Shoelace Metaphor

written by Amanda Gross

Centuries before white ladies began selling our souls to whiteness we were fighting our living death in Patriarchy, in our own communities and in our own homes.

How did we get from Patriarchy to whiteness? That is a question we will examine by starting with that half-day Professional Development workshop your employer made you attend. Let’s call it Diversity & Inclusion 101.

Chances are if you’ve ever been to any such workshop/dialogue/conversation/seminar, at some point the trainer would frame the conversation in terms of social identity. Known to insiders as the “Big 8,” these main social identity markers include “race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality, and socioeconomic status.” (Sometimes age makes the list.) The “social” part of “social identity” means that all of us — whether we want to or not — contend with all of these social identity markers as we navigate our lives.

I see these and other Diversity and Inclusion frameworks as limitedly helpful, like a mouse trap when you’re trying to catch a tornado.

The helpful part of this framework is that it supports us in claiming parts of our identities that society discourages us from seeing, as is typically the case when our social identity markers reflect dominant identities in our society. Like white people in an all-white space, generally we are not thinking about our race or talking about our own racism. At the very least, Diversity and Inclusion frameworks help us to acknowledge our differences based on our social identities.

But what is inadequate about these frameworks is that they aren’t functionally real. These markers compartmentalize our human experience into silos. In the real world, we can never isolate aspects of our identities. They are in relationship to each other and to power structures all the time. This interdependent point of relationships is known as “intersectionality.” A term first coined by Black feminist scholar, Dr. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, “intersectionality” was further developed by Black, Indigenous, and other Women of Color as a way of naming the intersections of oppression. It was also offered as an important critique to white feminism and Black resistance movements, both of which historically marginalized Black women. Intersectionality makes visible the relationships between various aspects of our identities, which is how I’ve come to understand that my socialization into white middle class womanhood cannot be universalized as the experience of all women.

Likewise, bell hooks describes the dominant system in our society with a lengthy yet apt term: “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.” Intersectionally speaking, Imperialism cannot be removed from Capitalism, nor White Supremacy extracted from Patriarchy.

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In January of 2018, Felicia Savage Friedman and I collaborated on a workshop for Pittsburgh’s Summit Against Racism (now called Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit). We called our workshop “The Wicked Webs of Racism, Patriarchy, and Capitalism” and were looking for a way to describe the historical roots and present-day fruits of these intersecting oppressions.

Some of the white women in the room were struggling to understand the relationship between their personal experiences of sexism and their complicity as white people in upholding racism. This was something I had been grappling with over the past few years, too. Neither dismissing our ability to uphold racism (because we have been victimized by sexism) nor totally erasing gendered experience from a racial analysis seemed satisfactory. These are intersectional Wicked Webs after all. As any fiber artist knows, it is the combination of entanglement and tension that transforms individual threads into yards of fabric.

I had been turning over fiber art metaphors in my mind for some time. Plus, the night before our first Wicked Webs workshop, I had had a dream. And so when a young white woman educator confessed to struggling with her relationship to both sexism and racism, I shared a concept I had been mulling over — one which would become known as the Shoelace Metaphor, a visual and experiential way to conceptualize the interlocking layers of the Wicked Webs of Racism, Patriarchy, and Capitalism over time (or more accurately, Patriarchy, Capitalism, and Racism).

Using the Shoelace Metaphor, the Wicked Webs appear less like the intersection at a four-way stop and more like the tied knots keeping your sneaker laces in place.

(If you have access and want to follow along at home, you will need something to write on, something to write with, and a shoe with untied laces.)

I learned how to tie a shoe in preschool (a shout out to my preschool teacher, Ms. Martha). I have vague memories of practicing on a shoe box, but more clearly remember trying to teach my little brother. “You cross one string over the other and then pull tight. But not too tight!” His fingers fumbled with the laces. His face affixed with concentration. Learning this first knot took time and many tries. Usually one lace would end up entangled in the other, but rarely would that knot be stable enough for the next step.

Like the tedious repetition of a preschooler learning to tie their shoes, it took Patriarchy thousands of years to get its foundational knot in place.

