A Decolonial Feminism
Françoise Vergès grew up in Réunion and settled in Paris in the mid-1970s, where she devoted herself to anti-racist and feminist activism. She obtained her PhD at the University of Berkeley, California, with her work Monsters and Revolutionaries. Colonial Family Romance and Métissage, which was published by Duke University Press. She was president of the Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery (2009–2012).
She has published books and articles on the memories of slavery, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, postcoloniality, the postcolonial museum, processes of creolization, and decolonial feminism. She collaborates with artists, has created the guided tour “The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity,” and has written several films. Her latest books are: Un féminisme décolonial (2019) and Le ventre des femmes. Capitalisme, racialisation, féminisme (2017).
This interview was conducted by Timofei Gerber.
Timofei Gerber: Thank you for joining me. My first question concerns the dynamics between visibility and invisibility, which plays a crucial role in the minority discourse. Through external marks of discrimination, like skin color or gender, visibility became an instrument of exclusion, while systematic invisibilities aim to hide real human suffering. The effort to overturn this, to become visible as a human being was an important political instrument. But it seems that the neoliberal variation of feminism that you criticize in Un féminisme décolonial [FD] can easily appropriate and instrumentalize terms like ‘awareness’ or ‘inclusion’, so that the external marks serve as an integration into the cultural industry. Does that change the nature of the feminist struggle? Is awareness still an instrument for politization?
Françoise Vergès: This is a very important question. Giving visibility to struggles, memories, histories, lives, sexualities have been very important for oppressed peoples worldwide, and still is. But visibility is also an element of capitalistic logic: things must be made visible to become objects and merchandise. Just look at the advertisement industry: everything — narratives, crafts, memories, etc. — must be packaged visually to enter the market, must fit the Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter frames. Of course, social networks have also been essential for mobilization, countering fake news, but let’s remain attentive to the logic of pacification and exceptionalism: Lives of revolutionary figures are packaged to fit the narrative of progress brought by one individual — a very strong form of narrative in the USA, but Western historiography in general functions like that. To do so, entire aspects of their lives are erased, or marginalized and pacified — think of Nelson Mandela, whose past as a communist and advocate of armed struggle was no longer put forward to become the nice African wise paternal figure that everyone could love, or Rosa Parks, who was transformed into a nice grandma with her bag, a lonely figure against a bad big thing, and wining thanks to American values. The lone individual against an uneducated crowd, helped along the way by nice liberals. It erases the collective, the repression, but also the loneliness of resistance.
Of course, an individual can struggle in isolation. A woman, a girl, a young gay man, a lesbian, a trans, a queer, can find in silence, invisibility, and withdrawal a site of resistance. The western injunction to be visible entails that only visibility gives resistance its grandeur but it is a visibility that must obey certain norms. In many ways, we have become accomplices to the regime of surveillance and control, as we give away through banal gestures (credit card, Internet, Facebook, etc.) so much information about our lives, and we want to do it, nobody is forcing us: how will we learn again to be fugitive from the laws of the master?
I will argue that visibility/invisibility must be thought as strategic, deployed in context, and even then there is no obligation to “show” everything. In an era, where surveillance has entered so many aspects of our intimacies, we may find invisibility useful. Historically, the subalterns, the oppressed, have moved between visibility and invisibility: rupturing the hegemonic narrative, showing its structural function of erasure and going into hiding. There are many ways to become invisible, to withdraw: seeing without being seen, listening while pretending not to, pretending not to know how to read, how to obey the rules, to not understand a language, avoiding the gaze, staying still, going underground, forging fake papers.
But of course, awareness is still a tool for politization, there is so much we do not know! So much has been denied, erased, destroyed, looted that we still need to uncover many stories and make them visible. The way these histories are being taught is appalling: it is still a fight! And the West is denying most of its crimes. In that context, the reaction of the directors of French museums to the Sarr-Savoy report on the restitution of African objects to their owners was symptomatic: they answered that the western museum is “universal,” that they know better how to preserve things, etc. France, I must say, is a special case!
