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The importance of Coloniality for Feminist Theory

Today’s most important concept for gender studies and feminist theory is undoubtedly intersectionality. Intersectionality is a concept that has been largely disputed, however it is also the only concept that helps with our understanding, and hence deconstructing, of the intersecting forms of oppression that humans suffer from. Unfortunately, intersectionality is often misunderstood, misused, de-radicalized, de-politicized as well as white-washed[1]. While it was Kimberlé Crenshaw who officially and academically coined the concept in 1989, many women before Crenshaw spoke about the experience of being a woman and being Black. One of them was Sojourner Truth who held her speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ (1851) in Akron, Ohio. Truth opened up about the intersection of being a woman and being Black at a time when Black women were not viewed as women, but rather as objects. Truth’s eagerness and courage paved the way for many other Black women such as bell hooks, Angela Davis and Audre Lorde to speak up against white supremacy, sexist patriarchy, capitalism, homophobia, ageism and classism. Whilst intersectionality is the most significant theory that allows for the capturing of racial, gendered and classed injustices, contemporary postcolonial scholars such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Vrushali Patil contend that intersectional theorists often disregard global power dynamics like neoliberalism, imperialism, global capitalist accumulation and the exploitation of the ‘Global South’. Since gender is mediated through coloniality, racism and location, intersectional analyses must also include coloniality[2].

Coloniality – a lens to understand power and dominance 

Coloniality is a concept coined by Latin American scholars describing the ongoing global domination of once colonised regions and goes back to the conquest of the Americas in 1492. Coloniality is a remnant from colonialism, but it is not the same: “Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation […]. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations”[3].

The ‘coloniality of power’ refers to the Eurocentric cultural, economic, academic, political and epistemological rationality that controls structures of knowledge, history making, private and social life, and whose norms and standards are imposed ‘elsewhere’[4]. By theorising coloniality, the ‘dark side’ of modernity is accentuated: while Europe, North America and former colonies such as Japan got wealthier through ‘modernisation’, neoliberalism and capitalism, those who once suffered from colonialism, today face the underbelly of the West’s prosperity, and are still marginalised, dehumanised and racialised[5]. Coloniality, through its modernising/civilising discourse, maintains the division of the world into binaries such as superior/inferior, rational/irrational, primitive/civilised, traditional/modern, rationality/spirituality, developed/underdeveloped and self/other[6].

A specific attempt to “constitute the social world into homogenous categories”[7] is the dominant Western conceptualisation of gender as a binary of men/women. The ‘colonial/modern gender system’[8] describes the violent and destructive imposition of heterosexualism, patriarchy and biological/sexual dimorphism[9] in colonised societies and, hence, inherits a “genocidal logic of ‘classification’”[10]. Additionally, people were grouped based on their race: the colonisers introduced a racial division that organised people hierarchically on the principle of white supremacy, a system that “distorts, disfigures and destroys”[11] BIPOC’s past, present and future.

Viewing the world through the perspective of coloniality, in summary, uncovers how knowledge – especially the knowledge about history – in the West is produced in a linear way. The understanding of history as linear does not represent a universal reality, on the contrary, the Bolivian feminist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui writes that the indigenous of Bolivia conceptualise history as spiral, meaning that in their histories the “past-future is contained in the present”[12]. She emphasizes that in dominant discourses, actors exclusively talk about the origins of the indigenous, which takes away their presence and implies they would have only lived in the past and haven’t developed since.

Decolonial thought

However, “where there is power, there is resistance”[13]: no form of power is undisputable nor undisputed, and hence, the coloniality of power has always been contested.

This leads us to the counter-concept of coloniality, called decoloniality, a concept also developed by the same scholars. Decoloniality is not only a concept, but also a discourse and a practice that entails “the dismantling of relations of power and conceptions of knowledge that foment the reproduction of racial, gender, and geo-political hierarchies”[14]. It describes a counter discourse and the creation of another rationality, involving the “freedom to choose between various cultural orientations, and, above all, the freedom to produce, criticize, change, and exchange culture and society”[15]. Decoloniality requires ‘epistemic disobedience’[16], that is, the delinking from the hegemonic forms of knowledge and rationalities and the centring of alternative epistemologies and histories. Decolonial practices must be radical, holistic, transnational and continuous since there is an existing danger that decolonisation is misused as a metaphor, especially by settler colonisers who try to reconcile their settler guilt through the discursive usage of decolonisation[17]. To decolonise, in contrast to their practice, means to build meaningful alliances against coloniality of any form. Examples are inter-communalism between different global communities, South-South links and decolonial practices in school and universities that require the unlearning of the already acquired knowledge and the re-learning of knowledge that disrupts our previous knowledge. It involves discomfort and the questioning of which knowledge is privileged, and which is ignored.

