The Return of Idealism and the erasure of Black Feminist Theory, via @andrews_cath

Counterpoint magazine published an opinion piece today entitled “The return of idealism: identity and the politics of oppression” written by Elaine Graham-Leigh. It’s a (very) long explanation of an argument I have seen in various forms within current feminist debate about the fallacies of identity politics. As the title of the piece suggests, the crux of her argument is that identity politics is a product of postmodern theory and fundamentally opposed to a materialist socialist analysis of the politics of oppression. Thus she says:

It follows therefore [for identity politics] that the important identity is not the one to which you belong by virtue of your descent or your biology, but the one with which you identify. In this view, women, for example, are not oppressed because of any relation to their female sex, but because and to the extent that they identify as women and signify this through their performance of femininity. The reality of the sex of their bodies is as unimportant as all material reality. It therefore follows that the identification as a woman, which is important, does not have to proceed from having a female body, which is not. The identity has become unmoored from the physical reality.

As numerous white feminist thinkers have noted before her, the emphasis on identity rather than shared biological circumstances can make activism harder [1]. The common thread running through her lament and those of a similar nature is: why can’t all women pull together to overcome common oppression? Why must what separates us -identity in this case- undermine collective action?

And here we come to the reason why I am writing this reply to Graham-Leigh. Because, her essay provides us -unconsciously or not- the answer to this question.

In her historical analysis of the origins of socialist feminism and identity politics, Graham Leigh fails to include the contribution of black feminist thought on these subjects, and when she does she does not evidence the same breadth of knowledge she shows in the rest of her essay. This is important because black feminist thought is precisely the bridge which links (this is a deliberate analogy follow this link and read the book it lead to) the contemporary debate between socialist and postmodern feminists she is discussing [2].

Let me explain: in her essay, Graham- Leigh explicitly argues that “intersectional feminism” or “intersectionality” is a product of identity politics. She quotes from the foundational work on this subject by Black legal feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw [3] and says:

Crenshaw’s argument was that black women were minimised in feminist campaigns which saw white women’s experiences as the default, and by Black liberation struggles which focused on men. As she said, ‘discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens at an intersection, it can be caused by cars travelling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a black woman is harmed because she is at the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.’ Black women could experience discrimination as women, as black people, and sometimes specifically as black women, ‘not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as black women.’

This is an important insight, but it does not amount to an entire systemic understanding of oppression [4]. To be fair to Crenshaw, it was not her intention to provide one. It is perhaps an indication of the difficulties of understanding oppression through identity politics that intersectionality theory is left to do all the heavy lifting here. The term intersectionality is commonplace in online discussions of oppression, as for example in the popular phrase ‘my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. In its least nuanced form, however, it can become little more than a ranking system, ordering people according to how many different axes of oppression they can claim.

This dismissal of intersectionality betrays Graham-Leigh’s lack of knowledge not only of the origins of this theory, but also, its historical development from the moment from which this text was published (1989) and the present [5]. Crenshaw is indeed the woman who coined the term “intersectionality”, but the analysis she proposes has been present in black feminist thinking for most of the twentieth-century as Angela Davis shows quite clearly in Women, Race and Class (1981).

Drawing on this history, during the eighties, black and “third-world” feminist scholars were instrumental in analysing the oppression of women within their local, cultural, religious and class circumstances using the Marxist tools of analysis Graham-Leigh assumes were only employed by (white) socialist feminists. Particularly, Patricia Hill Collins and Chandra Mohanty, to name just two, have been grappling with the question of how to organise collective action against oppression between women who despite sharing a common biology reality, resolutely do not face the same oppressions when the material circumstances of their lives are examined [6]. Indeed, Patricia Hill Collins’s theory of a “matrix of domination” in which race, class, and gender are understood as “interlocking systems of oppression” is grounded precisely on the materialist analysis Graham-Leigh champions. For example:

Adhering to a both/and conceptual stance does not mean that race, class, and gender oppression are interchangeable. For example, whereas race, class, and gender oppression operate on the social structural level of institutions, gender oppression seems better able to annex the basic power of the erotic and intrude in personal relationships via family dynamics and within individual consciousness. This may be because racial oppression has fostered historically concrete communities among African-Americans and other racial/ethnic groups. These communities have stimulated cultures of resistance. While these communities segregate Blacks from whites, they simultaneously provide counter-institutional buffers that subordinate groups such as African-Americans use to resist the ideas and institutions of dominant groups. Social class may be similarly structured. Traditionally conceptualized as a relationship of individual employees to their employers, social class might be better viewed as a relationship of communities to capitalist political economies. Moreover, significant overlap exists between racial and social class oppression when viewing them through the collective lens of family and community. Existing community structures provide a primary line of resistance against racial and class oppression. But because gender cross-cuts these structures, it finds fewer comparable institutional bases to foster resistance. [7]

Although, Black (and postcolonial) feminist thought developed what is now understood as “intersectionality” squarely within the Marxist tradition, this does not mean that all feminism which proports to be “intersectional” is necessarily materialist. There is -as Leigh Graham shows- a liberal version of this theory which does indeed replace structural materialist analysis for “personal identity” and “personal experience of oppression” as their defining factors. But as Nancy Fraser notes, the co-option and transformation of materialist analysis by (neo)liberal feminists has been a feature of third wave feminism and it is no surprise, therefore, that it continues today [8].

