On Defeating the Kyriarchy

Kyriarchy is a term coined in But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation by Fiorenza and adopted by many third wave feminists as a more encompassing view of power and privilege than the concept of patriarchy, which dominated the analysis of most second wave feminists. Understanding the concerns of, in particular, women of colour, third wave feminists have attempted to go beyond the narrow “ranking of the oppressions” which caused so many difficulties towards the end of the second wave, causing division and resentment within feminist ranks.

Everyone has personal attributes – most obviously– gender, race and sexuality. Beyond that they have other attributes such as age, weight, hair colour, medical conditions. These all intersect to form an unjustified source of power or its lack. There are overarching structures of power which tend to privilege males over females; whites over Blacks and straight over gay, however to assert a universal dominance is simplistic. Within any given situation, certain attributes will be privileged, while others are denigrated.

These binaries are not rigid – the existence of gender-queer; mixed race and bi-sexuality pose challenges to the the bilateral structure which is required to assert dominance. Those who do not fall neatly into one category or another challenge the “natural order” on which the power is based.. As well as being excluded from the dominant grouping and its privilages, they also frequently come under direct attack from both the weaker of the dominant partners. Sections of feminists have been extremely hostile to those identifying as trans; “mulattos” were derided by some in the Black power movement and the reception of Bisexual women into lesbian and gay spaces in the late 80s/early 90s was lukewarm at best.

Secondly, although one group may be privileged in a particular manner, this privileging is not universal, and in some arenas, the recessive group may have more power than the dominant. Traditionally, women had the rule of the domestic domain – dictating household routines for example – this is of course based on sexist assumptions, however within that particular arena it gives the recessive partner an unjustified level of power. Dominance plays out situationally. Although there overarching power structures, in any particular situation the recessive element may be privileged through the duality in a particular situation, a Black musician may find it easier to get a recording contract through the assumption of Black musicality; a woman may find it easier to get a childcare job; a gay man may find it easier to obtain a role as a women’s hairdresser, given equal levels of skills against the dominant group. This privilege however is localised and only reinforces the overarching power structures to which they are subject. While overachingly society preferences a straight, white male value system, within that there are elements where that value system is subverted in favour of the recessive group.

Finally dominant and recessive elements combine in particular combinations. Although the traditional straight white able-bodied male comes in at the top of the kyriarchy, the majority of people have recessive identity element. Where this recessive element is unique or easily identifiable the identity power differential becomes explicit, however where multiple recessive identities come into play the situation becomes more complex. A Black lesbian for example finds herself within competing discourses of women’s expectations as the gatekeepers of sexuality; but at the same time within the discourse of animalistic Black sexuality; and within the discourse of homosexuality as a sexual aberration; these discourses shifting and moving situationally dependent on which identity aspect is promoted to the forefront at any given time.

Strategies used to overcome identity based oppressions and their limitations

Within each of the identity based oppressions there are a number of different strategies used to attempt to overcome them. At its most fundamental is consciousness raising, alerting members of the oppressed community imbibed with the its values to the ways in which it oppresses them to encourage them to challenge and fight against it. Conciousness raising is a critical issue and one which should not be underestimated. From birth we are shaped by the society in which we are born into. That society is not universally experienced, a Black child born to Black lesbian parents in a Black dominated suburb will experience the kyriachy differently from a white child born to a married couple in the same community, never the less the dominant values, transmitted through mass media, legal governance and state ideological apparatuses operate directly on the sense of self, while interactions with others, also subject to the same social effects and each with individual experiences of their own identity, their immediate environmental identity and the identity of their social community.

Consciousness raising alone however is ineffective as a method of challenge. Firstly the situated nature in which people experience identity based oppressions mean that universal appeals of recessive experiences do not necessarily resonate universally. Secondly, such a strategy can be counterproductive. Highlighting the risks of violence to women, the likelihood of discrimination Blacks and the chances of stigma to lesbians and gay men may undermine their self-confidence and create a victimisation mentality, where they feel constrained by the recessive identity attributes. There is no point raising consciousness of oppression only to leave the oppression in place just felt more keenly. Once that consciousness is raised, there are two possible direct strategies utilised – demands of liberation and withdrawal from the space of oppression.

