Social Justice Usage
Source: Eide, Elisabeth. “Strategic Essentialism and Ethnification: Hand in Glove?” Nordicom Review 31(2): 2010, 63–78, p. 76.[S]trategic essentialism in this sense entails that members of groups, while being highly differentiated internally, may engage in an essentializing and to some extent a standardizing of their public image, thus advancing their group identity in a simplified, collectivized way to achieve certain objectives.
New Discourses Commentary
Strategic essentialism is a concept that originated with the postcolonial Theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and it represents the idea of an oppressed group intentionally taking on stereotypes about itself in order to disrupt or subvert the dominance that oppresses or marginalizes it. That is, strategic essentialism is an anti-essentialist act of strategic resistance against essentialism by means of strategically embracing essentialism. Strategic essentialism occurs anytime a minoritized group or member of a minoritized group takes on or “owns” derogatory stereotypes and then applies them in acts of strategic resistance against systemic power (as described by Theory). For example, a minoritized group might fight a stereotype of being stupid through strategic essentialism by acting stupid or replying with “I’m too stupid” when asked to do or explain something. It is, in that sense, passive aggressive, by intention, and in its most generous interpretation, it is an application of passive aggression to avoid acts of overt aggression.
This sort of activism is, in fact, quite common under the umbrella of Critical Social Justice. Indeed, it could be said that the entirety of queer Theory is strategic essentialism by norm-resisting activists with regard, particularly, to sex, gender, and sexuality, although disability (see also, crip Theory and disability studies) and obesity (see also, fat studies) are also Theorized this way (and have drawn significantly on Judith Butler’s politics of parody). Spivak obviously Theorized it in the postcolonial context (see also, decoloniality), partly following from the earlier work of Frantz Fanon, and it is commonly employed in the context of critical race Theory by means of racial stereotypes. Feminism, thus women’s studies and gender studies, has a long tradition of using strategic essentialism—usually under the phrasing “acts of strategic resistance,” though this is technically a broader category of activism that can, in fact, include the opposite of strategic essentialism (taking on dominant group stereotypes, e.g., to show that you don’t need no man)—one that certainly predates Spivak’s formulation, which arrived in 1984.
Spivak almost certainly derived her specific formulation of strategic essentialism from her (possibly poor) understanding of postmodern/poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida (see also, Derridean), in particular his notion of phallogocentrism. This, Spivak combined with the postcolonial writing of Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault’s ideas about power to arrive at strategic essentialism (see also, Foucauldian, power-knowledge, episteme, truth regime, epistemic violence, and biopower). This concept suggests that words in language appear in hierarchical binaries, in which words are paired together within the relevant discourses in terms of their meaning with one of the terms given positive status or valence and the other considered relatively negatively. For example, man and woman are understood in relationship to one another (as meaningful concepts), and man is privileged by patriarchal thought above woman (according to phallogocentrism). Spivak’s concept of strategic essentialism was to do (passive-aggressive) activism by means of maintaining the binary while inverting the power dynamic within it (some readers will understand this in terms of Friedrich Nietszche’s concept of the slave morality from Geneaology of Morals). In that sense, strategic essentialism is considered a type of practical deconstruction in which the usual meaning relations of words is reversed as a form of activism.
A popular culture example of strategic essentialism appeared in early Spring 2020, when Marvel Comics revealed two new superhero characters, two twins named “Safe Space” and “Snowflake,” both people of color with one being their first (gender) non-binary superhero (see also, representation). Marvel explicitly acknowledged that part of their purpose in creating the characters with these names, which are both applied pejoratively by critics of Critical Social Justice, is to own those terms and show that they are, indeed, sources of strength and power (see also, media studies). This makes this move by Marvel a textbook example of strategic essentialism, thus a clear case of applied postmodernism.
