Race, Class and Gender: A New Three-Headed Divinity, Houria Bouteldja pour les nuls

Race, Class and Gender: A New Three-Headed Divinity

This paper was first presented in Montreal at the 7th International Congress for Feminist Research in the Francophone World on the 26th of August 2015, then at the Université de Paris VIII on the 24th of November 2015, and finally at the Université du Havre on the 30th of November 2015, as part of a colloquium on “Colonial and Decolonial Struggles in Past and Present France.”

Hello and thank you to the organizers for this invitation. And thank you to all of you for being here. I would like to start with a few precautions. The first is that I am neither a researcher nor an academic. I am a militant. It is important to keep this in mind because the academic world and the world of politics are two different worlds, and I have often had the occasion to see that researchers hope to find in the militant world extensions or confirmations of their assumptions, which rarely happens. The second is that I will use concepts that might be foreign to you but that are useful political categories. For instance, “indigenous” is such a concept. It should not be understood in its etymological sense but in its historical sense. For us, it means “colonial subject.” I will also use the notion of “white political field,” which means, from a decolonial perspective, the racial unity of the white political world, despite its heterogeneity and despite the structural class fracture on which it is based. I will finally use the notion of “modernity,” which we define as the historical globality characterized by Capital, the colonial/postcolonial domination, the modern State, and the ethical and hegemonic system associated with it. I will end with a warning. My paper may be perceived as provocative but I assure you that it is not. I belong to a political organization faced with dilemmas and sometimes Cornelian choices in a very difficult ideological context in France, where political thought is policed and restrained. If my words seem provocative, it is less because of their nature than because of the weakness of the debate, the gradual renunciation of confrontation, and the love of soft consensus. Our goal is to give us the theoretical and political means to advance in a project of social transformation, and that goal tolerates neither soft thinking, nor compromise, nor demagogy.

If I were part of this white or non-white radical movement that recently discovered intersectionality in France, I would start my paper with a prayer: “In the name of class, gender and race, amen.” Indeed, there is a great problem with the French radical left: it is less and less political and more and more religious. It is guided by general principles and morals that are thought to be political. This has resulted in militant circles being more about men and women of the church than militants. So before we get into the thick of it, I would like to begin with two remarks. The first is that, it was in the 1980s that I first heard the idea of intersectional oppression being expressed in public: I was small and it came from a white man whose name was Coluche. And what was Coluche saying? If my memory serves me well, he said: “When you’re female, black and disable, life can be very hard.” What is the lesson to be drawn? That consciousness of intersectional oppression is possible for everyone—only those who refuse to see are blind. All share an implicit knowledge.

The second remark is that we used to say that the first intersectional thinkers were black American feminists. I am tempted to say that this is not true and that we may find the first intersectionalists among settlers and racists. Indeed, they are the first ones who imagined what they could make of contradictions observed in colonized societies. For example, they immediately understood how to take advantage of the statutory difference between Jews and Muslims in Algeria. Similarly, they could benefit from the patriarchal organization of Maghreb societies. They could and did use these contradictions to split the social body as much as possible between Jews, Arabs, Berbers, men and women, elites and peasants, etc. And today, this continues with Sunnis and Shiites, homos and heteros, and so on. Of course, I do not confuse a “repressive use” type of intersectionality (which I will call “negative”) with an “emancipatory use” type of intersectionality (which I will call “positive”), but it is important to keep both in mind because those who benefit from divisions today continue their action and it is obvious that they will know how to make intelligent use of even positive intersectionality.

The reasons behind the interest in intersectionality are diverse. Some are legitimate and justified, others are not. I am therefore not here to throw the baby out with the bath water. The use that seems to me to be the most legitimate is when victims of multiple oppressions need to think and analyze their own condition. What first comes to mind is obviously when black American women used intersectionality to argue in court that they could not be treated like whites, white women or black men because of their intersectional oppressions. I also think of the theoretical use of intersectionality by some black or Chicana activists as means of understanding political struggles. In particular, I refer to Angela Davis’ famous “race, class and women,” which is a classic. There is an entire theoretical literature on which I will not dwell but which is rich and dense, and which cleverly informs the complexity of relations of domination. Apart from these uses, most others seem rather suspicious. I see four of them:

– First, there is the white academic use of the term, which is instrumental to establish new fields of research, and which serves carreers and the promotion of researchers and intellectuals for whom victims become research objects and never political actors—for them, research is an end in itself even if they do not admit it to themselves. This being said, we need to acknowledge the uneven emergence of an academic field focused on intersectionality, as it has not disfigured the old walls of French universities, which are still cautious on these issues, still recovering from the breakthrough regarding issues of gender.