Concluding remarks

I am not sure, personally, if the project of decolonisation is even possible within the existing global system of power and domination. It is a system that has been in existence for 500 years and it will take us decades, if not centuries, to deconstruct this very system. The first step, however, has to be made, that is to acknowledge the colonial past and present within our own countries. We can no longer uphold colonial unknowing, meaning that we just ignore the coloniality which we live in, since “we breath coloniality all the time and every day[18].

Through the lens of coloniality, it is possible to “interrogate the power structures at the global and national level that are still informed by racist/colonial ideologies/discourses” and to challenge “the epistemic racism, imperialistic, colonialist, Christian-centric, hetero-normative, patriarchal exercising of power”[19]. I hope that united intersectional, decolonial and feminist movements can help to “transform relationships so that the alienation, competition, and dehumanization that characterizes human interaction can be replaced with feelings of intimacy, mutuality, and camaraderie”[20], to use the words of the one and only, bell hooks.

Meret Yannice Wälti

Regular Contributor of Solidarity Collective

Meret holds a BA in Social Anthropology, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and Sociology (University of Bern, Switzerland) and a MSc in Women, Peace and Security from London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She has conducted research on the victimization of sexworkers in Switzerland and on the colonial imaginaries of Switzerland’s gender equality policies. Passionate about writing, she is working as a freelance grant writer for visual artists and researchers, where she combines ethnographic methodologies and anthropological theories with art. Her long-term goal is to become a writer and a professional within the international feminist peace movement.

[1] Carbado, D. W. (2013). Colorblind intersectionality. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4), 811-845. &

Alexander-Floyd, N. G. (2012). Disappearing acts: Reclaiming intersectionality in the social sciences in a post—black feminist era. Feminist Formations, 24(1), 1-25.

[2] Amos, V. & Parmar P. (1984). Challenging Imperial Feminism. Feminist Review, 17, 3-19.

[3] Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007). On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept. Cultural studies, 21(2-3), 240-270. (p.243).

[4] Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of power and Eurocentrism in Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South, (1)3, 533-580. & Quijano, A. (2007). Coloniality and modernity/rationality. Cultural studies, 21(2-3), 168-178.

[5] Mignolo, W. (2018). What does it mean to decolonize. In Mignolo, W. & Walsh C. E. On decoloniality: concepts, analytics, praxis (pp.105-134). Durham: Duke University Press.

[6] Mothoagae, I. D. (2014). An exercise of power as epistemic racism and privilege: The subversion of Tswana identity. Souls, 16(1-2), 11-27. & Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development and the Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[7] García-Del Moral, P. (2018). The Murders of Indigenous Women in Canada as Feminicides: Toward a Decolonial Intersectional Reconceptualization of Femicide. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 43(4), 929-954. (p.932).

[8] Lugones, M. (2007). Heterosexualism and the colonial/modern gender system. Hypatia, 22(1), 186-219.

[9] ‘Biological/sexual dimorphism’ refers to the understanding that there are only two identifiable sex/gender categories, men and women, which are supposedly opposed to each other as well as hierarchically related.

[10] Icaza, R. (2018). Social struggles and the coloniality of gender. In Shilliam, R. & Rutazibwa, O. (Eds.). Routledge handbook of postcolonial politics (pp.1-16). London: Routledge. (p. 12).

[11] Fanon, F. (1968). The Wretched of the earth. New York: Grove.

[12] Cusicanqui, S.R., (2012). Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization. South Atlantic Quarterly, 111(1), 95-109. (p.96).

[13] Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Random House. (pp.95-96).

[14] Maldonado-Torres, N. (2006). Cesaire’s gift and the decolonial turn. Radical Philosophy Review, 9(2), 111-138 (p.117). 

[15] Quijano, A. (2007). Coloniality and modernity/rationality. Cultural studies, 21(2-3), 168-178. (p.178).

[16] Mignolo, W. D. (2009). Epistemic disobedience, independent thought and decolonial freedom. Theory, culture & society, 26(7-8), 159-181.

[17] Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 1(1).

[18] Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007). On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept. Cultural studies, 21(2-3), 240-270 (p.243).

[19] Mothoagae, I. D. (2014). An exercise of power as epistemic racism and privilege: The subversion of Tswana identity. Souls, 16(1-2), 11-27. (p.13 & 24).

[20] hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Pluto Press. (p.35).

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