Suryia Nayak “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.”

By Suryia Nayak

Kelly Oliver: I would like to start this discussion by saying that ‘Racist social structures create racist psychic structures ” (Oliver 2001 p34)

Suryia: It seems to me that a certain logic flows from this, we all live in a racist society, this racism shapes who we are and thus makes us all racist subjects. And here is the clever bit, actually, it has nothing and everything to do with the colour of skin. The question is does this operates differently for black and white people and if so how and why.

Audre Lorde: I am reminded of the opening sentence to my essay ‘Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface’ found in ‘Sister Outsider’. The sentence is “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.” (Lorde 1984 p 60)

Suryia: Linking that sentence to what Kelly Oliver has just said at the beginning of this discussion it seems to me that, “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface” and could never be, precisely because racist social structures create racist psychic structures.

bell hooks: “I am often asked whether being black is more important than being a woman; whether feminist struggle to end sexist oppression is more important than the struggle to end racism and vice versa.” (hooks 1984 p29)

Patricia Hill Collins: I ask, “What criteria can be applied to ideas to determine whether they are in fact Black and feminist? What essential features does Black feminist thought share with other bodies of intellectual criticism, particularly feminist theory,” (Hill Collins 1990 p 17).

Sara Suleri: For me the issue is, “whether the significance of gendered race necessarily returns to the realism that it most seeks to disavow” (Suleri 1992 p761)

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: “The question is how to keep the ethnocentric Subject from establishing itself by selectively defining an Other” (Spivak 1988 p 292)

Judith Butler: “I would therefore suggest that the question to ask is not whether the theory of performativity is transposable onto race, but what happens to the theory when it tries to come to grips with race” (Butler 1999 p xvi).

Suryia: So it appears that the relation between Black feminism and white feminism is at the heart of feminist theory, practice and lived experience. I suggest that we stay with Lorde’s provocative sentence “black feminism is not white feminism in blackface” as an anchor for our discussion today. As a suggestion we could take the 4 words from this sentence and use them as lenses to look at how and why racist social structures create racist psychic structures. For example

  1. The word ‘Feminism’ as a lens– could be concerned with ideology as a mechanism to convert the social into the psychic.
  2. The word ‘Not’ as a lens – is particularly fascinating in relation to the difficult dependency each of us has on the ‘not’ and in the distance that the ‘Not’ creates.
  3. The word ‘In’ as a lens – could let us see how ideology is soaked into and get under the skin
  4. The word ‘Blackface’ as a lens – gives us an opportunity to understand why we need to beware of mimicry.

In the context of today’s discussion, “black feminism is not white feminism in black face” could be restated as, Black liberation theory is not white liberation theory in black face, thus the concepts are transferable. In other words, liberation ideological approaches, in order to be liberating at all, must take into consideration, that particular social structures create particular psychic structures.

Judith Butler: I agree “the project requires thinking the theory of power together with a theory of the psyche” because “power that at first appears as external, pressed upon the subject, pressing the subject into subordination, assumes a psychic form that constitutes the subject’s self-identity” (Butler 1997, p3).

Suryia: In other words, what appears external to us even when it presses us into subordination, gets under our skin, into our psyche and goes onto give us our self identity.

Let’s play with Lorde’s quote for a moment, to get a feel of the possible implications.

Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface” provokes questions such as, would there be black feminism without white Feminism? Would there be white Feminism without black feminism? In the context of racist assumed white supremacy, is it possible to turn the phrase around to state, black feminism is not white feminism in white face? Can there be feminism without the prefix of black and white? How do the signifiers black and white function?

An ideology does not become a black ideology by painting a black face on it. A white, Eurocentric ideology does not convert to a black version by having black faces in the literature, research, conferences or institutions. Any ideology, movement, force for change, does not become black by increasing the representation of a particular pigmentation. So, it has nothing and everything to do with the colour of skin.

