Heteropatriarchy, A Building Block of Empire

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

Andrea Smith

IN FORA SUCH as the U.S. or World Social Forums, gender and sexuality are often reduced to discussions on the status of women or LGBT communities. What we pay less attention to is how the logic of heteropatriarchy fundamentally structures colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism.

To look at how heteropatriarchy is the building block of U.S. empire, we can turn to the writings of the Christian Right.  For example, Christian Right activist and founder of Prison Fellowship, Charles Colson makes the connection between homosexuality and the nation-state in his analysis of the war on terror, explaining that one of the cause of terrorism is same-sex marriage:

“Marriage is the traditional building block of human society, intended both to unite couples and bring children into the world. . .There is a natural moral order for the family. . .The family, led by a married mother and father, is the best available structure for both child-rearing and cultural health. Marriage is not a private institution designed solely for the individual gratification of its participants. If we fail to enact a Federal Marriage Amendment, we can expect, not just more family breakdown, but also more criminals behind bars and more chaos in our streets. It’s like handing moral weapons of mass destruction to those who would use America’s depravity to recruit more snipers, more highjackers, and more suicide bombers.

“When radical Islamists see American women abusing Muslim men, as they did in the Abu Ghraib prison, and when they see news coverage of same-sex couples being “married” in U.S. towns, we make our kind of freedom abhorrent — the kind they see as a blot on Allah’s creation. [We must preserve traditional marriage in order to] protect the United States from those who would use our depravity to destroy us.”

The implicit assumption in this analysis is that heteropatriarchy is the building block of empire. Colson is linking the well-being of U.S. empire to the well-being of the heteropatriarchal family. Heteropatriarchy is the logic that makes social hierarchy seem natural. Just as the patriarchs rule the family, the elites of the nation-state rule their citizens.

Consequently, when colonists first came to this land they saw the necessity of instilling patriarchy in Native communities because they realized that indigenous peoples would not accept colonial domination if their own indigenous societies were not structured on the basis of social hierarchy. Patriarchy in turns rests on a gender-binary system; hence it is not a coincidence that colonizers also targeted indigenous peoples who did not fit within this binary model.

In addition, gender violence is a primary tool of colonialism and white supremacy. Colonizers did not just kill off indigenous peoples in this land, but Native massacres were always accompanied by sexual mutilation and rape. The goal of colonialism is not just to kill colonized peoples, but to destroy their sense of being people. It is through sexual violence that a colonizing group attempts to render a colonized people as inherently rapable, their lands inherently invadable, and their resources inherently extractable.

Our Movements’ Failures

Unfortunately it is not only the Christian Right, but our own progressive movements that often fail to critique heteropatriarchy. The issue is not simply how women are treated in the movement; heteropatriarchy fundamentally shapes how we think to resist and organize in countless ways.

First, because we have not challenged heteropatriarchy, we have deeply internalized the notion that social hierarchy is natural and inevitable, thus undermining our ability to create movements for social change that do not replicate the structures of domination that we seek to eradicate. Whether it is the neocolonial middle managers of the non-profit industrial complex or the revolutionary vanguard elite, the assumption is that patriarchs of any gender are required to manage and police the revolutionary family.

Any liberation struggle that does not challenge heteronormativity* cannot substantially challenge colonialism or white supremacy. Rather, as Cathy Cohen contends, such struggles will maintain colonialism based on a politics of secondary marginalization where the most elite class of these groups will further their aspiration on the backs of those most marginalized within the community.

Second, our sense of social hierarchy as natural then limits our revolutionary imagination. For instance, the theme of the U.S. Social Forum is “Another World is Possible: Another U.S. is Necessary.” But the critical question we must ask ourselves is, if another world is possible, then is the U.S. itself necessary? If we put all our revolutionary imaginations together, is the best we can come up with a kindler, gentler settler colonial nation-state based on slavery and genocide?