To go back to the question of awareness as politicization, besides affirming its necessity, I also think that the concern for new ways to make events and figures visible is just as important. It is important to challenge the frames that some forms inevitably impose. I will give an example: in January, a French TV channel showed a documentary in three parts, one hour each, on “Decolonizations.” There were many problems: the authors chose to focus on individuals, including many women, to mix archives, extracts of films, reenactments, etc. without informing the public, and to make the struggle for independence the heart of decolonization — but besides all this, I was left with the feeling that the format of documentary for TV was too limited to tell the story of a multi-territorial event with so many consequences, so many forms of expression… The desire to tell a story is not enough, we need to challenge forms that were historically invented by the West. I do not reject all Western inventions, that would be sterile, but I think that the process of decolonization requires a big and constant effort to challenge the temporality and spatiality inherited from colonialism, imperialism, and national narratives.
TG: In Le ventre des femmes [The Womb of Women], you describe a seemingly paradoxical double strategy that France deployed in their DOMs (overseas departments, like the island Réunion): On the one hand, there is the notion of “impossible development,” thereby essentializing the poverty and struggles of the former colonies (and hiding the fact that they both directly result from colonial exploitation), and on the other hand there is the notion of “catching up” in which, due to a “civilizing mission,” France, as much as the whole Western world, is to help the people of the Third World to assimilate and to integrate into ‘modernity’. How do these two strategies go together, and is there a third way for countries and societies that are wedged between non-development and the seemingly unavoidable structural adjustments of neoliberalism?
FV: These are apparent paradoxes, but these politics go together. Both aim at putting you in a binding relation. The West has marked many people as “lacking” — women, LGTBQI+, sex workers, black and brown peoples — lacking reason, beauty, art, technologies. And they were responsible for this lack, they were missing something by nature, and they could hope to reach some advanced state only by accepting to assimilate into the master’s laws. They could catch up if they accepted to live by the norms of “civilization,” hetero-normativity, internalized racism. To justify the civilizing mission, the West had first to describe in endless reports, studies, travel diaries, the lacks of non-fully developed humans. This is what Sylvia Wynter says when she writes, I paraphrase, that the idea of “Man” is an invention that legitimates abuses of power, sexism, and racism, and therefore that we have to think what kind of species we want to be.
The way out of this binary thinking is first to reject the idea of development according to the West, it has sufficiently shown its power to destroy and devastate, second to rethink the notion of humanity that in the 16th century operated a division between a humanity that deserves to live a good life and a humanity that is disposable. Colonization laid waste upon the earth, wasting “nature” and peoples. Slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism are all regimes that transform people and nature into “things” to waste. Exploitation means working people and nature until they are used up, and then, when the mines are empty, soils depleted, forests, animals, rivers exhausted, moving to find new places and new peoples to waste. Second, to look at all the experiences of autonomy from these oppressive frames — there have been many such experiences — and to adapt them to our context of increased militarization of public space, increased technologies of surveillance and control, increased inequalities, increased precariousness and disposability. Though we often use the term “intersectionality,” we often stay focused on one issue because it is in fact quite difficult to bring all the elements together: racial Anthropocene, racial capitalism, sexism, racism, economic exploitation, cultural appropriation, the economy of speed. But it is worth the effort. And resistance is emerging in many places, in many ways. We must experiment. We must take our time and yet be fast. We are caught within multiple temporalities: we must repair the past which is far from being repaired, we must repair the present, and already prevent the future from becoming the past.
TG: Within the Marxist frame of reference, to take an example, the primary aim of theory is to help the revolutionary class become self-conscious by exposing the mechanisms of exploitation. But in view of the “daily experience of oppression” (FD 39) of, for example, the racialized women in the cleaning industry, it seems that they are not only self-aware by default, but also see the sources of their exploitation very clearly. What function do theory and analysis play then, and who are they aimed at? How can we repoliticize theory?
