Third World and Third World Women

What geographical regions constitute the Third World? Who are Third World women? Who defines and writes about the terms “Third World” and “Third World Women”? The answers to the above questions are important to both postcolonial studies and feminist studies.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains that the term “Third World” was initially coined in 1955 by those emerging from the “old” world order:

The initial attempt in the Bandung Conference (1955) to establish a third way — neither with the Eastern nor within the Western bloc — in the world system, in response to the seemingly new world order established after the Second World War, was not accompanied by a commensurate intellectual effort. The only idioms deployed for the nurturing of this nascent Third World in the cultural field belonged then to positions emerging from resistance within the supposedly ‘old’ world order — anti-imperialism, and/or nationalism (270).

Kum Kum Sangari argues that the term “Third World” not only designates specific geographical areas, but imaginary spaces. According to Sangari, “Third World” is “a term that both signifies and blurs the functioning of an economic, political, and imaginary geography able to unite vast and vastly differentiated areas of the world into a single ‘underdeveloped’ terrain” (217). Sangari is critical of the way “Third World” is used by the West to indiscriminately lump together vastly different places.

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism book cover

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, 1991

Chandra Talpade Mohanty defines the Third World geographically:

The nation-states of Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-east Asia, China, South Africa, and Oceania constitute the parameters of the non-European third world. In addition, black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples in the U.S., Europe, Australia, some of whom have historic links with the geographically defined third worlds, also define themselves as third world peoples (5).

Cheryl Johnson-Odim explains that “the term Third World is frequently applied in two ways: to refer to ‘underdeveloped’/over-exploited geopolitical entities, i.e. countries, regions, even continents; and to refer to oppressed nationalities from these world areas who are now resident in ‘developed’ First World countries.” Johnson-Odim further identifies problems some Third World women have with First World feminism:

While it may be legitimately argued that there is no one school of thought on feminism among First World feminists — who are not, after all, monolithic — there is still, among Third World women, a widely accepted perception that the feminism emerging from white, middle-class Western women narrowly confines itself to a struggle against gender discrimination. (314, 315)

The use of the term “Third World Women” by Western feminists has been widely critiqued. Mohanty uses the term interchangeably with “women of color” (7). She argues that “what seems to constitute ‘women of color’ or ‘third world women’ as a viable oppositional alliance is a common context of struggle rather than color or racial identifications. Similarly, it is third world women’s oppositional political relation to sexist, racist, and imperialistic structures that constitutes our political commonality” (7). Although she uses the term “third world women,” Mohanty argues that western feminisms appropriate the production of the”third world woman as a singular monolithic subject,” for a “discursive colonization” (51). Furthermore, western feminisms articulate a discursive colonization through the production of “third world difference”: “that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all of the women in [third world] countries” (53-54). Western feminisms’ use of the category of “third world woman” and “third world difference” ties into a larger, latent cultural and economic colonialism:

In the context of the hegemony of the Western scholarly establishment in the production and dissemination of texts, and the context of the legitimating imperative of humanistic and scientific discourse, the definition of the ‘third world woman’ as a monolith might well tie into the larger cultural and economic praxis of ‘disinterested’ scientific inquiry and pluralism which are the surface manifestations of a latent economic and cultural colonization of the ‘non-Western’ world (74).

Trinh T. Minh-ha argues that “‘difference’ is essentially ‘division’ in the understanding of many. It is no more than a tool of self-defense and conquest” (14). Trinh’s concern is with the use of the third world woman as the “native” Other in Western anthropology and feminisms. Answering the question, “‘why do we have to be concerned with the question of Third World women? After all, it is only one issue among many others,’” Trinh replies:

Delete the phrase Third World and the sentence immediately unveils its value-loaded cliches. Generally speaking, a similar result is obtained through the substitution of words like racist for sexist, or vice-versa, and the established image of the Third World Woman in the context of (pseudo)-feminism readily merges with that of the Native in the context of (neo-colonialist) anthropology (17).