Kalpna Seshadri-Crooks: I have argued in my book ‘Desiring Whiteness’ that, “race is fundamentally a regime of looking that establishes a structure of relations’ (Seshadri-Crooks 2000, p4) “words like black and white, when used as nouns – work like names. … operating not unlike proper names. The proper name is neither wholly one’s own (i.e. we are all named by others) nor is it meaningful…No set of qualitative descriptions can establish black or white identity across all possible worlds, but we cannot say that black and white do not exist” (Seshadri-Crooks 2000 p141).

Toni Morrision: In my short story “Recitatif” I experimented with “the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial” (Morrison 1992 pxi).

Kalpna Seshadri-Crooks: My reading of Recitatif enabled me to understand the questions “When the signifier ‘black’ or ‘white’ points to a specific body, what have we discovered about it? Is there some knowledge, something that we know, due to the function of the signifier?” (Seshadri-Crooks 2000 p148).

Suryia: The key is not in the noun(s) but how the nouns act as envelopes, containers that transport and transform racist social structures into racist psychic structures

Audre Lorde: I would caution, “in a patriarchal power system where whiteskin privilege is a major prop, the entrapments used to neutralize Black and white women are not the same” (Lorde 1980 p118). The imperative is, to attend to the specificity of the entrapments.

Suryia: It seems to me that “entrapments” Lorde in your sentence “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface” implies much more than a binary black / white division or a response to lack of inclusion of black feminists on the part of white feminists. It seems you are saying much more than Black women are ‘other’ and ‘othered’. Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface invokes the interdependency of difference with the inherent political and epistemological problems, paradoxes and ambivalence of dependency and reliance on the ‘Other’.

Audre Lorde: In “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”, I speak directly, “To imply, however, that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many and varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how these tools are used by women without awareness against each other” (Lorde 1979 p 67). Let me be clear, “beyond sisterhood is still racism” (Lorde 1979 p70).

Suryia: “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface” goes to the heart of fundamental questions concerning the basis, membership, definition and aim of feminism. The statement provokes questions of who and what is foreclosed, how and who is constituted in what ways and why?

Judith Butler: “What kinds of agency are foreclosed through the positing of an epistemological subject precisely because the rules and practices that govern the invocation of that subject and regulate its agency in advance are ruled out as sites of analysis and critical intervention?” (Butler 1990 p 197).

Suryia: A close reading of “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface” picks up the elements of Butler’s question in relation to the foreclosure and regulation not only of agency but of analysis and critical intervention of the rules and practices that position black feminism in relation to white feminism.

Judith Butler: The statement “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface” embodies and performs its own deconstruction. Let me explain this “the deconstruction of identity is not the deconstruction of politics; rather, it establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated.” (Butler 1990 p 203).

Suryia: Lorde is establishing as political the very terms through which black feminism is articulated and identified. I like Lorde’s use of the word tool and her caution that if we do not get to grips with the many and varied tools of a racist patriarchy how on earth would we be aware of using them against each other as black and white feminists. I propose a feminist mechanics of theory to encourage a labouring on the engineering of theory. I contend that the tools we use, need to be sharp, precise and fit for the job. – the feminist job of re-calibrating. Furthermore, the subject under analysis, for example the concepts, issues, tensions that requires recalibration constitutes the tools required for the job. In other words ‘black feminism is not white feminism in blackface’ is at once the subject under analysis and constitutes the tool for analysis. Let’s be clear, Beyond sisterhood there is racism applies to both black and white feminist and racist social structures create racist psychic structures and this applies whether we self define as a Black or white feminist – and yet Lorde has stated that black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.

Louis Althusser: The way I understand the relationship between social structures and psychic structures is that, ‘ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among individuals (it recruits them all) or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation’ (Althusser 1971 p 33).

Suryia: So it could be argued that the recruitment is different for different individuals and the transforming is different for different individuals.

Elsbeth Probyn: Black ideology is not white ideology in blackface because “we are interpellated differently” and “we are hailed by different ideologies in different ways” (Probyn 2003 p298).

Suryia: Having established some basic principles / a general context; let us now look at the 4 lenses outlined at the beginning of our discussion:

The first lens is the word ‘Feminism’

Feminism – could be described as an ideology to counter and expose oppressive patriarchal social productions of women. Even if one were to argue that the oppressive effects of patriarchy are universal, feminist ideologies cannot be not universally applied because we are hailed and constituted as subjects differently.

