Racial inequalities, and the way in which they are gendered, are largely a product of a world history which saw the first industrialized nations go forth to appropriate the land and resources of people on other continents. Colonization was an economic process but was justified by ideas that represented whiteness and white ways of doing things as superior. White women may have been central in attempts to ‘civilize the natives’, attempts that assumed that native women would be better off if they turned away from traditional cultures. However ‘traditional’ cultures may have offered women more status and autonomy than the Western cultures they were being exhorted to accept (Etienne and Leacock, 1980). Whatever the state of gender relations pre-contact, it is certainly the case that colonization reshaped these relations on a global scale. Most of those theorizing the gendering of racial inequalities within a global framework have rejected modernization theory’s ‘West is best’ model of economic development. Feminist economists have interrogated systems of national accounting and found them neglectful of women’s contributions (Beneria, see for example, 1995; Waring, 1999/1986). Other feminists (for example, Mies, 1982) have drawn on dependency and world systems theory to argue that capitalist patriarchy in the West is maintained by exploiting the labour of Third World women. However, it has been noted that dependency theory tends to see women as trapped within the domestic sphere and its ‘traditional’ practices, and therefore as victims within patriarchal households rather than as potential revolutionaries. More questions need to be asked about the complex role women and the household play within ‘dependent’ nations (Scott, 1995). This requires consideration of colonization as both an economic and a cultural process, concerned with both the distribution of resources and the flow of meanings.
Dominant meanings around colonialism remain influential in understanding how gender and race are intertwined. Views of non-white peoples as primitive, exotic, and/or highly sexual were used to justify the invasion of their lands, the devaluing of their existing ways of doing gender, and the conquest of indigenous women. Women have been central in resisting these views and indeed in asserting the rights of indigenous and previously enslaved peoples (see hooks, 1992; Smith, 1999; Wollacott, 2006). Such processes of decolonization are ongoing and need to include the problematizing of whiteness and all the privileges attached (Bonnett, 2000; hooks, 1992; Spivak, 1990). Further work is needed to see how class inequalities are interwoven with those around gender and ‘race’, but some brief suggestions can be made.