Notes on the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchy
Cultural critic and academic, Dr. bell hooks (she spells her name with all lower case letters to shift the emphasis from her to the ideas) coined a fantastic concept over two decades ago: Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Of the phrase, hooks has said:
Often in my lectures when I use the phrase ‘Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy’ to describe our nation’s [the United States] political system, audiences laugh. No one has ever explained why accurately naming this system is funny. The laughter is a weapon of patriarchal terrorism.
Generally, I find myself agreeing with hooks’s assessments (her take that Beyonce is a terrorist being an important exception!). However, having had many thoughtful individuals and entire classes laugh when they hear me use her super long phrase, I don’t think that the laughter is necessarily one of violence but one of discomfort, of interest, and of shock. I love dropping the phrase without giving any warning. A sentence with a friend might go, “And oh that politician, all he cares is about is perpetuating the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Did you see what he tweeted yesterday?”
The power of the concept lies in hooks’s theory that all forms of oppression are systemic, all are interlocking, and all are built upon patriarchy.
hooks argues that if you have classism, for example, racism and sexism are equally present. If you have imperialism, the other forms of oppression are working simultaneously to perpetuate the status quo. hooks contends that everyone — including men — is a victim of patriarchy. Additionally, hooks contends that everyone can and often does (even without realizing it) contribute to its perpetuation. Another power of hooks’s concept is that it quickly names major forces that shape hopes and fears of people living in the geopolitical area called the United States.
From my experience having taught thousands of college students over twelve years is that in addition to a concise, catchy, quick way to name controlling forces, hooks’s phrase is useful because it abstracts the various “isms” just enough to make them more accessible for analysis. Initiating and having conversations about racisms and sexisms is always a challenging task, but framing it in terms of “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” also makes this challenge more approachable because it stirs curiosity. It’s a concept that invites, “What in the world is that?!” We can harness those gateway giggles for meaningful conversations about making power visible and then dismantling that power.
After having used hooks’s terminology in my classes and in my writing for years, I began to feel that the phrase was missing something.
After thinking through it, I added “heteronormative” and then “ableist” to the mix in parenthesis preceding “patriarchy.” Afterward, my students convinced me to add “theistic,” too.
The collective phrase I’ve used for the past several years, then, is “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchy”! I use it so often that I even programmed a keyboard shortcut — q1 — that makes the entire phrase pop up. It can also be abbreviated as IWSC(HAT)P.
I believe these additional concepts add important, tangible power to hooks’s original wording. The addition of “heteronormative,” “ableist,” and “theistic” further name important forces not automatically embodied in the other concepts.
“Imperialist” (or nationalist) is about absolute or almost absolute power over other people and/or replacing the ideas and culture of those deemed inferior with propaganda. “White Supremacist” is about racism and mores that demand people racialized as white have superior histories and futures. “Capitalist” is about who controls resources — the capital — for survival and symbols of power (money). “Patriarchy” is about who controls other people and how people are taught to see themselves and others in terms of sex and in terms of age.
My additional categories make tangible room for naming the institutionally sanctioned, including the “proper” kind of relationships, thus heteronormative; the “proper” type of body and mind, thus ableist; the “proper” narrow range of acceptable yet required religious practices, thus theistic.
Consider the continued opposition to a woman’s right to choose: Abortion.
In objections to abortion, the full force of the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchy is visibly at work.
Imperialist — wealthy and famous politicians and preachers want to take power away from women, want to limit access to birth control, and want to force their ideas on everyone else.
White Supremacist — abortion and racism have always been thoroughly interconnected in the United States, most recently because politicians fear a declining population of white babies.
Capitalist — wealthy politicians want there to be a strong (white) workforce in the future, and they want to limit women’s ability to accumulate capital and by making women have children and not providing assistance, guarantee impoverishment
Heteronormative — the powers at be want to keep women in “traditional” family roles, having babies, staying home, and taking care of others; thus, limiting any opportunities for non-normative relationships or any opportunities that might introduce different relationships.
Ableist — mores that say “women complete children,” that say “abortion destroys women,” and that say “women are natural nurturers.”
Theistic — views about dominating women, perpetuating the “white race,” working hard/following rules being rewarded with worldly and heavenly prosperity are all built on popular interpretations of Christianity.
Patriarchy — notions that the heteronormative, able-bodied, Christian “family” is supreme, should be comprised of many children, and a god-like man.
Indeed, we can see that objections to abortion involve every component of oppression named with the phraseology, Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchy. We can also see that each overlap with the others. And the aspects of power named by “heteronormative,” “ableist,” and “theistic” can’t quite be encompassed by the others.
While writing this piece, I’m considering another change.
What if it was “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchies.” This would help recognize that there is no singular, static patriarchy, but one that changes over time and one that has different manifestations according to cultural mores and identities. For instance, there are “homonormative” and “heteronormative” manifestations of patriarchy — ”homonormative” manifestations being queer replications that might also involve components of homonationalism.
I highly recommend exploring the wonderful mind that is Dr. bell hooks.
Her books and talks always inspire me. She has commented at times that it’s painful but necessary to analyze culture and to voice critiques of the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, a political system that is very much actively and knowingly destroying people and the planet. Not many are able to follow her lead, few who can are willing. Where do you fall?
Andrew Joseph Pegoda (@AJP_PhD) holds a Ph.D. in History and teaches women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; religious studies; and English at the University of Houston. Previous articles can be found in The Conversation, History News Network, Inside Higher Ed, Time, and The Washington Post, among many others.