– Second, there is the non-white academic use of the term, that is, the use on the part of indigenous researchers in academia. One way to transform the stigma of indigeneity is to associate race to other forms of domination because this perspective, marginal within academia, has been initiated and defended by Marxists, themselves in the minority. Since the idea behind such studies is to evoke incessantly the “invisibilization” of racialized individuals and their knowledge, non-white researchers may bank on their “legitimacy” and compete against whites, provided they do not infringe on the deconstruction exercise or, put another way, they do not get involved in politics.

– Third, there is the use of intersectionality by certain groups of the white radical left, which can be sincere but which often turns into injunctions to consider the intersection or articulation of multiple forms of oppression (in France, “l’injonction d’articuler”). In a famous article1 Sadri Khiari, a PIR member, wrote: “When a White left-wing individual asks us ‘How do you consider the intersection of race and class?’ we must not answer him. First, simply because this does not concern him. But also, and more importantly, because when he asks us this question, it is not just a matter of curiosity. He actually wonders whether our struggle is really legitimate, that is, whether, from his standpoint, it reinforces his own struggle or, on the contrary, it weakens it. He wants to know if it corresponds to his idea of a struggle for emancipation—generous, general, universal. If he considers that it is not quite the case then, for him, it is worth nothing, it may even seem harmful.”

– Fourth, there is the use typical of some non-white radical activists who experience in their flesh the effects of multiple oppressions. This use often turns into a posture, which itself becomes a kind of aesthetic. What I mean is that the intersectional cause that they defend is rarely embodied in a political project that would be presented as a proposal to inhabitants of disadvantaged neighborhoods (in France, “les quartiers”). Thus, the real confrontation and the testing of theory disappear behind the emergence of a seductive rhetoric that can be captured by the white political field, sometimes even instrumentalized to work against feasible struggles—and I lay particular stress on the word “feasible.” And here I will quote Norman Ajari, another PIR activist: “In today’s France, the blackmail with intersectionality has become an instrument of ideological police to disqualify those who do not pledge allegiance to the dominant political agenda. Accusations of homophobia or antisemitism are the weapons of this war. We must recognize that, as distressing as this situation is, a significant part of the French discourse on intersectionality is formally similar to republican universalism. It seeks to sanction the moral superiority of those who advocate for intersectionality by comforting them with the illusion of a boundless legitimacy. By considering the intersection of class, sexuality, gender and race with regards to all issues, they are guaranteed to have a say on everything and to be rarely contradicted. The intersectional preacher will answer “class” or “gender” when race wil be discussed, and vice-versa2.”

As far as I am concerned, I will tell you honestly what I think. Intersectionality as it is used in France (and I mean in France because I do not pretend to generalize this analysis) is surely a valuable tool for analyzing oppressions but certainly not a political tool and much less a mobilization tool. « Reality is when you bump into something, » as Lacan said. I argue that the theory of intersectionality bangs against the wall of reality. And I will attempt to demonstrate this in the next paragraphs.

Why do I suggest that injunctions to consider the articulation of all oppressions and the aesthetic posture that consists in declaring oneself “intersectional” are apolitical? First, because they are the embodiment of a new morality, a new humanism (but like any humanism, this new one is abstract). Indeed, they demand that we not hierarchize nor prioritize, and that we figth all at the same time. This implies that those who are concerned are willing and able to take on such a project, in other words, that they have the material means to do it. I argue that it is impossible for three main reasons: (1) context; (2) dialectic between the different oppressions; and (3) political strategy.

1. Context

Let us now consider the elements of context. I see four of them:

– First, there is the international geopolitical context and what, at the PIR, we call the colonial counter-revolution, which is this episode that began immediately after the independences and which took and still takes the form of re-colonization of the world in other forms—continuing its predatory business, robbing and creating the conditions for mass emigration. This pushes Europe to strengthen its repressive apparatuses against the migrants, which has a direct impact on the lives of postcolonized individuals since these policies reinforce racism, police checks, and suspicion on all fronts. So a geopolitical context that reinforces racism in France.

– Second, there is the economic crisis for which Greece is paying the price. This crisis increases competition between whites and indigenous people in the world of work. So a context that exacerbates racism and proletarianizes even more indigenous people.

