A Black Feminist Approach to Reparations for Colonialism

By Zoe Mara Talamantes

“We have to talk about liberating minds, as well as liberating society” — Angela Davis.

In his book “20 Questions and Answers About Reparations for Colonialism”, Sandew Hira addresses European colonialism by outlining the various debates and types of reparations needed to compensate its injustice and contemporary legacies. Debates surrounding reparations have gained more attention and prominence in recent years, justifiably so. Despite their vitality, the purpose of this article isn’t to continue them in stagnation but rather to utilize black feminism as a means to expand, reshape and inform further discussions on reparations. Black feminist thought would entail an inter-sectional approach to reparations, highlighting various interdependent systems of oppression that have shaped the costs of enslavement for black women. This centralizes specific structures, experiences, and forms of reparations; critical in addressing colonialism and its contemporary legacies.

Summary of “20 questions and answers about reparations for Colonialism”:

The basis for Hira’s argument on reparations is that European colonization entailed various crimes against humanity that are being perpetuated today. Hira outlines European colonialism as a distinctive mode of globalized oppression that sought to preserve European interests by dominating and undermining other societies (Hira,7). He points to various human costs that reparations should address including the rape of women, the decimation of populations, the physical casualties that occurred crossing the transatlantic slave trade, the exploitation of land and labor, physical abuse and the intensification of ethnic identity and inequality (14–16). He further asserts that, one of the most devastating legacies of colonialism was the dissemination of self-hate and an inferiority complex. This was established through the idea of “the civilizing mission”, and perpetuated through academic, cultural and religious institutions. This has created a continued state of mental slavery or mental colonialism.

He argues that these crimes against humanity enabled institutions, communities, and a whole entire race to benefit substantially at the cost of others, resulting in various disparities across the world today. These entail both immaterial and material dimensions. As a result, reparations have to correspond to both immaterial and material costs. Material arrangements involve the return of stolen land and goods, monetary payments, and the construction of material infrastructure (Hira,17). Immaterial arrangements address the mental and cultural legacy of colonialism (Hira,17). For example immaterial arrangements for colonialism may entail acknowledgement of its injustices, apology, and the search for truth, (Hira, 19).

Hira distinguishes between two types of reparations — one entailing actions executed by the colonizer and their heirs and one conducted by the colonized and their heirs. One deals with payment in a variety of forms (not necessarily monetary) to the colonized to redress the cost of colonialism (Hira 8). In the latter called “self-reparations” the colonized takes a proactive stand in their own liberation creating programs and institutions that address mental slavery (Hira,9). Together these holistically attempt to address historical injustice in a way that both compensates and liberates victims.

In the context of Hira’s definition of reparations he asserts that reparations take on new meaning to coincide with five various dimensions of colonialism and its legacy. The geographical component providing reparations to address spatial rearrangement and dislocation. The economic component advocating for reparations that address the economic exploitation (Hira 7). The social component to address the unequal identity relations that were institutionalized (Hira 7,8). The political component to address the political control of colonized peoples (Hira,8). The cultural which seeks to address suffering. This entails acknowledging the harms colonialism caused by “decolonizing” narratives, portrayals of colonial endeavors, and the Eurocentric undertones of “progress” and “civilization” they latch on to.

A Black feminist Approach…

A black feminist approach to reparations would take an inter-sectional approach to identifying and articulating intersecting forms of oppression that have shaped and continue to shape the experiences of black women. According to Collins, intersectionality is an “analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructing features of social organization, which shape black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by black women” (Collins, 2000, p. 299 qtd in Collins 8). A feminist statement edited by Hull, Scott and Smith speaks specifically of interlocking oppression. The idea behind intersectionality is that the experiences of black women must be understood through multiple forms of oppression that operate simultaneously; for example, racialized oppression and gender based violence, shaping the experiences of black women. With regards to reparations, this would be used to recognize the multifaceted forms of oppression black women continually undergo.

The idea of intersectionality enables us to identify concrete instances of oppression that need to be factored in when calculating and determining the form of reparations that should be paid. Hira outlines concrete examples where black women faced various forms of marginalization due to both their race and their gender. When being transported to the Americas, black slave women were packed in degrading conditions with black men, as captives, but as women they also bore most of the child-bearing responsibilities and had to struggle with their physical, mental, and emotional safety as well as that of their children’s (Hira, 56). Black women had to do the same forced labor as their male counterparts due to their racial identity while undergoing sexual abuse at the hands of their master due to their perceived sexual identity and gender (Hira 56). As Collins and Hira demonstrate, intersectionality creates different kinds of lived experiences and social realities therefore highlighting specific forms of oppression to address in reparations as well as new connections to look for.

