Breaking Colonial Binaries

By Sandra Fernandez

senior undergraduate thesis


How can we steer away from colonial thinking in a social sense? –The belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture. In my proposal, I plan to use Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s Third World Women and The Politics of Feminism, What is postcolonial thinking? by Achille Mbembe, and Denise Riley’s Does a Sex Have a History? And other sources, to support the main theme on how intersectional feminism can aid in changing/transforming binary systems that oppress society as a whole. By breaking down the postcolonial studies of the history of violence and domination, it’s negative effects and attachments on society, I will also be focusing on how to alleviate postcolonial ways of thinking through non-violent reasoning/thinking, practices, choices, and intersectionality.


With attention to history, one must ask themselves, who wrote history, how did they write it, and why? The origins of post-colonial thinking of globalization is a word that has been used and executed by “the generalized expansion of trade and its grip on the totality of natural resources, of human production, in a word living in its entirety” (Mbembe 17). In other words, these are contemporary forms of life.


It’s clear, indeed, how constant was the refusal , in the way colonial capitalism functioned, to institute the sphere of the living as a limit to economic appropriation. As for slavery, it was a mode of production, circulation and distribution of wealth grounded in the refusal of institutionalization in any domain whatever of the “non-appropriable”. From every point of view, the ‘plantation”, the “factory” and the “colony” were the principal laboratories in which experiments were conducted into the authoritarian destiny of the world that we see today.


Relating this to dominance and control, the postcolonial thought has an interesting violent past that has divided people. In the binary way of thinking,  how can we all understand the origins of “made-up” categories in colonialism? “Postcolonial thought is also a dream: the dream of a new form of humanism, a critical humanism founded above all on the divisions that, this side of the absolutes, differentiate us” (11). Mbembe describes this in a law sense. Saying that the representations that Europe has showed to us are codified, as in, they are classified, coded, systematized.


In showing how the colonial and imperial experience has been codified in representations, divisions, between disciplines, their methodologies and their objects, it invites us to undertake an alternative reading of our common modernity. It calls upon Europe to live what it declares to be its origins, its future and its promise, and to live all that responsibly. If, as Europe has always claimed, this promise has truly as its object the future of humanity as whole, then postcolonial thought calls upon Europe to open and continually relaunch that future in a singular fashion, responsible for itself, for the Other, and before the Other (11).


The last example focuses on the ethics that are beneath the suffering of people when laws are enforced to divide people. “The ethics underlying this thought of responsibility is the future of the self in memory of what one has been in another’s hands, the sufferings one has endured in captivity, when the law and the subject were divided” (12). In other words, the law then, in the U.S., is “God’s law and divine providence”.


Including the building of a universalism that promotes democracy, in definition, a government that promotes political or social equality, in the justification of crimes that just so happen to be presented in the form of “God fulfillments”. For example, Mbembe said, “…US governments have claimed  to build universalism and promote democracy on the basis of crimes that are presented as so many earthly fulfillments of God’s law and divine providence” (12). This in other words, is ironic in the sense that equality and fairness, does not revolve around violence or domination/force.


So it’s the political theology of the American state that is what people have a problem with insofar as the god it invokes is a melancholy god, irascible and vengeful. Mercy has no part in his laws and precepts. He is a jealous and unforgiving god, swift to destroy and forever requiring human sacrifice (12)


These are examples of division, difference, sacrifice, hostility. God, law, and violence are basically all circling in a cycle, consistently using one another, and camouflaging into one.


So then, one might ask, how does it feel to be colonized? Mbembe explained that European colonial humanism was something that derived of self-hatred, and passing it or reflecting it onto another. For example,


More radically, it seeks to know what it is to live under the beast’s regime, what kind of life it offers, and what sort of death people die from. It shows that there is, in European colonial humanism, something that has to be called unconscious self-hatred. Racism in general, and colonial racism in particular, represents the transference of this self-hatred to the Other (2).


“The beast” being the colonizer and “the Other” being the colonized, superior vs inferior,

dominate and dominated, etc. My second example focuses more on the colonized subject,

explaining their self conscious behavior of losing their sense of identity. “ Quite the reverse– the colonized person is a living, talking, conscious, active individual whose identity arises from  a three-pronged movement of violation, erasure and self-rewriting” (3). A violation of rights followed with the erasing of the self, and then finally having to rewrite the self.


