The idea of difference has become a prominent topic of recent discussion. However, Black feminists have been theorizing difference for decades. There are many ways where difference can be used: difference of experience, difference in identity, and even different ways of knowing. This last notion of difference refers to how, depending on one’s standpoint or social location, different “truths” can appear. This paper explores these different uses of difference within Black feminist thought to show Black Feminists’ important contributions to creating new ontologies that rupture dominant ways of knowing, i.e. dominant “truths.” Specifically, this paper argues that understanding difference matters. There is a hope that complicating the nuance of what is “true” or “factual” can help further our pursuit for material and lived social justice.

KEYWORDS: difference, Black feminism, feminism, truth, knowledge, gender


At its most basic, we understand difference to be what something or someone is or is not. Difference is a signifier, brought into being by a system of language through the meaning(s) it creates. Yet formations of difference are not so easily identifiable and their existence is not somehow natural or normal. Theorizing difference is of critical importance for analyzing how both conscious and unconscious formations of difference are crafted to reinforce structures of power, and when this happens theorizing difference matters. There is a need to uncover how or why certain social, cultural and language systems utilize difference to create in/visible structures of power. Even if we agree that this process takes place, the way we theorize and understand this difference varies. Therefore, this paper explores these different uses of difference within Black feminist thought to show Black Feminists’ important contribution to creating new ontologies. The goal is to trace the uses of difference mainly through a US/Canadian Black feminist lens in order to show how the idea of difference has shaped this particular theoretical strand. The sources used in this paper constitute a small cross-section as distinct forms of Black feminist thought have appeared over a variety of geographical spaces and historical time periods.

Initial understandings of difference can be explored through the lens of slavery as Angela Davis explored both the gendering and ungendering of slave women. They were not women in a gendered sense because of the way gender was constructed at the time. Slave women could not be the ‘weaker sex’ or the ‘housewife’, which were two central meanings attached to the definition of a gendered woman. The gendered/ideal woman was white, but most importantly a mother. Therefore, slave women were denied this gendered signifier because they could not be mothers, as they were only considered ‘breeders’; i.e. birthing children for pure economic exploitation. Their experiences as physiologically female were different than the male experience, yet not because of their gender but because of their physical attributes and reproductive capacities. Every slave worked hard in the fields, yet women suffered differently, “for they were victims of sexual abuse and other barbarous mistreatment that could only be inflicted on women” (6). Davis theorizes about two kinds of difference. Gender as difference is not a natural occurrence, but a specific set of characteristics—white, weak, mother—used to create the different social identities of white women and slave women. This racialized gender difference creates and supports the conceptualizations of gender binary. There is also difference of experience between female slaves and male slaves as their physical differences are used by the slave system in different ways to create different material realities. Difference here is multifaceted—difference is physical, difference is experienced and used in the construction of meanings to form conscious and unconscious structures of power. What is more, this historical legacy of difference is important to the construction of difference in the present.

Black feminist thought has also theorized difference through its analysis of the US economic system. In 1948, Claudia Jones wrote about the “super exploitation” of Black women, “as mother, as Negro, and as worker” (104). During her time, Black women earned less than White women/men, they could only work menial and underpaid jobs, they were thought of as a “mammy,” and they were considered backwards and inferior. Jones analyzed the very specific and different experiences Black women had as women, as mothers, and as workers. One way she did this was through the lens of the domestic worker; a job overwhelming held by Black women. Domestic workers were unacknowledged by progressive liberal unionists, did not get paid minimum wage, were overworked, and were exposed to white chauvinist attitudes and behaviors, the latter of which caused further exploitation of Black women as workers and as women. For example, as domestic workers, “despite the fact that Negro women may be grandmothers or mothers, the use of the chauvinist term ‘girl’ for adult Negro women [was] a common expression” (111). Furthermore, the term ‘girl’can be understood not only as chauvinist, but as inherited from its previously ubiquitous use under the system of American slavery. The intersection of gender and race as difference in this instance both creates and perpetuates imbalances of power. Their White employers used difference to exert their power, control, and further the super exploitation of Black women in the present, through a temporally collapsed version of their power from the slavery era. In this case, a gendered/raced meaning of difference was used to dehumanize, control and otherwise belittle Black women. Jones argued that the different experiences of Black women via the US economic system are a product of their different historical legacy, through the construction of them as different than white men/women. Through these understandings of difference, Jones highlights the need for a different strategy for change that acknowledges this difference. An identity of difference leads to difference of experiences which in turn require different solutions. Therefore, Jones’s piece is an important text for Black feminist thought in its critical analysis of the economic system’s reliance on and production of the idea of Black woman as different;  i.e. ‘less than’.

