[Marxism] Race, Class, and Feminist Theory (Part 1)

usman x sandinista at shaw.ca
Tue Mar 9 00:44:52 MST 2004

From Agnew, Vijay (1996): Resisting Discrimination: Women from Asia, Africa,
and the Caribbean and the Women's Movement in Canada.

Race, Class, and Feminist Theory

The integration of feminist ideas into academic disciplines, the policies of
state agencies, and the practices and programs of volunteer groups provides
some measure of feminist success. Feminist theory has encouraged women to
identify, question, and resist oppression by the practices and discourses of
dominant groups. But feminist theory is constantly being challenged by new
insights from feminist critics and by the intellectual currents of society
at large. Debates within the women's movement, and without, require that
feminists continually re-evaluate their concepts and reformulate their
theories. This process has moved feminism from a narrow focus on combating
gender bias to more dynamic programs with broader goals and objectives.

	In the 1970s, racism in feminist theories was detected in the apparently
universal category of 'woman.’ Feminists from Asia, Africa, and the
Caribbean, in Canada and elsewhere, argued that mainstream feminism focused
on the oppressions of white, middle-class women, although it claimed to
address the concerns of all women.' That assumption represented an exercise
of race and class privilege; it oppressed women who did not belong to this
group by imposing a norm upon them. In the 1980s, feminists of all
persuasions acknowledged the multiple and integrated nature of the
oppressions of race, class, gender - as well as of age, sexual orientation,
and disability.'

	Despite the growing consensus among feminists that feminist theory in the
1970s and early 1980s was racially insensitive, there is some question
whether feminism has integrated race analysis into its theories or has
become antiracist in its practices. White, middle-class feminists assert
that problems of racism within the women's movement have been resolved, but
women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean argue that  'white women just
don't get it.’ While white feminists acknowledge the integrated nature of
race, class, and gender oppression, they seldom incorporate this insight
into their theories.3 Deborah Rhode comments on the difficulty white
feminists confront in 'addressing issues that could expose our unconscious
racism, homophobia, or class biases.' She explains:

"The dilemma is that either talking or not talking about differences these
days can get one in trouble. Yet all too often we seek to escape the dilemma
by acknowledging without really addressing differences ... In seeking to
avoid parochialism, we often compound it; a common strategy is what Marilyn
Frye describes as a retreat into autobiography - stringing suitable
adjectives before the noun 'woman' (speaking as a middle-aged, middle-class
Anglo ...). Or we assume the existence of some illusory 'generic woman' and
add qualifying tag lines to every other paragraph such as 'and all this is
worse for women of colour.'" (1991, 37)

The differences between white feminists and feminists from Asia, Africa, and
the Caribbean have created an emotionally charged atmosphere which has led
to discouragement on both sides (Bunch 1990, 44-56)

  However, the cumulative impact of the debate has been positive and
constructive. It has encouraged feminists to reconsider some of their
initial rallying cries - for example, 'sisterhood,' 'the personal as
political,' 'common oppressions,’ 'men as the enemy,’ and 'women as
victims.' Feminists now see the need to question assumptions encoded in
terms such as 'we' and 'woman,’ which have tended to refer only to white,
middle-class women. They see the need to re-examine the experiences from
which their theories are derived and the practices that their theories
recommend rather than to claim that their theories are unbiased, neutral, or
universally applicable to all women. White feminists in Canada now admit
that they speak as white women and that their discussions usually refer to a
specific group of the population - English Canadians.

  The exposure of racism in feminism has been particularly difficult for
white, middle-class feminists even though they espouse principles, ideals,
and norms that repudiate the power structures of society. Feminists are
critical of individuals and institutions that exercise 'power over' others.
They want women to acquire the 'power to' achieve their own goals. Feminists
note that as individuals or groups become empowered, they 'experience a
growth and development of their sense of autonomy and a trust in their own
abilities (Lips 1991 6-10). But in concentrating on their own goals,
including gaining greater access to society's resources, they have often
overlooked the needs of other, less organized groups and have thus rendered
them invisible.

