Another Imagination, Decolonial and Feminist: An Interview with Françoise Vergès

Françoise Vergès is an antiracist feminist activist, a public educator, an independent curator, and the cofounder of the collective Decolonize the Arts and of the free and open university Decolonizing the Arts. She is the author of A Decolonial Feminism (Pluto), The Wombs of Women: Race, Capital, Feminism (Duke), Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Metissage (Duke), and numerous books in French.

The following interview was conducted via email in French and translated into English by Gavin Walker.

Françoise Vergès is an antiracist feminist activist, a public educator, an independent curator, and the cofounder of the collective Decolonize the Arts and of the free and open university Decolonizing the Arts. She is the author of A Decolonial Feminism (Pluto), The Wombs of Women: Race, Capital, Feminism (Duke), Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Metissage (Duke), and numerous books in French.

The following interview was conducted via email in French and translated into English by Gavin Walker.

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GW: Please describe a little about your background, your educational and political formation, and how you came to the perspective you now call a “decolonial feminism”? What were the main influences on your thinking as it began to take shape?

FV: It is always difficult to answer such a question without offering a linear narrative that gives a positive image of oneself. There have been several totally unforeseen moments in my life that have taken me down paths that I had not planned, thus creating new interests; hard, difficult moments; encounters that have changed me, opened me up to new issues; I have seized some of these opportunities, I have not seized others.

Several elements contributed to the development of my decolonial and feminist position: curious, open-minded parents, who were great readers, internationalist communists, anti-colonialists and feminists; a childhood and adolescence in a militant, cosmopolitan and internationalist environment; a passion for reading, cinema and “crafts” (I use this term in English because the  French term artisanat is a bit pejorative) – weaving, everyday objects – and cooking; a great curiosity; a total rejection of racism, injustice, inequality, humiliation, patriarchy, the use of force and domination; a love of landscapes and cultural practices; an experience of the repression of the French post-colonial state: my father charge and imprisoned, my mother threatened, house raids, militants killed by private militias, censorship, systemic electoral fraud. My parents didn’t differentiate between their daughters and their sons and I was always encouraged and supported in what I did, even when it was not what they would have dreamed for me. My father had this idea that people should be allowed to experiment and learn from their mistakes, as long as it didn’t threaten one’s own life or the lives of others, or justify wickedness and cruelty.

I learned that the struggle is long and difficult, but that it also offers moments of intense joy, that it is a constant source of renewal, that it pushes us to reflect on ourselves and on the collective.

I went to a French lycée on the island of Réunion where I received an education that put France at the centre of everything: there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about my island or the Indian Ocean in which it is located. The world of school was basically France. I learned to write and read in French but I always spoke Creole, and at home I received a counter-education that opened me up to the world and the liberation struggles. I was encouraged to read a lot, to be challenged in my preconceptions (even if it’s not always easy), to be wary of good intentions and certainties.

The people of Réunion, the ones I met at political meetings and demonstrations, taught me about generosity and solidarity. My mother was one of the leaders of the Union des femmes de La Réunion, a feminist organisation close to the Communist Party, and she used to take me to meetings. I also observed that male domination was racialised, and therefore, that the struggles for women’s liberation were a struggle for the liberation of the whole society. I was a young militant. As a teenager, I was a member of the Front de la jeunesse autonomiste réunionnaise. I am the product of internationalism, which marks out a world where struggles take place everywhere, and where everywhere, one can encounter others with whom to share the desire for liberation.

I passed my baccalaureate at the lycée in Algiers, which introduced me to independent Algeria. I learned a lot there. I stayed there after my baccalaureate, since I didn’t really want to go to France. But then soon enough, there was France, where I quickly abandoned my studies of Chinese and Arabic to become an activist in anti-racist and anti-imperialist organisations and feminist groups. From 1979, I was in the Psychoanalysis and Politics group of the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF). I have always been interested in psychoanalysis, that of Fanon but also feminist and indigenous approaches to the unconscious.

I left France in October 1983 for several reasons and landed in the US, in San Diego by a combination of circumstances. I worked until December 1985 as a cleaning lady, cook, secretary, etc., for a rich French couple. I was undocumented and exploited. When I left them, I didn’t go back to France. I spent several months in Mexico, near Tijuana, waiting for papers to enter the USA legally, which I did on 14 July 1986. There, I worked for a few months for a cleaning agency, and in January 1987, I decided to go to university. I enrolled in two BA degrees, Political Science and Women’s Studies, with the intention of completing them in two years and graduating summa cum laude, which I did. In 1989, I entered the Department of Political Science at Berkeley as a PhD student, and I received my PhD in May 1996, which was eventually published by Duke University Press in 1999.

Decolonisation, as a historical process, is for me a central political and cultural struggle. Neither the abolition of colonial slavery nor independence was enough to establish justice and dignity. Racism, the North/South divide, and imperialism have each time imposed an order which, although no longer exactly the same, continued to be one of exploitation, domination, patriarchy, dispossession and devastation.