The matrix of domination introduced and popularized by Collins, serves as a mechanism in which to identify specific domains, and structures that could be recognized, created or dismantled when providing reparations to black women. The matrix of domination refers to the way intersecting systems of oppression are reinforced through various societal domains. Beyond identifying interlocking domains of oppression it conveys how these are managed and reinforced “through four interrelated domains of power: structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal” (Collins, 8). For example the structural domain consists of social structures such as law, polity, religion, and the economy (Collins,8). Sandew Hira provides an avenue in which we can see this matrix in action. He mentions that the use of color, race ethnicity and gender to organize hierarchy ensured western domination. This disproportionately affected and continues to affect black and African women who occupy multiple spaces on this hierarchy, for example as women, as slaves (Hira 7,8). As he further goes on to assert black women were exploited both for their labor and their sexuality, oppressed both as women and as slaves due to their race. This reflects social structures that operate in the matrix of domination in this case law serves as a means to reinforce hierarchy.

However this also overlaps into the hegemonic domain of the Matrix. “The hegemonic domain legitimates oppression. This is the cultural sphere of influence where ideology and consciousness come together” (Collins, 9). Hira details the impact of an inferiority complex in which black people internalized their subordination(Hira 17). He broadens this domain to the psychological aspect of sexual violence. He conveys how black women who birthed a child from their master faced various psychological and emotional challenges with regards to caring and loving a child that was regarded as the “chattel” of the man who helped birth that child (Hira 57). These identity markers were institutionalized in law and entered the hegemonic domain. This ties back to Collins and black feminist theory, conveying how the domains that govern inter-sectional forms of oppression are interdependent. Since they interlock to shape the experiences of black women, reparations in one domain may influence the other domains in its redress of colonialism and its legacy.

As a result these ideas can be used to single out specific forms of reparations that can more effectively address the condition and legacy of colonialism. Hira’s idea of self-reparations becomes central. Self-reparation focuses on actions and programs that are executed by the colonized and their heirs (Hira, 8). Applying it to black feminist thought, this might include identifying institutions that sexually oppress or liberate black women from the psychological trauma of being oversexualized. Emancipation for mental slavery through a black feminist approach would entail sexual liberation and the reappropriation of bodily autonomy by dismantling institutions that continue to represent black woman in hypersexualized forms. This might include media representations and imagery, stereotypes in film that perpetuate historical caricatures with racial undertones.

Black feminism further implicates race in dialogue on gender as it does gender in dialogues of race. Intersectionality was reactionary to the exclusion of the gender-based disparities and injustices that impacted black women in efforts to advance racial justice, and the the exclusion of racial disparities and injustices impacting black women in mainstream feminism. Intersectionality interlocks the issues of gender and race black women face but also highlights the interdependence of those issues with other groups including black men, providing opportunities for solidarity. Hira emphasizes how white men could rape black women without interference by African men (Hira, 56). This was enforced by chaining African men in compartments because they were perceived as a threat (Hira, 56). For white men to dominate black women they had to rely on various ways of subduing black men. Black feminists writing in All the Women are White, all the Men are Black, But Some of Us are Brave continue to denounce fractionalizing as they quote “we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization from black men that white women demand”(Hull, Scott, Smith,16). As a result they would thus advocate for the formation of coalitions in self-reparations.

This further coincides with Audre Lorde who broadens this to account for lesbian women, “third-world women”and poor women. She emphasizes Islamophobia, sexism and racism as inseparable and mutually reinforcing (Lorde,1). Considering that colonialism was a global phenomenon this becomes crucial. It acknowledges the diversity of victims, the diversity of issues and their interdependencies with colonized women who constitute diverse identities.

The various interplay between the ideas and examples provided by Sandew Hira on reparations, along with black feminist approaches advocated for by Patricia Collins, Audre Lorde and the feminist statement edited by Hull, Scott and Smith provide a means to understand how the experiences of black women are shaped by interlocking forms of oppression and how this can be further centralized and contribute to debates on reparations for colonialism and enslavement. It further opens up debates to address more intersecting and interlocking forms of identity based oppression in various attempts to establish justice.

Works Cited:

Collins, Patricia. “Intersecting Oppressions.”n.d.print

Hira, Sandew. 20 questions and answers about reparations for colonialism. Den Haag, Amrit,

Uitgeverij, 2014.

Lorde Audre, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” 1984, sister outsider:

Essays and speeches.Ed.Berkeley.CA: Crossing press 110–114. 2007.print

Scott, Patricia Bell, and Barbara Smith. “All the Women are White, All the Blacks are men But

Some of Us are Brave.” Edited by Gloria T Hull, the feminist press 1989.

This blog post was originally submitted as an essay for a homework assignment in the course AFRICAM 123 lec 001 at the University of California, Berkeley on 09/28/2017

- Zoe Mara Talamantes

A non-partisan blog on Global Affairs sponsored by The International Relations Council Of Berkeley