways in which racism, sexism, classism, and warism are intertangled. Together they create the conditions of our lives whether we are among the privileged or the disadvantaged. If we want to understand any of them we are stuck struggling to understand all of them. They are connected not only as they are exploited and manipulated by the powerful to sustain the status quo ; they are connected as well by the arrogant perception dominant in the prevailing conceptual framework of our culture, the self-determined geo-political center. This means that they are sustained by the systems through which our culture operates.

Racism, sexism, classism, and warism are not identical. Taken independently, each has distinct features of its own. Token together, they perpetuate the established dominant systems which seem to become increasingly monolithic as time passes. These same systems have given the world ever higher levels of carnage, hate, and suffering while fewer and fewer (but increasingly privileged) individuals have significant influence.

Recognizing the interdependencies of racism, sexism, classism, and warism can provoke despair; the scope and complexity of our problems nearly overwhelm. Yet the recognition of these interlocking features of dominant (and dominating) culture also frees us to join in solidarity with people suppressed and subordinated, because we needn’t affirm or help sustain these systemic isms of privilege and domination; we can set ourselves against them. Because they are institutionalized features of culture, they needn’t define us nor need they be accepted as if natural or permanent.

Hamline University


I want to express my gratitude to Katie Cannon, Nancy Holland, Julie Raulli, Sara Ruddick, Karen Warren, and Rick Werner for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this talk; of course the problems remaining are my own.

1) Cf. From Warism to Pacifism: A Moral Continuum (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), especially Chapter I.

2) Small group discussion with Katie Cannon, St. Paul, Minnesota, November 8, 1990.


Dussell, Enrique. Philosophy of Liberation, tr. Aquilina Martinez & Christine Morkovsky (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985).

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1983).

Holland, Nancy J. Is Women’s Philosophy Possible? (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1990).
Lugones, Maria. “On the Logic of Pluralist Feminism,” in Feminist Ethics, Claudia Card, ed. (University Press of Kansas, 1991).

———— “Playfulness, ‘World’ Traveling, and Loving Perception,” Hypatia Vol. 2, No. 2 (Summer, 1987).

Ruddick, Sara. “Fierce and Human Peace,” in Just War, Nonviolence and Nuclear Deterrence, Duane L. Cady & Richard Werner, eds. (Wakefield, NH: Longwood Academic, 1991).

Smith, Barbara. “Feminist Writers Confront the Nuclear Abyss,” in Exposing Nuclear Phallacies, Diana E. H. Russell, ed. (Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press, 1989).

Warren, Karen. “Towards a Feminist Peace Politics,” Journal for Peace and Justice Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1991.

By mopress

Writer, Editor, Social Democrat

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