Earlier, when we focused on law, God, and violence, now I want to progress the focus on how violence is blended in with law and how it is exercised. How laws are paradoxes of themselves, having nothing at all to do with the actual meaning of justice–the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.


It was also a place where the law had nothing to do with justice but, on the contrary, was a way of starting wars, continuing them and perpetuating them; and above all a place where wealth was but a means of exercising over others the right of life and death. As a result it could be said of postcolonial thinking that it is not a critique of power as usually understood, but of force–a force that is incapable of transformation (3).


The above, when it mentions “it was a place” the place was Europe. The colonials desires were to eliminate “the Other” through violence, laws, by way of explanation.


At the same time, I want to now give attention to colonial/binary ways of thinking by using examples of categorizing, and by also relating back to laws, and how privileging is used as a tool of conformity. In Denise Riley’s Does a Sex Have a History? ‘Women’ and Feminism, she centralized ‘women’ as a category by defining what the word means and how it’s seen in a social view. She expressed that “ ‘women’ are not” (Riley 36).  By that she means that ‘women’ as a category, have to be scrutinized in a way that displays many sociological struggles/endeavors and how they’ve been put to work throughout time. Riley then mentions later on in her explanation, that ‘women’ and men are not the direct opposite of each other, rather, ‘women’ are something else that has become sort of like a social collectivity.


The associations of ‘women’ with ‘the social’ in the nineteenth century effect a kind of feminizing of the amorphous social at the same time as ‘women’ become a new sociological collectivity… The social question in England is the question of the intimate conditions of working-class domestic life–housing, nutrition, budgets, maternal morbidity and malnutrition, infant mortality, childhood disease, wage earning women and their dependants (36).


This now opens the doors to categories and the categorized interrelatedness that are labeled on human beings in order to label class, status, etc.


Next question that relates to categorizing is, what effect may categorizing ‘women’ have in the eyes of the Western ‘women’? or to ‘third-world women’? Well, according to what Riley states in her ‘women’ explanation, philanthropic associations feel that they are women investigators of ‘working-class women’ and their struggles. For instance, she wrote, “This closeness of ‘women’ and the ‘social’ is then refined and intensified by feminist, women’s labour and philanthropic associations–who understand themselves as women investigators of the sufferings of ‘the working class women’” (42). This, to Riley, means that ‘women’ are in dislocation with the political.


Another question that focuses and relates to the effects of colonial/binary ways of thinking is, what can be easily misinterpreted or misrepresented in the process of categorizing types of ‘women’? –Always ask yourself, how did those words get there? Not only is Western white feminism imperial, the hierarchy always has binary ways of thinking. For instance, colonial, native, universal, particular, Western women, third-world women, but these ways of thinking sustain the dangers of oppressive perspectives and reflections onto the world. By dangers, I mean to explain the argument that Mohanty makes in her edited Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, concerning the assumptions that are made when referring to women in certain categories.


‘I argue that as a result of the two modes–or, rather, frames–of analysis described above, a homogeneous notion of the oppression of women as a group is assumed, which, in turn, produces the image of an ‘average third world woman.’ This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read:sexually constrained) and her being ‘third world’ (read:ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, as modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions (56).


All of these distinctions are created from privileged individuals who then turn into groups of normativity and conformity. The dangers of normativity and conformity may help promote ethnocentrism and universalism, for these two bolster patriarchy and imperialism.


Beverly Lindsay’s conclusion to the book Comparative Perspectives of Third World Women: The Impact of Race, Sex, and Class (1983, 298, 306) states: ‘dependency relationships, based upon race, sex and class, are being perpetuated through social, educational, and economic institutions. These are the linkages among Third World Women (58).


This is an example used to describe women as a group of universal dependents, particularly third world women.    


