Key Issues in Postcolonial Feminism: A Western Perspective.

by Chris Weedon, Cardiff University

1     In 1984 Black American feminist Barbara Smith spoke warmly of being part of a Third World feminist movement: 'And not only am I talking about my sisters here in the United States-American Indian, Latina, Asian American, Arab American-I am also talking about women all over the globe. . . Third World feminism has enriched not just the women it applies to, but also political practice in general' (Smith 1984: 27). The struggle of Third World women-both in the West and in the developing world-for recognition by Western feminism has been long and hard. More often the silenced objects of Western analysis, Third World women are making their voices heard and are beginning to change the face of feminism in the West. Postcolonial feminism in the new millennium now accepts a crucial point, long self-evident to Third World women, that racism, colonialism and its legacies are not just the province of non-white, non-Western women.

2     The history of the West is, in large part, the history of its exploitation of its non-white, non-Western Others. Colonized countries have been profoundly affected by the exploitative, racist nature of this interrelation which was and remains economic, political and cultural. As current debates on the slave trade and the question of reparations illustrate, history is always with us. Although the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished in the course of the Nineteenth Century, its legacies and those of colonial occupation can be seen in the inequalities and political and economic problems of formerly colonized countries. The question of responsibility for the past and what this means for the present was a constant theme at the United Nations global conference on racism held in South Africa in September 2001 and nowhere has this question demanded more attention in recent years than in Australia. Here Aboriginal people's struggle for recognition of their history since white settlement forms an integral part of the broader fight for human rights and equality and Aboriginal women are active in this fight, while at the same time urging white feminists to take these issues seriously (see, for example, Huggins 1998 and Morton-Robinson 2000). In Europe and North America, the economic and political legacies of colonialism have radically changed the 'racial' and ethnic make up of societies, bringing with them problems of white ethnocentrism, ethnic conflict and racism that feminists must address.

3     As in the colonial period, the legacies of colonialism are invariably tied up with racism. In her novel The Bluest Eye (1981), Toni Morrison graphically depicts the effects of the legacy of nineteenth-century classical racism for poor black people in the United States. The novel tells of how the daughter of a poor black family, Pecola Breedlove, internalizes white standards of beauty to the point where she goes mad. Her fervent wish for blue eyes comes to stand for her wish to escape the poor, unloving, racist environment in which she lives. For a long time mainstream white Western feminism paid scant attention to the question of race. Racism was seen as secondary to patriarchy and, at best, the problem of non-white women. Many white women took a liberal, colour blind position which claimed not to see difference or act upon it. It took a long, hard struggle by black women to have racism included on the feminist agenda. One of the most poignant and powerful critiques of white complacency came in 1980 from the radical black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde: 'By and large within the women's movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist' (Lorde 1984a: 116). The strong tendency of white women to disregard racism was an effect of white privilege-a point that women of colour were forced to make repeatedly:

As Third World women we clearly have a different relationship to racism than white women, but all of us are born into an environment where racism exists. Racism affects all of our lives, but it is only white women who can 'afford' to remain oblivious to these effects. The rest of us have had it breathing or bleeding down our necks. (Moraga and Anzald˙a 1981: 62)

4     In recent years the question of whiteness has come to the fore in feminist debates on race and remains a key issue in postcolonial feminism (see, for example, Mohanram 1999). This is largely due to the impact of Black feminism on white feminists. Recognising the racialised nature of whiteness and the privilege that comes with it have proved difficult for white women, provoking responses such as disabling guilt rather than positive strategies that would involve relinquishing privilege. Because racism is so ingrained in Western societies-often taking non-conscious and institutionalised forms-anti-racist strategies require a working through, at an individual and personal level, of often unacknowledged assumptions, prejudices and practices. It means coming to terms with the contradictory nature of subjectivity, including individual women's often hidden complicity with oppression or perpetuation of oppressive practices, As CherrÝe Moraga argues:

Within the women's movement, the connections among women of different backgrounds and sexual orientations have been fragile, at best. I think this phenomenon is indicative of our failure to seriously address ourselves to some very frightening questions: How have I internalized my own oppression? How have I oppressed? Instead, we have let rhetoric do the job of poetry. Even the word 'oppression' has lost its power. We need a new language, better words that can more closely describe women's fear of and resistance to one another; words that will not always come out sounding like dogma. (Moraga 1981b: 30)

5     As Lorde suggested in her essay 'Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference' (1984a), the positive recognition of difference and diversity, so necessary to political advance, requires willingness to acknowledge the privileges which come from the structural power relations within which individuals are located. Gloria Anzald˙a explains the dangers of failing to acknowledge differences in relation to racialised positions:

Often white-feminists want to minimize racial difference by taking comfort in the fact that we are all women and/or lesbians and suffer similar sexual-gender oppressions. They are usually annoyed with the actuality (though not the concept) of 'differences', want to blur racial difference, want to smooth things out-they seem to want a complete, totalizing identity. Yet in their eager attempt to highlight similarities, they create or accentuate 'other' differences such as class. These unacknowledged or unarticulated differences further widen the gap between white and colored. (Anzald˙a 1990a: xxi)

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