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Feminism and ‘race’

Dr Peggy Brunache (University of Glasgow) will introduce aspects of how feminist movements have approached and thought about the question of race.
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PEGGY BRUNACHE: Well, today, I will outline some of the key ideas of Black feminisms that stand as critiques to Western centred and white feminism. I’ll contextualise these ideas by focusing specifically on Black feminism in the Caribbean, the French Caribbean, that also has strong links to US black feminism. And I’ll conclude with how I use a black feminist lens to my work on slave foodways in the French Caribbean. Black feminism and womanism disagreed with the 1960s, 1970s zero American feminist movements naive summation of a presumed universality of womanhood and women’s subordination.
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While European and Native American and Asian groups have racially and ethnically influenced the Caribbean, the majority of the region’s population is descended from African ancestors resulting in a perspective and identity grounded in various notions of blackness. Black feminism centres on intersectional analysis for exploring difference in self-making with particular emphasis on the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality as well as historical circumstances. Methodology often includes standpoint theory to help identify potential examples of how women’s agency and resistance and identity formation were negotiated within the context of slavery.
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The problem with patriarchal theories and productions of knowledge replicated in the humanities and sciences have– it’s prompted feminist Caribbean native scholars to create systems of knowledge and understanding of the social world based on Caribbean women’s life experiences and subjectivity. Much like US black feminist approach, feminist theory in the Caribbean draws on intersectional analysis for exploring these differences and self-making. And of course, again, like these intersections of race and gender and other categories but also with these historical circumstances that go back as far as 1851. Patricia Hill Collins explains that asserting a black woman’s voice and defining her own sense of identity and shaping her representation are as central as the alternative is to leave it in the hands of others.
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Self identification is a form of resistance demonstrating the need to carve out and retain an equal place in society and be recognised and validated as having the right to belong. This self identification as resistance is shared by black Caribbean feminists as well. Echoing Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, Caribbean and Black American feminists argue that women of colour experiences are intertwined with these different forms of oppression and therefore are dissimilar to Euro Americans as well as black male struggles. The Combahee River Collective had written back in 1977 that these different strategies for change were necessary.
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To give a quote from them, the most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrating analysis and practise based upon the fact that major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As black women, we see black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of colour face.
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Caribbean feminist theory shares several similarities with the US Black feminism, which I’ll highlight just a few of them. Firstly, they strive to acknowledge and address these differences that continue to inform male, female power relations throughout society while also attempting to transform and transcend them, and the struggles against racial class sexual and gender inequalities through political activism underscores the commonalities between both feminist types. Another similarity between the two is located in the methods of knowing and understanding. Both Caribbean and US black feminist groups use standpoint theory as a theoretical tool necessary to empower women by validating women’s experiences, which foregrounds an awareness of where one is situated in the social world in power relations and in history.
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Standpoint theory, this kind of wisdom based on the experiences of living a subjugated position in society was first introduced by Patricia Hill Collins, who I referenced earlier. This theory aids Caribbean and US feminists approach to deprivilege eurocentric and black masculine voices as the authorities on theories regarding cultural production and identity formation. Furthermore, any participant of a culture is given equal value on the interpretation of their own social reality. The last commonality I want to bring up between us black feminism and Caribbean feminism and those particular to the French Caribbean is how each approach theorises the process of constructing identity.
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Feminist scholarship in the French Antilles has predominantly located in women’s writing and literary criticism as a response to pre-existing theories on creolization and the process of subjectivity. Influenced by previous post-colonial discourses of the French Antilles– and I’m specifically talking about the movement known as Creolite, those authors Patrick Chamoiseau, Rafael Confiant, and Jean Bernabé, implore the Creole people of Martinique and Guadeloupe to recover their true identity and history apart from the French cultural hegemony. This true identity– and I use the air quotes– acknowledged and celebrated its mosaic composition and plantation-based origins from slavery.
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Moreover, through the everyday practises of orality and other traditions, the Creole identity articulated resistance against the oppression of colonial society followed by this French cultural hegemony and post-colonial years. However, the interpretation of identity was limiting in that it did not account for the intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality and sometimes even nationality. Creolite’s authors challenged Western colonial and post-colonial discourses of Creole identity and by extension their related discourses on the formation of Creole culture. But Creolite was succeeded by literature, such as the 1989 book Crossing the Mangrove by Guadalupian author Maryse Conde that promotes a Caribbean feminist critique demanding the decentering of male cultural authority to bridge the gap between non-Western identity politics of Creolite and Caribbean feminist approaches.
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Writers like Conde responded to the absence of gender and sexuality and existing theories through a feminist of politics of difference, diversity, and inclusion that acknowledged simultaneous modes of oppression that manifests as experiences of social and political marginality. Building on the understanding of self definition that strives to avoid Western hegemony, an incorporation of black feminist theories from the US and the Caribbean can work to circumvent these sexist, classist, and even patriarchal assumptions through this intersectional analysis. It is that possibility of convergence that theoretically and methodologically informs my archaeological work.
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As a black feminist archaeologist of Haitian ancestry, studying enslaved women’s roles in the cultural production of French Antillean identity, I use standpoint theory as it provides a necessary position for a reflexive analytical strategy in understanding fluid and multi-position subjectivities. In short, it provides me with an inclusive perspective that helps me be more critical of my historic sources in archaeological data as I try to find empowerment through the plurality of enslaved women’s experiences, particularly through foodways. I argue that enslaved women’s subsistence practises and culinary creativity should be seen as a form of knowledge production and as an identity affirming set of practises that is at the core of Creole culture and identity.
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The management of slave gardens, provision grounds, the collection, processing, and cooking of domestic livestock and wild game have provided pride and pleasure in the act of making just as often as it was in the act of eating. These culinary activities helped to create, shape, bond, and identify families and communities simultaneously. Women during the colonial era, particularly black women during the colonial era were impacted by multiple modes of oppression. Because of their race, gender, and status as enslaved, they were seemingly powerless and relegated to the lowest rank of colonial social hierarchy.
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Yet it is these women that play a significant role as culture bearers within this culinary system that acted as a strategy to subvert and resist the politics of power while playing a role in the self-construction of their own identity, a Caribbean Creole identity that is still linked to slave foodways and Creole cuisine today.

In this video, Dr Peggy Brunache of the University of Glasgow will introduce aspects of how feminist movements have approached and thought about the question of race. She will focus specifically on US Black feminism and on Caribbean feminisms.

‘Plantation scene and slave houses’ and ‘Negro mode of nursing’‘Plantation scene and slave houses’ and ‘Negro mode of nursing’, Public domain

'Castor Bean Sorter ' and 'Laitiere et negresses portant du lait'‘Castor Bean Sorter ‘ and ‘Laitiere et negresses portant du lait’, Public domain

Further reading

Jacqui Alexander, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (Psychology Press, 1997)

Rawwida Baksh-Soodeen, ‘Issues of Difference in Contemporary Caribbean Feminism, Feminist Review, 1998, 59:1, pp. 74-85.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977): https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/combahee-river-collective-statement-1977/

Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Cornell University Press, 1998)

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 1990)

Patricia Mohammed, ‘Towards Indigenous Feminist Theorizing in the Caribbean’, Feminist Review, 1998, 59:1, pp. 6-33

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, ‘The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 2003, 21(1):19-42

Sojourner Truth, ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ (1851): https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/

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