Gloria Anzaldúa Criticism

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Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano (essay date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: Cultural Studies, ‘Difference,’ and the Non-Unitary Subject.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora, pp. 11-31. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998.

[In the following essay, originally published in a 1994 issue of Cultural Critique, Yarbro-Bejarano discusses Anzaldúa's theory of mestiza or border consciousness in relation to the theory of difference and the mixed critical reaction to Borderlands/La Frontera.]

In 1979, Audre Lorde denounced the pernicious practice of the ‘Special Third World Women's Issue’ (100). Ten years later, the title of one of the chapters in Trinh T. Minh-ha's Woman, Native, Other—‘Difference: A Special Third World Women's Issue’—alludes to the lingering practice of acknowledging the subject of race and ethnicity but placing it on the margins conceptually through ‘special issues’ of journals or ‘special panels’ at conferences. In her ‘Feminism and Racism: A Report on the 1981 National Women's Studies Association Conference’, Chela Sandoval critiqued the conference's structure, which designated one consciousness-raising group for women of color yet offered proliferating choices for white women (60). Nine years later, a conference at UCLA on ‘Feminist Theory and the Question of the Subject’ replicated this scenario, presenting a plenitude of panels on different aspects of the question of the subject, while marking off a space for ‘minority discourse’ that simultaneously revealed the unmarked status of the generic (white) subject of the other panels. Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, the guest editors of a special issue of Screen, formulate its title as an ironic question: ‘The Last Special Issue on Race?’ They point out that the logic of the ‘special’ issue or panel ‘reinforces the perceived otherness and marginality of the subject itself’. In their critique, they invite us to identify the relations of power/knowledge that determine which cultural issues are intellectually prioritized in the first place … to examine the force of a binary relationship that produces the marginal as a consequence of the authority invested in the center.

The persistence into the 1990s of discourses and practices that reinscribe the margin and the center indicates the problems inherent in theorizing ‘difference’. In ‘The Politics of Difference’, Hazel Carby suggests that discourses on difference and diversity in the 1980s functioned to obscure structures of dominance. Linda Gordon offers a ‘white-woman's narrative and perspective about the appropriation of the notion of differences among women by a white-dominated women-studies discourse’ in her article ‘On Difference’ (100). The reinscription of the politics of domination within the discourse on difference inheres in part in the practice of theorizing difference within a paradigm that implies a norm and the tolerance of deviance from it (Gordon 100 and Spelman). The ‘additive’ model, in which heretofore excluded categories are ‘included’ in an attempt at correction, works against understanding the relations among the elements of identity and the effect each has on the other (Spelman 115 and Uttal).

This critique has been accompanied by an awareness that the failure to produce a relational theory of difference (Lippard 21) is not just a sin of omission, a result of ‘laziness or racism’, but points to a profound ‘conceptual and theoretical difficulty’ (Gordon 101-2). What is needed is a new paradigm that permits the expansion of categories of analysis in such a way as to give expression to the lived experience of the ways race, class, and gender converge (Childers and hooks). The writing of women of color is crucial in this project of categorical expansion, producing what Cherríe Moraga calls ‘theory in the flesh’ (Moraga and Anzaldúa, Bridge [ This Bridge...

(The entire section is 70,825 words.)