Self-defined Third World women who inhabit a place within First World feminist academia are also the subject of critique. Diane Brydon writes, “now that the marginal is being revalued as the new voice of authority in discourse, it is tempting to accept the imperial definition of the colonized as marginal”(4). In a direct attack on Mohanty and Trinh as well as bell hooks, Sara Suleri argues that:

Rather than extending an inquiry into the discursive possibilities represented by the intersection of gender and race, feminist intellectuals like hooks misuse their status as minority voices by enacting strategies of belligerence that at this time are more divisive than informative. Such claims to radical revisionism take refuge in the political untouchability that is accorded the category of Third World Woman, and in the process sully the crucial knowledge that such a category has still to offer to the dialogue of feminism today (765).

Suleri also argues:

[The] claim to authenticity — only a black can speak for a black; only a postcolonial subcontinental feminist can adequately represent the lived experience of that culture — points to the great difficulty posited by the ‘authenticity’ of female racial voices in the great game which claims to be the first narrative of what the ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want (760).

Similarly, Suleri attacks hooks and Trinh for claiming that “personal narrative is the only salve to the rude abrasions that Western feminist theory has inflicted on the body of ethnicity” (764). Suleri advocates examining how “realism locates its language within the postcolonial condition,” and suggests that “lived experience does not achieve its articulation through autobiography, but through that other third-person narrative known as the law” (766).

As the above arguments indicate, the terms “Third World” and”Third World Women” are by no means stable categories. Rather, these terms are a locus of contention not only between First World feminisms and Third World women, but also between Third World women themselves within the complex field of postcolonial studies.

See also: Gender and Nation, Nawal el Saadawi, Women, Islam, and the Hijab, Chicana Feminism, FGM, Victorian Women Travellers


  • Brydon, Diana. “Commonwealth or Common Poverty?” Kunapipi: Special Issue on Post-Colonial Criticism 11-1 (1989): 1-16.
  • Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism.Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Introduction” and “Under Western Eyes.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1991.
  • Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Eds. Abdul Jan Mohamed and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Spivak Reader. Eds. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Suleri, Sara. “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.” Critical Inquiry (Summer 1992): 756-769.
  • Trinh, Minh-ha. “Difference: ‘A Special Third World Woman Issue.” Discourse 8 (Fall-Winter 86-87): 10-37.

Author: Nicola Graves, Spring 1996  Last edited: May 2012

African American Studies and Postcolonialism

“Colonial racism is no different from any other racism.”
- Frantz Fanon

A Need To Talk Back

While African American Studies and Postcolonial studies are different fields, both share a goal of destabilizing racial hierarchies. Discussions of power relationships between the colonizer and the colonized are sometimes similar to studies on slavery and relationships between masters and slaves. Within the United States and other postcolonies the current reality of discrimination and racism towards minority populations bridges these two studies together through a joint target of neocolonialism. Critical of current American educational policy, prominent black feminist bell hooks states, “I believe that black experience has been and continues to be one of internal colonialism” (148). A need to decolonize the mindset of contemporary America fuels current efforts in reclaiming and recovering minority history and literature. New sociological and literary approaches to history (Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, for example) become useful methods for reclaiming the past and forging culturally sensitive paradigms for the future. Critics like Henry Louis Gates, Barbara Christian, Ella Shohat and Homi Bhabha are connected through a need to “talk back.”

Race and Multiculturalism in Academia: Writing Back

Toni Morrison, Marlene van Niekerk, and Anthony Appiah at the PEN World Voices Festival, 2010.

African American Studies and Postcolonial studies similarly flesh out such issues as representation, essentialism, and nationalism. Under the rubric of these disciplines, literature and literary theory often become vehicles for social commentary. While nation-making and redefining nation, along with the blurring between public and private spaces are among common themes, critics in both fields are quick to point to the dangers of hastily dismissing this literary work as political. Gates writes of a need to dispel the myth of alleged primacy of  “Western tradition” over the “so-called non-canonical tradition such as that of the Afro-American.” Especially conscious of the dangers of essentialism in his book The Signifying Monkey, Gates studies the need “to create a new narrative space for representing the recurring referent of Afro-American literature, the so-called Black Experience” (111). Similarly critical of essentialism, Homi Bhabha, a prominent Cultural Studies and Postcolonial critic, connects the two fields together as he remarks: “The intervention of postcolonial or black critique is aimed at transforming the conditions of enunciation at the level of the sign . . . not simply setting up new symbols of identity, new ‘positive images’ that fuel an unreflective ‘identity politics’” (247). Bhabha even conducts a detailed reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the introduction to The Location of Culture.