Judith Butler: Indeed I would say that we are passionately attached to injurious interpellations (Butler 1997 p6 and p105). So there is the hailing, and there is our passionate attachment to the hailing, even when the hailing oppresses us.

Suryia: Because black people are recruited, transformed and attached differently than white people and white people are recruited, transformed and attached differently to black people, the ideology required to look at the specificity of the recruitment, the specificity of the transformation and the specificity of the attachment, cannot be the same for black and white people.

Elsbeth Probyn: Shifting the focus from ideology to space, but remaining with mechanisms of production and constitution. “the space and place we inhabit produce us” (Probyn 2003 p294). Thus subjectivity is constituted by space and place. If we accept that black and white people inhabit different spaces, it follows that the space and place that produces black subjectivity, is not the space and place that produces white subjectivity.

Suryia: So we have a situation where the black and white psyche are constituted and regulated differently because they occupy different spaces and are recruited, transformed and passionately attached differently.

Norma Alarcon: What I hear you saying is that feminist thinking cannot rely on the reductionist premise of a shared experience of being a woman, “with gender as the central concept in feminist thinking, epistemology is flattened out in such a way that we lose sight of the complex and multiple ways in which the subject and object of possible experience are constituted…There’s no inquiry into the knowing subject beyond the fact of being a ‘woman’” (Alarcon 1990, p361).

Suryia: Can I just add in here the issue of recognition and misrecognition which is core to Althusser’s interpellation and core to what Alarcon has just said. Because what we recognize or do not recognise determines whether or not we lose sight of the multiple and complex ways in which women are constituted and determines whether or not we move our inquiry and feminist activism beyond the category of being a woman .

Sojourner Truth: In 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Ohio, where amongst other women, I had to ask over and over again because it wasn’t obvious even though I was baring my breasts, Ain’t I A Woman? As a Black slave, I was not recognised as a woman

Michel Pêcheux: Sojourner Truth the challenge you pose is that the ‘act of recognition simultaneously involves a dynamic of misrecognition’ (Pêcheux 1994 p141-151).

Judith Butler: ‘This means we are not separate identities in the struggle for recognition but are already involved in a reciprocal exchange, an exchange that dislocates us from our positions, our subject positions’ (Butler 2004 p44).

Stuart Hall:identities are constructed through, not outside, difference. . . it is only through the relation to the other, the relation to what it is not, to precisely what it lacks, to what has been called its ‘constitutive outside’ that the positive meaning of any term – and thus its identity – can be constructed. . . identities function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render ‘outside’, abjected. Every identity has at its ‘margin’ an excess, something more. The unity, the internal homogeneity, which the term identity treats as foundational is not natural, but a constructed form of closure.

Suryia: Sojourner Truth you personified the ‘constitutive outside’, you exemplified the misrecognition that identification and attachment amongst the men and women at the convention is based on shared commonalities between them. They did not recognize that their identification is based on what is different and thus excluded, left out. Thus in order to have a shared identification and identity as a woman amongst a group of women at the convention, the women did not recognize you Sojourner Truth as a woman, you were other, and you had to repeat you question ‘ain’t I a Woman?’ This was a convention about the right of a woman to vote, to participate in state apparatuses, thus the ‘constitutive outside’; the ‘not’ which constitutes that which ‘is’ has far reaching implications – this is exactly what Lorde was referring to as the many and varied tools and entrapments of a racist patriarchy.

This leads us on to the second lens – the word ‘Not’

“Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface” it is clear that Lorde is not simply referring to sameness and difference. Lorde not only troubles the notion of a shared feminism, she introduces the “not”. The distinction between black feminism and white feminism is made available by what is “not”. This should not be confused with fixed, oppositional essentialist categories of black and white. The ‘not’ functions to embody a difficult interdependency of difference on the ‘Other’, especially where there is a power differential. If the basis for identification and recognition is in relation to the Other, and if for black feminisms the Other is white feminisms, and vice versa, the relationality, is paradoxical on a cognitive level, and intensely uncomfortable on an emotional level.