Both Jones and Davis touched on difference of experience, difference as identity, difference as identity construction, and different understandings of gender. Central to these understandings is a focus on historical difference, specifically, how differences of race, gender, and class at minimum have been historically used to create and reinforce structures of power. For example, in Nydia A. Swaby’s exploration of political blackness in the UK, we see that the parameters for defining what blackness means will change over time and space. Through similar experiences of colonization, diaspora and gender, African and Asian women’s experiences of the UK legal and cultural structures brought them together as a category marked by this different historical context. These similar and interrelated experiences gave these women a consciousness, “constituted negatively through experiences of discrimination and exclusion, and positively through shared historical forces and political aims and objectives” (14). In this way, difference came together through the sameness of experience, constituted by a similar historical context to produce a similar consciousness. Difference in this instance was not marked solely by visual, physical or biological justifications for social exclusion. Instead, their category was constructed through what Swaby calls “dwelling differently” (17). In this case, the signifying force behind the construction of difference is the historical legacy. Although this is not from a US or Canadian perspective, it is a good example that shows how difference in historical context can both construct a category of people that in turn will create different experiences in the world, and a specific identity based upon these different understandings of black and racialized experience.

The writings mentioned thus far are connected to larger understandings of difference related to Black feminist epistemology and ontology. These theoretical exercises on difference are part of diverse ways of understanding, knowing and studying our social world. As Black women have been excluded from formal processes and institutions of knowledge production, they have created alternative ways of knowing through their specific experiences of the world, to which there are a few layers. One is that knowledge is gained through experience, not from some higher authority dictating knowledge from the top down. This experience is often felt on a community level, resulting in “connectedness as a primary way of knowing” (Hill-Collins 279). These knowledge systems are “tested” through dialogue: Black women speak to one another, share their experiences, and in turn a unique ontology is created. This forms an epistemological framework based on voice and on individuals speaking for themselves and their experiences. The identity of the individual speaking matters because it gives validity to their words. Black women thus become producers of knowledge instead of passive objects to be studied. In this way, difference is used as a signifier of knowledge validation. One’s difference can be an effective source for knowledge production, and that knowledge is going to be specific to said difference. The knowledge in and of itself is a different way of knowing, different from dominant forms of power and structures that support dominant knowledge strands and subsequently, inequitable relations. These different knowledges may produce a rupture in dominant forms of knowledge. Stuart Hall’s use of a Foucauldian notion of power argues that our understanding(s) of the world is/are created through a set of codes and systems of meanings formed through language. These meanings are (re)produced through representations—texts and images—curated through various discourses. Who has the authority to speak from within these discourses is part of the power structures. This “authority” creates similar “meanings” that continually reproduce representations of domination. Their very repetition creates the illusion that they are an ultimate “truth.” Yet, these meanings are not fixed (16-38).  They continually change and are (re)produced over time and space so as to “hide” their power and production within a similar albeit “new” meaning that fits within the dominant structures. The term “girl” as discussed earlier is a good example of this. It is from within this liminal space of changing dominant meanings that new meanings and new knowledges that can challenge these structures might be imagined. Black feminist thought as a counter-hegemonic ontological project might just be a potential space where rupture can occur.