Demands made of the dominant grouping where recessive groups highlight to allies within the dominant group the role that they play in perpetuating the structural oppression, demanding change, both to examine and challenge their own role in perpetuation but as ambassadors within the dominant grouping. This can be effective to an extent, however the experience of privilege within a divided society which is constantly and consistently experienced is not something which is easily overcome. The values and attitudes which have been shaped within the dominant grouping from birth and reinforced daily through personal interactions, socio-legal frameworks and the media mean that allies find themselves stuck in a double bind of seeking justice for those whose oppression systemically rewards them, while feeling at the mercy and at fault for the continuing oppression. At its worst such a strategy can result in militant begging of the oppressors for liberation, alienating allies and driving them to seek refuge among the dominant.

Alternatively recessive groups can withdraw from the site of oppression, retreating into identity based communities, seeking to overcome their oppression by eradicating the dominant grouping. Such a strategy can never be entirely successful, as it is the nature of the dominant that they shape things over which the recessive have no control; such withdrawal may be successful in obtaining a limited space free of immediate discrimination, however larger systems of discrimination remain, shaping and forming the conditions in which a space can be created and bounding the limits of freedom. Furthermore, those members of the oppressed group who do not have the opportunity to withdraw into such a grouping, frequently those who are most marginalised and who feel the burden most keenly lose the support of the self-aware that can both mitigate their conditions and give them strength to challenge.

Rethinking our strategy within the activist community

Consciousness raising is critical to any attempts to overcome kyriarchical thinking, but it needs re-envisaged. Traditional consciousness raising of the type which became popular during second wave feminism concentrated on examining the oppressions to which the recessive group were subject highlighting to other members of the group their oppression. It is for the radical to examine their own oppressive practices and behaviours. As a member of a privileged group – whatever that privilege may be in any particular circumstances – it can be both an enlightening and humbling experience to examine the oppression which you perpetuate. Developing an oppositional consciousness, allying ourselves with the oppressed and encouraging others to do likewise is a more productive strategy than consistently fighting the other from a position of weakness.

Where oppression is felt most keenly it Is for the oppressed to take liberation, rather than requesting it – no matter how militantly – from the oppressors. To do so is to take risks, the privileged do not readily give up power unless practicing an active strategy of oppositional consciousness. Dominant hegemony cocoons the privileged from awareness of their oppressive practices – by forcing issues, actively seizing power and supporting others from the group which do so is to bring the power differential to the fore. Such a strategy can only be reacted to by an acceptance of the power seized or an escalation in tactics of domination. Rosa Parks is one of the most inspirational examples of this – by simply refusing to give up her seat to a white woman, defying the racist instruction from the bus driver, she seized the power that was hers all along. Within an activist community such an escalation of domination exposes hitherto unobserved power structures.

Separatism can be a productive as a method of exploring broader power structures where one element of oppression has been eradicated. As a long term strategy however it is doomed to failure as its descends into a retreat into the illusion of a safe and unthreatening environment cocooned from the oppression of everyday life. The alternative is radical inclusion. Most commonly associated with burning man and liberation theology, radical inclusion seeks to actively welcome diversity in all its many forms. Within these traditions, radical inclusion upholds the narrative of inclusion of the “outcast” or “freak” – those who would usually be shunned within wider society; within an activist tradition, that inclusion must be doubly radical. Rather than shunning those who display characteristics of domination, to welcome them while upholding non-kyriarchical values; rather than withdrawing ourselves from sites of oppression to actively enter them and challenge.

Anti-kyriarchical thinking takes the activist beyond the narrow notions of binary oppressions, situating the source of identity based power structures firmly within ourselves and our communities and allows us the room to challenge and overcome them within spaces in which we have control – most obviously ourselves.

First published in three parts on Village Aunties

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