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Race, class, and gender: Intersectionality between social reality and political limits

ActivismRace, class, and gender: Intersectionality between social reality and political limits

By Houria Bouteldja


I would like to thank the University of California at Berkeley and in particular the Ethnic Studies Department for this invitation. It is an honor to be here.

Before discussing the concept of intersectionality, I would like to clarify one point. I am not approaching this issue from a culturalist, religious, or identitarian perspective. I am speaking, rather, from a materialistic and decolonial perspective. I emphasize this point because in France, to critique white universalism is immediately interpreted as culturalist or particularistic. To illustrate this point, here is a recent example: during a day-long “Beyond Marriage” workshop on equal rights, Eric Fassin, a sociologist who works on the politicization of sexual and racial issues (and who is known by some of you here at Berkeley), claimed that my intervention in the debate (“Gay Universalism, Homoracialism and ‘Marriage for All,’” an intervention dedicated to intersectionality, among other things) consigned me to the category of “culturalists” along with homonationalists.

This categorization, which was both an accusation and a condemnation, made me smile given its obvious shallowness and weakness since the materialist character of our work on this topic is obvious to anyone who has made the slightest effort to read us attentively. Indeed, our explicit purpose is to develop a political project based on the concrete and material condition of indigenous people (les indigènes), and not on the basis of ideology. I cannot help thinking, moreover, that the peremptory accusations of Fassin and many others are simply a manifestation of white defensiveness and/or their continuing inability to de-Eurocentrize.I would strongly advise them to (re)discover their own political literature, especially Foucault and his important distinction between “(homo)sexual identity” and “(homo)sexual practices.” More than Foucault, there are also decolonial thinkers and activists who can not only speak and think on this issue, but educate us as well.

This was a brief introduction. I now propose to enter into the heart of the matter. What does intersectionality mean to us, the indigenous people of the republic (les Indigènes de la République)? And more importantly, what is its political usefulness? Why should we care about it? I have identified six reasons:

1. The first reason is that this concept was born in the oppositional consciousness of black women, and there are some important commonalities of experience among women of color in the United States and Europe. One cannot use or discuss this concept without first paying tribute to feminists of color or black feminists who have produced a masterful theoretical corpus that is too often appropriated by academics, depoliticized, neutralized, and reduced to an object of research.I believe that because this work was born out of the struggles of black women in racist milieus, it has an a priori validity. There is no need to wait for its validation by white academics in order to appreciate it. That being said, I must concede that I do not know enough about the struggles of black women in the United States to know how they have used this concept in their political struggles, that is, how they have articulated intersecting oppressions within their organizing and organizations. That is why I will address this issue strictly from within the French context.

2. Because our political organization must think through the condition of the people who are our potential social base: colonial subjects in France. Among les indigènes, half are women (and so there is gender oppression), most are poor and discriminated against (and so there is class oppression), and some are homosexuals (even if most are not out).

3. Because Arab, black and Muslim women (to take the example of gender) experience the oppression of two patriarchies (the white patriarchy that structures dominant institutions and power, and the indigenous patriarchy, through the maintenance and/or reconstitution of traditional patriarchal structures). The two patriarchies have many traits in common, but their interests can also conflict in certain ways. I will return to this below.

4. Because there is a white feminism and there are Eurocentric, hegemonic LGBT movements. White feminism and LGBT movements, just like the white patriarchy or the white labor movement, may become complicit in reactionary or racist policies in order to preserve their white privileges and interests.

5. Because feminism and LGBT movements can be instrumentalized by power, regardless of the political positions of these movements, some of which are indeed anti-racist and anti-colonialist.

6. For strategic reasons: as a political organization, we need to think about potential alliances. As the probability of finding allies on the Left is obviously greater than finding them on the Right, we are compelled to consider questions of class, gender, and sexual orientation and to come up with real answers or at least some leads to solutions. This is so because as much as I continue to doubt the genuineness of the white Left’s anti-sexism, it has taken up feminism as an identity and presents its various identities (anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic) as the non-negotiable elements of any potential alliance. And yet, the indigène is precisely the political subject most suspected of sexism and homophobia, since its cultural origins (whether in black Africa, the Maghreb, or the Caribbean) are considered backward and antithetical to social progress.