For me, South American feminists, especially indigenous feminists, articulate the link between decolonial struggle and de-patriarchalization very well. The decolonial feminism that I defend – and you will note that I wrote “a” and not “the” in the title of my recent book A Decolonial Feminism since I am wary of ideologies and theories that want to be unique – is a feminism that seeks to be radically anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and for de-patriarchalization. It reminds us that there is no one feminism, that the West does not have a monopoly on the conception of equality, freedom and dignity, that liberation means the end of all forms of exploitation, dispossession and domination of human beings, the earth, animals and plants. The dreams of multi-billionaires to conquer space and colonise planets show how capitalism is incapable of responding to the urgent questions being posed today. Yet there are many crises. According to the UN, it is women and girls in the global South who will be most affected by the consequences of the pandemic and the environmental crisis; fires, floods, famine, wars, heightened violence, feminicide, the murder of activists, trans people, gays and lesbians, an increase of prisons, the militarisation of the police, the privatisation of land and sea, the plundering of mineral resources with their environmental consequences and the impoverishment of the populations that comes with it, pollution… Capitalism produces rubbish that pollutes, invades and colonises. Neither green capitalism nor feminist capitalism will be capable of responding to these current threats because both want to believe that neoliberalism will bring diversity and inclusiveness that will reduce racism, sexism and exploitation. 

While a decolonial feminism cannot answer all questions that arise, it offers a method of analysis and a practice that is multidimensional and multidirectional. In other words, starting from an object of study, we try to draw out all the threads that make up its social, cultural, political, historical and economic environment, a method that denaturalizes injustice (“it’s always been like that”) and highlights the constant efforts of supremacist ideology to normalize injustices and inequalities, a method that alerts us to the pacification induced by the ideology of “there’s no alternative”.     

GW: Your work has maintained a relationship with Marxism, even though the experience of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has transformed its meaning. What do you see as the potentials and limitations of the Marxist tradition for your work?

What I retain from Marxism, not that of parties and orthodoxies, is the notion of social classes and class struggle, its remarks on social reproduction and the exploitation of women in this reproduction. This is an analysis that materialist feminists have expanded, one that concerns the capacity of capitalism to absorb, colonize, and assimilate even that which contests it, on the need for capitalism to expand, to constantly enlarge its space, and on profit as the horizon of self-fulfilment. And of course, Marxism’s emphasis on the liberation of all humanity.

The European left has forgotten all this. It no longer talks about class struggle or anti-imperialism; anti-racism remains for it a moral position. This summer I reread a series of books published by Éditions de Minuit/Jérôme Lindon during the colonial war in Algeria, against its independence, books that were often banned by the government, which reminded me of the extent to which the leaderships of the socialist and communist left adopted a wait-and-see stance, reluctant to show full solidarity with the Algerians. Some French people harshly criticise this wait-and-see attitude, a form of cowardice. We can see to what extent this left stumbles on the colonial/racial question, yesterday and today.

For the limits of Marxism today in my view: the weakness of the analysis of the colonial/racial question, of structural racism, of the impacts of coloniality on gender and sexuality. It is from the global South that the most stimulating reflections on these issues come.

GW: Your book The Wombs of Women was recently published in English by Duke. In a sense, it enters a pantheon of books from the last few decades dealing with the sphere of reproduction and the relationship between capitalism and the female body. Often these issues have been addressed from the perspective of “biopolitics”, but your work specifically addresses the colonial continuities of racialisation in relation to this issue. Could you talk a little bit about how you see the importance of the function of racism in conjunction with feminism today?

White feminists who call themselves universalists (especially in France) reject the importance of racialisation in the lives of non-white women. They believe that male domination naturally makes them sisters in struggle to all women. Yet there is no shared experience of colonialism, imperialism, racism, until the impact of racism on European feminism is recognised. These feminists have still not, to my knowledge, made a rigorous study of how structural racism has affected the feminism they claim to uphold. However, as soon as Europe embarked on the colonisation of the world, the slave trade and slavery, and as soon as racism comes to justify and normalise the genocide of the Amerindians and Caribbean peoples and the enslavement of Africans, European philosophies and ideologies become marked by it. Racism permeates the social sciences, the humanities, and life sciences, in their conceptions of work, freedom, beauty and reason. All this has been sufficiently demonstrated by researchers. It is true that there are people in Europe who escape this, it is true that there are encounters that escape the racial structure, it is true that not everything is uniform, but the fact remains that European colonial racism imposes its structure on the world. To say this is not to be stuck in the past, but to admit that the notion of race organises perceptions and practices.

