Post-colonialism: Changing economics and ideas?
An emphasis on economics
It can be argued that much of the debate about relationships between gender,‘race’, and ethnicity began to shift from the late 1980s into the field of feminist post-colonial theory where the cultural or discursive aspects of colonial processes and their ongoing aftermath were the central issues. However, from the 1970s black feminists thinking through issues of gender and ‘race’ have referred to both material conditions and to ideas. Those who have foregrounded the continued relevance of material, in the sense of economic, issues include Angela Davis and Hazel Carby.
Angela Davis has argued that colonization lingers on for black women in the conditions they face. For her the notion of post – coloniality perhaps suggests too much that all that is finished, although Stuart Hall (1996) argues that the term ‘post-colonial’ does not necessarily suggest that colonialism is over. Davis’s work certainly relies on considering the ongoing legacy of slavery and imperialist expansion. Davis comprehensively sets out her ideas in Women, Race and Class (1983), which traces the historical entanglement of sexism, racism and classism within the USA and the struggle feminists had to overcome their prejudices and see these connections. She argues that there has been some success in this struggle and that ‘the most effective versions of feminism acknowledge the ways that gender, class, race, and sexual orientation inform each other’ (Davis and Martinez, 1998: 304).Yet the conjunction of inequalities of race and gender (and class) have continued to shift, especially as a result of deindustrialization and the way that capital has moved globally. The civil rights movement helped to establish a black middle class in America, but the global restructuring of capitalism has seen many poor black women in the US reduced to welfare dependency and their black sisters in the Third World exploited for their cheap labour (Davis, 1998: 308).This illustrates that Davis’s work is very much located within a Marxist tradition. In her analysis, it is racist ideas about white superiority that shore up a global economic system in which non-white women in poorer nations labour for a pittance to provide the West with consumer goods for all to buy. Her critique of capitalism is specifically anti-racist and therefore explicitly deals with ideologies around race as central to capitalist economic exploitation.
British scholar Hazel Carby (1982) also shows that to try and separate material and cultural analyses is not always straightforward in her analysis of how ‘triple oppression’ determines the lives of black women. Her most influential work came out of that offspring of British sociology, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham in 1982. ‘White Woman Listen’ is highly materialist in many aspects, but also considers at length the way in which dominant discourses about sex and gender impact on black women’s lives. Initially this is a response to white feminism’s failure to represent the experiences of black women. Carby (1982) gives the example of arguments which suggest that the family is the source of women’s oppression. For Carby this fails to account for the ways in which, for black women, families may be crucial in resisting racist oppression. Carby also notes that white feminist discourses tend to follow imperialist lines in assuming that introducing First World ways to Third World women brings them emancipation. In fact, Carby argues rather that colonization has often instituted new forms of subordination for Third World women, for example using them to meet labour needs in ways that allows white women’s role at home to be maintained. Here she is implying that white women are relatively privileged in being able to labour for their own families rather than other people’s, as black women often have to do (see Ehrenrich and Hochschild, 2003). Colonialism as an economic as well as a cultural project has been crucial in establishing such flows of labour and it benefits all white women, not just colonials. Meanwhile all Third World women are lumped together. Carby is suspicious of the term patriarchy for the part it plays in universalizing women’s oppression and contributing to views of Third
World women as backward. She prefers instead Gayle Rubin’s (1975) conceptualization of sex/gender systems.
According to Carby (1982) to think about sex/gender systems is useful because it refers not just to the mode of production but to how other culturally specific social formations organize life and are subject to historical change (for example colonial oppression) in specific ways. These sex/gender systems can be judged in their own terms, avoiding ethnocentric assumptions such as those suggesting that whites historically brought more liberal sex/gender systems to black societies. In fact, women often had important roles in those societies, which were not recognized by colonials (for example, see Smith, 1999: 46). Thus it is important to look at societies through the eyes of the women who live within them, not through western eyes. Often Western eyes fail to recognize the issues that indigenous women themselves see as most crucial (Mohanty, 1991).Where researchers are interested in female circumcision, the local women may be more concerned with access to clean water, and so on.
Carby’s (1982) approach, despite such nods to culture, continually returns to material inequalities; and indeed the language of metropoles and peripheries she uses shows an engagement with dependency and/or world-systems theory. She is directly critical of Wallerstein’s dismissal, within his world-systems theory, of the possibility of the simultaneous existence of feudal and capitalist social forms. If imperialist colonization has produced a world market, as he argues, why would non-wage related social forms exist? Carby says that ‘feudal’ relations organized around land and the agricultural division of labour are in fact still prominent for many women. Indeed many of women’s rebellions have focused around land seizure and related issues, rather than just wage-related exploitation (see for example, Smith, 1999). Black women support each other in these and other struggles. Feminism must be transformed to account for such experiences and thus address black women. To some extent the rise of feminist post-colonial theory has seen greater attention paid to black women’s experiences, and indeed to relations between black and nonblack women.
More recent post-colonial feminist writers such as Anne McClintock (1995) have used a materialist based analysis as part of their approach to understanding how white colonial women’s role within the home was crucial in helping reproduce colonial power. White women in the colonies were expected to keep, usually via their management of servants, a spotlessly clean household. This was supposed to assist in illustrating the superiority ofWestern ‘civilization’. I have already mentioned Maria Mies’s (1982) work on lace making. Similarly Chaudhuri (1992) has talked about the role white women played in the economics of imperialism in her article ‘Shawls, jewelry, curry and rice in Victorian
Britain’. In this she argues that women as consumers of colonial products helped produce the imperialist worldview of Victorians. By taking Indian things such as shawls to England they helped make them popular there. While in ‘the colonies’ the role of white women was to uphold Britishness, back in Britain their enthusiasm for exotic commodities could be indulged, showing that the culture they appeared to reject had in fact influenced them — and indeed Victorians more widely. While this illustrates that there were economic factors implicated in the relational construction of ‘race’ and gender, some writers began to highlight the importance of meanings.