In our Wicked Webs workshops, we define Patriarchy as a historically-established process that takes all of humanity and divides us into two separate groups based on the biological categories of male and female, after which each biological category gets a gender.

(For those of you following along at home, it might be helpful to take out a paper and pen, draw a big circle. This circle represents all of humanity. Now draw a line down the middle, from top to bottom.)

Humans with the anatomical body parts of penis, testicles, scrotum, prostate, with relatively high levels of testosterone and low levels of estrogen, and XY chromosomes are given the biological sex “male.”

(Write “male” on the left side of your circle.)

Those humans with the anatomical body parts of vagina, vulva, uterus, ovaries, with relatively low levels of testosterone and high levels of estrogen, and XX chromosomes are given the biological sex “female.”

(Write “female” on the right.)

Biological sex may inform a human being’s reproductive capacity and what they are able to do anatomically with their body. But regardless, that human is assigned a corresponding gender, which is socially described and enforced and has to do with things like power, behavior, appearance, identity, norms, and weird associations like colors, deodorant scents, and toy genre. In the world of Patriarchy, as it has been defined by Europe, the sex categories of male/female neatly line up with the gender categories of man/woman or boy/girl and also with all sorts of other English words such as he/she, hero/heroine, god/goddess, priest/priestess, John/Jane, and blue/pink to name a few.

(Now fill in the left side of the circle with the words “man/boy/he” and any other random masculine gender associations you have learned. Write “woman/girl/she” and any other feminine gender associations under “female” on the right.)

Like zooming in on a low-resolution jpeg, the hard lines that establish and keep male=men and female=women get fuzzier the closer you look. As many as 1 out of every 60 children neither fall neatly into the male nor female categories; they are born intersex. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights:

“Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.”

In Western society, it’s been common medical practice for doctors to alter a child’s anatomy at birth to fit more neatly into a clearly female or male sex category, often without the informed consent of the child’s parents. Which means you or I could have been born intersex without ever knowing. Beyond being born intersex, there are many other reasons why an individual’s anatomy might not neatly fit into sex box one or sex box two including a wide range of surgeries and medical procedures like hysterectomies or getting one’s tubes tied.

(Drat, now what are you going to do with that middle line? Did you write in ink?)

Gender, as I mentioned, is socially constructed and enforced. And while there are plenty of examples of societies throughout the world and throughout history who have multiple and overlapping gender categories outside of and beyond a man/woman gender binary, Patriarchy’s strict binary depends on the initial subjugation of people gendered men. Or as bell hooks states:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” (bell hooks)

(At this point, I usually draw mad arrows surrounding the left side of the circle, but however else you want to represent the ritual of emotionally harming boys will work too.)

The ritual of emotionally harming boys prepares them as grown men to dominate women and girls, compete with and command weaker less masculine and younger men, and police that gender binary with violent aggression. The performance of violent homophobia is one example of gender binary policing that Patriarchy demands.

(Again, arrows work here to represent domination. Sometimes I illustrate this forced violence by compelling the circle to tilt 90 degrees to the right and then morphing into a pyramid.)

Originally brought to parts of Europe through nomadic warrior tribes from the Russian steppes, Patriarchy became established in Europe over several thousands of years. Its spread in Europe began in the 5,000–4,000 BCE time range and became more and more entrenched throughout history. Patriarchy’s violence marked the eras of Greek and Roman domination and was especially ingrained in the rise of Christianity in both eastern (Eastern Orthodox) and western (Holy Roman) traditions. By the time the Witch Hunts rolled around, Patriarchy was integrated into economic, political, religious, cultural, and social systems at every level. {For more on this early history of European Patriarchy see The Rule of Mars edited by Cristina Biaggi}

Shoelace Metaphor 1

(Now for that shoe I’ve asked you to find; make sure you have a shoe that is laced up, but not yet tied. Cross the two laces one over the other. Wrap one of the laces around and up under the other. Pull both of them tight in order to create the first foundational knot. This knot represents European Patriarchy.)