"Race," Writing, and Difference, 1986.

“Race,” Writing, and Difference, 1986

Scholarship does indeed overlap in interesting ways between these two fields. Much in the same way Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark analyzes and enumerates the ways in which white selfhood in literary America is further constituted by objectifying “black” presence, Edward Said’s Orientalism seeks  “to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (3).  Race, Writing and Difference (1986), edited by Henry Louis Gates includes prominent postcolonial critics like Gayatri C. Spivak  and Abdul R. JanMohamed. In fact, a more recent anthology edited by Gates, Identities, is co-edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a scholar of Afro-American Studies who has also written on postcolonial theory. Such examples of overlap in scholarship compels us to reconsider deeper questions of the politics of reading and writing and the applicability of scholarly methods which enhance an understanding and emphasis on culturally sensitive modes of carving out scholarly discourse.


The intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender politics has produced provocative discussions in the works of bell hooks, Barbara Christian, and Shirley Anne Williams (to name a few African American feminist critics) as well as in the work of Gayatri Spivak and Chandra T. Mohanty. Patriarchy often becomes a metaphor, a trope of power imbalance and the culprit for the ills of colonialism and neocolonialism. bell hooks states in Outlaw Culture, “For contemporary critics to condemn the imperialism of the white colonizer without critiquing patriarchy is a tactic that seeks to minimize the particular ways gender determines the specific forms oppression may take within a specific group” (203).

Alongside this obvious intersection of marginalized positions comes the risk of totalizing. Barbara Christian, in  “Race for Theory” which cautions against essentialist constructions of black womanhood, compares the dangers of an overly prescriptive black feminism to the monolithic, monotheistic Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Chandra Mohanty urges against the same essentializing practice in the growing discourse on Third World feminism. Discussions of class are similarly called for in both fields of study. Interestingly, Hooks comments upon what she sees as an overlooked problem in cross-cultural feminist discussion in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. She states, “We often forget that many Third World nationals bring to this country the same kind of contempt and disrespect for blackness that is most frequently associated with white imperialism” (93).

The Future?

Ann Ducille’s essay “Postcolonialism and Afrocentricity” not only highlights some concerns about the threat of essentialism in both disciplines but it also suggests the possibility for what she considers the dangerous possibility of the interchangeability of the two. She states, “Whereas the critique posed by African American studies and the alternative (non-Eurocentric) worldview asserted by Afrocentricity cut uncomfortably close to home, postcoloniality seems to offer its opposition from a distance—as Gayatri Spivak might say, “in other worlds” (34).

However, data in recent MLA tabulations of full-time positions accepted by African Americanists and Postcolonialists suggests that the hiring trend for African Americanists has been greater than the trend for Postcolonialists during the last five years. Such data in based on accepted full-time positions drawn from percentages of each year’s total available pool of English and foreign language departmental positions only, not controlled studies monitoring the growth of these specific disciplines.*

Scholarship seems to be moving towards an even more self-conscious appraisal of individual, subjective identities.  Specificity in deconstructions of “race” becomes one method to combat the unproductive lumping together of all “marginalized” voices. Gates, Christian, and Sara Suleri (see Identities) are among others who often work against what they see as an unproductive totalizing of all “minority” discourse(s). Reconfiguring American Studies may serve as a discipline of common ground as some scholars, like Hazel Carby and Mario Garcia, work to question basic tenets of American historiography. Others, like Ella Shohat, encourage the compatibility between the distinct realms of Ethnic Studies and Postcolonialism. Meanwhile, critics encourage further questioning of the similarities and differences between multiculturalism, postcolonialism, and ethnic studies and their developments in relation to the lingering threat of cultural closemindedness.