FV: Theory has too often been written by academics, and in that case, it has few connections with the struggles from below. When I read some of these texts, I am, may I confess?, bored. I know that theory is not a journalistic commentary but I sometimes feel that it is too detached, not immersed enough in the complicated, messy state of the real, it often lacks “life,” energy, desire. It still wishes people to be good and embrace reasonable goals. I grew up in a political family, very much engaged in the struggle in a French overseas department – a colony in another form – and I witnessed fear, courage, determination, solidarity, joy, all the feelings sometimes expressed together, and how the politics of respectability functions, its impact, its capacity to seduce racialized peoples into believing that if they play by the norms, they may get a small place at the table. I learned not to be judgmental, which did not mean that I did not distinguish between collaborators and people who for a lot of reasons remained quiet.
Women in the cleaning industry who strike and fight make a very strong case against patriarchy, sexism, racism, and capitalism. When they describe why and how their bodies suffer from their working conditions, when they articulate in detail what I call the “economy of exhaustion,” they are doing theory. We observe everywhere a strong desire to change the ways to organize politically, to eschew the top/down structure with bureaucratic leaders, spokespeople, etc. Neoliberalism, which has understood this need, has found answers: celebrating “anonymous” individuals, singing the praise of grassroots movement while maintaining the structure of power and decision intact. So, we always have to fight, to invent ways of escaping the politics of assimilation and respectability. What’s happening around the world is fantastic: despite incredible repression and intimidation by states, private militia, corporate business, resistance is everywhere.
Though the notion of intersectionality is now widely adopted, it is still very difficult to fully apply it when entanglements are complex, on multiple levels, with effects of past discriminations lingering or brought up way after the actual event — in other words, working with multiple temporalities, with different perceptions and experiences. How to bring together the multifarious links that construct a situation of oppression, going deep into the entanglements. About women in the cleaning industry for instance, are the notions of class, race and gender enough? (The notion of gender must already be questioned). How do we bring in the chemical industry that produces cleaning products according to the fabricated needs of the consumers (must smell “clean,” not too chemical, must be “green”…), its economy and protocols of research, the evolution of the notions of clean/unclean, sexual violence, anti-migrant politics, the history of the racial organization of cleaning and caring… For a workshop, I applied that method to the banana to speak about anti-black racism, sexualities, sport, imperialism (banana republics), fashion, music, cinema, advertisement, middle class life and tastes, pesticides, Cold War (banana as a symbol of freedom), contemporary art… My goal was not to show a causal effect, that one thing led to another, but to observe cultural, social, economic, racial, gendered entanglements starting from a very banal object of consumption, very much loved, associated with care.
TG: In Le ventre des femmes you analyze the scandalous practice of abortions and sterilizations without consent on the racialized women in Réunion. Such practices were the direct consequence France’s antinatalist policy in the DOMs after WWII. This policy was precisely the opposite of the one that was promoted in mainland France, where abortions and contraceptives were criminalized and women were encouraged to have children. With this analysis you show how the control over the women’s bodies, and specifically their wombs, served different functions for white and for racialized women. Where do you see, in that sense, the difference between a decolonial feminism, and a feminism that will potentially collaborate with the neoliberal structures?
FV: The feminism I defend is radically anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist, therefore anti-patriarchal. Patriarchy was racialized (you could be a tyrant at home but outside you were a black, Arab, Muslim, Asian man, a man who was not fully a man in the colonial/racial/social/cultural/economic organization). They could be publicly humiliated in front of women and children, they could be accused without any kind of proof of being rapists and lynched. Masculinity is not neutral, becoming a “man” is heavily ideologized. And patriarchy, we know, is indispensable to Capital. I am interested in the notion of de-patriarcalization that indigenous feminist movements such as the Bolivian women’s social movement Mujeres Creando have developed. “The decolonization of the State is not possible without its depatriarcalization. […] We affirm that the ’social pact’ rests on a sexual contract that has expropriated from women the sovereignty over our own bodies,” they say (see: Mujeres Creando, Virgen de Los Deseos and Maria Galindo, 13 June 2007, http://topicsandroses.free.fr/spip.php?article58). They see the “demand for ’the original culture’ as pure, as the culture that will build the nation, the project of power and then nationalism” as leading to “the patriarchal and colonial renovation of power, where power simply exercises power with a mere change of actors.” I would need more precision though about their idea of women and men as being “complementary,” but the project of working to de-patriarcalize institutions is promising.
