Race, women and subjectivity: who is at the center of your practice?

By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

Sara Suleri’s article “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition” explores how marginal groups seek liberation in an arena of competing discourses. Suleri reimagines feminine and racial subjectivities and, at the same time, move away from the limiting binarisms of academia. Suleri dangerously questions the ways in which minority voices rely on race as an advantage in academia. How can women negotiate their personal identities and subjecthood? Who is allowed to speak about, and more importantly, for others? I found this piece to be helpful when it comes to either non-profits or social businesses that aim to support low-income women. As I’ve written elsewhere, intentions aren’t a good measure of outcomes (or anything else for that matter). Suleri seeks to upset the binaries by challenging the unspecificity of the term “postcolonial feminism.” She objects to the privileges given to voices of the “postcolonial Woman” and more generally, “racially encoded feminism.” Suleri goes as far to say that postcolonialism, in its feminist context, is “an almost obsolete signifier for the historicity of race.” Suleri refers to “the coloring of feminist discourse” to point to how understandings of postcoloniality, womanhood and race are blurred. In the way that Suleri suggests that feminist theory, language and discourse are not necessarily appropriate to apply to the racial subject, Senegalese film director Ousmane Sembène uses Africana womanism to specify the lived experiences of African women, namely, Faat Kiné, who negotiates masculine and Western ideologies in order to develop her own self-consciousness. The heroine in Faat Kiné undergoes a transformation in which she is not compelled to hold on to traditional African culture, but also does not need to replicate Western models of femininity and liberation in order to develop her own plural identity. In the same vein, Suleri disputes how feminist minority academics create divisive politics by regularly referring back to whiteness as the cradle of conceptual thought. It is important to know who is doing the work of social business, and more importantly, for what purpose. How do women of color fit into the predominately white world of social entrepreneurship? Suleri boldly claims that “feminist intellectuals like [bell] hooks misuse their status as minority voices by enacting strategies of belligerence that at this time are more divisive than informative.” By referring to “this time,” Suleri suggests that we are now over the issues that pit “us” versus “them” and that we must come together for a unified agenda. Moreover, Suleri speaks of a “political untouchability” that is granted to the Third World Woman grouping. Race allows for what Suleri calls a “claim to authenticity.” Certainly, racialized voices should not be posited as the “first narrative of what ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want,” as Suleri argues against. However, no one should claim to be the dominant speaker on behalf of others. Does Sembène’s Faat Kiné make him less “authentic” or credible because of his position as a male? While Suleri attempts to dismantle the way in which racial and postcolonial oppression is superficially celebrated, Sembène commemorates both Faat Kiné’s complex struggle and the everyday heroism of African women. Suleri argues that feminist academics like Trinh Minh-Ha and hooks use concepts framed within “North American academic terms.” But when literature about black and Third World Women is framed in those exact Western terms, how do you push against that? How can you deny the position and privilege? At the same time, we must not obsess over the racialized (or masculinized body in Sembène’s case) as the point of discourse, history and subjectivity. In many ways, the way in which Faat Kiné negotiates her identity between competing discourses, while not relying on whiteness or masculinity, is what Suleri is looking for in minority academics. Thus, the exploration of “what it means to articulate an ‘identity’ for a woman […] of color’” must be further explored. Both Suleri and Sembène’s critical analyses and disruptions of dichotomies are important in reimagining identities and subjectivities. With so many competing modes of thought, what is essential is that Third World Women seek progress on their own terms.

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