*Basic tabulations of job information compiled by David Laurence
Director, MLA English Programs and ADE

Works Cited/Bibliography

  • Appiah, Kwame A. and Henry L. Gates, eds. Identities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • —.  “The Multicultural Wars.”  Radical History Review  54 (1992):  7-18.
  • Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Within the Circle. Ed. Angela Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.
  • Ducille, Ann. “Postcolonialism and Afrocentricity: Discourse and Dat Course.” The Black Columbiad.  Eds. Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Garcia, Mario T. “Multiculturalism and American Studies.” Radical History Review 54 (1992): 49-56.
  • Gates, Henry L., ed. “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Hooks, Bell. Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • —. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
  • Mohanty, Chandra al, ed. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1991.
  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
  • Shohat, Ella. “American Orientalism.” Suitcase: A Journal of Transcultural Traffic 2 (1997):  56-62.

Related Links

Links to African American Studies site (course information/syllabi) at Emory

African American Studies at Colby

Angela Davis

Edwidge Danticat

Links to American Studies at Emory

Michelle Cliff

Paule Marshall

Author: Reshmi J. Hebbar, Fall 1998
Last edited: October 2012

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2007/CC Licensed

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2007/CC Licensed

While she is best known as a postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak describes herself as a “para-disciplinary, ethical philosopher”– though her early career would have included “applied deconstruction.” Her reputation was first made for her translation and preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1976) and she has since applied deconstructive strategies to various theoretical engagements and textual analyses including feminism, Marxism, literary criticism and postcolonialism.

My position is generally a reactive one. I am viewed by Marxists as too codic, by feminists as too male-identified, by indigenous theorists as too committed to Western Theory. I am uneasily pleased about this. (Post-Colonial Critic)

Despite her outsider status — or partly, perhaps, because of it — Spivak is widely cited in a range of disciplines. Her work is nearly evenly split between dense theoretical writing peppered with flashes of compelling insight, and published interviews in which she wrestles with many of the same issues in a more personable and immediate manner. What Edward Said calls a “contrapuntal” reading strategy is recommended as her ideas are continually evolving and resist, in true deconstructive fashion, a straight textual analysis. She has said that she prefers the teaching environment where ideas are continually in motion and development. Nonetheless, the glossary of key terms and motifs that is available below may serve as a kind of legend to a map of her work. It is not intended as a “bluffer’s guide to Spivakism” (The Spivak Reader) but rather blazes on a trail into this difficult and important body of work.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Calcutta, West Bengal, 24 February 1942 to “solidly metropolitan middle class” parents (PCC). She thus belonged to the “first generation of Indian intellectuals after independence,” a more interesting perspective she claims, than that of the Midnight’s Children, who were “born free by chronological accident” (Arteaga interview). She did her undergraduate work in English at the University of Calcutta (1959), graduating with first class honours. She borrowed money to go to the US in the early 1960s to do graduate work at Cornell, which she chose because she “knew the names of Harvard, Yale and Cornell, and thought half of them were too good for me. (I’m intellectually a very insecure person … to an extent I still feel that way)” (de Kock interview 33). She “fell into comparative literature” because it was the only department that offered her money (Ibid.). She received her MA in English from Cornell and taught at the University of Iowa while working on her Ph.D. Her dissertation was on Yeats (published as Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats [1974)]) and was directed by Paul de Man. Of her work with de Man she says, “I wasn’t groomed for anything. I learnt from him. I took good notes and slowly sort of understood” (de Kock interview). “When I was de Man’s student,” she adds, “he had not read Derrida yet.  I went to teach at Iowa in 1965 and did not know about the famous Hopkins conference on the Structuralists Controversy in 1966″ (E-mail communication).  She ordered _de la grammatologie_ out of a catalogue in 1967 and began working on the translation some time after that (E-mail communication).  During this time she married and divorced an American, Talbot Spivak. Her translator’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology has been variously described as “setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces” (editor’s introduction to The Spivak Reader) and “absolutely unreadable, its only virtue being that it makes Derrida that much more enjoyable.” Her subsequent work consists in post-structuralist literary criticism, deconstructivist readings of Marxism, Feminism and Postcolonialism (including work with the Subaltern Studies group and a critical reading of American cultural studies in Outside in the Teaching Machine [1993]), and translations of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. She is currently a University Professor at Columbia.