A decolonial feminism must show how racial capitalism, as Cedric Robinson has shown, is gendered. Economic emancipation from Capital means attacking the ways in which it is structured by race. Bourgeois women have access to a “good life” thanks to the exploitation of women in the Global South and of black and brown women in the Global North. From the cheap clothes of fast fashion that allow them to wear the latest fashion, to work that is done by black and brown women to make their lives more comfortable (taking care of their children, their homes, their husband); from their access to the business of care and beauty (being pampered in spas, massaged by migrant women from Asia), to their appropriation of practices of care such as meditation, yoga, detox food, these women perpetuate an economy of extraction. Their “good life” rests literally on the broken back of the exhausted bodies of black and brown women. White women are agents of the racist economy; it is not just a question of patriarchy, as the white women who vote for fascistic regimes, for Trump, are the accomplices of the most brutal patriarchy. They need to understand this.
The politics of disposable lives are deeply connected to the economy of extraction: extracting energy and labor from racialized bodies to the extent that their lives are shortened, extracting from the soil and subsoil, extracting from forests, rivers, seas, oceans… We are witnessing on a global scale the devastation that Capital and colonialism brought to the Global South(s). In that history, the fact that for centuries, the African women’s wombs were “looted” as their children were captured, trafficked, and deported, that they constituted an endless source of bonded workforce for transatlantic and Indian ocean commerce in human beings, that men were made fatherless, the fact that in the colonies Black women’s wombs were transformed into capital and black babies into currency and capital, and Black men forbidden to become paternal figures, that monocultures were imposed, mines emptied, cities built on genocides, art looted, languages erased, that there were genocides, epistemicides, massacres of indigenous peoples, their lands stolen — the list is long, and all this set up the stage for the current devastation. The West is calling this age “Anthropocene” but we, peoples of color, know that the Plantatiocene was the cradle of the current global disposability. In that context, a decolonial feminism insists on working for a post-violent world, a world where violence is not praised and is the basis of power, where security and protection are not militarized, where violence is not answered with carceral feminism.
I would like to add something. Three years ago, I suggested a collective performance on Utopian thought (for four years, I organized a workshop in Paris called “L’Atelier” with 20/25 artists of color of different disciplines. Its principles: realizing in two days a collective performance — not a succession of works but really a collaborative performance, with the lowest budget we could imagine, opened to the public the second day, joyful, radical…). We wrote a manifesto after walking a full day in a forest, then the following day, we paid homage to an Algerian thrown into the Seine by the French police, before going to La Colonie, the space set up by artist Kader Attia. I wanted to challenge the idea that utopia always ends in dystopia, and rather than imagining a future, it brings back the energy of imagination. The first paragraph is the following: “The mighty, the masters of Capital and of the Empire tell us that their current dystopia is the norm and they have us believe that they control time. Paraphrasing Frantz Fanon, we declare that “we must shake off the heavy darkness” into which we are plunged “and leave it behind”. We want to imagine a utopia, one that will give us energy, the force to contest, an invitation to emancipatory dreams and represent an act of rupture: daring to think outside what is presented as “natural”, “pragmatic” and “reasonable”. We do not wish to build a utopian community, but to breathe creative force back into dreams of indocility and resistance, justice and freedom, happiness and kindness, friendship and wonderment.” And we concluded: “In these reconfigurations, the figure of the Maroon, those men and women who refused the long night of oppression, strikes us as primordial. To escape, if only for an hour, a day, a night, or years, to create, against all odds, a space of freedom is the lesson they bequeath to us. Making a reified icon of the Maroon would be to betray their memory. It is a danger that looms for all figures of freedom and, before we know it, we would risk seeing this figure set in stone on the fronts of museums. We take our imperative of constantly being on the move, in motion, inventing new, free territories, from the Maroons. The night welcomes our dreams and opens up still unexplored paths. We claim the right to be unfinished and contradictory. We want to creatively redefine the visual traces of history, to explore the past to analyze the present and imagine the future. Our utopia must remain a never-achieved goal; it must instill a permanent state of curiosity.” For me, a decolonial feminism is that, a permanent state of curiosity, being on the move, opening up unexplored paths and thus, first never forgetting what we owe to the ancestors, to their courage, determination, and daring, second, making the constant effort to breathe life into our thoughts and actions, and finally always being on the side of the exploited.
