Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Superfluous Womanhood: The “Human,” Race and Other People’s Waste

Shatema Threadcraft (left) in conversation with Lucia Cantera and Victoria Collis-Buthelezi

In his talk, Democracy and the Ethics of Mutuality, Achille Mbembe discussed unemployment, closed routes to manhood and the importance of South Africa as one of the key experiments in how to dismantle race-based systems while striving to create racial equality through positive law. He discussed the changing relationship between democracy and the "human" and the responsibility of democratic governments to respect, redistribute and rebuild the humanity of capital’s superfluous or those who in the racialized yet post-apartheid, post-industrial world, find that "capital doesn't need them any more."

This is a change from black men’s paradoxical position in an apartheid economy, where their labor was indispensable and all other aspects of them, including their human capacity for political participation, was dispensable, waste. His presentation was profound. It made me think about what it might mean to be a woman, equally, in this society. To paraphrase Seyla Benhabib, I would add that thinking about human work and racial equality must not stop at the household door. What is the paradox in the black female relationship to the political community in this society? Which aspects of black womanhood have been considered indispensable and which aspects waste? How do we deal with this in thinking about democracy and its relationship to the “human?”

Here racially subordinated womanhood seems to have a lot to do with them reproducing the biological lives of others. Their work, their creative energy in reproducing the lives of their families, their efforts to produce children and not workers, time wasted. As an outsider I am always struck by how much of everyone else’s reproductive labor is performed by black women; I have real doubts about whether or not the labor necessary to sustain life can be alienated justly. Such reservations lead me to question what's at stake in retrieving one's humanity with regard to the labor necessary to reproduce life and (subject to feminist critique) feminine gender roles? What, then, is the responsibility of a democratic government that professes the equal dignity of all human beings regarding this? I should note that historically, regarding the labor necessary to produce life and racial subordination, subordinated women have not rejected this labor outright I’ve argued that enslaved women saw this labor as a part of a full human life the fight to end racial subordination in this labor has been a fight about who should be labor’s beneficiaries. In the United States, for example, after emancipation historian Jacqueline Jones claims that there was a trend among black women to withdraw from productive labor so that they might perform domestic labor for their families; this effort to withdraw remains an important point of racial conflict in the U.S.

Equality for freedwomen meant not walking away from this labor forever, but performing less labor for others and more for their families. I believe that movement toward racial equality here must not overlook questions regarding the relationship between access to privatized feminine gender roles, racial group ownership of domestic labor power, and racial equality. If the democratic government aims to take up capital’s slack with regard to the human, it must address this racial imbalance and ask what is the relationship between the human, roles historically associated with the feminine gender and racial equality?

Shatema Threadcraft

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