Glossary of Key Terms in Spivak’s Work

Ethical responsibility/Ethical singularity

Spivak’s usage of “responsibility” (like her dialogic understanding of “speaking,” noted above) is akin to Bakhtin’s “answerability” (otvetstvennost: sometimes also translated as “responsibility”). It signifies not only the act of response which completes the transaction of speaker and listener, but also the ethical stance of making discursive room for the Other to exist. In other words, “ethics are not just a problem of knowledge but a call to a relationship” (Introduction to The Spivak Reader). The ideal relationship is individual and intimate. This is what she means by “ethical singularity,” the engagement of the Other in non-essential, non-crisis terms.

We all know that when we engage profoundly with one person, the responses come from both sides: this is responsibility and accountability… The object of ethical action is not an object of benevolence, for here responses flow from both sides. (SR 269-270)

The ideal relation to the Other, then, is an “embrace, an act of love” (ibid.). Such an embrace may be unrequited, as the differences and distances are too great, but if we are ever to get beyond the vicious cycle of abuse, it is essential to remain open-hearted; not to attempt to recreate the Other narcissistically, in one’s own image, but generously, with care and attention.


Spivak’s work explores “the margins at which disciplinary discourses break down and enter the world of political agency” (SR). She interrogates the politics of culture from a marginal perspective (“outside”) while maintaining the prerogatives of a professional position within the hegemony. Through deconstruction she turns hegemonic narratives inside out, and as a third world woman in a position of privilege in the American academy, she brings the outside in. Hence Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993). These contradictory positions have led her to develop the notion that the center is also a margin, more like the center line on a road than the center of town. “This is the classic deconstructive position, in the middle, but not on either side” (de Kock interview). This reconfiguring of the “center” (or re-centering, perhaps) also changes the position and status of the margins: no longer outside looking in, but an integral, if minor, language.

Strategic Essentialism

In the Boundary 2 interview, Spivak wistfully pronounces that, of the two things she is best known for, both are often misunderstood. The first was her answer to the question “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and the second is the notion of strategic essentialism.

Essentialism is bad, not in its essence — which would be a tautology — but only in its application. The goal of essentialist critique is not the exposure of error, but the interrogation of the essentialist terms. Uncritical deployment is dangerous. Critique is simply reading the instructions for use. Essentialism is like dynamite, or a powerful drug: judiciously applied, it can be effective in dismantling unwanted structures or alleviating suffering; uncritically employed, however, it is destructive and addictive.

Spivak’s strategy is deconstructivist, like that of a good lawyer: when on defense, prod the prosecution’s narrative until the cracks begin to appear and when prosecuting, piece together a case by understanding the criminal’s motivation. “Strategic essentialism” is like role-playing, briefly inhabiting the criminal mind in order to understand what makes it tick. The Subaltern Studies group, for example, succeeds in unraveling official Indian history by particularizing its narrative: “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (The Spivak Reader 214). This is also the way Spivak uses deconstruction, for example, without fully subscribing to it as a viable philosophic system or practice, much less a political program. Or, as she puts it, “[Deconstruction] is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced.” (Arteaga interview) “Although I make specific use of deconstruction, I’m not a Deconstructivist” (Post-Colonial Critic).

The misuse of the concept of “strategic essentialism” is that less “scrupulous” practitioners ignore the element of strategy, and treat it as simply “a union ticket for essentialism. As to what is meant by strategy , no-one wondered about that.” She claims to have given up on the phrase, though not the concept (Danius and Jonsson interview).


Spivak achieved a certain degree of misplaced notoriety for her 1985 article “Can the Subaltern Speak?: Speculations on Widow Sacrifice” (Wedge 7/8 [Winter/Spring 1985]: 120-130). In it, she describes the circumstances surrounding the suicide of a young Bengali woman that indicates a failed attempt at self-representation. Because her attempt at “speaking” outside normal patriarchal channels was not understood or supported, Spivak concluded that “the subaltern cannot speak.” Her extremely nuanced argument, admittedly confounded by her sometimes opaque style, led some incautious readers to accuse her of phallocentric complicity, of not recognizing or even not letting the subaltern speak. Some critics, missing the point, buttressed their arguments with anecdotal evidence of messages cried out by burning widows. Her point was not that the subaltern does not cry out in various ways, but that speaking is “a transaction between speaker and listener” (Landry and MacLean interview). Subaltern talk, in other words, does not achieve the dialogic level of utterance.