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Shoelace Metaphor 2: Foundational knot is European Patriarchy

The era of the Witch Hunts in Europe corresponded with an entire economic shift away from Feudalism and towards Mercantilism, the predecessor of Capitalism. To sum up hundreds of years of history and an entire book (Caliban and the Witch by historian Silvia Federici), the ruling wealthy class got greedy and kicked the peasants off the land. The peasants organized to resist. The ruling class clapped back using the Witch Hunts and persecution of Jewish people and Heretics to undermine peasant resistance. All this eventually resulted in a new economic system: Mercantilism, which focused on trade for profit and private ownership. Its accompanying philosophy, Mechanical Philosophy, began equating the human body to the machine, viewing the body as raw material, disposable for profit and the emerging nation-state.

At the same time as Europe was philosophically separating the physical body from the sacred soul, its religious leadership (Pope Alexander VI) was sanctifying violent conquest. Now any land not already inhabited by Christians was proclaimed God-ordained for the taking. According to the Pope’s Bull, it was now Christian obligation that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

These religious proclamations had a disastrous impact on Indigenous people around the world. In the Western Hemisphere, some historians estimate that 56 million Indigenous people were murdered leading up to the 1600s — equaling 90 percent of the pre-Columbian Indigenous population. Neither this devastating history nor the ways my ancestors directly benefited from it, nor the ways Indigenous people resisted, exist, and still resist European Colonization were ever taught to me in school. Certainly it was not the “Pilgrim and Indian” story of annual preschool Thanksgiving Day theater productions.

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Speaking of preschool, we last left our historical preschooler with the triumph of their first knot, poised and ready to take on the next level of shoe-tying anatomy. When teaching little kids to tie shoes, I tend to stick to the Bunny Ears method, in which you create two loops, one in each hand, and then tie them together and pull tight. This seems to be the clearest way to demonstrate, conceptualize, and explain the next step. However, when left to my own devices, I prefer the more complex “Loop, Swoop, and Pull” method. It’s amazing how as an adult, I do this now without even thinking. I make that quick grab with one hand for a loop on the lace to my right and then use my left hand to wrap the left lace around. Then, in an expert move, I seamlessly switch which hand is on which lace by momentarily holding the arrangement in place with my right hand. My left hand reaches for my right lace loop at the same time that the fingers on my right hand make contact with the left lace, guiding it through the gap. In one motion, both hands pull the two symmetrical loops taut.

(Take your shoe and add the second knot using your preferred—Bunny Ears or Loop, Swoop, and Pull—method. This second knot with its pair of loops represent Mercantilism on one side and Colonization on the other.)

Shoelace Metaphor 3: Bunny ears of Mercantilism & Colonization

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I can say with confidence, that the white women asking questions about race and gender on that cold, January day at our first Wicked Webs workshop weren’t the upper echelon of society. They weren’t the One Percent of 2018’s America. But, neither were they barely surviving at the lowest rung of the U.S.’s economic ladder. One of them even had enough expendable income and leisure time to meet up a few weeks later for a lovely chat over coffee. We were both wearing winter boots; mine had laces, double-tied.

Something else happened between the tie that brought together Mercantilism and Colonization and the metaphorical shoes worn by today’s nice white lady. And that something was the invention of race.

I first learned about the distinct historic connection between race and class at a People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond Undoing Racism workshop, which was being facilitated by Dr. Michael Washington. Dr. Mike painted a captivating and grim picture of what poor indentured European servants, Africans who were enslaved, and members of Native tribes were going through as dehumanized laborers for the European elite.

In Birth of a White Nation, Jacqueline Battalora also describes this set up with  attention to the ways European Patriarchy carried over into new laws in the British Colonies of Virginia and Maryland, particularly in supporting the legal creation of a new category of people now called “white.” These brutal 17th Century laws established a drastically different set of consequences and outcomes depending on whether one was European or African/members of Native tribes and included (and I share an extremely abridged version of this history here—for more in depth information, investigate the resources listed in the bibliography at the end of this post):