So then, why/how can binary (sexual oppressive) ways of thinking be tyrannical? A specific analysis must be done concerning sexual differences and their oppressive traits and the effects it has on women in general. The last example from Mohanty’s Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, is


An analysis of ‘sexual difference’ in the form of cross-culturally singular, monolithic notion of patriarchy or male dominance leads to the construction of a similarly reductive and homogeneous notion of what I call the ‘third world difference’–that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all the women in these countries. And it is in the production of this ‘third world difference’ that Western feminisms appropriate and ‘colonize’ the constitutive complexities which characterize the lives of women in these countries (53)


So this in other words means to be understood as Western hegemonic feminists today, are in the position of , as Abdel-Malek calls it, a “struggle for control over the orientation” (54). In other phrasing, when dealing with the relations of power and struggle, Western feminists have a sense of control and regulation of decision making  processes of world development on the bases of “the advanced sector’s monopoly of scientific knowledge and ideal creativity.” It is indeed something that must be examined precisely according to Malek.  Western feminism is fused with imperialism in the eyes of some third world women, and that is the reason why it is essential to examine and learn the history/compositions of feminism in an unbiased manner.


Subsequently, now I’d like to focus on the history of feminism, having discussed the retrospective/violent history surrounding it, I want to ask, how then, can we steer away from colonization in a social sense? –we have to constantly deconstruct gender roles. Specifically, by practicing non binary ways of thinking; being open to race, culture, ethnicity, class, and sexuality.  The history of feminism will then be introduced as well as it’s positive anti-violence effects on society.


When talking about the origins of feminism, one must realize that it has really changed in the course of time. Having happened in waves/stages, feminism blossomed and branched out and evolved from it’s patriarchal beginning. In an article piece on, Martha Rampton, author and professor of history and director of the Center for Gender Equity at Pacific University, Rampton wrote about the three waves of feminism. She explains the introduction of feminism and it’s transition into it’s second wave by introducing class and women of color into the mix.


Whereas the first wave of feminism was generally propelled by middle class white women, the second phase drew in women of color and developing nations, seeking sisterhood and solidarity and claiming, ‘Women’s struggle is class struggle.’ Feminists spoke of women as a social class and coined phrases such as ‘the personal is political’ and ‘identity politics’ in an effort to demonstrate that race, class and gender oppression are all related. They initiated a concentrated effort to rid society top-to-bottom of sexism, from children’s cartoons to the highest levels of government (8)


After having initiated race, gender, and class into politics, their efforts would then soon lead them to moving forward with anti-sexism and love for the environment (eco-feminism), in the third wave.


One of the strains of this complex and diverse ‘wave’ was the development of women-only spaces and the notion that women working together create a special dynamic that is not possible in mixed-groups and that would ultimately work for the betterment of the entire planet. Women, whether due to their long ‘subjugation’ or to their biology, were thought by some to be more humane, collaborative, inclusive, peaceful, nurturing, democratic and holistic in their approach to problem-solving than men. The term eco-feminism was coined to capture the sense that, because of their biological connection to earth and lunar cycles, women were natural advocates of environmentalism


This in return, would impact feminism in the 90’s and would then branch out towards a more empowering movement/wave for more individuals who were anti-patriarchy.


The third phase of feminism began in the mid-1990s and is informed by post-colonial and post-modern thinking. In this phase many constructs have been destabilized, including the notions of “universal womanhood,” body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity. An aspect of third wave feminism that mystifies the mothers of the earlier feminist movement is the readoption by young feminists of the very lipstick, high heels and cleavage proudly exposed by low cut necklines that the first two phases of the movement identified with male oppression. Pinkfloor expressed this new position when she said; ‘It’s possible to have a push-up bra and a brain at the same time’(10)


The third wave of feminism not only brought confidence and empowerment to the political table, but also brought new subjects that defines feminine beauty. Grrrl feminism.


The ‘grrls’ of the third wave have stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy. They have developed a rhetoric of mimicry, which reappropriates derogatory terms like ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’ in order to subvert sexist culture and deprive it of verbal weapons. The web is an important aspect of the new ‘girlie feminism.’ E-zines have provided ‘cybergrrls’ and ‘netgrrls’ another kind of women-only space. At the same time — rife with the irony of third-wave feminism because cyberspace is disembodied — it permits all users the opportunity to cross gender boundaries and so the very notion of gender has been challenged (11)


Furthermore, this stage in time not only allowed society to think critically when referring to “us” or “them”, but it allowed us to see how important it is to be aware of the oppressive intersections of fixed structures/categories and their oppressive characteristics.