One consequence of the mindset associated with strategic essentialism, though strategic essentialism specifically isn’t likely to be the cause or typical justification for it, is the belief that appears common to Theory that by maintaining the relevant social constructions but reversing their power dynamics, effective social activism can be achieved. This belief is very likely to be specious and may lead Theory to routinely propose bad approaches to problems (the failures of which it can then capitalize upon and use to claim more need for Theory). For example, in critical race Theory and intersectionality, the tendency is to make race more relevant, not less, for the purposes of identity politics (see also, identity-first). In queer Theory, it results in making the denormalization of sex, gender, and sexuality primary by asserting a queer identity above all “normativities” and advocating for a queering form of activism (see also, gender performativity, genderfucking, and genderqueer). These forms of activism are mimicked in fat studies (see also, body positivity, fat acceptance, fat activism, and Healthy at Every Size) In postcolonial Theory, it maintains the dichotomy between the East and West (generally, Orientalism) and attempts to use this to break down the hegemony of “Western” thinking (e.g., science and liberalism) and say that those aren’t fitting for non-Western contexts (see also, Eurocentrism and decoloniality).
All of this gets the relevant issues backwards, mostly by upholding, reinforcing, and drawing attention to, if not centering, the relevant social constructions they claim to be attempting to deconstruct through subversive activism. For example, centering the queer identity requires queer Theory—which seeks to break down standard notions of sex, gender, sexuality, and other related identities—to start by upholding the relevant stereotypes so that they can intentionally defy and resist them (see also, non-binary and gender non-conforming). More specifically, it isn’t possible to engage in activism that says that women shouldn’t look feminine without upholding (usually highly stereotypical – see also hegemonic femininity) socially constructed ideas of what femininity looks and acts like and ascribing those as being normal for women. This tends to backfire on the point of their activism, as many people aren’t particularly interested in the subtle and subversive irony they think it demonstrates. This issue is particularly relevant in trans and related activism (see also, trans rights activists), where activists often very strictly define masculinity and femininity while elbowing out other variations on LGBT life and experience (see also, straight passing) while also alienating the mainstream (which kind of likes normativities) away from LGBT causes—and this is without noting that it also triggers a backlash toward traditional gender roles in many who reject it (see also, hegemonic masculinity, hegemonic femininity, and traditional masculinity). This, by the way, should be compared to the liberal approach, which would say something like, “some people, both men and women, are more masculine or feminine than others, and want to be that way, and just get over it and let them do what they want” (see also, individualism).
Anti-essentialism; Applied postmodernism; Binary; Biopower; Body positivity; Center; Crip Theory; Critical; Critical race Theory; Decoloniality; Deconstruction; Derridean; Disability; Disability studies; Discourse; Disrupt; Dominance; Episteme; Epistemic violence; Essentialism; Eurocentrism; Fat acceptance; Fat activism; Fat studies; Feminism; Foucauldian; Gender; Gender non-conforming; Gender performativity; Gender studies; Genderfucking; Genderqueer; Healthy at Every Size; Hegemonic femininity; Hegemonic masculinity; Hegemony; Identity; Identity-first; Identity politics; Individualism; Intersectionality; Liberalism; Man; Marginalization; Masculinity; Media studies; Minoritize; Non-binary; Norm; Normal; Normativity; Oppression; Orientalism; Patriarchy; People of color; Phallogocentrism; Politics of parody; Postcolonial Theory; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Race; Representation; Queer; Queer (v.); Queer Theory; Safe space; Science; Sex; Sexuality; Social construction; Social Justice; Straight passing; Strategic resistance; Subvert; Systemic power; Theory; Traditional masculinity; Trans rights activism; Truth regime; West, the; Western; Woman; Women’s studies
Source: Eide, Elisabeth. “Strategic Essentialism and Ethnification: Hand in Glove?” Nordicom Review 31(2): 2010, 63–78, p. 76.
Gayatri C. Spivak discusses the experiences of the Subaltern Studies Group, whose aim it is to rewrite the history of India with a perspective from below, deconstructing the imperial version. She reads the work of the Subaltern Studies Group, then, as “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (Spivak 1985/1996: 214). She compares the application of strategic essentialism to deconstruction by stating that although she uses deconstruction, it does not make her a deconstructivist (Spivak 1990). One may read Spivak as suggesting that the strategic borders on the pragmatic, because, according to her, essentialism has little to do with theory; it rather serves as a definition of a certain political practice.