The Black feminist idea of different ways of “knowing” is important because it pushes back against a “Western” academy that overwhelmingly reinforces hegemonic norms. As Wynters claims, “all our academic disciplines share a complicity in legitimating and maintaining Western hegemony” (Haynes 94). Black feminist ontologies have the ability to combat this because they are often created outside the world of the dominant narratives. One example that can explore the potentiality of different ways of knowing is scholarship on Black women in pornography. Hegemonic feminist theories of gender oppression argue that pornography is inherently exploitative and code any woman participating as wholly oppressed. This stems from a specific ontological logic in which pornography can be nothing but a tool of the patriarchy, oppressive to women and a mechanism of control (MacKinnon 16-20). This rigid hegemonic ontology leaves little room for understanding or knowing the structure of pornography in different ways. To be clear, there are certainly forms and manifestations of pornography that are violent and oppressive towards women, but these terms cannot be said to represent pornography as a whole. Mireille Miller-Young shares the voices of Black women in pornography to illuminate an alternate way of knowing the pornography industry. Black women in the porn industry overwhelming argue that it gives them access to money. This can mean access to a job, or it can mean earning much more than they would receive in minimum waged labor. Against the social backdrop of Black women being historically and currently excluded from the formal economic sector, this is nothing short of empowerment. Black women use this money to pay for school, buy food for their families, or even take their children to Disney world (190). The code associated with pornography changes when we include this narrative of pornography as emancipatory, not oppressive. What is more, economic independence can lead to the rupture of other forms of “gender oppression” like women being dependent on men. Working in the pornography industry can also be a form of sexual freedom, a place to express and explore a sexuality that was otherwise oppressed based on race and gender. That pornography work can be emancipatory and empowering is significant for a few reasons. Once this approach is recognized, actually tackling deeper issues of inequality and racism can be achieved. For example, that Black women in pornography get paid less than white women is something that needs to be explored. This discussion will only come about after we acknowledge pornography as work. Calling pornography wholly oppressive belies a more nuanced understanding of everyday individual experience. Black feminist thought and ontology can be used to rupture rigid ways of hegemonic, academic knowing, and produce a different way of knowing that is legitimate, valid and necessary for more expansive ontologies. This different way of knowing gives us a deeper picture of the matrices of domination that structure our world, much more than simply coding pornography only as oppressive.  Different ways of knowing are an integral and transformative way that Black feminist thought engages with the notion of difference. It is difficult to measure the effect these different ways of knowing will have on mainstream culture. For example, if something becomes mainstream is it no longer “truly” radical? For it to fit within mainstream culture does this mean it has been “absorbed” by the hegemony and therefore become neutralized? The advent of the Internet; however, offers an interesting possibility for altering the ways in which counter-hegemonic ideas and knowledge make their way across our social consciousness. As traditional ‘gatekeepers’ of knowledge can be sidestepped and individuals are given the ability to share ideas unfiltered, what kinds of subjective and affective changes might be observed?

There is no question that any paper on difference or Black feminism should cover intersectionality. Although it is important not to associate Black feminism only with intersectionality (as this paper has hopefully shown), it is still an important contribution to this strand of feminism. This seemingly straightforward theoretical framework is far from simple. It has even become quite popular in the mainstream media and lexicon. Black feminists do not have a consensus on intersectionality—i.e. its uses, purpose or what its future might be—and some have even equated this to the, “intersectionality wars” as “nearly everything about intersectionality is disputed” (Nash 118). Yet, it is clear that intersectional theory has launched much of feminist theory down a theoretical path concerned with inclusivity, equity, and a deeper understanding of structures of domination. Intersectionality is central to understanding histories of difference within many Black feminist movement(s) in North America as well as Black feminist theory. That Black women were not included in the mainstream white women’s feminist movement, and their ignored specific historical and social locations and circumstances show the need for intersectionality and are the reasons for its theoretical birth. Even prior to its naming, Black women and feminists (and women of color in general) have long been doing intersectional work, showing that theorizing difference is central to Black feminist thinking (Nash 120). Exploring intersectionality and its positive uses or possible problems could fill and has filled entire books, yet its significance and importance for achieving any semblance of social equality have become clear. The debate now centers on how to use and apply it in the most productive way, or even the “correct” way, as if that were somehow possible. Some (mainly white) feminists have rejected it for this reason, arguing that it is not concrete enough, has no methodology or coherent framework and is therefore too unruly to be used in any “traditional” social science research. Yet, others consider its openness to be its greatest strength, as it is still being altered and molded to become a well-crafted theory meant to understand difference, inclusivity, equity and social domination through systems of power.

