Friday, February 22, 2008

Gender, race and essentialism by Suzie

      This political season, a lot has been written about white women and black women as if they were monolithic groups. We need a refresher course on essentialism.
       Some people consider women innately different from men. Some critics call this essentialism because it suggests all women share the same essential traits.
       Others think that the oppression of women as women links us all together. Some also consider this essentialism, saying not all women have the same experiences. For example, some women of color accuse white feminists of talking about “women” without understanding or acknowledging differences.
       Learning about difference can be a lifelong project because each of us is unique.
       If you oppose universal statements in regard to gender, it would make sense that you would oppose them in regard to other categories, such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, age, ability, etc. For example, talking about black women as if they all share the same views and a common experience of oppression would seem just as essentialist. It would erase differences among black women.
       The same goes for privilege. If people don’t all experience oppression the same way, then they don’t experience privilege the same way. To put it another way, if we can’t say that one group shares the same disadvantages, we can’t say that another group has all the same advantages.
      Want more concrete examples? A white woman who suffers from a chronic illness and works for low pay still has racial privilege over a black woman who also is ill and low paid. But a healthy, rich black woman has privileges in regard to ability and income. Consider two white women who have the same illness and same low pay. One may feel oppressed, and the other may not. We do not all experience the world in the same way.