This is in keeping with the third wave’s celebration of ambiguity and refusal to think in terms of “us-them” or in some cases their refusal to identify themselves as “feminists” at all. Grrl-feminism tends to be global and multi-cultural, and it shuns simple answers or artificial categories of identity, gender and sexuality. Its transversal politics means that differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc., are celebrated but recognized as dynamic, situational and provisional. Reality is conceived not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries (12)


By breaking the boundaries of made-up categories that oppress human beings, intersectional feminism welcomes intersectional identities when referring to race, class, gender, sexuality, and culture, while also promoting equality for all.


So then, what are some positive effects, practices, and choices that intersectionality can have on society? –The end of violence and oppression, through knowing the differences and origins between heteropatriarchal binary ways of thinking as well as feminism and intersectional ways of thinking. By definition, intersectionality is a concept that’s often used in critical theories, to describe oppressive institutions, such as racism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, etc., are intertwined and cannot be examined separately from one another. This concept first came about in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar.


In addition, some positive practices that can arise from intersectionality can be just aiming for diversity in general. It may also help to aim for gender balance and women equality and respect too. Secondly, knowing what privilege means and how it’s exercised in certain community groups, and knowing the different historical waves/stages of feminism with past time. This not only will improve the lives of women and also men, but will aid as a way in which different feminist ideas can all cooperate. For example, Julia Maj, a scholar from the University of Manchester, wrote an essay titled The Significance of Intersectionality for Feminist Political Theory. It touched on topics on how intersectionality has made an essential contribution to feminism learning.


First, it has highlighted the issue of essentialism in feminist theory and how when thinking about the category of women it is vital to take under consideration the differences which exist within this social category. Additionally, intersectionality highlights how not only does the intersection of social categories produce lived experiences, but also how experience is very much dependent on the historical and cultural context within which a woman exists. Keeping this in mind is instrumental to facilitating the implementation of policies, which can adequately address women’s diverse needs. Second, for feminist theorists with differing theoretical backgrounds, intersectionality acts as “shared enterprise” (Davis 2008, pp. 72). This means that even though there may be certain disagreements between theorists, this research paradigm allows women to maintain their underlying beliefs while at the same time working towards a better understanding of women’s experiences whether they are a source of oppression or privilege (Smooth 2013)


This means that feminist theorists can still maintain their differences, but at the same time share similar aspects/experiences as well, that can provide a way in which they cooperate in order to achieve political positive change in societies. These give ways of showing the public that they don’t have to feel forced to just act or think in binary terms/systems.


For the most part, in order to resist violence, oppression, and ethnocentrism, one must disrupt through intersection. One must understand that sexism, racism, gender, culture, and ethnicity are all related in some way. In it’s origins, intersectionality has made all oppressive systems interrelated. For example, an essay titled, The Concept of Intersectionality in Feminist Theory, by Anna Carastathis, writes that arguably,


…some of the traction of the term ‘intersectionality’ is due to the antecedence of the concept of ‘interlocking systems of oppression’, defined in a social movement context by the Combahee River Collective, in ‘A Black Feminist Statement’, as the structural anchor of the experience of simultaneous oppressions and the target of integrated political struggle [13, 16] (306)


Carastathis then goes on about how the 80’s dealt with a lot of important texts/literature of antiracist feminist theory in which language of “different intersections” were then recognized. For instance, the intersections of sexuality, race, and gender have become very important when trying to connect them all to feminism– making it have the qualities of inclusiveness. “It is important to recognize the roots of intersectionality in the political movement of Black women, Chicana and Latina women, and other women of color – most of them lesbian – identified” (306). The steering away from discrimination of race, sexuality, gender, and class are ways to include and accept difference, while still being able to politically organize positively and effectively, in other words,  intercultural competence.


By and large, I broke down certain postcolonial studies– origins of colonialism/violence and domination, it’s negative effects and attachments it has/had on society as a whole, and how to practice non-postcolonial ways of thinking through non-violent reasoning, practices, choices, and intersectionality. With the help of Mbembe, Riley’s,  Mohanty, as well as others work and analyses, I dissected how one can learn the origins of “made-up” categories in colonialism, and, at the same time, show others that they don’t have to think or feel forced to act in binary ways that may be oppressive to them. Lastly, the positive effects and results of intercultural competence through intersectional feminist thought and understanding how beneficial it can be socially and politically for communities and societies.


“Third World Women and The Politics of Feminism”, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, Lourdes Torres.

“Eurozine: What is postcolonial thinking”. Interview with Achille Mbembe. Web

“Does a Sex Have a History?”, Denise Riley