Jennifer C. Nash is one of the more prominent Black feminists theorizing about the next stage for intersectionality. There is the argument that using an intersectional framework is difficult yet necessary for inclusion, equality, acceptance, and the understanding of difference. However, this use of intersectionality ignores exactly how intersectionality might be used to further inclusion and rests on the logic that “doing intersectionality” is automatically inclusive at all,

The fetishization of intersectionality suggests the existence of a kind of feminist theoretical utopia, a promised land where the “etc.” that marks so much scholarly writing on identity (“race, gender, class, age, ethnicity, etc.”) will be replaced by an attention to all difference…ultimately, this plea for increased intersectionality suggests that “attending to” or naming difference will undo hegemony and exclusivity within our own ranks. While naming difference certainly allows feminists to bear witness to power’s operations, it does little to analyze the mechanisms by which these systems of exclusion are replicated and re-created (Nash 1).

Nash argues that intersectionality cannot be seen as some obvious path to inclusivity and that simply acknowledging all of the intersections of an individual’s identity will not lead to understanding difference through structures of power. In this case, naming difference for difference’s sake is not enough. Simply acknowledging difference is the first, yet a small step in the path to understand difference. Nash follows by saying that intersectionality should be seen as a metaphor for scholars to research the interlocking networks of identity and oppression. Intersectionality both constructs and deconstructs difference at once and the same time. Race and gender are used to show how identities of difference construct structures of domination, and to understand how these formations of identities are deconstructed into various parts and moments in the process. Nash states that intersectional scholars at once deploy categories—like race and gender—“to study how they interact, and then disrupt those categories, revealing precisely how socially and historically embedded they are” (Nash 2). But there is a limit to all this complexity of difference, one study or one article cannot cover all locations. Although difference and structures of power are further illuminated, these are still incomplete pictures. If we go back to the now famous text by Kimberle Crenshaw we can see the difficulty in understanding difference. Her often quoted traffic intersection analogy complicates the notion of difference— “Crenshaw argues that Black women are discriminated against in ways that often do not fit neatly within the legal categories of either ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’—but as a combination of both racism and sexism” (Smith 6). Different experiences or identity based on race or gender cannot stand alone, and an understanding of one’s difference becomes a compounding set of social meanings and relational interactions experienced through power structures.

Through Nash’s and Crenshaw’s work, we see that acknowledging and understanding difference is a difficult task; however, it is one that needs to be done. Intersectional work is difficult, but claiming that it is difficult might be another tactic of silencing the very voices it intends to elevate. A best practice for “doing intersectionality” means using the concept of difference in an emancipatory way. There appears to be some deeper way we can understand difference, and intersectional theory might guide us in the right direction. Crenshaw wanted intersectionality to be seen as “provisional” as “it is a work in progress, that it has begun to address complex issues of discrimination, but is merely an early attempt… intersectionality refers to our desire to keep dreaming of a more just social world.” (Nash 125). In the end, intersectionality and Black feminists engaging with the concept are both challenging and using new and changing notions of difference to speak back to social oppression.