  •        In 1640 in the colony of Virginia, John Punch, an enslaved African man ran away with two indentured Europeans. When caught he was sentenced to lifelong servitude, while the Europeans were given added years of indenture, but not the permanent loss of their freedom. This is one of the first legal distinctions made between Africans and Europeans and set a legal precedent for lifelong Chattel Slavery.
  •       In 1643, and further clarified in the decades that followed, the Virginia Assembly added a tax on African women that was consistent with the tax on English men ages 16–60 and on African men. With this new law, English women became the only category of women tax exempt and, rather than being taxed for their labor, they were instead classified as dependents (both servants and free). As historian Kathleen M. Brown puts it, “This created a legal fiction about the different capacities for performing agricultural labor between English and African women” (from Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs).
  •       Deviating from hundreds of years of British Common Law in which land, child custody, and inheritance all flowed paternally, a 1662 Virginia colonial law made the status of a child (whether enslaved or free) inheritable based on the status of the mother rather than based on that of the father. This law had the traumatic impact of incentivizing the systematic rape of women of African descent. It also delegitimized Black parenthood by simultaneously relocating parental authority of Black children to enslavers while erasing evidence of their white paternity.
  •       Anti-miscegenation laws in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland established the existence of white people in 1681, first established to control who “British and other free born” women could marry and later declaring that it was illegal for white men and women to marry people of African descent and members of Native tribes. Although illegal for white men to marry non-white people, this was primarily enforced in the case of white women, serving to make white women exclusively available to white men and subsequently all women more available to white men. At the same time, patriarchal privileges (carrying firearms for example) were stripped from men of African descent and members of Native tribes, centering patriarchal power in the hands of white men.

This gruesome history was justified with the development of pseudo-scientific classification and ranking systems (aka race), which consistently placed white at the top and Black at the bottom. {Read: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.}

These legal and “scientific” categories of human beings once again sub-divided humans into fictional and unequal groups (this time based on race) and became cleverly integrated into all aspects of U.S. society. The European “natural hierarchy” for gender relations adapted for racialized colonization and enslavement as Black and Indigenous people were feminized and infantilized as requiring the supposed protection, guidance, and domination of the European/white race. I say cleverly because the invention of whiteness by the ruling colonial elite has served to successfully align a lower class majority (poor and middle class white people) with the elite wealthy minority rather than align with their class-based peers. Moreover, the invention of a racialized exploitated lower class was fundamental to the development of Capitalism, an economic system based off of the historic supply and demand of people as property, their labor, and the colonized ownership of the Earth and all that can be taken from her.

To directly address the white educator’s question, racism depended and depends on the invention of white womanhood by carving out a specific pedestal for white women as the purest,  most beautiful, holiest model of civilized wife, mother, and daughter. The notion of white women as damsels in distress projects patriarchal white fears that white women will be coveted by Men of Color, which has incited horrific and ongoing racist violence. White women during the First Wave Feminist Movement repeatedly used racial superiority to reposition themselves as educators, missionaries, nurses, and cultural evangelists of white American culture by occupying prominent roles in Native boarding schools and southern schools for African American children, overseas missionary work, and women’s prison reform.

Which brings us full circle to the shoelace metaphor. If European Patriarchy is the first knot on your tennis shoe, proto-capitalist Mercantilism with its bottomless hunger for free and cheap (able-bodied) labor and Colonization with its hunger to dominate the Earth are the twin bunny loops that make up the second knot. And as any caregiver knows, a single knotted shoe tie often results in loose laces. Tie those sneakers twice. The double-knot of modern Capitalism and its co-conspirator Racism make up the historical third tie that reinforces these overlapping systems of oppression.

(Take the two loops and tie them one last and final time, making a double-knot. The loops of the double-knot represent Racism and Capitalism.)

Shoelace Metaphor 4 – Double-knot of Capitalism & Racism

As Felicia often points out, “In order to undo a knot, you must first go back through.” Which is why white feminism has failed us and will continue to fail us. It is impossible to untie a double knot by pulling at its base. In fact, pulling at its base only tightens the tie. From Suffragettes to the Women’s March, white women have been vocal about ending Patriarchy. And we should be: Patriarchy is indeed the foundational knot. But in order to undo that knot, as well as all the interconnected knots that keep this arrangement in place, our collective liberation journey depends on our ability to untie its most recent mutations.