Social Injustice Social Issues

Race Identity and Gender Identity: A Critique of Feminist Essentialism

Law and LiteratureLaw has not often been tempted by the sound of the voice. Lawyers are all too aware that legal language is not a purely self-referential game, since “interpretive legal acts signal and cause the imposition of violence on others.” 2 In their concern to avoid the social and moral irresponsibility of the first voice, legal theorists have veered in the opposite direction, towards the safety of the second voice, which speaks from a position of objectivity rather than subjectivity, neutrality rather than prejudice. The voice, as the voice of we the people, is ultimately authoritarian and coercive in its attempt to speak for all.
In both law and literature there are theorists who struggle against the trends of their discipline. Literary theorists, such as Henri Lois Gates Jr, Gayatri Spivak, and Abdul JanMohamed, attempt to “read specific, verbal, and visual texts against the complex cultural codes of power, domination, and assertion that these texts reflect and reinforce.” 3 Legal theorists such as Mari Matsuda, Pat Williams, and Derrick Bell juxtapose the voice that “allows theorists to discuss freedom, property, and rights as aspirations of liberalism, without connection to what these concepts mean in people’s real lives.” , 4 with the voice of the people, [the people] whose voices are rarely heard by the law. Neither in law nor in literature, however, is the aim to replace a voice with its opposite. Rather, it is to conceive of both legal and literary discourse as a complex struggle, and as an infinite dialogue between these voices.
The voice metaphor implies a speaking subject. I want to suggest, however, that both voices described come from the same source, a source that I call multiple consciousness. A premise of this article is that we are not born with a self, but rather that we are composed of a welter of partial, sometimes contradictory or even antithetical, selves. A unified identity, if it exists at all, is the product of will, not a common destiny or birthright. Therefore consciousness is “never fixed, never achieved once and for all”, 5 it is not the final result of an initial biological datum, but a process, a constant and contradictory condition of becoming in which both social institutions and individual wills. A multiple consciousness hosts both the first and second voices, as well as all the voices in between.
Using the term multiple consciousness as it is reflected in legal or literary discourse is not conclusive, nor does it represent a balance between the two extremes, but is rather a process in which propositions are constantly advanced, challenged, and subverted. Cynthia Ozick argues that “a literature that redeems, a literature that interprets and decodes the world, produced for the good of humanity, must struggle with its own body, with its own flesh and blood.” 6 Similarly, Mari Matsuda, while stating that «in the field of law, holding to a multiple consciousness allows us to operate within the abstractions of the standard discourse of jurisprudence, and within the details of our particular knowledge», 7 also reveals to us that “this constant alternation of consciousness sometimes produces madness, sometimes genius, sometimes both.” 8 Feminist Legal Theory As a black, lesbian feminist who is comfortable with the diverse ingredients of her identity, and as a woman committed to the fight for sexual and racial freedom from oppression, I find myself constantly encouraged to isolate one aspect of myself and present it as a meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of me. 9