Another way to complicate difference is Black feminist theorists’ discussions of difference within difference by exploring how certain constructions of difference, i.e. racial categories also contain different experiences from within. Groups of people are identified as being different from the “norm”, yet they cannot always experience this difference in the same way. This idea is not new, and the conversation between Gail, Shaila, and Pratibha shows that experiences of difference within difference exist and can sometimes be ignored or even be  difficult to manage. These women, identified as Black feminist lesbians, discuss the complex terrain they must navigate. As Black women, they are ignored by white feminists and as lesbians they are ignored by Black heterosexual feminists. They are signified as different on multiple levels, and this in turn creates a different experience for them in various social movements. Even the idea of “coming out” is connected to different ways of knowing and experiencing this possible life event. The legacy of this kind of conversation has had an effect on modern Black feminist thought and resistance. Black Lives Matter has attempted to honor this understanding of difference within difference through the way they organize. They do this by using a different leadership structure than previous emancipation movements. They do not want one voice; they want different voices working together to engage in “radical inclusivity and visibility” (Hall 88). Including different individuals in leadership roles leads to different ways of engaging in resistance and Black liberation. Many Black feminists argue for a double-sided approach in which both “embodied and practical theory” (89) are brought together to support one another. In this way, two different forms of knowing resistance are brought together under one struggle. Here, difference in understanding and resistance can be used to strengthen a movement for Black liberation. This works within the Black Lives Matter movement, but it also furthers the challenge to mainstream knowledge systems. It repositions different; i.e. suppressed ways of knowing as valid and legitimate. This in turn ruptures the system of difference that confines Black knowledge systems as “inferior” or illegitimate. This of course ruptures our social structures that use difference to create social hierarchies and therefore create systems of power.

Understanding difference within difference between marginalized identities can be used to create connections, alliances or coalitions. Yet sometimes this is not enough, and coalitions fail because of the lack of appreciation and nuanced understanding of this difference. Julia Sudbury highlights the potential problems of ignoring difference within difference. Racial coalitions between Black men and women can fail when Black women’s bodies become the battle ground for racial autonomy; i.e. control of the women in these communities is used to reassert balck men’s autonomy and/or social power. Gender solidarity between white women and Black women has also failed at multiple points because white women have and continue to react with, “hostility, anxiety and anger” (206) toward building constructive partnerships with black women and their organizations. White feminists refuse to use “black women’s analyses to create a broader based feminist movement” that could “appeal to a diverse range of women” (207). Through these kinds of hostilities, Black feminist theory has discussed the negative results of ignoring difference within difference—voices are silenced and violence and systems of power are reinforced. When difference within difference is respected and properly understood, coalition building can be transformative. For example, Lena Palacios discusses the specific way transnational alliances can work together to combat the current manifestation of “gendered racial citizenship and white supremacy” (141). The prison abolition movements of Black and indigenous women are rooted in acknowledging and working together through different experiences which produce different strategies, and coalitions remain achievable. Respecting and understanding difference within difference can be an emancipatory possibility.

Difference can often closely attach to identities or social categories, which can lead to epistemological validity or collation building. However, there are deeper, more abstract ways that Black feminist theory has engaged with the notion of difference. It is important to understand difference as a specific tool for power structures. This notion of difference recognizes the historical significance of difference, and if we look at the transatlantic slave trade even more closely this becomes evident. In order to justify the slave trade, Black bodies were coded as nonhuman, bestial, dumb, and incapable of feeling pain. This coding of difference has not disappeared. Its original material logic may have changed, but the same basic structure is there. Robyn Maynard points to this—in the way blackness as difference and therefore nonhuman and criminal, has led to the justification of policing Black lives,

Despite the end of slavery as a legal form of controlling Black movement and curtailing Black freedom, the enduring association of Blackness with danger and criminality was further consolidated, and new forms of policing Black people’s lives emerged. Under slavery, the policing of everyday Black life was the standard…Emancipation required new, or at least modified, expressions of racial logics; people designated Black have been homogeneously rendered as menacing across much of the world, and surveilled and policed accordingly (9).

In this way, blackness as difference is constructed in a bad way in order to dehumanize and control Black subjects. This construction of Blackness is historically specific and transcends time and space. This is exactly what Hortense Spillers illuminates in her “hieroglyphics of the flesh”—the temporal collapse of meanings. These hieroglyphics can be thought of as etchings from the past—left on the skin—that defy temporal restrictions and are read (and reproduced) in the same/similar manner in the present. These etchings are not necessarily physical manifestations like marks or scars, rather they can be thought of as codes and meanings that are produced through the skin and passed down from one generation to the next. These etchings gain their meaning and significance through (Black) skin. This way of understanding markings on the flesh furthers the argument that these same markings exist today even if the Black body has been “liberated.” Here, we see that difference transcends time and space, and it continues to reproduce itself in new ways through Black bodies/skin as a mechanism for replicating systems of social control.