Homi Bhabha: “to be different from those that are different makes you the same” (Bhabha 1986 pxxviii).

Suryia: In other words, the constitution of black feminism, is contingent on an interdependency with white feminism predicated on the ‘not’. It is black feminism because it is not white feminism. This dynamic is embodied and performed in the linguistic structure of the statement. To be more specific the space and place between the words black feminism is not white feminism in black face function as the space and place between black and white feminisms.

Julia Kristeva: ‘The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double’ (Kristeva 1969 p37).

Suryia: So it could go something like intertexuality as intersubjectivity where the sum of the parts is greater than the individual elements as in intersectionality.

Julia Kristeva:each word (text) is an intersection of word (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read…any text is the absorption and transformation of another…the word as minimal textual unit thus turns out to occupy the status of mediator, linking structural models to cultural (historical) environments, as well as that of regulator’(Kristeva 1969 p37)

Suryia: Kristeva you give us a method to deconstruct the intersubjective interdependence of the words black feminism is not white feminism in black face – to look at the function and position of space between the words; the significance, constitution and configuration of the gap(s) in the text.

Julia Kristeva:The word is spatialized’ (Kristeva 1969 p37).

Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan: ‘The politics of location is productive…because it makes one location vulnerable to the claims of another and enables multiple contested readings of the one reality from a variety of locations and positions…unless the many mediations that interpellate location are studied in all their interconnectedness, locational analyses will be no more than exercises in defensive self-absorption’ (Radhakrishnan 2000 p 57-58).

Suryia: There are several intersecting tensions here, the “not” is only the “not” in relation to what it actually is, or is not and this is highly problematic because it edges far too close to the dangerous claim of an authentic. Black can only be black because it is not white and white is white because it is not black yet both black and white are mutually constitutive. The border between black and white produces a false binary. The predicament is that the ‘not’ demarcates the border of specificity that enables us to distinguish black feminism from white feminism – how else could we spot the masquerade of white feminism in blackface. However borders are indeterminable; borders are mutually constitutive, the tension is borders are not real, they are a construction which cease to exist under deconstruction.

To summarise: Racist Social Structures create Racist Psychic Structures – where even though the recruitment, transformation and passionate attachments are different the ‘NOT’ reminds us that the difference is in relation to, interdependent and contingent on the NOT. The quandary is, of giving voice to the specificity of particular entrapments, whilst also giving voice to the interdependency of difference without falling fowl of authenticity and borders.

Lets move onto The third lens is the word ‘IN’.

How does the social get in to the psyche in order to create and transform? We have established that recruitment and passionate attachments means that the getting in is different for black and white people with different effects even though they are constituted through each other.

Judith Butler: “a theory of subject formation must give an account of this process of incorporation, and the notion of incorporation must be interrogated to ascertain the psychic topography it assumes” (Butler 1997 p19).

Suryia: Where Butler speaks of “incorporation” Fanon speaks of “epidermalization” in relation to the specificity of racism. Here is where the epidermis or the black skin comes in very specifically and directly.

Frantz Fanon: In “Black Skins, white Masks, I use the term “epidermalization” to describe the process where, “if there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process: – primarily, economic, secondarily – the internalization – or better, the epidermalization – of this inferiority” (Fanon 1967 p4). More specifically I talk about “a racial epidermal schema” (Fanon 1967 p84).

Audre Lorde: “Did bad mean black? The endless scrubbing with lemon juice in the cracks and crevices of my ripening, darkening, body. And oh, the sins of my dark elbows and knees, my gums and nipples, the folds of my neck and the cave of my armpits” (Lorde 1983, p149)

Suryia: A close reading of your words Lorde, the space and place of the “cracks”, “crevices”, “folds”, “cave” function in the racial epidermal schema performatively (invoking the endless repetition) to embody the anxiety and ambivalence in the gap of the not white which needs to be reformed into a not black.