Audre Lorde


The need for multiple consciousness in the feminist movement—a social movement that encompasses both law and literature and everything in between—has long been evident. Since the beginning of the feminist movement in the United States, black women have argued that their experience challenges the notion of a unitary experience of women. In the first wave of the feminist movement, the realization by black women that the white leaders of the suffrage movement did not intend to seriously consider either the issue of racial oppression, or black women themselves, was the reason for where no political alliances were created between black and white women in the movement. In the second wave, Black women are speaking again, persistently and loudly, and on many levels our voices are beginning to be heard. Feminists have adopted the notion of multiple consciousness as appropriate to describe a world in which people are oppressed not only or primarily on the basis of gender, but also on the basis of race, class, sexual orientation, and other categories, in an inextricable web. Furthermore, the concept of multiple consciousness is implicit in the precepts of feminism itself. In the words of Christine Littleton, “the feminist method begins with the truly radical act of taking women seriously, of believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is valid and important, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship with what is said about us.” 10 If one were to distill a women’s experience, or a unified feminism, feminists would have to ignore many women’s voices.
In feminist legal theory, however, the move from unambiguous to multivocal theories of feminism and women’s experiences has been slower than in other areas. In feminist legal theory the push of the second voice, the voice of abstract categorization, is still strong and powerful: it seems that we the people are in danger of being replaced by us the women. And in feminist legal theory, as in mainstream culture, it is primarily white, heterosexual, economically privileged people who ask to speak for us all. Not surprisingly, for black women, the story they tell about women, despite its claims to universality, seems to primarily concern white, heterosexual, economically privileged women—a phenomenon Adrienne Rich calls “white solipsism.” 11
In this essay I refer to gender essentialism as it relates to the notion that there is a monolithic experience of women that can be described regardless of other aspects, such as race, class, and sexual orientation. A corollary of gender essentialism is race essentialism the belief that there is a monolithic black experience, or Chicano experience. The source of gender and race essentialism (and all other essentialisms, because we could infinitely multiply the list of categories) is the second voice, the voice that claims to speak for everyone. The result of essentialism is to reduce the lives of people subjected to many forms of oppression to a problem of arithmetic sum: racism + sexism = the experience of black women; or racism + sexism + homophobia = the black lesbian experience. Thus, in an essentialist world, black women’s experience will always be forcibly fragmented before being subjected to analysis, as those who are only interested in race, and those who are only interested in gender difference take the blame their slices separate from our lives.
Why, regardless of the challenges that come from different women and the feminist method itself, is feminist essentialism so persistent and invasive? I think the reasons are different. Essentialism is intellectually convenient and, to a certain degree, cognitively grounded. Essentialism also brings with it important emotional and political benefits. Furthermore, essentialism often appears (especially to white women) as the only alternative to chaos, to indiscriminate pluralism (the Funes trap), and to the end of the feminist movement. In my opinion, however, as long as feminists, as theorists within the dominant culture, continue to search for racial and gender essence, black women will be nothing more than a cross between two different types of domination, or placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of oppressions; we will always be asked to choose pieces of ourselves to present as the whole.
Thus, in the experience of rape suffered by black women there is not only a vulnerability to violence and a lack of legal protection radically different from those of white women, but also an exceptional ambivalence. Black women simultaneously realized their victimization and that of Black men by a system that consistently ignored violence against women while perpetrating it against men. Beyond essentialism: Black women and feminist theory


Our future survival depends on the ability to relate within equality. As women, we must free ourselves from introjected patterns of oppression if we are to overcome the more superficial aspects of social change. We must now recognize the differences between women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and find ways to use the differences to enrich our vision and our united struggle. 12

Audre Lorde


In this part of the article I want to talk about the contributions that black women can make to feminist theory to help us overcome essentialism and to achieve multiple consciousness in the method of both feminism and jurisprudence. In my opinion there are at least three main contributions that black women can offer to post-essentialist feminist theory: the recognition that the self is multiple and not unitary; the recognition that differences are always relational rather than inherent; and the recognition that wholeness and communion are acts of will and creativity, rather than passive discoveries. The Abandonment of Innocence Black women experience not a single, intimate self (much less a self that is essentially gendered), but many selves. This sense of a multiple self does not belong only to black women, but black women have expressed it in ways that are strong, insightful, and potentially useful to feminist theory. Bell hooks describes her experience in a creative writing class at a predominantly white college, where she was encouraged to find her voice, in a way that was frustrating because of her sense of multiplicity: “It seemed like a lot of black students had trouble with this situation, precisely because of the sense of self, and the fact that, by definition, our voice was not one-sided, monologuing, or static, but rather multidimensional. We spoke the dialect like standard English. People who speak a language other than English, who speak patois as well as English, believe that a necessary aspect of self-affirmation is not to be forced to choose one voice over another, not to have to claim one as more authentic, but rather to be able to build social realities that celebrate, admit and affirm differences and variety”. 13 This experience of multiplicity is also a sense of self-contradiction, of containing the oppressor within oneself. In her article On Being the Object of Property 14 Patricia Williams talks about herself as she writes about her great-grandmother “fishing through the ruins of my roots.” 15 What she finds is a paradox: she must claim for herself “an inheritance the genesis of which is her being a disinherited”. 16 Williams’ great-great-grandmother, Sophie, was a slave, impregnated at the age of eleven by her master, a white lawyer named Austin Miller. Their daughter Mary, Williams’ great-grandmother, was taken from Sophie and raised as a domestic servant. When Williams entered law school, her mother told her, “The Millers were lawyers, it’s in your blood.” 17


