Joseph Suzanne E. | Reimagining Power Binaries of Gender-Race-Class in the Social Sciences

Abstract

Recent research on gender in the social sciences, particularly anthropology, has shown that EuroAmerican and other Western feminists have engaged in “discursive colonization” (Mohanty 1986) and “colonial feminism” (Ahmed 1993) codifying and re/producing Others as an inferior group who do not measure up to white colonial/imperial standards (Hoagland 2007). When discursively engaging white men in self-presentation, white feminists often recognize but downplay biological gender differences (e.g., sexual dimorphism) while attending to more meaningful political differences (i.e., the power gap between men and women). Women are perceived as bound together by their shared oppression. White feminist discourse posits both biological sameness (shared biology) and political sameness (shared oppression) vis-à-vis nonwhite women. The discursive and political consequences of white colonial “sisterhood” are the removal of race and class difference or, more sinisterly, the removal of nonwhite and poor women.  When discursively engaging in feminist representation of nonwhite women, Western feminists have constructed Third World women as oppressed victims of violent patriarchy who have not “evolved” to the level of white women. Examining the eugenic binary deployed by many Western feminists reveals the workings of gender-cum-race (white capitalist patriarchy) and white rejection of multiple genders or different kinds of women. Binaries give us a glimpse into the workings and productive capabilities of power as well as related attempts to naturalize nurture and anthropomorphize nature.
To universal dichotomies of gender, class, and race without attention to time-space conditions is to miss the variegations of power and resistance and to posit social laws akin to natural ones—in effect naturalizing power in human societies. Gender binaries are worthy of study provided that we probe their social contexts, meanings, and limitations. The error lies in removing wo/men from history, social relations, and embedding contexts so as to construct a universal referent (explicit or implicit).  Some binaries are flawed, others are not only strategically but analytically and empirically useful. For example, on a global level, heterosexualism and racism are visible in practice and material realities. The demographic binary (i.e., the global demographic divide between rich/white and poor/nonwhite) points to racism and exploitative political economies—the demographic consequences resulting from the transference of value from periphery to center. Structural binaries point to institutionalized oppression. Patriarchy privileges men as a group and oppresses women as a group. Capital accumulation is based on oppression with one classes’ wealth coming at another’s expense. White supremacy privileges whites as a group over nonwhites.
Those with privilege often understand how their privilege is derived from the disadvantages of those in dissimilar structural locations—they  actively perpetuate structures of division that maintain their own privilege. Yet, we have to do a better job of identifying how interlocking structures of oppression are re/created and the institutionalized ways gender, class, and race fit together. I propose scalar, contextualized investigations that begin not by assuming or rejecting binaries but by subjecting concepts and evidence to critical scrutiny and carefully distinguishing material realities  and institutional practices from discursive ones.