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We cannot name ourselves without Othering ourselves in the White Gaze

BlackwomanTerms such as ‘people of color’ or ‘non-white’ make people who fall into those categories distinct from simply ‘people’ and allow white people to explain us and our worldviews, while assuming that their presence and worldviews are normal and require no explanation, writes Restructure!.

10 April 2011

In Bad Romance: Feminism and women of colour make an unhappy pair, Sana Saeed writes:

“Women of colour” beautifully illustrates the exact problem I discovered with feminism, as a woman who did not fit the mainstream criteria for being just a Woman. As a “woman of colour,” I am not just a Woman. I am a woman with a little something extra; there is a difference struck between women like me and white women. There is no Woman. There are no Women. There are two groups: women and “women of colour.” This tidily, and unfortunately, translates into the “us” and “them” categorization.

Because this distinction is made and has been proudly appropriated by “women of colour” without much criticism, this presumption that the white woman’s identity is a sort of “foundational” identity for all women is prevalent within feminism.

According to Loretta Ross, however, the term “women of color” was coined in 1977 among some black and other “minority” women in Washington, DC as “a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been ‘minoritized’.”

Ross says, “Unfortunately, so many times, people of color hear the term ‘people of color’ from other white people that [PoCs] think white people created it instead of understanding that we self-named ourselves.”

However, regardless of its history, Sana makes a salient point: the term "woman of colour" suggests "a woman with a little something extra", which implies that whiteness is the default.

I identify as a "woman of colour" in solidarity with other women who lack white privilege, but I have always been bothered that the term "people of colo[u]r” can be appropriated by white people to Other us and mark us as distinct from “people”. (I have tried using the term “racialized people”, but abandoned my efforts in popularizing the term, when a particular white anti-racist blogger responded by insisting that white people are racialized too.)

The underlying problem, of course, is that Othering is achieved by marking our race instead marking white people as “white”. Some people argue that the term “non-white people” centres on white people, and that the term “people of color” avoids this, but this logic betrays a misunderstanding of the language of Othering.

The famous first chapter of Edward Said’s Orientalism demonstrates that Oriental Studies, although a field intended to centre on the Orient and Orientals, actually reflects the cultural, colonial biases of European academics.

White scholars might refer to us now as “Asian”, “Muslim”, “Chinese”, “Arab”, “West Asian”, “visible minority”, “African”, “racialized”, or “people of color”, but they are still in a position of power to speak on behalf of us, to define what we have in common with others in our group that make us a cohesive subject of study. White people explain us and our worldviews, while assuming that their presence and worldviews are normal and require no explanation.

When I first created my blog, I created the category White People Studies to be “reverse Orientalism”.

White People Studies is about what all white people have in common, or at least about the defining characteristics of white people as a group that make them distinct.

Some white readers objected to being called “white”, insisting that they are individuals and should not be grouped together with completely different individuals who happen to share the same race, begging me to think about how I would feel if the roles were reversed.

Of course, these comments left by White People should be taken seriously as field data on how White People think, an invaluable addition to White People Studies.

In the end, the term “women of colour”, or any other term, will always be Othering unless we also call white women “white”.

Instead of naming ourselves, we can continue naming, labelling, and discussing the Whites.

Restructure! is a pseudonymous blogger who blogs at Restructure! and Geek Feminism.



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