We could say, the skin functions as surface for the incorporation or epidermalization of the psychic life of power. The black epidermis or black face, is at once both an empty signifier and a bodily envelope / skin for incorporation of ideology. Thus the skin functions as a symbolic site of interpellation. This is why it has nothing and everything to do with the colour of skin. Furthermore it is another aspect of how the social structures constitute, interpellates and injures black and white people differently.

Judith Butler: “process of internalization fabricates the distinction between interior and exterior life . . . Where social categories guarantee a recognizable and enduring social existence, the embrace of such categories, even if they work in the service of subjection, is preferred to no social existence at all” (Butler 1987 p19-20).

Suryia: Hence the excruciating passionate attachment to that which oppresses us – one of the many and varied tools of patriarchy that Lorde referred to earlier on.

Oliver: ‘The colonized do not internalize but rather epidermalize racist ideology” (Oliver 2004 p51).

Frantz Fanon: “I begin to suffer from not being white to the degree that the white man imposes discrimination on me, makes me a colonized native, robs me of all worth, all individuality, tells me that I am a parasite on the world, that I must bring myself as quickly as possible into step with the white world, ‘that I am a brute beast, that my people and I are like a walking dung-heap that disgustingly fertilizes sweet sugar cane and silky cotton, that I have no use in the world.’ then I will quite simply try to make myself white: that is I will compel the white man to acknowledge that I am human” (Fanon 1967 p 98).

Audre Lorde: let me describe to you “the stormy little black girl who once longed to be white or anything other than who she was, since all she was ever allowed to be was the sum of the color of her skin and the textures of her hair, the shade of her knees and elbows, and those things were clearly not acceptable as human” (Lorde 1983 p174).

Suryia: Both Fanon and Lorde establish the inextricable interdependency between ideology, embodiment and the psychic life of power. If feminism is a political movement that questions and resist the ‘terms’, the ‘allowed’ and the ‘acceptable’ of oppression and if the terms are different for black people, it follows that black feminism perhaps requires a questioning of and resistance to different terms than white feminism. I think we should move onto the final lens – the word ‘Blackface’. In using the word ‘Blackface’ – Lorde provocatively invokes associations of the black and white minstrals.

Homi Bhabha: Blackface conjures up the mimicry of “the quite/not white” (Bhabha 1994 p 92). Mimicy is, “the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite (Bhabha 1994 p 86).

Suryia: In other words in the context of colonisation, any form of colonisation and white feminism in blackface would be an example of colonisation, the colonizer constructs the colonized as almost the same but not quite because:

The success of the takeover, rests on maintaining the difference between the coloinised and the colonizer – the coloniser does not want the colonised to make the mistake of thinking that they are equal – well this is a stressful situation.

Homi Bhahba: It is in the gap of the ‘almost’ that ambivalence exists, “mimicry is constructed around ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.” (Bhabha 1994 p86).

Suryia: In using the term blackface, Lorde is saying beware of mimcry, beware of masquerades and of how the ‘almost has to produce slippage’.

I am beginning to understand why Lorde warns us that Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface. I understand the reason why she is so suspicious of such mimicry


  1. Mimcry is one of the entrapments used to neutralise black and white women. Lorde’s words “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 1979 p112) come to mind.
  2. Mimicry defends against the painful wrench of undoing the recruitment and passionate attachment. Mimicry allows the masquerade of an unaltered altered position.
  3. Mimicry makes collusion with oppression more palatable.
  4. The ‘almost the same’ both establishes and shrinks the gap between different subjects making ‘unbearable relationality’ more bearable. Well, the ‘almost the same’ means there is less need to interrogate the construction of difference

Very dangerous territory indeed!!!!!

In Conclusion

Suryia: changing the appearance, the mask, the face, does not fundamentally change the object beneath. It does not alter the hailing and does nothing to alter the unequal power differentials racism requires. It is like – the phantom of the opera – still ugly beneath the mask. This is why it has nothing and everything to do with the colour of the skin.

Audre Lorde: “the old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation and suspicion” (Lorde 1980 p123).