TG: As colonialism has “dismissed forms of scientific knowledge, aesthetics and whole categories of human beings as non-existent,” you identify the struggle for “epistemic justice,” one of “equality of different traditions of knowledge [savoirs]” (FD 24), as one of the key critical strategies of decolonial feminism. Its goal is to “re-learn to hear, see, feel, so as to be able to think” (ibid. 33). What are the key features and strategies of such a pluralist approach?
FV: It does so in the capacity to remain open to the unforeseen and the unexpected, but also to set the struggle into binary terms. As you may start to understand, I advocate a constant and radical openness based on non-negotiable principles. It sounds paradoxical but it is not. Non-negotiable principles are: anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-patriarchy (as the organization of domination founded on an idea of “Man as Father” who abuses power), any ideology or practice that discriminates on the basis of religion, color, sexualities, abilities, origins, class, genders, ethnic background. These principles are applied according to the situations at hand. The unforeseen and the unexpected lie in the ways in which movements of resistance and dissent choose to express themselves, to theorize their struggles, to engage into practices. Movements confront contradictions, tensions, limits, bureaucratization, sexism, homophobia, authoritarian leadership, all sorts of problems but it is in their capacity to accept critiques, to reflect on their problems and to change that they will remain relevant. But we cannot ignore nor underestimate (nor overestimate) how state and business counter-offensives operated to divide, to instill paranoia and suspicion, to corrupt, to lie, to propose peace when they are already launching war. It is not a peaceful struggle, the enemy is relentless, there is so much to lose. It has no qualm whatsoever to censor, repress, lie, dissimulate, jail, torture, wage war, manipulate, instrumentalize. How do they build consent to their politics of devastation? Their hegemonial universalism is, we know, a construct to mask their very narrow vision of what it means to be the human and to live on this planet. The theories that look at the entanglements between all living things, the inanimate, animals, plants, humans, are promising. These theories have been repressed, mocked, marginalized through the ideology of green-washing. Green capitalism and all commodification of ways of living less heavily (the appropriation of yoga, meditation, veganism for egoistic usage while not being anti-war, anti-racist etc., is a tool of pacification) are trying to de-radicalize what these theories offer. My answer may not be satisfying, not offering a way out of the traps, but it is because I think it is a practice, not an exercise in ten steps, it is an awareness, a daily effort. We cannot forget that we are living in a world where the West did everything it could for centuries to shape it in its own vision: unequal, extractive, limitless exploitation of nature and humans made into “sub-humans,” and thus that vision has contaminated the ways health, care, education, work, social relations, the definition of what it means to be “man,” “woman,” father,” “mother,” “family,” “community,” “sovereignty,” “commerce,” are apprehended imposing a colonial/racial understanding of the world. States, communities, groups, which seek to resist the neoliberal rules are punished. For a while, peoples living in the Global North thought they would escape what their countries were doing “over there,” but as Aimé Césaire argued in Discourse on colonialism, there is, inevitably, a “boomerang-effect” to slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. You cannot have racial laws “over there” without them coming back to the metropole and corrupting even progressive ideologies, feminism, socialism, communism…
A pluralist and anti-essentialist method requires patience, its aim is not to provide solutions for the years and years to come but to provide tools for current struggles and hope for an open future.
