Race, Gender, and “Essentialism”

Thoughtful analysis from Colette Guillaumin, 1995. from her book Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology. London: Routledge.


In Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology, Guillaumin argues that the great irony of the rise of modern egalitarianism and democracy was the ascendance of the idea that “human groups were no longer formed by divine decree or royal pleasure, but an irreversible diktat of nature.” This “served to justify the system of oppression which was being built at the same time. By proposing a scheme of immanent physical causality (by race, colour, sex, nature), that system provides an irrefutable justification for the crushing of resourceless classes and peoples, and the legitimacy of the elite.”[i]

In analyzing the oppression of women, she calls for consideration of the material fact of the power relation between men and women; as well as the ideological effect of the idea that nature “is supposed to account for what women are supposed to be.”[ii] It is in the teasing apart of the ideological and material practice that Guillaumin finds the most revealing critique of the essentialist naturalism that is the bulwark of many oppressive ideologies:

[I]t is very necessary to do this, for naturalism is the only mode of thought that allows the binding together in an intangible way of characteristics which if analysed–that is, forcefully dissociated–would as a matter of fact cause their relationship to become obvious.

In other words, the fact would become obvious that they have a history, that they are born of specific relationships, of the links which exist between mental activities and material activities; between slavery (a material practice) and skin colour (a mental practice), between domestic exploitation (a material practice) and sex (a mental practice).

From the moment that the mechanisms which create the one (mental practices) from the other are made visible, these revealed links make obvious the syncretism which merges the relationships into the deeds and shatters the affirmation that the deed and the discourse on it are one and the same thing.[iii]

According to Guillaumin “introducing the wedge of doubt into this tight block of ‘law immemorial’ is no small matter.” She says we must “shatter the notion of instinct” that creates the syncretism of “body/slave/property” named “black” and the syncretism of “body/domestic work/property” named “women”.[iv]

When we look at the densely interwoven forms of oppression, subordination, and exploitation in the United States our task is to explore the links between the ideological and the material practice, not merely as an intellectual exercise that increases the subtlety of our analysis, but as a way to rip away the curtain to reveal the unfair power and privilege hiding backstage.

[i] Guillaumin, 1995: 56-57.

[ii] Guillaumin, 1995: 179.

[iii] Guillaumin, 1995: 272.

[iv] Guillaumin, 1995: 272.


Excerpted from:

Chip Berlet. 2004. “Mapping the Political Right: Gender and Race Oppression in Right-Wing Movements.” In Abby Ferber, ed., Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. New York: Routledge.

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