The Subtle Imperialism of Western Gender Identity

Posted on October 2nd, by Elizabeth Debold in Uncategorized. Comments Off on The Subtle Imperialism of Western Gender Identity

Gender, in a diverse global context, is an ongoing confrontation. The ways that we embody being male or female (or neither) vary remarkably from culture to culture, place to place. However, I find it very striking that it’s often very difficult to see this clearly. And if we do, it’s then very difficult not to have some kind of personal, emotional reaction to these differences—often some form of repulsion. Such responses are often particularly visceral because gender is entwined with the power and lure of sexuality. I’m not necessarily speaking about practices like Female Genital Mutilation, but the more subtle ways that our core identities frame our perceptions of what is normal, good, and right. A deep and unconscious attachment to our core gender identity easily can make us into subtle imperialists.

Our shared resistance, particularly in the West, to a deep and constructive confrontation with difference has led to all kinds of violence, gross and subtle. Encountering cultural difference along core dimensions of identity questions our sense of the fundamental “rightness” of who we are. Becoming one, integrated humanity depends on awakening to the subtle forms of separation that we inhabit as identity and assert as “right.” The joy and creative potential of meeting across cultures and civilizations only becomes possible as we liberate ourselves from the prisons of righteousness of our unexamined identities.


I’m in my twenties, living in Rome. I like to walk about in the early evening, which isn’t really something that young women do in Italy. Often, I go to the Piazza del Pantheon, where a lot of people hang out—the ice cream and coffee are particularly delicious there. The young men stand in close clusters, smoking almost in each other’s faces. Hair carefully worked into tousled curls that spill over into one eye, each young man stands with legs apart, slightly thrusting their hips at each other to emphasize their words. I “read” them: gay. They see me, alone at night, American, they read me: hooker.


While European colonialism was unthinkably brutal, resulting in the enslavement or death of hundreds of millions of human beings, there was another more subtle form of enslavement that has persisted into the present. It’s an enslavement of the mind, a reduction of human being into limited categories. The form of Western rationality that was imported with the colonizers tended toward these binary categories, such as man and woman, heterosexual and homosexual, Black and white. While this may be difficult for us Western rationalists to understand, within many cultures there was not a sharp division between man and woman, masculine and feminine. And race, moreover, did not exist as a supposedly definite biological category that enabled science to rationalize ethnocentrism. There were a variety of types of human embodiment that were valued and positively recognized that allowed for a range of expression of self and sexuality.

In many parts of the world, including Africa and among the indigenous tribes of North America, persons with male and female bodies were not viewed as opposites in a hierarchy in which males were dominant. In The Invention of Women, Oyéronké Oyewùmí argues that prior to the colonization of Africa, Yoruba society was not organized with gender as a category that determined what human beings could and could not do. After colonization, those who were designated female were no long able to hold leadership positions, have rights to property, or engage in other areas of economic power. The renown Native American writer and critic Paula Gunn Allen gives similar examples of the Cherokee and the Iroquois peoples, who, after colonization, took away traditional rights that females had, such as the power to wage war, the right to be involved in public decisions, the choice to marry or not. She describes these changes as vain attempts to appease the European settlers by mimicking them in order not to be sent off their land.

The lack of a binary, either-or, hierarchy also applies to sexuality. First, the categories homosexual and heterosexual didn’t exist. Similar to earlier periods in European history, sexual behaviors were acknowledged as same sex or not. But, and this is my second point, this didn’t result in the creation of a negative category of person. The term “Two-Spirit” has been recently coined to describe the existence of Native Americans who defy Western binary gender categories. Apparently, there is evidence that over 130 tribes acknowledged more than the two categories that we would call male and female. Often, the Two-Spirits were highly valued members of the tribe, with significant roles as seers, sources of luck, and spiritual guides. The existence of additional genders can be found in cultures as diverse as India and Polynesia, not to mention that same-sex encounters have been part of Western culture since the Greeks.