So, to return to the original question. Why can’t all women pull together to overcome common oppression? Why must what separates us -identity in this case- undermine collective action? I hope the answer is now clear. While the centrality of black and brown feminist thought is ignored, or misrepresented in white women’s analysis, there can be no real hope of pan-women solidarity. If we appropriate this work as our own, while simultaneously implying that this very thought is limited and the cause of conflict between us, we can find no common ground at all.



[1] For example, Linda Alcoff, “Cultural Feminism Versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,” Signs. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, (1988) 13: 3,

[2] Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 2. ed., New York, NY: Kitchen Table, 1983.

[3] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989) no. 1,

[4] My italics.

[5] See, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, Polity Press, 2016.

[6] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28: 2 (2002):

[7] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Unwin Hyman, 1990, pp. 221–238,

[8] Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History,” New Left Review, 56 (mar.-Aprl. 2009),



Cath Andrews is a historian of Mexican politics. She’s blogs at  Hiding Under the Bed is not the Answer  and who writes for e-feminist and Toda historia es contemporánea. She tweets at @andrews_cath

Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy, by @ClaireShrugged

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 05.09.17

A brief foreword: this is the fifth essay in my series on sex, gender, and sexuality. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are available here on Sister Outrider. With this essay, I challenge the notion that gender can be repurposed as anything other than a hierarchy. This one is dedicated to E, a stellar lesbian and feminist.


“It is impossible to name and act against oppression if there are no nameable oppressors.” – Mary Daly

What is Gender?

Gender is a fiction created by patriarchy, a hierarchy imposed by men to ensure their dominance over women. The idea of a gender binary was established in order to justify the subordination of women by positioning our oppression by men as a natural state of affairs, the result of how characteristics innately held by men and women manifest. Framing gender as natural not only serves to depoliticise the hierarchy, but uses essentialism in order to convince women that radical resistance to gender – the means of our oppression – is futile. Hopelessness breeds apathy, which undermines social change more effectively than any overt challenge. If abolishing gender (and therefore dismantling patriarchy) is an unobtainable goal, women have no choice but to accept our status as second-class citizens of the world. To treat gender as inherent is to accept a patriarchal blueprint for the design of society.

gender imageGender is a hierarchy that enables men to be dominant and conditions women into subservience. As gender is a fundamental element of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984) it is particularly disconcerting to see elements of queer discourse argue that gender is not only innately held but sacrosanct. Far from being a radical alternative to the status quo, the project of “queering” gender only serves to replicate the standards set by patriarchy through its essentialism. A queer understanding of gender does not challenge patriarchy in any meaningful way – rather than encouraging people to resist the standards set by patriarchy, it offers them a way to embrace it. Queer politics have not challenged traditional gender roles so much as breathed fresh life into them – therein lies the danger. 
Read more Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy, by @ClaireShrugged

On repetition and power

Cross-posted from: Neocolonial Thoughts
Originally published: 06.03.16

I just finished an article on intersectionality and its critiques by Vivian May. Among other points, she addresses the critique that intersectionality didn’t bring anything new to the table and that it is just Black feminism recycled. Aside from the point that this is arguably false, she points to the important question of whycertain things have to be repeated again and again. Should we be focusing on repetition as necessarily bad, or should we be asking why certain things, in certain fields, need to be repeated over and over?

Of course the field of gender studies and feminism are the quintessential example here. Debates about universal sisterhood, about structure versus agency, about the biological versus the constructed, and so on have been happening for decades upon decades. But the point here is that certain points – which should by now have been accepted – must be constantly made and defended. The most prominent example is the idea of multiple structural intersections that de-center gender as the most important axis of oppression or identity. In other words: race, sexuality, nation and a whole range of other social categories matter just as much as gender. Significantly, they can’t really be neatly separated from one another – I am racialized and gendered, and I can’t exactly separate my racialization from my gendering. Intersectionality is the most recent reiteration of this basic point, but it has been made before, by Black feminists, by Third World feminists, and by feminists during the era of decolonization. Hence the idea of repetition.


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Neo-Colonialism and it’s DiscontentsA blog by Sara Salem on Postcolonialism, Marxism, feminism and other conspiracies.  Twitter: @saramsalem

Sorry – can I just interrupt you? Your not Black. by Petals fall from my afro like autumn

(Cross-posted from Petals fall from my afro like Autumn)

It’s funny after all these months that I have come back to race. But I suppose it is somewhat unavoidable as a thinking point when you goes to a talk entitled: Black Feminism 101: Reclaiming Space in Mainstream Feminism, facilitated, by a young woman who was one of the founders of Black Feminists, a London-based group. If you look back at my first dozen posts, their ALL about race, as was my creative enquiry of the time, but looking at it now, I have perhaps  made somewhat of a subconscious point of not mentioning it since. Moving from London, back to Scotland had the wonderful effect of liberatingly (if very slightly disappointingly) reminding me that I am not an exotic one-off representative of all women/artists/people of colour in the world. I am only me, one of many types, as well as completely unique. But no more unique than anyone else.