	White feminists disclaim any interest in exercising 'power over' any group,
but it is difficult for them to disentangle themselves from the power
structures of race and class that are embedded in society. Women from Asia,
Africa, and the Caribbean resent white, middle-class feminists exercising
the power to define feminism and to identify the sources of women's


The presence of racism in feminist theory challenges feminists' assertions
of the primacy of gender oppression in male-dominated society and undermines
their goals of social transformation. White feminists have sometimes
interpreted the problem of racism in feminism as a moral one, whose solution
lies in changing personal attitudes and behaviour. But this interpretation
does not explain why biases persist. Racism in feminism is difficult to
resolve because racial and ethnic stratification is an integral part of
institutional structures, and these determine the social, political, and
economic realities of Canadian women. The differences in power and privilege
among women are obstacles to creating a common understanding of how race,
class, and gender oppress women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

	Feminist theoreticians, have emphasized the significance of everyday living
as an important guide for theory making. Dorothy Smith, a white feminist,
has argued that our everyday reality is constructed by the larger social
organizations of society. They structure our day-to-day experiences (Smith
1987). To overcome the racist biases of society even at a personal level,
white feminists must question the practices that surround them and support
their own privilege.

	Many practices identified as racist by women from Asia, Africa, and the
Caribbean are accepted by white women, along with the rest of society, as
natural and normal. This situation makes detecting and eradicating racist
practices difficult. Racist biases infect the very language, even the
language in the assertions that feminist theory must take into account
differences among women, such as 'we need to hear the many voices of women,’
and that 'feminist theory must include more of the experiences of women of
different races and classes.’ In these statements, the assumption is that
women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean are outsiders and white,
middle-class feminists have the power to add the perspective of 'other'
women to their discourse. Elizabeth Spelman, a white feminist, has argued
that such assertions do nothing to dislodge white women from their
privileged position (1988, 162-4).White women determine the conditions under
which 'entry' is to be granted and the 'differences' among women will he

	Treating racism within feminism as a moral problem has generated feelings
of guilt and anxiety. It has also led to accusations that women from Asia,
Africa, and the Caribbean are ‘laying a guilt trip’ on white women, who,
after all, were not personally, responsible for racism, colonialism, and
imperialism, but who were attempting to educate ,themselves to be antiracist
in their practices and to understand how race and, class differences; affect
women's experiences. Ann Russo, a white feminist, says: 'I think that many
white feminists may feel genuinely bad about racism, but do not know what to
do - our guilt and feelings of hopeless responsibility lead many of us to
passivity and/or defensiveness, both of which maintain our position of
power' (1991, 308). And Kari Dehli, another white feminist, objects:
'However real our feelings of guilt may be, to shift the discussion of
racism in the university or the women's movement to white women's pain in
dealing with our feelings, centres white women while marginalizing those who
are subjected to racist practices. Focussing on individual feelings of guilt
also tends to reduce questions of racism to matters of attitude, while
ignoring social relations and practices of racism and how they might be
taken up politically' (1991, 51).

	Race, class, and gender hierarchies in social institutions determine what
is known, how it is known, and  who knows it. The emphasis on gender and the
subordination of race and class analysis reflect not merely individual
biases but institutional structures. The problem lies in systemic racism,
for example, in the structures of academic institutions from which feminist
discourses usually emerge. The priority given to gender in the discourse of
white, middle-class Canadian feminists reflects their position in such
institutions. Conversely, the absence of literature that documents the
experiences of women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean reflects their
absence from institutional structures.

	Feminist discourse is primarily constructed by academics in Canadian
universities. Like most institutions of higher education, Canadian
universities are overwhelmingly white, male domains. The percentage of
female faculty is low. Visible minorities are even less well represented on
campuses than white women are (Backhouse 1990, 98). And female faculty
members from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean are virtually nonexistent.
Women students from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean experience alienation
and marginalization in the classrooms of white, male professors, and even in
women's studies programs, where Eurocentric interpretations and analyses of
required readings dominate (Carty 1991). A South Asian woman recalls her
experience: 'Often I was the only non-white student in these classes. Other
students would talk among themselves with ease and were willingly responded
to by the professors even when there were disagreements. I looked for
reasons for their sense of a shared reality. It was in their ... whiteness
... and their political commonality. They carried on discussion as if I was
not there' (Bannerji 1991, 69-70). The lack of faculty and students from
visible minorities creates a self-perpetuating cycle. The low number of
students translates into few faculty, and the result is the perpetuation of
the Eurocentric biases of individuals and institutions. At the present time,
there are no data bases that maintain statistics on visible minorities or on
visible-minority women, although it is expected that this situation will