All this would deserve a greater development, but what I want to stress here is that it would be necessary to explain to us why European feminism would have escaped the structural effects of racism. European women have been constructed as white, and this will constitute a privilege that owes nothing to particular talents or skills but to colonial/racial domination. (It should be stressed here that there were already processes of racialization in Europe before colonisation, towards the Jews and the Roma, in particular. Europe was (and still is) antisemitic. With slavery and colonisation, processes of racialization became more complex and what Black Americans call “anti-Blackness” (or what in French is called négrophobie) became a central axis of white supremacy. Reproduction does not escape these processes. Under colonial slavery, black women’s wombs are transformed into capital – they are raped to give birth to children already enslaved before they are even born, transformed into capital in the hands of the slavers. White women buy and sell enslaved people, they know that it is capital, a currency that they possess. Black women serve them, dress them, take care of their children, cook, clean, are transformed into sexual objects by their husbands and sons. Their sexuality is racialised, they are harshly exploited; colonial slavery forbids them to make a family, to learn to read, to be autonomous. Black women will never stop fighting against these oppressions: they say they are women, Black, workers, mothers, sisters and companions. White feminists who consider themselves “slaves,” because they are subject to the will of their fathers, husbands, brothers, forget the racial dimension. Class and gender are not enough to sum up the condition of women. The forms of colonial/racial oppression did not end with the abolition of slavery, which, moreover, did not fulfil its promise of equality.

Structural racism has not disappeared at all, it continues to organise societies. In Europe, it is the feminists who have offered up to the authorities the vocabulary of Islamophobia, with Muslim women becoming the very symbol, in their eyes, of submission – the discourse of gender equality becoming one of the central arguments of imperialist interventions in the world. Feminism has become a central asset for governments in the West as well as in the business world. In France, white feminists violently attack decolonial theory, intersectionality, and political anti-racism, signing petitions against these theories, participating in a witch-hunt. They want to believe that we are somehow attacking “whites”, even though we are talking about processes of whitewashing, racial injustices, police violence, imperialism. They could very well use a process of de-whitening! Anti-imperialism has become alien to them. In France, most black women work in the most exploited, most invisible service jobs: cleaning, personal care, childcare. They have led extraordinary strikes in recent years which I believe are examples of decolonial feminist practices. Even if they don’t call themselves feminists, they fight in an intersectional way, show great courage, great determination, and a deep awareness that they are exploited and despised because they are women, Black women, housekeepers.

GW: In contemporary France (and in the wider francophone world), there has been a remarkable backlash against “gender theory”, often in concert with a backlash against the movements of the formerly colonised, and especially the movements of a new and energetic anti-racism that refuses republican integration into the figure of the citizen. Where do Marxism and feminism stand in the current situation in France? What lessons do you see in the current French experience for the Marxist-feminisms of the future?

I can’t speak for France, for French feminists or for Marxism and feminism in the current situation in France. My world is that of the global South and the territories still colonised by France, so while I am obviously concerned with what is happening in France, as I currently reside there, I am not close to any French movements.

What I can say is that political anti-racism, born in the aftermath of the 2005 social riots, has profoundly transformed the political landscape, radically questioning moral anti-racism. However, we should not underestimate the capacity of capitalism to absorb, to transform into a commodity even that which criticizes it: it never stops talking about inclusiveness and diversity, and this is not just hypocrisy. Like the state, it appoints women and racialized people to important positions, emancipation becomes freedom of infinite choice, of movement in the vast mall of consumption. Faced with the legitimate desire for recognition of women, gays, Blacks and racialized people, the business world offers a narcissistic satisfaction that does not tackle the structures of inequality and exploitation. Corporate philanthropy, on the other hand, offers something to satisfy a sense of guilt and the desire to do something, to act. A decolonial, anti-racist feminism must avoid all these pitfalls.

GW: Today, the category of ‘social reproduction’, often inspired by the work of Italian feminism in the 1970s or the ‘Wages for Housework’ movement, has been a major feature of recent discussions on the relationship between Marxism and feminism. How do you see this trend? There has been some consternation that it tends to replace historical analysis, particularly of the South, with a renewal of Euro-North American feminism as the normative centre of its politics.

Yes, this is true. The racialisation of social reproduction is still a blind spot in this work. It is from the global South that have come the strongest and most political analyses of feminicide, of systemic and structural violence against female, trans, and queer, Black, indigenous and racialized bodies, against sex workers, of forced sterilisations and abortions, of the transformation of the female body into an object to be raped, dismembered, killed and thrown away on a rubbish heap, of masculinisation as education in violence. The extractivist capitalist economy exploits bodies and the earth, to the point of exhaustion, to the premature death of life, and it does so by racializing bodies. There can be no anti-capitalism without anti-racism and no anti-racism without anti-capitalism. Life is under threat and it is certainly not the technological dreams of multi-millionaire white men that will help us make the leap of imagination necessary to get out of the abyss into which racial capitalism is dragging us.