For Williams, this statement asks her to admit her contradictory selves: “She meant that no one should make me feel inferior because they have a judge father. She wanted me to reclaim that part of my inheritance from which I had been disinherited, and she wanted me to use it as a source of strength and self-confidence. At the same time she was asking me to reclaim a part of myself that had been stripped away by another part of myself: she was asking me to deny that little unenfranchised black girl inside myself, who felt helpless, vulnerable and Above all, he felt this way for the right reasons.” 18
The theory of black slavery, Williams notes, was based on the notion that blacks were beings without will or personality, characterized by “irrationality, lack of control, and ugliness.” In contrast, “wisdom, control, and aesthetic beauty defined the entire white personality in slave law itself.” In accepting her white self, her lawyer self, Williams must accept a legacy that not only disinherits her, but is a denial of her black self: for the Millers, her ancestors, the Williamses, also her ancestors, not they really had a self.
Williams’s choice in the end is not to deny one of her selves, but to recognize both, and in doing so, to admit guilt as well as innocence. You conclude the article by citing the “presence of polar bears”: 19 bears that killed a child at the Brooklyn Zoo and were killed for it, bears judged in a public debate as “innocent, territorial by nature, unjustly imprisoned and guilty.” 20
This complex decision rejects the easy innocence of assuming oneself as an essentially black self, with a legacy of oppression from the guilty, white Other. It is with this kind of layered analysis that Black women can contribute to feminist theory, with their stories of what it is like to have contradictory and multiple selves, selves that contain both the oppressed and the oppressor.


Integrity as Will and Idea Since each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph were denied them, they had organized themselves to create someone else to be. 21