	Frances Henry, a white feminist, notes that few social scientists have
shown an interest in research on race relations or inequality created by
race, and there is a 'notable lack of advocacy research.' Only four
academics - two sociologists and two anthropologists.- made submissions to a
task force examining the participation of visible minorities in Canadian
society which was appointed by the federal government in 1983. Uncovering,
documenting, and analysing racism is 'risky business' which would tarnish
the image and shatter the myths Canadians have lived with for generations.
Such a state of affairs is consistent with the image projected by the
Canadian government of a country in which people of different cultures live
in harmony, tolerance, and understanding (Henry 1986, 7). Women from Asia,
Africa, and the Caribbean are now struggling to tell their own histories,
identify their oppressions, and represent themselves. Their exposure of
racism in feminist theories and practices is an act of resistance that
symbolizes the struggle of women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean
against racism and sexism.


Feminism was conceived as a project to liberate women from gender
discrimination in a male-dominated society and to organize struggles to gain
equal rights and opportunities for women .5  Liberal feminists emphasized
the principles of individuality, equality, autonomy, and self-fulfilment for
women. They argued that gender defined and structured women's location
within institutions (such as the family, labour force, schools). The sexual
division of labour restricted women to dependent roles as wives and mothers
within the 'private sphere.' Gender ideology ensured the participation of
women in their own subordination and maintained the status quo of female
dependence and male dominance.

	During the 1970s, the feminist discourses of white, middle-class women did
not refer to the experiences of women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
An analysis of the subject index of the Canadian Newsletter of Research on
Women (March 1978), which lists all the 'recent research reports and
publications, Canadian theses and major articles' from 1971 to 1977,
revealed that publications primarily concerned white, middle-class,
English-speaking, Canadian women. Of the 2,274 entries listed in the subject
index, only 2 per cent focused on women who were not English Canadians.
Eight of these entries focused on immigrant women, one on minority groups,
nine on native people, and twenty seven on French Canadians (Siu 1979, 6).
Only one per cent of the articles addressed the 'women's movement' (defined
as 'the collective actions of women which aim to effect changes in the
present status of women'); the rest analysed occupations, family, and
sex-roles (Siu 1979, 1-7).

	According to this analysis, women's movement studies focused on
'middle-class movements, especially on the woman suffrage movements, with
peripheral interest in the struggles of working class or farm women.' A few
studies referred specifically to 'working-class women's struggles (Kidd
1974; Klein and Robert 1974; Revolutionary Marxist Group 1975; and Roberts
1976) but farm (rural) women were ignored.' The studies concentrated on the
struggle of English Canadians and ignored the struggles of other ethnic
groups. Of the fifty-four studies on the women's movement, only one 'dealt
explicitly with the struggles of Indian and black women (Teather 1976,
338-41) and only a few with French-Canadian women' (Siu 1979, 4).

	The subject of research conducted in the 1970s was supposed to be the
'generic woman,’ but most of it described the experience of white,
middle-class women, which was presented as the female norm. In her article
'Women as Personal Dependents: A Critique of Theories of the Stratification
of the Sexes and an Alternative Approach,’ Margrit Eichler disputed the
characterization of women as a minority or a caste . In contrasting blacks
and women as minorities, Eichler did not examine the particular situation of
black women. She wrote as if all blacks were men and all women were white.
All others were absent. She concluded that women were potentially occupants
of two statuses: 'an independent one, in which they are ranked on the same
basis as men, with an additional factor, femaleness, included and a derived
one, in which they are ranked on the basis of the male they are attached to.
On the basis of this double status ... women must be differentiated into
those who are economically independent and those who are not' (1973, 52).
When she discussed women as a class, she did not bring race into her
analysis of dominant-subordinate relationships.

	Feminist writings in the 1970s attempted to use Marxist concepts to analyse
the paid and unpaid domestic work of women. But they perceived women as a
unitary, undifferentiated category and attached significance only to class.
They applied the concept of  'production relations' to women's work within
the home and extended it to the daily and generational reproduction of
labour power. Few of the studies included an analysis of race or the ways in
which it intersected with women's paid and unpaid work (Guttel 1974; Fox,
1980; Armstrong and Armstrong 1977). In their analysis of women's work, Pat
Armstrong and Hugh Armstrong used the broad terms 'women' and 'men' without
making any distinctions on the basis of race: 'Women and men do different
work, frequently in different places. These separate and segmented
experiences of women and men help to create different visions of life,
different ideas about themselves, different consciousness. They do not
arrive at their first jobs unconscious, but they do further develop their
consciousness on the job (1977, 202). There is no discussion of how race
further segmented the workforce or how racial identity intersected with
gender to create a specific kind of consciousness (9). When women's domestic
work was discussed, the paid domestic work of women from Asia, Africa, or
the Caribbean was not examined(10).