These, in sum, are the reasons why the issue of multiple oppressions – and therefore intersectionality – matter to us, les Indigènes de la République.

I must admit that awareness of intersectionality within white circles, especially among feminists, is a major sign of progress.I am sincerely heartened by the increased consciousness of intersecting oppressions and applaud all the initiatives and contributions from the white community (academic or activist) that have crossed swords with reluctant white organizations and led them to accept the reality of intersecting oppressions and the need for autonomous political struggles. Last summer, for example, the 6th International Congress of Feminist Research was convened in Lausanne under the heading: “Intersecting power relations: the discriminations and privileges of gender, class, race, and sexuality.” Participating at the Congress were white feminists and feminists of colour, including Patricia Hill Collins, Christine Delphy, Sirma Bilge, Zara Ali (a Muslim feminist), and Paola Bacchetta (who is present here).

For me, this event was a great symbolic moment (even if the organizers do not represent white feminism as a whole) because it suggests the emergence and/or development of a new consciousness in Europe, a continent within which racism is clearly analyzed as a structuring element of both white feminism and the condition of women of color. But there is a big BUT, since recognizing the intersecting oppressions, theorizing them, and then formulating a political project that takes account of three or four intersecting oppressions are three separate stages that need to be clearly distinguished. Between the first and the third stage, in the French context, there remains a significant gap. Ever since the concept of intersectionality acquired some purchase in the radical Left milieu, we have generally been told two things:

– “Consider simultaneously race, class, gender, and sexual orientation!” As if the evocation of “intersectionality” had magical powers. As if the consciousness of intersecting oppressions, combined with the words to speak about them, were enough to define a policy and to put that policy into practice.

 We are also told: “Practice sisterhood, as the white feminists did. Practice sex segregation, expel the male indigènes.”

In relation to real conditions and concrete political struggles, these “tips” are of very little use, even if they are well meant and sincere. One simply has to look at the struggles of black women in the United States and Maghreb women in France against police brutality and the inhumanity of the prison system to notice that their priorities are often limited to the combination of race … with race. This is putting it too crudely, of course, because when they act against police crimes, women are also acting in their interests as women and as proletarians. It is unnecessary for indigène women in France to organize as self-identified feminists or self-identified anti-capitalists. They fight for their immediate interest, which is always at the intersection of their interest as proletarians, as women, and as indigènes.

Thus, we cannot blame them for failing to wage a strictly feminist struggle – a fight against sexism, for gender equality, for abortion, against domestic violence – when their lives are saturated by social crises, precariousness, unemployment, police violence, the education of their children, and the discrimination and racism continually confronted by their children. In this situation, male violence, which is indeed a grave problem in the poor neighborhoods where the overwhelming majority of les indigènes live (I am thinking especially of physical violence, rape, the familial control of women and their bodies, the rigidification of gender roles that immobilizes women in the role of mother and wife…), is only one form of oppression among many.

I would add to all this the very negative charge of the word “feminism.” It is foremost regarded, by both men and women, as a weapon of imperialism and racism. This makes it difficult for women who are conscious of the need to struggle against patriarchy to identify as feminists, as this move would tend to invite, if not general opprobrium, then certainly general suspicion. Thus, the explicit fight against sexism can have some rather perverse effects. It can even reinforce the patriarchal domination exercised by indigène men.

Indeed, white patriarchy has long understood that it has an interest in fighting the patriarchy of men of color. During colonialism, one of the strategic pillars of colonial policy was precisely to liberate women of the colonies, who were considered oppressed even as women in France had yet to receive the right to vote. Fanon addresses this in detail in year V of the Algerian revolution. The public unveiling of women was one of the preferred weapons in the fight against theindigène patriarchy. Approached in this way, it is not indigène women who weaken the indigène patriarchy but white people,and this makes all the difference. In Europe, after all, it was clearly white feminists who fought their patriarchy, not foreign powers.

