THE POLITICAL IMPACT OF WOMEN OF. COLOUR WITHIN FEMINISM
Postmodernism and poststructuralism, with their emphasis on ‘deconstruction’ and difference, reinforced critiques that had already been directed at the ‘essentialism’, ethnocentrism and ‘ahistoricism’ of branches of feminist theory. The problematic nature of terms such as ‘patriarchy’, ‘women’ and ‘oppression’ was for those ‘at the margins’ of feminism further highlighted in the debates within the feminist movement instituted initially by women of colour. Carby (1982) and hooks (1984) comment on the universalisation of terms by an essentially white, middle-class, heterosexual, feminist movement as if they referred to the experiences of all women. As hooks (1984:4) argues, ‘Race and class identity create differences in quality of life, social status and lifestyle that take precedence over the common experience women share-differences which are rarely transcended.’
The universal application of ‘black’ as a concept was shown to lack any cultural and historical specificity in the way it had come to be used. In Britain the use of ‘black’ had a political dimension and was used in a ‘generic’ sense to apply to groups who shared an experience of colonialism and racism. Its application in terms ofboth race and ethnicity was imprecise and was applied to ‘Afro-Caribbean’ and ‘Asian’, ignoring national, regional, cultural, ethnic and linguistic particularities. In the United States, ‘black’ was again used in a generic sense, but usually applied to Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean groups who had a shared experience of slavery. In Australia, ‘black’ was frequently applied to Aborigines as an indigenous group (see Pettman 1988).
Writers such as Carby (1982), hooks (1984), Sykes (1984) and Ramazanoghu (1986) have raised different issues around the limitations of second wave feminism for women of colour. All acknowledge that second wave feminism has neglected the lived experience’ of racism. This neglect renders second wave feminism’s theoretical framework and categories inappropriate and its practices problematic. Many of the critiques have coalesced around the theorising and application of the concept of ‘patriarchy’.
Just as critiques of second wave feminism by women of colour have pointed to limitations in the application of the concept ‘black’ as not recognising cultural and historical specificity, so women of colour maintain that ‘patriarchy’ is equally ethnocentric in its application. As Carby (1982:217) states, ‘black men have not held the same patriarchal position of power that white males have established’. At a more general level of critique, Michele Barrett (1988) argues that the term ‘patriarchy’ has lost all analytic or explanatory power, and is now used synonymously with ‘male dominance’. Both Carby and Barrett, while approaching the issue from different positions, agree that a more contextualised, culturally specific concept of patriarchy must be developed in order to more accurately reflect a range of experiences of oppression. Ramazanoglu (1986) claims that, while an understanding of ethnocentrism is important in feminist theory, this alone does not lead to an understanding of black women’s experience of oppression, further that the failure of feminist theory arises not only from its ethnocentrism but also its failure to address the issue of racism.
Roberta Sykes, in speaking for/of Aboriginal women, raises the same issues for indigenous women. As Sykes claims:
White women merely have less power and control than white men. I do not doubt that white women experience this state acutely but in comparison to both black women and black men white women are extremely powerful and have control over many resources.
The intersections of race, ethnicity and class within second wave feminism, and the implications for feminist theory and practice, have been shown to be problematic. Second wave feminist theory failed to address the fact that there are different ‘sites of oppression’ and potentially different ‘sites of struggle’. It is at this level of analysis that, Walby (1990:16) maintains, ‘postmodern critics have made some valuable points about the potential dangers in theorizing gender inequality at too abstract and general level’. She notes that sites of oppression for women of colour may be different from those of white women, and this may change the basis of gender inequality. Elsewhere Walby claims that
some black feminists such as hooks, have argued that since the family is a site of resistance and solidarity against racism for women of colour, it does not hold the central place in accounting for women’s subordination that it does for white women.
It is not only ‘a question of recognizing ethnic inequality, and the different sites of oppression for women of different ethnicities, but the particular ways in which ethnic and gender relations have interacted historically change the forms of ethnic and gender relations’ (ibid.). However, Walby raises doubts about postmodernist critiques of feminist theory, and maintains that there is sufficient evidence of commonly shared oppressions among women to identify ‘patriarchy’ as a significant source of oppression in advanced Western capitalist society. However it is clear that ‘patriarchy’ is experienced in different ways by different women and results in different ‘sites of oppression’ and ‘sites of resistance’.
The critique raised by women of colour to feminist theory and practice has been one of a number of critiques the history of feminist theory has undergone. De Lauretis (1993:86) charts some of the periods of conflict within feminism, and notes that in the 1970s the debate in the US was characterised by a debate between academic feminism versus activism defined as an opposition between theory and practice, which led to a polarisation of positions either for theory or against theory. De Lauretis identifies a further fragmentation within feminism with the subsequent internal division of the movement over the issue of separatism or ‘mainstreaming’, which ‘recast the practice/theory opposition in terms of lesbian vs heterosexual identification and of women’s studies vs feminist cultural theory…’ (ibid).
The issues of pornography and representation were the focus of conflict within feminist debates in the mid-1980s. De Lauretis (1993:87) contends that ‘the so-called feminist sex wars.. .have pitched ‘pro-sex’ feminists versus the antipornography movement in a conflict over representation that recast the sex/ gender distinction into the form of a paradoxical opposition’. As she notes, on the one hand sex and gender are collapsed together and become both analytically and politically indistinguishable as can be seen in the work of Catherine MacKinnon and Nancy Hartsock. On the other hand sex and gender ‘are severed from each other’ and are recombined in a series of ‘boundary’ crossings such as ‘transsexualism, transvestism, bi-sexualism, drag and impersonation (Butler), cyborgs (Haraway) etc’ (ibid). Central to all these areas are issues of identity, subjectivity and difference within feminist theoretical debates.