We cannot name ourselves without Othering ourselves in the White Gaze.

In Bad Romance: Feminism and women of colour make an unhappy pair, Sana Saeed writes:

“Women of colour” beautifully illustrates the exact problem I discovered with feminism, as a woman who did not fit the mainstream criteria for being just a Woman. As a “woman of colour,” I am not just a Woman. I am a woman with a little something extra; there is a difference struck between women like me and white women. There is no Woman. There are no Women. There are two groups: women and “women of colour.” This tidily, and unfortunately, translates into the “us” and “them” categorization.

Because this distinction is made and has been proudly appropriated by “women of colour” without much criticism, this presumption that the white woman’s identity is a sort of “foundational” identity for all women is prevalent within feminism.

According to Loretta Ross, however, the term “women of color” was coined in 1977 among some black and other “minority” women in Washington, DC as “a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been ‘minoritized’.” Ross says, “Unfortunately, so many times, people of color hear the term ‘people of color’ from other white people that [PoCs} think white people created it instead of understanding that we self-named ourselves.”

However, regardless of its history, Sana makes a salient point: the term “woman of colour” suggests “a woman with a little something extra”, which implies that whiteness is the default.

I identify as a “woman of colour” in solidarity with other women who lack white privilege, but I have always been bothered that the term “people of colo[u]r” can be appropriated by white people to Other us and mark us as distinct from “people”. (I have tried using the term “racialized people”, but abandoned my efforts in popularizing the term, when a particular white anti-racist blogger responded by insisting that white people are racialized too.)

The underlying problem, of course, is that Othering is achieved by marking our race instead marking white people as “white”. Some people argue that the term “non-white people” centres on white people, and that the term “people of color” avoids this, but this logic betrays a misunderstanding of the language of Othering.

The famous first chapter of Edward Said’s Orientalism demonstrates that Oriental Studies, although a field intended to centre on the Orient and Orientals, actually reflects the cultural, colonial biases of European academics. White scholars might refer to us now as “Asian”, “Muslim”, “Chinese”, “Arab”, “West Asian”, “visible minority”, “African”, “racialized”, or “people of color”, but they are still in a position of power to speak on behalf of us, to define what we have in common with others in our group that make us a cohesive subject of study. White people explain us and our worldviews, while assuming that their presence and worldviews are normal and require no explanation.

When I first created this blog, I created the category White People Studies to be “reverse Orientalism”. White People Studies is about what all white people have in common, or at least about the defining characteristics of white people as a group that make them distinct. Some white readers objected to being called “white”, insisting that they are individuals and should not be grouped together with completely different individuals who happen to share the same race, begging me to think about how I would feel if the roles were reversed. Of course, these comments left by White People should be taken seriously as field data on how White People think, an invaluable addition to White People Studies.

In the end, the term “women of colour”, or any other term, will always be Othering unless we also call white women “white”. Instead of naming ourselves, we can continue naming, labelling, and discussing the Whites.

7 Responses to “We cannot name ourselves without Othering ourselves in the White Gaze.”

  1. sqrrel Says:

    The position of privilege always resists being named. I’m white, but I’ve spent enough time in the trenches of “transpeople versus people, or, if you really must, ‘non-trans’ people, but certainly never trans people versus cis people”. What you’re saying sounds pretty similar to what I’ve seen there.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    I thought about the phenomenon of cisfeminists objecting to being called “cis”, but I decided against bringing up that analogy in this post, since I’m cis and I’ve had bad experiences with people saying that oppression X is like oppression Y, when that person only experiences oppression Y.

    When I first started blogging, I used “they” to refer to both white and non-white people, because I wanted to write from the “view from nowhere”, and because I thought white people would be confused if “we” doesn’t mean them. Then I read Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, and besides having my little cis mind blown, I realized that I could understand “we” as referring to trans people, and “they” as referring to cispeople, even though I’m cis. It was quite an adjustment to my normal point of view, but I was impressed with her usage of we/they and us/them that forced me to reorient myself in order to understand the sentences. Since then, I started using we/they and us/them in my posts, and it’s worked out well, especially for a post about white people’s lack of empathy.

  3. sqrrel Says:

    Yeah, I was careful in how I worded my comment for the same reason. While we’re drawing on parallels, I’d be interested to know more about the early history of “straight”, personally. It’s everywhere now, but it wasn’t always that way and it wasn’t straight people who first popularized it, from what I understand. I don’t know much about how the switch-over happened in that case, but it seems like it could be elucidating, although maybe as a counter-example.

    I actually haven’t read Whipping Girl. That’s pretty interesting though, and makes sense. It seems pretty telling (to me, anyway) that I started reading your linked post with that in mind and still had to back up and re-read when I hit your usage of “we” meaning non-white people/people of color.

  4. Ruth Says:

    “I’ve had bad experiences with people saying that oppression X is like oppression Y, when that person only experiences oppression Y.” This speaks to me. There has to be a way to name the problem of how to understand someone else’s experience of oppression by drawing analogies to your own experience–without appropriating their experience and without completely derailing the discussion. Or, there may not be a way to do that out loud effectively, and we have to make those comparisons of experience in the privacy of our own heads. Hard to have a process for encouraging empathy without making it all about the privileged person who is trying to be empathetic.