– Third, there is the general ideological context. In Europe, there has long been a single recognized divide, the class divide, which pits the left against the right, proletarians and bourgeois, progressive and reactionary people. This line of cleavage, though blurred, is still valid today but is changing. We are no longer in the 70s when ideas of progress reached their zenith, when people said “make love not war,” and when youth participated in the so-called sexual revolution. During the thirty years that have gone by, we have experienced, in Europe, the gradual decline of left-wing hegemony in favor of right-wing hegemony. Elites have gone to the right and the people as well. This has implications for relations of gender and sexuality, in particular. For example, we have witnessed the vitality with which conservative France, catholic France, right-wing France has mobilized against marriage for all.

– Fourth, there is the specific context of working-class neighborhoods in France as well as suburbs where live the majority of indigenous people coming from black Africa, the Maghreb, and the Caribbean Islands. Indigenous people do not escape the influence of this new right-wing hegemony especially that they are not the children of May 68 (a white heritage), which means that we cannot address them as we would hippies or Parisian “bobos” (bourgeois) when it comes to certain issues and notably issues of gender and sexuality. In France, working-class neighborhoods have not escaped the phenomenon of general political regression. There are two main reasons for this: (a) In demonstrations, it has long been shouted “French, immigrant, same boss, same fight,” which is an outdated slogan. In the reality of the struggle, immigrant workers have quickly realized that issues related to the independence of their countries were not the priority of the French labor movement and that, after the independences, racism was not its priority and immigrant rights were always sacrificed for the benefit of the class of white workers. Immigrants and their children have never been the first customers of the white left. The left has always acted according to the interests of the proletariat and white middle classes. For the past thirty years, it has remained deaf to the main demands of post-colonized individuals: the demand for justice in front of police crimes, the fight against discrimination at work and with regards to housing (the latter taking the form of a struggle against Islamophobia, negrophobia and Romophobia), the recognition of colonial history and the transatlantic slave trade, and the struggle against Zionism. This is what makes the PIR say that the left is white and that it is part of what is called the “white political field.” (b) The second reason is that all attempts at political organization have been systematically shelled and nipped in the bud by central or local power. This has prevented the politicization of at least two generations and we are paying the price for this today.

In the light of these four elements of context, let us look at the condition of indigenous people who live mostly in poor neighborhoods and at the interactions between the different oppressions they face.

2. Dialectic between the different oppressions

We are told to consider the intersection or articulation of race, class, gender and sexuality. It is accepted that indigenous people are indeed racialized but that there is a lot of contradictions in the social body: there are rich and poor individuals, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals. This assumes that we, who carry a political project, will go to the suburbs where there is the greatest concentration of indigenous people and will advocate for an intersectional project that assumes to openly defend the class struggle, the race struggle, the feminist struggle against the sexism of men in the neighborhood, and the fight for LGBT rights. There I say, “objection your Honor!” I have three objections.

First objection: To consider the articulation of oppressions would require the indigenous social body to adhere to a “progressive” project. I contend that this is not the case.

– First, because for thirty years, there has been a gradual shift of indigenous opinion towards “right-wing values” and a growing mistrust vis-à-vis the left and most “values” it defends, except perhaps social equality although it the latter is currently challenged by liberal forms of social success.

– Second, because racism and social relegation produce conservatism. The French neo-cons from Fourest through Finkielkraut to Le Pen, that is to say, the Republican left to the ultra right, believe that poor neighborhoods are “reactionary” and that Islam is the same. This perception is fought by the “Islamo-leftist” left with the idea that there are as many Islams as there are Muslims and that adherence to Islam is a choice that is mature, individual, and detached from any community influence. In short, we have here a very liberal vision of Islam, within which people are purportedly uprooted from their history and environment, possessing free will, and being free from any form of determinism and “alienation.” Personally, I have never adhered to a construction—and I mean construction—of liberal and optional Islam. I think such construction is determined by: (a) the need for the antiracist left to justify its solidarity with veiled women; and (b) the existence of a certain category of Muslims, Muslim women in particular, who are challenged to prove that they deserve the support of the left and who adapt their discourse according to the wishes of the left. I think the forms that Islam takes in the disadvantaged suburbs are actually “conservative” and I think that this Islam as well as one of its main symbols, the headscarf, are actually concessions to the indigenous patriarchy. I hasten to say that there is nothing dramatic in this because the compromise allows for improvements and even opens up margins of freedom. Women often appear to recede but in fact take their momentum to better jump forward. Thus the neocons are right on form, but not substance. I explain this using the notion of space-time. Recently, I gave an interview to a left-wing magazine called Vacarme, which caused a scandal. To a question on our relationship with racial hybridity, I said that in a world where racism has taught us to hate ourselves, it is important to learn to love ourselves and to allow ourselves to get married with someone from our community rather than seeking a promotion through marrying with whites. I said that, for white leftists, this approach is certainly considered a regression but it is for us a great step forward. That is the indigenous space-time. The line of progress does not mean much in a colonized milieu. What is positive for the whites is not necessarily positive for us, and vice-versa.