TG: In the chapter “Politiser le care” of Un féminisme décolonial, you refer to the call for pay for housewives, a movement that began in the 1970s (FD 111). The revolutionary potential of this was analyzed, for example, by Sylvia Wynter, who showed how this demand forces us to rethink our notions of productive labor, for example when we distinguish between ‘real’ labor and ‘mere’ maintenance work, between work that creates value and work that does not, and that can therefore be exploited. Does your notion of the revolutionary potential of the cleaning industry refer to this line of thought? If yes, what kind of economy, and what new notion of labor can we hope for?
FV: Yes, my work does refer to the black feminist theory on labor which considerably enriched the white feminist analysis of “domestic” labor. I always remind people when I am giving a conference in a university, art gallery, cultural center, meeting place, that we can meet there and discuss because women of color have cleaned that place, but their invisibility and the invisibility of their work have been so naturalized that even when we are debating capitalism, race, exploitation, gender, we forget about it. We forget that our political, feminist, radical, environmental debates are made possible because women of color are cleaning the world, that their exhausted bodies make the world “livable,” though their own world is devoid of public services, decent transportation, comfort, parks… They are allowed to enter the segregated city and its clean enclaves, but if their sons, companions, fathers, enter these spaces, they are risking their lives.
The first political gesture is to be conscious of that fact: airports, train stations, commercial malls, hospitals, schools, sport centers, art galleries, offices, universities, hotels, etc. are places where we move without thinking that if we can do so, it is because they have been cleaned. In 2019, I wrote a piece for e-flux, where I developed the argument of why the cleaning industry has revolutionary potential. I said: “Without the work of women of color, which is necessary but must remain invisible — literally and in valuative terms — neoliberal and patriarchal capitalism would not function. Upper class, white, neoliberal, and even liberal people must enter these spaces without having to acknowledge, to think of, to imagine, the work of cleaning/caring. It is a global situation and it is primarily white women who act as supervisors and regulators of this labor done by black and migrant/refugee women. The contradiction and dialectic between the neoliberal bourgeoisie and these exhausted bodies illustrate the connections between neoliberalism, race, and heteropatriarchy. It also uncovers new borders that have been drawn between cleanliness and dirtiness in an age in which concerns are growing for clean air, clean water, clean houses, clean bodies, clean minds, and green spaces. The growing concern for a healthy/powerful body and mind is built on the New Age ideology of the 1970s, which appropriated Eastern and indigenous conceptions and practices, or esoteric Western ones. It has developed into a major and lucrative market, offering meditation and herbal teas, yoga and exotic whole grains, gyms and massages for every age, founded on class privilege and that very cultural appropriation. Its aim is personal efficiency, and a maximization of physical and mental power. It has even fed a desire to outlive human constraints, and led to research programs for life extension, anti-aging, and “solving the death problem,” financed by the theocracy of Silicon Valley.” I followed up with the new division between clean and dirty brought up by the White ecological concerns for clean water, clean air, green spaces, security, protection, women’s freedom in the streets, healthy environment for children…
The new notion of labor we need must be based on challenging the pyramidal structure that relies on racial, sexual, and gendered exploitation, on a challenge to the speed economy — showing that time is needed to learn, work, blossom –, on a valuation of manual work, of collective learning. All the work being done around queer/indigenous/decolonial feminist pedagogy contributes to that new notion of labor.
TG: Un féminisme décolonial is a very programmatic book. After identifying the aims, the strategies, and the frontiers of a decolonial feminism, what project comes next?
FV: The project is to continue contributing to the historically based and ongoing struggle to redefine what it means to be human. It is a humble task, one that requires one’s own decolonization, a careful examination of our own prejudices. It is against private property, even of theory and practice; in other words, it fights against appropriation, but it is also ready for its ideas to be adopted and transformed. It is a generous project.
Right now, I am working on violence: how to work towards a post-violence society. My work is of course based on the formidable movements against violence against women in India, Chile, South Africa, Mexico, and on the works of feminists of color in the Global North. I have to avoid righteous declarations, “one must, one needs, blah blah blah,” but also to confront the desire for revenge (which I totally understand), not the one that leads to carceral feminism but revenge so that “fear is changing side.” Well, I must work!