All of this needs to be highlighted if we are to understand the discomfort that many women feel in relation to feminism as such. This colonial policy, moreover, is very much alive in the present. Post-colonial France has indeed continued to pursue its dream of appropriating the body of indigène women and dispossessing the indigène man, which is to say robbing him of his only real power. The indigène man has no power whatsoever: political, economic, or symbolic. He only has the power that he exercises on his family (women and children). In the battle between the two patriarchies – one, dominant and white, the other subordinate and indigène – women have to choose between passively submitting to one patriarchy or the other, or actively seeking out strategies and practices to loosen the grip of power upon their lives and open up pathways toward freedom.

It needs to be recognized that there is little leeway. That is
why the first piece of advice mentioned above, the advice about combining anti-racism and feminism, is inoperable: rather than loosening the straightjacket, it often tightens it. That is why the second piece of advice, the one about sisterhood, is also inoperable: it implies the intent to start a power struggle between women and men of the community. Political sex segregation can be effective in white milieus, but not in 
indigènemilieus. That is my opinion, though it is certainly up for debate.

I should emphasize that social sex segregation, the physical separation of men and women, is a relatively common practice. So I am speaking here, precisely, about political sex segregation, for the explicit purpose of excluding men to better construct women’s power. I have nothing against this approach in the absolute, since I am convinced that it can be effective in certain contexts – just not ours. Why is this? Because colonialism and racism created a separation between indigène men and women when they accused men of color of being the major enemy of women of color. What needs to be understood is that we are already separated, already divided, already constructed as the enemies of each other, and that colonialism lodged in the heart of women a hatred of indigène men.

I grew up in France with the idea that white men were superior to men of color, trustworthy, respectful of women, civilized, and so on. I refer you to an article I wrote about this (“Pierre, Djémila, Dominique, and Mohamed”). Given that we are already separated, how can the advice about sex segregation apply? I am responding from a position that is decolonial and in the interest of women: “before anything, we must love each other.” Before anything, we must find ourselves, rehabilitate ourselves. In short, we must re-establish confidence between us. That is why the first element of a feminist decolonial struggle that considers “intersections” is to say: stand with dominated men and refuse the idea that men of color are the main enemy.

Indeed, we cannot do without an analysis of the racial oppression of the male gender, nor can we do without its integration into our political software. The example of the veil is extremely significant from this perspective and I would like to propose a materialist reading of it. The headscarf, of course, possesses religious significations. I will not comment on this aspect since I do not want to enter into the sacred and intimate character of things. It is important to respect the women who wear it and not treat them as an object of curiosity. But I think it also has a social signification. The Islamic veil emerged in France after the defeat of an official, abstract, and moral anti-racism, a context of worsening social and racial exclusion, and a context in which the dominant ideology advised immigrant women to free themselves from their family, their father, brother, religion, tradition…

I analyze the emergence of the veil in this context as an absolute challenge to white racist patriarchy. I regard it as a formidable counter-offensive on the part of the indigène social body. With the veil, women said to white men: our bodies are not at your disposal. They are not for your consumption. We refuse your offer of imperialist liberation. But it is also a compromise between the patriarchy of color and women of color. Women – for whom the body is a battlefield – know very well that the attacks of white patriarchy reinforce the patriarchy of color, and that the latter reacts aggressively when women of color submit to white racist patriarchy. That is why the veil is also a negotiation. The veil reassures men of color. It tells them: “we respect you, we love you.” It says what I would express in political terms as: “solidarity with dominated men.”

But it also has a feminist effect – and that’s what white people do not understand. In reassuring men, women loosen the grip of power on their lives and open up spaces of freedom. At this point, I would like to clarify one point: the solidarity of women toward men is one-way. There is no reciprocity. Men await the benefits but in no case show solidarity toward women (except in terms of economic support and, say, in terms of community solidarity). The real and active solidarity of men towards headscarf-wearing women is explained more by their fierce determination to defend the community and Islam – an impulse to which I am not opposed – than by any kind of pro-woman impulse. This saddens me, but I fully understand the mechanics. Here, where we are situated, at the nexus of intersecting oppressions and conflicting interests, we know that visual navigation is always preferable to a head-on collision.

