To understand decolonial feminism

Image: Cholera Joy


The geopolitics of knowledge imposes on all countries of the world the hegemonic epistemology based on universal modern categories of thought

“Decolonial feminism” names a current of subaltern, counter-hegemonic feminisms, which also include post-colonial, black, community and indigenous feminisms, whose representatives, non-white intellectuals, denounce gender racism and the way in which the geopolitics of knowledge silences the voices of intellectuals and subaltern intellectuals, that is, all non-white, indigenous, black, chicane, latina, indian, asian, afro-descendant, mestizo, immigrant voices, and the voices of dissident sexuality, transgender, gay and lesbian people of the peripheral countries of capitalism (formerly called developing countries of the third world).

The geopolitics of knowledge – dominated by the central countries of capitalism, the European continent and the United States – imposes on all countries of the world the hegemonic epistemology based on universal modern categories of thought. Thus, those who are authorized to speak on behalf of the human race and the entire population of the planet are only the intellectuals and academics of the central countries, as they would be better able to perceive the whole of the question, the whole of the problem, in a neutral and impartial. Subaltern women and men do not have authority and a place to speak in this geopolitics, because the perspective from a non-developed country is always seen as partial and incomplete, for not having mastery of the universal categories of analysis.

Decolonial feminism – made up of Latin American, Afro-descendant, mestizo, non-white intellectuals – denounces the origin of the unjust geopolitics of knowledge in the European colonial experience in the Americas. European colonization represents a milestone in the constitution of a capitalist-patriarchal matrix of economic and intellectual domination that lasts until today, sustaining socioeconomic inequalities and inequalities between nations.

In addition, decolonial feminism incorporates two central issues of North American black feminism: the non-fragmentation of oppressions and the de-universalization of the subject “woman”.

The fragmentation of oppressions is a form of domination, as no subaltern oppressed person suffers only one type of oppression. All subaltern races and nationalities are oppressed at least racially and economically, so to speak of racism or sexism without speaking of the unequal distribution of wealth is to divert attention from the fact that the origin of these oppressions is in the world capitalist system, at the same time time that the very privileged place of speech from the center of global capitalism is not questioned. Furthermore, the fragmentation of oppressions also serves to separate and disunite, to dominate. A fractured community, in which men and women are enemies of each other, is much more easily dominated than a community in which men and women are united by racial and class solidarity and community ties.

Like the rest of the subaltern feminisms, the decolonial is also not recognized in the representation of feminism by the hegemonic-liberal-white-western-heterocentric feminism. The experiences and experiences of a racialized, cis or trans, and poor female body in countries on the global periphery are so unique that there is no way for someone who has never lived under the same conditions to know its meaning or be able to describe its pain. Feminisms, therefore, are different, because there are countless ways of living in a female body. But when feminism mainstream claims the universalization of gender oppression as if this oppression crossed all cultures and social classes, and overlapped with other forms of oppression, what he is actually doing is also oppressing. This is gender racism.

The category “gender” is part of the Eurocentric modern-colonial system of domination. To the extent that hegemonic feminism reiterates the centrality of this category of analysis, it is an accomplice and co-participant in the model of world domination of capitalism – which is based on the separation between rich and poor, between peripheral and central countries.

In the first phase of global capitalism, which began with the invasion of the South American continent by European colonizers at the end of the 15th century, “gender” was, alongside “race”, one of the fundamental categories used to exercise control and domination of native and enslaved populations. The power and dominance of the colonizer over the colonized, the native population and the enslaved blacks brought from the African continent did not happen exclusively through the use of force and violence, but also, and mainly, through the exercise of psychological and epistemic control (= coloniality of the being and knowing).

The invasion of the Latin American continent coincides with the beginning of the modern era in Europe, but normally manuals on the histories of ideas do not associate the two events. For the Latin American intellectuals gathered around the group that became known as the Modernidade/Colonialidade Group, however, the two events are intrinsically linked: colonization is the dark and hidden side of modernity. European philosophers supported the colonial exploratory project, since at the same time they described humanity in opposition to the natural and the animal. The human, unlike all non-thinking nature, was separated from the world by thought in order to better control and dominate it. Endowed with an instrumental rationality, the rationality for which nature is a means for human beings to achieve their material and economic progress, the colonizer no longer presented himself as a conqueror of territories and peoples as in the past, but as a representative of culture high, civilized European culture – as opposed to the inferior culture of native peoples, bound by nature. The non-humanity of non-Europeans “authorized” that Europeans exploited them in the same way they exploited animals, without pity or mercy. Thus, the white colonizing European identified in the non-white bodies of Africans and indigenous people a “racial” difference that also represented a difference in degrees of humanity. The darker the skin, the more barbaric and non-human the individual was, and this justified the exploitation of its workforce in the same way that the nature of the colonies served the European extractive economy.