  5. Alex Cachinero-Gorman Says:

    (full disclosure: i am white.)

    “Hard to have a process for encouraging empathy without making it all about the privileged person who is trying to be empathetic.”

    This. Very well said. I have come across this quite a bit in my own work, and still find it creeping up in myself from time to time. Nowadays, I think a lot about the tendency to give white people medals for bothering to spend an iota of their time to learn about peoples’ struggles. Reminds me of an article on POC Organize! that was published recently where this point was brought up re: Tim Wise (http://www.peopleofcolororganize.com/analysis/word-wise-unpacking-white-privilege-tim-wise/). It brings up questions of commitment, linked I think at the root with a certain liberal model of political agency–folks often seem to feel that the internal de-colonisation of their mind and their worldviews is a separate process from praxical investment in your surroundings.

    I see white people, including myself, consistently getting stuck in the closed circuit of being able to theoretically marshal out all the most radical analyses of race, but doing so with such a level of confidence and mis-placed indignation (given that they are by and large talking about things that do not happen to them) that it is off-putting and counter-productive to . This seems to be linked at the root with the problematic of white people, especially white men, and leadership positions in anti-racist/multiracial struggles. The renewed confidence in being able to speak righteously on the subject of race intersects with male posturing. Increasingly you begin to see white “race radicals” working in all-white groups and not linked up with grassroots, multiracial community groups literally down the road. It’s all linked, it’s a feedback loop, and it’s hard to break out of, because to do so would be to actually have to stomach subordinating (i mean this in a zapatista sense, i think…) oneself–as a white person so used to not having to do this–to others. [In particular, I’m thinking of a clip that resonated with me a lot from Q4EJ that I watched awhile back about their Welfare Warriors program…unfortunately the whole thing is no longer online so far as I can see, but I did find this excerpt: http://vimeo.com/14942320. At the very end you can hear a white woman talking about her experiences in white anti-racist circles, and unfortunately what they cut off is her conclusion that she needed to take a step back since she was only working in all-white spaces and that it did not feel productive. eventually she finds q4ej.]

    Worse still, there tends to be at least some level of awareness of these issues in white anti-racist circles, but one gets caught in the feedback loop of citing this or that activity as ‘problematic’ and unpacking it ad nauseam versus trying to learn from doing the work itself. To the point of actually being too hesitant to ever work with folks doing rigorous on-the-ground work in communities of color for fear of it being patronising or appropriating–but rather than this leading to a complex and subtle approach to organising across intersectional/intermeshed oppressions, I have found that it time and time again means that many white racists are literally ‘not there’–not at those meetings, not there moving boxes with people, not there helping set up or take down an event, not there listening.

    What scares me about this is that it leads to a new kind of hermetically-sealed understanding of race, where no white person can ever feel comfortable interacting with a person of color without another white person calling them out, seemingly for having done so at all. In this view, the agency of folks of color appears to be completely removed, as if they do not have the capability of seeing that power dynamic and working through it, beyond it, alongside of it, or decide on their own accord to cease the interaction all together; as if they cannot be around white people without being monologically reconstructed as flat subjects; as if they cannot also have a complex relationship with race; as if they cannot resist that magnetic pull of whiteness which once again makes white folks the center of analysis, and a diversion from the issues at hand.

    I struggle with this stuff all the time–because part of me wants to realise that I have to meet other white people where they’re at, and that I would be nowhere today if folks hadn’t switched off between viciously calling me out and tenderly shepherding me through the process of learning to think about race. But at the same time, I feel more and more sick of being in spaces where “we”–white people analysing ourselves–is the priority of the day. I feel such spaces need to exist, just as I think there needs to be room for cismen to talk to each other about patriarchy, etc. (I think I might be doing that equivalence thing with ‘oppression x and y’ here…but it’s the closest thing I can relate to at this moment?), but that is also a very limited space of political reflection rather than action.

    Anyway, sorry for the long post. I am certain that this is filled with moments of incoherence, confusion, and its own special brand of nonsense, but your post got me thinking. Thanks for it and your blog.

  6. Lounalune Says:

    I’m here following a link on Womanist Musings.

    Some white readers objected to being called “white”, insisting that they are individuals and should not be grouped together with completely different individuals who happen to share the same race, begging me to think about how I would feel if the roles were reversed.

    Seriously? This is so absurd that it almost made me laugh. In what kind of bubble are they living?

  7. Restructure! Says:


    I don’t recall any white person actually saying “if the roles were reversed”, but I recall white people taking issue with the Othering language, one white person complaining that I referred to people of colour as “us” and white people as “them”.

    A recent comment that was along those lines, but a bit more understandable, was this one (March 16, 2011). They took issue with the post title, “White people are different from people.”:

    Therefore, a more correct title would be “Some white people make their own brains act different from most non-white people when it comes to low-level empathy,” not the title you have, which takes quantum leaps to imply “ALL whites are different from ALL other people,” implies non-personhood in white people and implies this is implicit in white people.

    If I read studies suggesting an epidemic of Black self-hated and the absence of this in other races, would I post a blog titled “Blacks are different from people?”

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