The conclusion, to put it simply, of my three-month-long (or arguably life-long) study of my own racial, or perhaps ‘raced’ self was that I can identify however I want to, and that these labels are not only allowed to, but really should be flexible, fluid, morphing and evolving just as I am. Yet last week, at this talk, I found myself confronted with this question once again, quietly, in my own mind:Am I Black enough to be here? I didn’t even know I was asking this question, although I knew I was aware of the clipped well-spoken qualities of my accent, African-print earrings, the bohemian assumptions flowing from the hem of my black, empress-line dress, and battered, second-hand cowboy boots. All of which marking me out as not only potentially ‘Superficially Black’, but also a potential ‘Wannabe White’. Simplified, exaggerated, un-politically correct terms, clumsy in the mouth and awkward on the tongue like a dirty word no-one wants to hear, but that everyone whispers behind their hands in the dark. Terms I shun, look down on, frown into submission, but never-the-less acknowledge as living breathing, potentially powerful images in their own right, images with connotations that can divide, can ridicule, can hurt, can isolate.

So whilst my subconscious was reluctantly sidling through this dangerous territory of chasms, curses and calamities, I got distracted. The talk had ended and I was trying to give my card to a girl who had asked for it, but was now engaged in another conversation. Eventually, wanting to leave I involved myself in their conversation – hoping to avoid interrupting, but still leave my details and make a quick escape. One white and small, one black and tall, and me standing there in the middle. Somehow they drew me in, and, the talk being over, I let my guard down, stopped worrying so much about how I portrayed myself, or the language I used and professed my truths: I, personally felt uncomfortable with this exclusive grouping of women, who identified as ‘Black’ and ‘Feminist’ both things that at times I identified with. Yet they put together two expansively diverse and multi-faceted words and came out with what felt to me to be a very single minded definition, and one that I didn’t associate with. I had no problem at all with the group, of course I didn’t, and I was very happy that women met and found solidarity and comfort and a voice there, it just wasn’t for me,

At which point she interrupted with a beautifully careless, “Sorry – can I just interrupt you? Your not Black.”

And you know what? I was crushed. I felt utterly obliterated and unqualified to speak. I felt like a phoney. A white sheep running with the black flock, desperately hoping they wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t one of them. I laughed nervously, buying myself time, trying to find the words, to sound confident, sure of myself, calm, collected. “Well, I stumbled, I identify differently depending on the circles I’m in, and actually claiming the word ‘Black’ has been a very important part of my own journey of identification” “But,” She interrupts again, “You shouldn’t feel like you have to identify as black, when, you know, your not, your Mixed Race.” “Of course not!” I laughed, falsely trying to play her at her own game, to reject the slightly pitying motherly eye she had now turned towards me, looking down at me. I tried to make the very notion of such a thing seem ridiculous, and her ridiculous in mentioning it. The she looked away, her interest faltering.

Or so it seemed to me, in my flustered defensive state, she was every Black woman who had ever laughed in my face, or told me I wanted to be white, or wished I was white, or said I wasn’t Black enough, or called me ‘coconut’, or even ‘Bounty’.

I excused myself fairly rapidly after that, in fact I don’t even remember much of the latter conversation, my mind was reeling. It was only afterwards, walking home that I begun to get angry. Who was she after all to say who was and wasn’t whatever they chose to define themselves as? I berated myself for being so pathetic in my response. I should have said, ‘I identify as Black because I see it as a political statement. A statement of solidarity, recognition, of acknowledgement, and of positioning’ – my whole dissertation concluded with ‘positioning’ – i.e that we are all positioned somewhere in the social and political conversation, and our job as conscious individually-minded human beings is to chooses where that is, and then stand by that position – ‘but I would be really interested to hear what your definition is (as you seem to think you can universally decide who does and who doesn’t deserve the grand title of Black!). Well – perhaps not the last bit…

Hours later, on the phone to my friend Cristian, who is Colombian I was still going on about it, and relaying how shaken and cowed I had been. ‘Ama, he said calmly. There will always be people who want to tell you who you are and who you are not allowed to be. If they feel they have a definition of Blackness that you do not conform to then forget it, their not worth bothering with – just let it go. You have to live by your own definitions.’ And of course he is right, and of course, I know this. If it had happened to someone else, I could easily have dished out the same calmly uttered wisdom. But somehow it had still gotten to me, after all these years, and a whole dissertation on the subject-later, I was still completely out of my comfort zone, feeling a complete outsider. And you know what, other than going on, of course going on (always on!), I have no solution..not yet, not tonight. But tomorrow, I guess, maybe.


Ama Budge: A performance artist turned freelance writer commenting on gender inequalities, reflecting on my own challenges and experiences as a mixed-race Londoner and most importantly taking note, in awe, of the extraordinary resilience of human kinds striving for be better, and to love.