	When discussing specific issues, white feminists concentrated on gender and
excluded race and class from their analyses. For example, Lorenne Clark and
Debra Lewis, in "Rape: The Price of Coercive Sexuality" asserted that their
perspective was feminist and that they 'felt that all women, regardless of
background, education, or work-orientation,
would be familiar with at least some recent feminist writing on rape, and
would therefore be able to approach the results of the study from a common
framework' (1977, 16).

	The research sample of Clark and Lewis was derived from the Metropolitan
Toronto Police Department records of rape cases reported in 1970.They were
given access to the general occurrence reports, which are 'standard forms
filled out by the police officers for each reported offence' (1977, 31-2).
These reports gave the age, sex, nationality, occupation, and marital status
of the victim, but for the offender the reports specified age,	sex, colour,
height, weight, and so on (199). The authors reproduced this bias in their
research instrument. They asked for the victim's national origin (Canadian,
American, British, Creek, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, West Indian), but
they asked for the offender's age, sex, colour, occupation, and place of
birth (201-2). The research treated women as a single category and
disregarded racial differences among them. The authors found that 'the rape
victim's background and character strongly influenced the way in which the
report was classified by the police.' It was 'very clear from [the] data
that the primary determinants of police classification are variables which
describe the victim, not the attacker' (76).

	The authors did not investigate the extent to which the racial identity of
the victim affected how the police responded to the complaint, and they did
not even analyse the nationality of the victims. They sidestepped the issue
by simply asserting that country of origin was not a distinguishing feature
and that three-quarters of the rape victims were 'English-speaking and born
in Canada' (78). In contrast, they produced two tables (12 and 13) that
analysed racial origin and place of birth for the offenders (97).

	Feminists during the 1970s vigorously pursued the thesis that sex-role
socialization (later referred to as 'gender role') was a major contributor
to women's subordination and inequality. They noted that the socialization
of women encouraged them to voluntarily adopt traditional gender roles and
'feminine' characteristics, despite the societal evaluation of them as less
valuable than those of males. Feminists reiterated the arguments made much
earlier by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) and John Stuart Mill (1869), who had
described the role of gender socialization in maintaining the subordinate
position of women. Feminist literature on socialization and feminist
political struggles revealed how institutions such as the family, schools,
and mass media socialized women to adopt gender roles that were implicitly
inferior, less rewarding, and less powerful than those available to men.
They demonstrated the biases in school texts that associated femininity with
passivity and dependence and described feminine roles as nurturing and
supportive. Mass media, they argued, denigrated women and portrayed them as
'sex objects,' and exploited them to serve the needs of capitalism (Wilson
1982; McDaniel 1988, Pyke 1976).

	The theories of gender-role socialization seldom distinguished between the
experiences of working-class women and those of middle-class women, or
between the experiences of women of northern or western European descent and
those women of southern or eastern European descent. In reading Marlene
Mackie's “Exploring Gender Relations: A Canadian Perspective,” for example,
one cannot help but note that her discussion of women refers only to white,
middle-class women of British descent. Mackie does not completely ignore the
differences of class and ethnicity, but the differences of class and
ethnicity are considered as tangential variables, although different classes
and cultures may socialize their children to adopt different values. She
writes: 'No one has even begun to untangle the ways in which gender
socialization is influenced by the interacting effects of ethnicity, social
class and region. Unfortunately, too, systematic information is sparse
concerning the nuances of gender socialization in nearly forty different
ethnic groups' (1983, 143). Mackie's discussion of gender socialization
reflects the stratification of society: anglophone, white, middle-class
experience is the norm and the rest is 'other.' There is no discussion of
race or of how that may influence socialization.

	Gender roles are learned in a social context that is stratified along lines
of class, race, and ethnicity. Children learn not only to be female or male
but also to be the kind of male or female appropriate to their race and
class. Analyses that focus on gender in socialization theories, on female
stereotypes, or on images of femininity treat gender in isolation from race
and class. No reason is given to explain why gender is more significant than
ethnicity, race, or class in developing an individual's sense of self or
social identity.