An historical anecdote to illustrate this: In the thirties, black women who were militant communists from the Harlem section asked to ban interracial marriages within the Party, while advocating daily to end the Jim Crow segregation law in American society—a law which, among other things, prohibited blacks from marrying whites3. These black militants were looking for a strategy to fight racist beauty criteria that constructed white women as having superior femininity, and that transformed a relationship with a white woman into a criterion for social promotion for a black man. The party’s authorities refused the ban but one of the consequences is that a number of the black communist militants of that section broke off their relations with white women and subsequently chose black women. Tongue in cheek, this was called the “back to the race” movement.

What I want to explain is that this movement is seen like a “turning inwards,” a type of “communitarianism” with all the aspects of a “reaction” and of “conservatism” (which it is, in some respects). But globally, this movement is positive; in a hostile environment (e.g., the contextual elements), the community is the first place of solidarity. Obviously, this “fruitful regression” responds to physical and emotional needs, but it is precarious and does not come without conditions. In exchange for protection in a rigid normative situation, the counterpart is actually a decrease in freedom. During the conference on Islamic feminism, one of the speakers identified two types of Muslim women: those with low economic and symbolic capital who primarily seek recognition from their community and who refuse the feminist label, and those with a high capital who seek recognition from the white world. To do this, they adopt the feminist identity, which is similar to what I mention earlier about strategies to get the support of the white left. What the speaker has failed to mention is that the two categories of women are not equivalent in demographic terms. Since indigeneity is structurally poor, there are more women in the Muslim non-feminist category than in the other. This has implications in strategic terms because the triple oppression may lead one to let go of the feminist option and therefore to do the opposite of intersectional consideration. When one claims to understand the articulation of race, class and gender as well as its effects, it is this category of women with which one must be concerned. Proponents of intersectionality will tend to do the opposite: support those who can afford the consideration of the intersection of oppressions because they will be seen as fighters, rebellious women, heroes4, in contra-juxtaposition to other women. Which is a shame.

Second objection: Articulating race and gender, for example, involves combating racism, patriarchy in general, and indigenous patriarchy in particular as violence against women is violence on the part of men around them. The problem is that if those indigenous people of the female gender are actually oppressed by white patriarchy as well as indigenous patriarchy, indigenous people of the male gender are also oppressed. By white patriarchy. I should mention here the writings on hegemonic masculinities and subaltern masculinities that mobilize researchers of the south. Among other things, they allow to no longer consider male violence against women as the expression of a local culture of masculine domination, and to rather think about them in relation to the perpetual destabilization imposed by imperialism and neoliberal reforms5. Indigenous women are aware of all this. They know very well their men’s oppression and the price they have to pay for it. In this context, the first lever that they will use is anti-racism rather than feminism; it is no coincidence that for thirty years, we have found women immigrants engaged in struggles against the carceral system and police crimes. I add to this the dialectic of patriarchal violence, which becomes twice as strong when a man’s masculinity is undermined by colonialism and racism. I mentioned earlier that the veil, in addition to its other meanings, was a “concession” to patriarchy. I specify that it is a calculated concession, a compromise to defuse the wrong done to men and to reduce male pressure on women. And that is why we must shoulder this concession instead of being ashamed of it or instead of inventing an imaginary feminism (that would have more to do with rhetoric than practice): they are our objective existential conditions that determine our choices. I add in passing that all women make concessions to patriarchy, whether they are veiled or not, indigenous or white.