Theories of coding blackness as “other” can offer us a deeper analysis into how we “know” who we “are”—an understanding of the formation of the subjective self. For example, both Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynters theorize how the gendered construction of difference is rooted in racialized difference. Furthermore, race is a key constitutive of gender, and gender is a key constitutive of genre. Race is used to create the difference that we understand as gender, and that understanding of gender is used to create the difference that we understand between human and nonhuman. Race and racialization are used in the creation of socially constructed binaries then deployed to legitimate, validate and reinforce identity and power structures. In this way, difference is used in the process that makes the “white, bourgeois man as Man, as norm, and as the human itself” (Hayes 94). It is not simply about creating the difference of blackness as “other” and therefore “bad” to justify their mistreatment, rather difference is used in the very construction of everyone’s subjectivity. In order to “know” what is Man and therefore human, we need to have its opposite. The mythical norm, “defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian and financially secure” (Lorde 116) can only exist with each marker’s corresponding opposite.  These abstract ideas push us to consider the limitations of categories of difference, specifically focusing on how language creates these meanings of difference. To remove these structures of difference, and therefore structures of power and oppression, we need to create a new language and new codes for understanding by moving “out of our assigned categories’” (Weheliye 23). We should not necessarily forget these categories altogether, but we should look at how language allows them to form hierarchies of difference and ultimately humanness.  Weheliye uses Wynter’s theory as a way to get out of the universally applicable and ethnographically constraining modes of thought. When we do traditional intellectual projects, we cannot help but put people into ethnographic categories, which inevitably causes us to create universal theories and reinforce the same mechanisms of oppression. Spillers, Hortense and Weheliye all in their own ways call for us to find new frameworks and ways of knowing that balance between acknowledging categories of difference—as historically relevant to experience or as new forms of knowledge—yet at the same time understanding the ways these very same categories of difference reinforce power structures and continue to hold us within the same system of power. This acknowledgement suggests the potential of constructing new categories of difference; ones that give justice to a historical legacy and/or current material reality yet shed the meanings that give them the ability to continue to function as mechanisms of oppression.

 All of the ways Black feminist thought has used and theorized difference in this paper have one thing in common; they are searching for a better way to understand and describe oppression in order to dismantle its deeply embedded place in our minds and social systems. They explore different historical contexts, different epistemologies and ways of knowing, difference as hard to identify, the complexity of difference within difference, the potential coalition building effect of difference, difference used to construct race and gender, and difference as necessary for the meaning of Man as human. Yet, this variety of theories on difference complicates the matter even further, for how can one marry all of these uses to get a more complete picture? Is this even possible? Difference is significant to understand and validate experience, but it can also be restricting—how to balance these two issues is an important next step. Nash’s “love politics” could be one way out of these hegemonic and potentially restrictive categories of difference, where the construction of “political communities around ‘public feelings’ and ‘communal affect’” (20) replace the old ways of organizing. Categories of domination are replaced with categories of both historical and current manifestations of self-love. Here, Nash puts Wynters’ argument into practice. Another option could be changing the values assigned to categories. This fits with an important point of Crenshaw’s project when, at the end of her paper, she states that “the dimensions of racial domination that has been most vexing to African-Americans has not been the social categorization as such, but the myriad ways in which those of us so defined have been systematically subordinated” (Crenshaw 1298). What if categories were not the problem, but instead the values assigned to them? Yet, the question remains, is it even possible to eliminate said values? Are the codes and meanings so embedded that to remove or change them is almost an impossible task? Although there may not be complete agreement on how to move forward, hopefully this paper has shown through its most likely nauseating overuse of the word difference that difference matters. It produces and reproduces structures of domination, it emancipates and oppresses, it identifies and constrains, it creates borders and breaks them, and it forms the basis or destruction of coalitions. The world seems built upon meanings, codes and categories that structure our way of knowing difference. The engagement of Black feminist thought with these codes; these forms of difference appear at the forefront of further understanding of how difference is used and why it matters within society. They have performed and continue to perform this important yet laborious task in order to change our world from what we “know” to knowing something better.

Eleni M
York University

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