	Joyce Ladner has demonstrated that many theoretical categories derived from
the experience of white females are not applicable to the lives of young
black girls. The lives of black women are conditioned by 'poverty,
discrimination, and institutional subordination' (iq8y). Their values and
expectations are markedly different from those of their white counterparts,
and are imbued with a consciousness of race. Black feminists note that black
mothers consciously socialize their children to racial hierarchies in
addition to creating an awareness of 'male dominance' and 'gender role
expectations: Black mothers inculcate a sense of race consciousness in their
children, hoping thereby to prepare them for a society in which race
hierarchies exist. Patricia Collins notes:

"Black mothers of daughters face a troubling dilemma. On the one hand, to
ensure their daughters' physical survival, mothers must teach them to fit
into systems of oppression 
 Black daughters learn to expect to work, to
strive for an education so they can support themselves, and to anticipate
carrying heavy responsibilities in their families and communities because
these [values] are essential to their own survival and those for whom they
will eventually be responsible. [On the other hand] mothers also know that
if their daughters uncritically accept the limited opportunities offered
black women, they become willing participants in their own subordination."
(1990, 123)

White families may not consciously teach their children about the privilege
that is attached to their race but, as Elizabeth Spelman notes, that is the
message they convey:

"My mother was white, and a Christian, but she didn't tell me not to play
with Black children or with Jewish children ... However, that doesn't mean
my mothers mothering was not informed by awareness of her family as white
and other families as Black, or her family as Christian (nay, Episcopalian)
and others Jewish. My brothers and sisters and I may have learned different
lessons about the difference between being white and being Black ... but we
surely did learn such lessons and they were inextricably tied to what we
learned about being girls and boys." (1988, 100)

	The mass media were criticized by feminists for their portrayals of
femininity. A discussion paper prepared in 1978 for the Advisory Council on
the Status of Women reviewed 'Canadian advertising with respect to the
portrayal of men and women.' It reported that women were portrayed in
limited and stereotypical roles associated with the home and family and were
treated as 'sexual objects' (Courtney and Whipple 1978, 45). Women in this
study were considered as a single category. It did not question the
ethnicity, race, or class of the women who were portrayed in the
advertising. The report noted briefly that 'the absence of older and
minority group women from advertising makes them an invisible part of our
society' (89), but there was no discussion of the significance of this
absence. Similarly, the report did not discuss differences among women based
an class. It predicted that, as more women joined the labour force,
advertising would change its imagery, but it ignored the experience of the
significant percentage of 'immigrant women' who have always had to work to
support themselves and their families.

	Feminists from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean have noted that media images
of dependent, helpless, frail 'ideal women' do not portray the reality of
black women's lives in Canada or of white, working-class women (Brand 1984,
87-92). Feminists from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean noted that in
addition to the gender hierarchy, there were also racial hierarchies in the
media's portrayal of women. Black women were portrayed in the most
subservient and degrading roles (Carty 1991, 21). When Asian women are
portrayed, a different set of negative stereotypes is associated with them;
they are depicted as traditional and passive women oppressed by their
culture (Agnew 1993a).

	But if gender analysis excluded considerations of race, analysis of the
representation of minorities in the media excluded gender. 'Visible
Minorities in Mass Media Advertising,’ a report prepared for the executive
of the Canadian Consultative Council on Multiculturalism, presented its
findings in a gender-neutral manner. It noted the absence of visible
minorities from advertising (except for foreign airlines). Blacks and Asians
appeared in advertising for non-profit charitable organizations and were
'invariably portrayed in the role of hungry, needy people receiving
hand-outs from whites' (Owaisi and Bangash 1978, 21). Reports that
documented racism in Ontario during the 1970s referred to the negative
portrayals of racial groups in the media and their role in fostering racism,
but the reports dealt primarily with the experience of males (Pitman 1997;
Ubale, 1977).

	The lack of gender distinction in race analysis and the lack of racial
distinction in gender analysis point to the marginality of women from Asia,
Africa, and the Caribbean. Black feminists argue that they share certain
commonalities with black men and certain others with white women but that
they are still considered as ‘outsiders.’ The status of being 'outsiders' in
discussions of race and gender forms the basis of a different epistemology
and standpoint. Patricia Collins, a black feminist, argues that 'multiple
realities among Black women yield a “multiple consciousness in Black women's
politics,”’and an 'oppositional consciousness' (1989, 757).

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