POSTMODERNISM, POST-COLONIALISM, ANTI-RACISM. AND FEMINISM
The intersection of discourses around postmodernism, post-colonialism, antiracism and feminism has provided an intellectually vibrant landscape, facilitating a pluralistic model of resistance which Yeatman has described as ‘interlocking oppressions’. As a result of critiques posed by feminist and subaltern discourses in the 1980s, she contends (1995a:53) that it is possible for ‘multiple oppressed subjects to claim the multiplicity of their oppressed subject status’. She cites bell hooks as an example of an African-American feminist who, in her critique of second wave feminism, articulated the politics of difference in showing what it means to be black and a woman:
As a group, black women are in an unusual position in this society, for not only are we collectively at the bottom of the occupational ladder, but our overall social status is lower than that of any other group…[We] are the group that has not been socialized to assume to the role of exploiter/ oppressor in that we are allowed no institutionalized ‘other’ that we can exploit or oppress. White women and black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of black people.. .As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.
Elsewhere hooks (1990) articulates some of the problems integral to the connections between postmodernism, post-colonialism, anti-racism and feminism. She contends that ‘[since] most of this theory [postmodernism] has been constructed in reaction to and against high modernism there is seldom any mention of black experience or writings by black people…spedfkally black women’ (hooks 1990:24). She goes on to note that, in more recent work reference is made to Cornell West, the black male scholar who has been a prominent black intellectual engaged with postmodern discourse. While acknowledging that an aspect of black culture may be the subject of postmodernist, critical writing, the works cited will usually be drawn from those of black men.
As a black feminist writer, hooks finds herself on the outside of postmodernist discourse for two reasons: in the first instance because it is a discourse dominated by white male intellectuals, and in the second because of the ‘language’ of postmodernism. She observes that it is
ironic that the contemporary discourse which talks the most about heterogeneity, the decentered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialised audience that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to challenge.
The apparent elision of post-colonialism and anti-racism needs to be clarified here. The links being explored by hooks between the radical potential of postmodernism as it relates to post-colonialism and racial domination is reminiscent of the recent work of Stuart Hall.5 Both argue for a radical postmodernist practice, conceptualised as a ‘politics of difference’ to incorporate the voices of displaced, marginalised, exploited and oppressed black people.
There are a number of areas where postmodernism can be effective in postcolonialist and anti-racist struggles, hooks contends that radical postmodernism calls attention to its ability to cross boundaries of class, gender and race which can lead to the recognition of common commitments and serve as a basis for solidarity. Cornell West, in his essay ‘Black Culture and Postmodernism’ (1989:89), suggests that black intellectuals ‘are marginal—usually languishing at the interface of black and white cultures or more thoroughly ensconced in Euro-American settings’. He maintains that black intellectuals lack any ‘organic link’ with the wider black community and that this diminishes their ‘value to Black resistance’. The impact of postmodernism is that many groups within the black community have the potential to share a sense of deep alienation, even if it is not informed by shared circumstances.
A second element in postmodernism seen as useful by post-colonial and antiracist writers is the critique of essentialism. hooks argues that this is particularly useful for African Americans concerned with reformulating notions of identity. She notes that ‘postmodern critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of self and the assertion of agency’ (hooks 1990:28). In addition to the affirmation of multiple black identities, hooks also notes that it challenges colonialist/imperialist models of black identity, representing ‘blackness’ unidimensionally. Resisting essentialist notions of identity would pose a serious challenge to racism, as hooks (1990:29) states ‘coming to terms with the impact of postmodernism for black experience, particularly as it changes our sense of identity, means that we must and can rearticulate the basis of collective bonding’.
The relationship of post-colonialism and feminism with postmodernism is not coterminous. As Yeatman (1994:28) notes, ‘contemporary feminist theorists working within the politics of difference are making postmodernism over to their own agendas’. However, she goes on to contend that post-colonialists and feminist theorists do converge ‘in their sustained contestation of how this works to maintain and reproduce domination…’ (ibid.).