This is where we should be informed by indigenous peoples’ (particularly indigenous women’s) struggles to re-imagine nationhood without nation-states. The indigenous models of nationhood are based on nations as inclusive rather than exclusive, based on respect and responsibility for land rather than control over territory, and are governed on principles of mutual respect, interrelatedness and responsibility for a larger world, rather than governed through violence, domination, and social hierarchy.

Third, our organizing often follows a gendered model that is based on a split between private and public spheres. That is, in the public sphere of social protest, we are supposed to be completely together people who have no problems. However, when it turns out we do have problems, we are supposed to address those problems in the private sphere — at home, or through social services. Because we cannot bring our whole selves to the movement, we then end up undermining our work through personal dysfunctionality that cannot be publicly addressed.

In addition, when we think to work collectively, our collective action is confined to the public spheres of protests and other actions. But our movements do not think to collectivize the work that is seen as part of the private sphere, such as daycare, cooking and tending to our basic needs. Consequently, we build movements that are accessible to very few people and which are particularly burdensome for women who often are responsible for caretaking in the private sphere.

Bombing for Women’s Liberation?

Finally, because we lack an intersectional analysis of how heteropatriarchy structures white supremacy and colonialism, we end up developing organizing strategies that are problematic to say the least. To name but a few examples: We have anti-violence groups supporting the bombing of Afghanistan in order save women from the Taliban, and we have these same groups supporting the buildup of the prison industrial complex by relying on criminalization as the primary strategy for ending domestic and sexual violence.

These groups fail to see how the state itself is the primary perpetrator of violence against women, particularly women of color, and that state violence in the form of either the military or prison industrial complex is not going to liberate anyone.
We have racial and antiwar groups meanwhile organizing against state violence in Iraq and elsewhere, but cannot seem to do anything about ending violence against women in their own organizations. These groups fail to see that it is primarily through sexual violence that colonialism and white supremacy work.

And then we have mainstream reproductive rights and environmental groups supporting population control policies in order to save the world from poverty and environmental destruction, thus blaming women of color for the policies wrought by corporate and government elites, thus letting these elites off the hook.

In all these cases and many more, activists fail to recognize that if we do not address heteropatriarchy, we do not just undermine the status of women, but we fundamentally undermine our struggles for social justice for everyone.

Thus, if we are not serious about dismantling heteropatriarchy, then we are not serious about ending colonialism or white supremacy. We might as well go home and tell all Christian Right activists to retire because we will be doing their job for them.

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)

1 comment

  1. WWW
    Word to the Women of the World

    World Water One

    If Afghanistan is where empires of the patriarchy go to die, can we hope for a rebirth of our global Humanity that shall be regenerated by the intentional realization and empowerment of the ancient Confederacies of Mother Earth, and her Nations and Pueblos of Indigenous Peoples of the Planet?

    The call to the Confederacy of the Eagle and the Condor is not only given to the Continent Abya Yala, it signals the planetary transformation of CEMANAHUAK, through which human personality is not defined by process of isolation and allegiance to regimes of territorial domination but in relationship with the principles of planetary responsibility and sacredness of the shared: World Water One.

    “We must disarm the global regime of nationalism of the state. The psychologies of hatred and competition under which the government states of the world would have us sacrifice our humanity and our children to senseless wars will no longer be tolerated. As Indigenous Peoples of the world, we further challenge the government states of the United Nations system to criminalize the destructive impact of warfare upon the ecosystems of the Earth itself, by defining appropriate international legal protocols regarding the conduct of warfare such as the Geneva Convention.” Said Tupac Enrique Acosta, a member of Izkalotlan Pueblo, Xicanos of Aztlan.

    Indigenous Peoples Peace Initiative
    http://www.nahuacalli.org/ip peace initiative

    Embassy of the Indigenous Peoples
    PO Box 24009 Phoenix, AZ 85074
    Email: chantlaca@tonatierra.org

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