Posted by: kemalo | December 6, 2007

The “common denominator” category

The “common denominator” category as discussed by Norma Alarn really struck a cord with me, and I want to explore it a bit more.  A “common denominator” category is created when all women are lumped into a unitary category of woman/women which is defined in opposition to white men.  Doing this implies a common experience among women of gender oppression, and leaves us “unable to explore relationships among women” (406).  

In order to maintain a “common denominator” category, differences are denied and those whose experiences don’t support the category are silenced, or their experiences are tacked on as an example of difference without being incorporated. I am reminded of Elsa Barkley Brown in her essay, “What Has Happened Here: the Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics.” By having difference mean “not white middle-class heterosexual,” white middle-class heterosexual experiences are normalized. (Brown 301) Because Anglo-American feminism appropriated the generic term for itself, many women have to call themselves something in relation to that, such as “woman of color.” (Alarcon 409) A “common denominator” category view doesn’t enable us to acknowledge the interrelation of groups. As Brown says, “recognizing and even including difference is, in itself, not enough… We need to recognize not only differences but also the relational nature of those differences.” (298)


Instead of creating a “common denominator” view of women that ignores or denies differences, Alarcon sees women as complex subjects whose subjectivity is shaped by race, culture, and violence, including violence from women. In order to explore “common differences” instead of the “common denominator”, without overemphasizing division, Alarcon believes we must reconfigure the subject of feminist theory and “her relational position to a multiplicity of others, not just white men.” (407)


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