Colonial society was, therefore, organized along the lines of social and racial division: enslaved blacks and Indians at the bottom and wealthy Europeans at the top; in the middle, between them, the poor whites and the mestizos. Complete domination depended on the introjection of the idea, by the colonized, that the European “rational” mode of thought, based on a dichotomous categorical structure of thought, European/non-European, civilized/barbarian, human/non-human, culture/nature, superior /inferior, rich/poor, male/female, was superior to yours. Until then, as the vast literature on the subject shows, native, African or indigenous societies were socially organized in a completely different way. The social base was communitarian, all members of the grouping participated in the relations of production and distribution. There was no social division based on wealth or poverty. Local leaders were occupied by older people, and families were not structured in nuclei and under the father's domain, as in the European case.

One of the ways in which this community model of organization was destroyed was the introduction of the modern/colonial gender system. To the extent that native women were portrayed as non-human or savage, they were contradictorily portrayed as 'non-women'.

The European gender system identified humanity as divided by the male/female gender binomial. Femininity was considered universally expressed by opposition to the masculine, the woman was the other of the man. This meant that she was the opposite of what was understood to be exclusively masculine: fragile, passive, domestic, maternal, emotional, insecure, and weak. Anyone who did not reproduce this model of femininity was evidently considered not a woman and therefore not human.

But of course, the relationship between men and women in the pre-colonization era was not based on this dichotomy of opposite genders that complement each other, because the community way of thinking was not dichotomous and categorical. There was no such expectation that biological sex would essentially determine people's social position and behavior. The introduction of the sex-gender system in the colony was, for this reason, a powerful tool of domination, as it fomented opposition between men and women, putting community ties at risk. Division and fragmentation, separation into opposing categories, such as gender and race, represent the mode of modern European thought that lasts until today and serves as a strategy of domination and exclusion.

Feminism emerged precisely to oppose these gender dichotomies and these ideals of masculinity and femininity that placed women on the domestic and submissive side. Hegemonic white middle-class feminism serves the interests of patriarchal capitalist domination when it defines male domination on the basis of its experience. Thus, for example, for a long period, the agenda of world feminism was the right of women to work and public life. But these issues were never part of the agenda, for example, of black women or working women. North American black feminism was the first to point out this flaw when announcing that the matrix of domination was multiple and involved not only gender differences, but economic and racial differences as well.

Racialized women from peripheral countries of global capitalism carry the experience of colonization in their bodies. In colonial times, women were not considered; on the contrary, they were, in the colonizer's view, sexual, savage beasts. Only as they were “whitened” over the centuries, that is, submitting to the civilized ideal of femininity, were they then recognized as “women”. This colonial wound was never healed, and the colonizer's sovereign point of view persists to this day in center-periphery relations. For hegemonic feminism, peripheral women need their help to become, like them, economically independent and autonomous women – which makes us conclude that they still see us with the same condescension as the dominators towards non-humans.

The end of colonization did not mean the end of Eurocentrism and the domination of global capitalism over the economy of non-European countries. The local population had already been socially stratified according to the ideal of whiteness. Racism became entrenched in the social relations of the former colonies. In addition, the relationship of supposed cultural superiority of the metropolis towards the colony was transposed to the level of the geopolitics of knowledge. The former colonies did not carry out a cultural rescue of their non-European roots, valuing their knowledge and thinking. Quite the contrary, they maintained a mentality of inferiority in the face of white European culture – and North American, we would say today. Anyone can easily see how the colonized mentality persists in Latin American societies by looking at the media and fashion. If an extraterrestrial arrived in our country now and watched television programs, he would conclude that the majority of the population is white or whitened – he would never imagine that more than half of Brazilians are of African descent.

Divide and rule: that was the motto of the matrix of global capitalist domination. In this sense, race and gender have always been treated as distinct themes. This allowed mainstream white feminism to describe female oppression separately from all other vectors of domination, such as racial, class or nationality.

Especially today, when the pandemic crisis of global capitalism brings to the fore racial and economic conflicts, the need for Brazilian feminism to seek to rescue the community experiences of indigenous peoples, quilombolas, Brazilians, Caribbean and Latin Americans is more evident. We also need to rescue and value the contribution of black Brazilian feminism to the critique of modern Western categories of thought, and align ourselves with the project of decolonizing our peripheral mentality by doing research not in a neutral way, but based on the uniqueness of our experiences.

This is certainly not an easy task, since global capitalism artificially makes all peoples equal by making us believe that we belong to a global village where we all want the same things, the same consumer goods. Valuing differences does not mean excluding. We need a new research methodology that incorporates and values ​​differences and that does not seek to level all experiences to a common denominator: that of hegemonic, patriarchal, racist and heterocentric whiteness. We need more studies of whiteness that show us why the white body is not racialized, whereas all non-white bodies are. We are not talking about white feminism, but black feminism and indigenous feminism. I wonder why?

* Susana Castro is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of The women of Greek tragedies: powerful? (Manole).

Originally published on the website Other words.


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