The very concept of strategic essentialism – which, by the way, even Spivak herself disputes – is a path that has been and continues to be explored as a minority strategy for influencing mainstream society. As I see it, strategic essentialism in this sense entails that members of groups, while being highly differentiated internally, may engage in an essentializing and to some extent a standardizing of their public image, thus advancing their group identity in a simplified, collectivized way to achieve certain objectives. The risk is that, by doing so, they may be playing into the hands of those whose essentialism is more powerful than their own – whether they are researchers, editors, politicians or empire-builders. On the other hand, an increasing public awareness of the risks and strategies involved may help to minimize the risk and maximize the results. The problem occurs when the practice of strategic essentialism is not the result of a deliberate choice and an assessment of a delicate balance, but rather is partly the result of media conventionalism that requires people and groups to essentialize themselves in order to highlight issues that have nothing to do with their daily ontology of being Norwegian and/or a minority within.
Source: Wolff, K. “Strategic Essentialism.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. 2007.
The concept of strategic essentialism is a “strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (Fuss 1994: 99). It utilizes the idea of essence with a recognition of and critique of the essentialist nature of the essence itself. It is a means of using group identity as a basis of struggle while also debating issues related to group identity within the group.
Strategic essentialism emerged out of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s critique of the Marxist, historical collective called the Subaltern Studies Group. The collective’s main project was to operate as a counter-movement, working to expose elitist representations of South Asian culture, particularly within Indian history. Subaltern studies performed the rewriting of the history of colonial India from the position of subordinated social groups or the subaltern. The subaltern is often used as a word for the oppressed or “Other” in society. Spivak’s usage is based on Antonio Gramsci’s definition, which consists of subordinated or non-elite social groups. These groups occupy a space of difference with no or extremely limited access to the culture of the elite. The goal of the Subaltern Studies Group was simply to provide access or space for the subaltern to speak. The subaltern is a product of the network of elites, of differing understandings of what the subaltern is, as defined by the elites.
Strategic essentialism recognizes the complexities of occupying a subject-object position, of the subaltern, whether it is a movement, group, or individual. They are working from within a structural position of subordination in society, while also embodying and critiquing that position. For example, a movement for immigrant laborers’ rights would be challenging the elites in their definitions of and practices of domination over the workers, while also recognizing the complexities of what it means to be an immigrant laborer. The fundamental nature of this concept is that it deliberately suits a particular situation and does not serve as an overarching theory.
Spivak combines the techniques of deconstruction with Foucault’s theory of power in the foundational pieces of strategic essentialism. Deconstruction as a method of critique provides a means to examine something that is important to how we understand society, perhaps something that is defined as an “essence,” while also investigating the complexities of that essence. Power is examined where it occurs, as a place of domination and of resistance.
Strategic essentialism as applied to feminism serves to utilize essentialist definitions of woman while also continually critiquing the concept itself. For example, one of the main goals of liberal feminism is the political struggle to gain equal rights for men and women. This includes providing equal pay for equal work. When arguing for this change in status, the concept of “woman” is used as being as able as men to complete tasks and uphold responsibilities in the working world and therefore they should be judged equally. There is no critique of what being a woman is, but there is a critique as to women’s subordinated status in society due to their gender as well as the effects of this on the availability of jobs for women. Strategic essentialism also recognizes that women exist in positions of power within the working world, thus placing them in a position where they may be using female traits that are understood as inherent to all women. This concept moves beyond basic liberal feminist understandings, recognizing that women may be seen as rejecting these “natural” traits in order to fit into a “man’s world” of work so that they can be successful. Here women are embodying and rejecting essentialist qualities of being a woman in a calculated manner.
Source: The New Warriors, marvel.com
“Snowflake and Safespace are the twins,” the writer says, “and their names are very similar to Screentime; it’s this idea that these are terms that get thrown around on the internet that they don’t see as derogatory. [They] take those words and kind of wear them as badges of honor.
“Safespace is a big, burly, sort of stereotypical jock. He can create forcefields, but he can only trigger them if he’s protecting somebody else. Snowflake is non-binary and goes by they/them, and has the power to generate individual crystalized snowflake-shaped shurikens. The connotations of the word ‘snowflake’ in our culture right now are something fragile, and this is a character who is turning it into something sharp.
“Snowflake is the person who has the more offensive power, and Safespace is the person who has the more defensive power. The idea is that they would mirror each other and complement each other.”
Revision date: 3/25/20