Tony Morrison


Finally, black women can help the feminist movement overcome its fascination with essentialism through the recognition that the wholeness of the self and commonality with others are affirmed (if ever fully achieved) through creative action, and not they are fulfilled in sharing the victimization. Feminist theory at the moment, especially feminist legal theory, tends to focus on women as passive victims. For MacKinnon, for example, women have been so transformed by man into objects that it is a miracle that they are still capable of existing. Women are victims, they are those who suffer, without tools, until, thanks to radical enlightenment, they are enabled to act for themselves. 22 For West, similarly, the “fundamental fact” is that women live in pain, “violence, danger, boredom, non-productivity, poverty, fear, numbness, frigidity, isolation, low self-esteem and pathetic attempts to make oneself similar [to males].” 23
This story of the woman as victim is intended to encourage solidarity, emphasizing common oppression, thus denying or minimizing difference, and to broaden the notion of an essential woman who she is victimized. But as bell hooks succinctly noted, the notion that women’s commonality lies in their victimization by men “directly reflects male supremacy thinking. Sexist ideology teaches women that being female means being a victim.” 24 Furthermore, women’s history as passive victims denies their ability to shape their own lives, for better or for worse. It can also frustrate their abilities. Like Minnie Bruce Pratt, who is reluctant to look beyond the common experience of victimization for fear of endangering the comfort of shared experience, so women who define themselves by being victims may hesitate to abandon that condition and self-determine own self.
On an individual level, Black women have had to learn to construct themselves in a society that denies their self. Again, Zora Neale Hurston’s writings are evocative. Although Hurston plays with being “her colored self” and again, with being “the eternal feminine with her string of pearls,” the article concludes How it feels to be colored me. my black self) with an image of herself that is neither essentially black, nor essentially female, but simply: «A brown paper bag leaning against the wall. Against the wall in the company of other envelopes, white, red and yellow. If you spill the contents, you discover a jumble of small, worthless things. A fake diamond, an empty spool, pieces of broken glass, shoelaces, a key to a door that has long since crumbled, the rusty blade of a knife, old shoes put aside to travel a road that has never been traveled and never will one walk, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dry flower, or two still fresh. Hold the brown envelope in your hand. On the floor in front of you is the jumble of things it contained so similar to the jumble in the bags, that if you could empty them, and throw everything away with a single gesture, they would fill up again without the contents being altered much. One more or less piece of colored glass makes no difference. Maybe that’s how the Great Bag Filler filled them in the first place, who can say?” 25
Hurston therefore insists on the conception of identity as a construction, not an essence something made of fragments of experience, not discovered in one’s body, or revealed after the elimination of male dominance.
Therefore the insistence on the importance of will and creativity seems to threaten feminism on a certain level, because it restores strength to the concept of autonomy, making it possible to recognize the element of consent in relations of domination, and attributes power to women, thus showing the guilt of white women for the many ways they have used their racial privilege against their black sisters. While feminists are right to recognize the powerful force of mere physical coercion in securing compliance with patriarchal hegemony, we must also “come to terms with the ways in which women’s culture has served to secure women’s support in perpetuating existing power relations”. 26
However, on another level, recognizing the role of creativity and will in shaping our lives is liberating, because it allows us to realize and celebrate the creativity and joy with which many women have survived and overturned relationships of existing domination, to use them for one’s own ends. Works of black literature such as Beloved, The color Purple , and Song of Solomon , among others, do not dwell on the victimization and misery of black women: although they acknowledge our suffering, they ultimately celebrate our transcendence.
Ultimately, on a collective level, this emphasis on will and creativity reminds us that bridges between women and women are built, not found. The discovery of a shared suffering is a connection that is more illusory than real: what will truly unite us and keep us together are the effort and imagination necessary to discover and examine our differences, because only the recognition of the differences between women can ultimately aim to bring the feminist movement to strength. It’s hard work, painful work; but it is also radical work, real work. As Barbara Smith said, “What I feel is really radical is trying to build coalitions with people who are different from you. I feel like it’s radical to deal with race and gender and sexual identity all at the same time. I think this is radical because it’s never been done before.” 27 Epilogue: Multiple Consciousness I have argued in this article that gender essentialism is dangerous for feminist legal theory, because in attempting to extract an essential female self and voice from the diversity of women’s experience, women’s experiences are perceived as different they are ignored, or treated as variations on the (white) norm. Now I want to return to an earlier point: that legal theory, including feminist legal theory, has been paralyzed too much and for too long by the voice of we the people. To give energy back to legal theory we must overturn it with narratives and stories, the story of details, of what is different and of what has been, up to now, kept silent. Whether by accident or not, many legal theorists telling stories these days are black women. Mari Matsuda invites us to use «multiple consciousness as a method of jurisprudence» 28 Patricia Williams shows her the way with her multilayered stories and her meditations. 29

These are salutary writings for feminist legal theory as well as legal theory more generally. In recognizing “the complexity of the messages implicit in our being,” they begin the task of reviving legal theory with the creative struggle between Funes and we the people: that creative struggle which is the reflection of a multiple consciousness.

Related Posts

Jessa Crispin: «A t-shirt won’t make you a feminist»

In her essay «Why I am not a feminist», the American writer states that female empowerment, popular today, is not feminism. She explains to us what doesn’t work in the #metoo movement and why men don’t have the right to speak...

Feminist. To be or not to be? Read Jessa Crispin between dilemmas and desire

Ennio Flaiano , in  The Solitude of the Satyr , proposes a brilliant idea to make communism ineffective in a country like ours, of parliamentary democracy. It’s Marx’s egg. It would be enough to teach communism in schools. In that case it would not be necessary...

Fashion, feminism and patriarchy are more intertwined than we think

A miniskirt is not just a miniskirt, just like the feminist slogans on Dior t-shirts: here’s how women’s struggles have changed fashion Everything that we wear today more or less without asking ourselves too many problems has a history, carries with...