Walking along Broadway in New York City in the progressive Upper West Side, I am with my partner at the time, who is African American. We are in conversation, but not holding hands or touching. I notice, with alarm, that a white man is approaching me, but doesn’t appear to see that I am in his way. I move to the side to avoid getting bumped. I begin to notice something deeply disorienting: many of the white people that we pass on the street don’t seem to see me. It’s not about eye contact or the usual ways that we ignore or brush past each other on busy city streets. It’s deeper than that: I experience that I don’t exist for them. It’s as though where I am is an empty space. I feel strangely erased and suffocated, and mentioned my experience to my partner. He smiles slightly and looks at me side-eyed. “Yes,” he said, “that’s often the Black experience.”


Projection—the psychological defense mechanism—has been very common in the way we in the West have engaged with persons from other cultures. Blinded by these binary categories of thought, it is so easy to fail to see persons when they do not fit. In fact, the tendency is to make frightening assumptions about the “Other.” Whole continents of people were judged to be hypersexualized, subhuman animals by Western men and women who believed that they were not ruled by sexual desire or emotional passion. Interestingly, the characteristics that our forebears placed on persons from Africa, Asia, and the Americas seem to be outside the half of the binary that makes up the ideal Western man or woman. They are the shadow parts of our own gender identities that have obscured the humanity of much of the world.

The Victorian gender ideals of the rational man and the pure woman don’t just happen by themselves. To get young boys to cut off from their sensitive feelings and girls to dissociate from the power and desires of their bodies takes a whole culture. The process of gender identity development begins very early. Young children, around the age of two, are keen to understand what “boy” and “girl,” “mother” and “father,” mean, particularly in cultures where these differences are very evident. According to Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, the age of two is also when children begin to develop a moral sense. And they bring that moral sense to their developing gender identity: young children want to do “boy” or “girl” right. They are dependent on their parents and the cultural surround to show them and they have a sense that it is very important to get it right. For a variety of reasons for boys raised primarily by women without male support, there is an existential fear of crossing categories and losing oneself entirely. To do so is a source of fear and shame.

Our sense of ourselves as appropriately male or female, according to the codes of modernist Western culture, is bounded by shame. To be un-manned and “feminized” as a male or to be either a slut or overly masculine as a female is shameful. Shame is the painful awareness that one doesn’t measure up against the standards and values that one has learned as important. Given how fragile the gender binary is—because it says that half of all human qualities are not right for one to express—the ongoing potential for shame is very high. Shame is extremely painful, and most of us humans do everything we can to avoid it. Even if we have to blind ourselves to another’s humanity.


Few of us living in Europe—and reading this magazine—consciously embrace a Victorian-era gender identity in which men are men and women are women. So much has happened in the last fifty years to bring us closer together and to make us whole human beings, not just halves of a binary polarity. Yet our gender identities are rooted in a very old part of the self—from almost before we could talk—when our capacity for complexity and compassion was very limited. Underneath much of our sophistication, these deep-seated beliefs still can have a powerful hold, protected by an invisible wall of shame.

Decades after the overthrow of colonial rule, many find themselves still in a deep struggle between cultural authenticity and an internalized imperialist view of themselves as inferior. If we want to take part in authentic conversation with people who are reclaiming and revitalizing profoundly different ways of being human and living on this planet, certain assumptions that literally make us up and structure our sense of reality have to be suspended. We cannot get rid of those assumptions, but they can become transparent to us. The self-work that we have done, psychologically and spiritually, can now be brought into service for a larger purpose by giving us the inner freedom to step beyond the ways we subtly reinforce the colonial mindset. The same global forces responsible for climate change and species extinction are also causing the extinction of cultural diversity and precious forms of human consciousness on this planet. We don’t know what effect that will have.

We have much to learn from each other and much to do to create real meeting places on this planet that are spaces of creativity and renewal. As Oyewùmí writes, “In the West the challenge of feminism is how to proceed from the gender-saturated category of ‘women’ to the fullness of an unsexed humanity. For Yoruba obinrin [anatomical females], the challenge is obviously different because at certain levels in the society and in some spheres, the notion of an ‘unsexed humanity’ is neither a dream to aspire to nor a memory to be realized. It exists….” It exists, she says, under pressure from and in conflict with modernity’s imperialist ways of being. I would suggest that all of us, women and men, need to discover the “fullness of an unsexed humanity.” Only in meeting in the unsexed humanity that is our birthright can we discover how our differences can be brought to creative use in shaping an integral future.



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