Third objection: The articulation of multiple oppressions implies that as a poor indigenous woman, I find myself at the same distance from the white working-class man, the white woman, and the indigenous man. I am as far from the indigenous man as I am from the white woman and the white working-class man, which has consequences in terms of strategic alliance. With whom do I first ally myself? If there is no hierarchy, I have no reason to prefer an alliance with indigenous men to one with white women. Yet, in reality, we choose instinctively an alliance based on race. Why? The first explanation is that the social body of white women of all classes has political, economic and symbolic privileges superior to those of the social body of indigenous men. In France, most of the time, you better be a white woman than an indigenous man. The second explanation comes from the mobilization of indigenous people in the last thirty years. I mentioned above the police crimes, Islamophobia, negrophobia, Romophobia, the memorial struggles, and Palestine. Where have immigrant women been in the last thirty years? In these struggles. The choice has been made and has preceded us long ago. Women are where they have identified the main cause of their oppression. Back to the race. I would like to tell you another story that happened in the U.S.A. It concerns the reconfiguration of the struggles of black women communists in the late 40s and during the 50s. This is a tactical-strategic choice made in a very particular context where anti-communism was at its apex. While their husbands were in prison or in hiding because they were communists or fighting for the self-determination of black people, women favorable to gender equality and feminists borrowed motifs from the famillialist rhetoric of the time to incite solidarity among blacks. It was not an ideological alignment but a default tactical choice in a regressive context where the level of repression was such that even the simple security of the men they liked and those who were their comrades was not assured (e.g., even their children were harassed by the FBI). Esther Cooper, for example, who had never used the last name of her husband, James Jackson, started to use it from the moment he was arrested. She wrote a book, This is my husband, and toured the country to promote it6. All this to say that there is no universality of causes but that tactical and strategic decisions are always made in context.

3. Political strategy

What strategy should be adopted? The perspective can only be the product of a global political economy taking into account all these factors. What is it? It is the decolonial perspective. This perspective should be able to define a revolutionary subject, that is to say, the subject around whom will the project of social transformation will be constructed. If we define the revolutionary subject from the perspective of intersectionality, the subject will necessarily be the most oppressed of the oppressed who will occupy this function. For instance, the subject will be the poor Muslim transgender person living in distant suburb or the jobless black homosexual. A priori, why not? But, there is a big “but.” This proposal must be based on the adhesion of a large number of people, which implies that the “large numbers,” who share neither the specific condition of trans, nor that of homosexuals, are philanthropists and therefore would be likely to join this project on the basis of empathy and love of others. Everyone has every right to bet on this option. But I will not. I do not believe in such philanthropy and I do not believe in such generosity, no more in white milieus than in indigenous ones. I hang on to a very pragmatic approach and I think people have a particular interest when mobilizing. Therefore, we must find a revolutionary subject and consider the greatest common denominator. I stated above the main themes that mobilize neighborhoods: police crimes, racism in all its variations, imperialism, and memory. For 40 years, these four issues have been a source of mobilization in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This means that they are significant and cover a political materiality that makes sense and that we should know how to exploit. I add to this that all four themes are more or less concerned with issues of race, class and gender. What our critics seem to ignore is that these issues are not blind spots: indigenous people consider them from the decolonial paradigm that is theirs. On this, I quote Norman Ajari: “Decolonial thinking is an effort to give our vision of the world the historical depth necessary to act and think while freeing ourselves from the old political routines. The decolonial perspective assumes that in 1492, with the ‘discovery’ and then the conquest of America, a European civilization project is born, and the intellectual, moral and physical superiority of whites will be its key component. Indigenous people are contending that it is from this paradigm, which takes into account the white supremacist project at the foundation of modernity itself, that questions of gender or class deserve to be considered if they are to be relevant in the lives of people from the global south and their diasporas. Race and gender are not some add-on, accumulated into a reassuring concatenation of dominations. Rather, they fit in the orbit of a coherent theory that, without ignoring them, no longer seeks its legitimacy in European practice and political thought7.” What we want to say is that from the issue of race, and assuming this hierarchy, decolonial thinking offers an account of a globality that integrates gender, class and sexuality, but that is free from any form of Eurocentrism and that works on a radical challenge to modernity which, via imperialism, capitalism, and the constitution of nation states, has been instrumental in the production of the race-class-gender triptych. We cannot imagine getting rid of such triptych without imagining an alternative to modernity, without thinking about a new utopia.

Houria Bouteldja, PIR member.

Traduit du français par Geneviève Rail.


Race, Class and Gender: A New Three-Headed Divinity, Houria Bouteldja pour les nuls


1 Sadri Khiari, Les mystères de l’articulation race/classe

2 Norman Ajari, La faillite du matérialisme abstrait

3 Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression

4 I cannot but think that there is, here, the persistence of a form of orientalism and paternalism when this gaze is white. I also think that there is integration of such orientalism when the gaze is indigenous.

5 Mélanie Gourarier, Gianfranco Rebucini & Florian Vörös, Penser l’hégémonie

6 Esther Cooper Jackson, This is my husband

7 Norman Ajari, La faillite du matérialisme abstrait

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