Women act in their own interest, therefore, while acting for the overall interest of their community. Admittedly, this feminism does not have the absolute character of radical feminism, but I did indicate above that I was speaking from a materialist perspective. Immigrant women, most of whom are poor, are dependent on the solidarity of their family and community, and it is for this reason that they cannot afford the luxury of rupture. I spoke about the veil, although I am not veiled but have followed the same course. I have always negotiated with the power of men of color because I have not had other means (as a proletarian, indigène, and woman) and because not negotiating would signify complicity with white people against my community, rupture with my family, and greater social insecurity. The price to pay is too high. We are not heroines.

The political formula that emerges from all of this is therefore not to focus on “sisterhood” among women but to practice togetherness among the indigènes. It is not sufficient to operate a mechanical combination of feminism and anti-racism to free women. Rather, we must adapt our emancipatory politics to the real conditions of indigène women. That is why we must begin by mounting an anti-racist challenge to the white oppressor (since this issue is both consensual and shared) and implement corresponding strategies within racially-dominated communities in order to safeguard community coexistence and preserve individual freedoms. In order to do this, it is crucial to have a balanced approach and to integrate a consideration of the hierarchy between primary and secondary enemies.

As this suggests, I do not advocate an activist intersectionality in which one must simultaneously battle three or fo
ur main enemies given the irreducibility and simultaneity of different oppressions. Rather, I advocate the right to define one’s own agenda, one’s own priorities. Perhaps these priorities will be established without men, perhaps with them, perhaps in a rupture, perhaps through negotiation. What matters is not the words “feminism,” “anti-sexism,” “male domination,” or “patriarchy.” What matters is the result, the political resources that are provided to 
indigène women caught between two patriarchies. This approach must be respected even if it seems inconsistent with the interests of women since there is nothing worse than the contemptuous gaze of those who underestimate the challenge of moving forward in the context of multiple oppressions.

What I am saying about women here applies almost identically to Muslim and black homosexuals living in marginalized neighbourhoods. In such context, most of them consciously choose invisibility because coming out can have dramatic consequences. It is evidently perceived as a white phenomenon. Just like the imperialist invitation to free women, we can legitimately question the unspoken desires of those within the white community who encourage the indigène to come out: is it out of fear of being denied access to the indigène body?

There are thus three possible strategies for a gay or lesbian of color: taking some distance from one’s family if one can afford it financially (which is rarely the case); submitting to a heterosexual marriage; or marrying a homosexual of the opposite gender in order to keep up appearances and preserve one’s family. What these three options have in common is the desire to preserve the family and the refusal to come out. Studies have been done on lesbians of color in France, and what is most striking in the findings is that the refusal to come out is shown to be motivated by the desire of daughters to protect their mothers. They know that their mothers will be accused of having provided a lackluster education. And I am not even speaking here of the many indigènes who simply do not aim to live a homosexual life as such and for whom the “homosexual” identity is essentially unthinkable. My question: what does intersectionality mean when invisibility is the primary choice of those it invokes as a constituency?

To conclude, what I suggest to white feminists, white LGBT people, and white people in general is to stop offering us advice and interfering with our struggles, and to seek instead to convince other white people that feminism, LGBT struggles, and anti-capitalism are Eurocentric and must be decolonized. I suggested above that we are not heroines. I will contradict myself now. I think that we are indeed heroines and that our heroism, as a racialized and pathologized group, is shown by the fact that we have reached our longed-for dignity within deeply hostile and conflictual milieus. We have done this by navigating a turbulent sea of conflicting interests and by adopting ways unknown to the dominant group, namely, by thinking aboutboth the collective and the individual, which constitutes something like the beginning of a third path between submission to the Eurocentric model of emancipation and a return to a cultural authenticity that is not only illusory but lost forever.

Houria Bouteldja, member of PIR

Translated from French by Ted Rutland

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