Beyond this specific misunderstanding (proof perhaps that Gayatri Spivak cannot speak?) Spivak also objects to the sloppy use of the term and its appropriation by other marginalized, but not specifically “subaltern” groups. “Subaltern,” Spivak insists, is not “just a classy word for oppressed, for Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie.” She points out that in Gramsci‘s original covert usage (being obliged to encrypt his writing to get it past prison censors), it signified “proletarian,” whose voice could not be heard, being structurally written out of the capitalist bourgeois narrative. In postcolonial terms, “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern — a space of difference. Now who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern” (de Kock interview).

Another misreading of the concept is that, since the subaltern cannot speak, she needs an advocate to speak for her, affirmative action or special regulatory protection. Spivak objects, “Who the hell wants to protect subalternity? Only extremely reactionary, dubious anthropologistic museumizers. No activist wants to keep the subaltern in the space of difference … You don’t give the subaltern voice. You work for the bloody subaltern, you work against subalternity” (ibid). She cites the work of the Subaltern Studies group as an example of how this critical work can be practiced, not to give the subaltern voice, but to clear the space to allow it to speak.

Spivak is particularly leery of the misappropriation of the term by those who simply want to claim disenfranchisement within the system of hegemonic discourse, i.e. those who can speak, but feel they are not being given their turn. “Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus, they don’t need the word ‘subaltern’ … They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse wanting a piece of the pie and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern” (ibid).

Unlearning one’s privilege as one’s loss

Privilege is also a kind of insularity which cuts off the privileged from certain kinds of “other” knowledge. One should strive to recognize these limitations and overcome them, not as a magnanimous gesture of inclusion, but simply for the increase of knowledge. The way to do this is by working critically through one’s beliefs, prejudices and assumptions and understanding how they arose and became naturalized. Any Zen master, chiropractor, or guitar teacher will tell you that real learning can only begin once years of mental habit, bad posture, and learning riffs the wrong way are undone, or unlearned.

What we are asking is that the holders of the hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other rather than simply say, “OK, sorry, we are just very good white people, therefore we do not speak for the blacks” (Intervention interview).

Major Publications

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Translation of and introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins, 1976.
  • —. A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
  • —.  “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the interpretation of Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988: 271-313.
  • —. Death of a Discipline. New York, Columbia University Press, 2003.
  • —. “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman” in Mark Krupnik, ed. Displacement: Derrida and After. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983: 169-95.
  • —. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics.London: Methuen, 1987.
  • —. Outside In the Teaching Machine. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • —. Selected Subaltern Studies. Ed. with Ranajit Guha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
  • —. The Spivak Reader. Ed. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. New York and London: Routledge, 1996. This book includes an extensive list of publications, including many interviews.
  • —. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. London: Routledge, 1990.

Interviews cited

  • “The Intervention Interview.” Southern Humanities Review 22:4 (Fall 1988): 323-342
  • Leon de Kock. “New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 23:3 (July 1992): 29-47
  • Sara Danius and Stefan Jonsson. Boundary 2 20:2 (1993): 24-50
  • Alfred Arteaga. “Bonding in Difference.” The Spivak Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Landry and MacLean. “Subaltern Talk.” The Spivak Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.

Author: Michael Kilburn, Spring 1996
Last edited: June 2012

Hybridity & Postcolonial Music


Bruno Nettl, a music and anthropology professor, lists some of the various definitions for “ethnomusicology.” Meanings, in terms of the material that is studied, range from “folk and what used to be called “primitive,” i.e. tribal or possibly ancient music,to “all human music” (The Study of Ethnomusicology, 2-3). Definitions that catagorize by type of activity involve denotations that include “a comparative study (of musical systems and cultures).” Nettl states that all musicologists, “at some level of conceptualization, they regard all musics as equal. Each music, they believe, is equally an expression of culture, and while cultures may differ in quality, they are bound to believe in the fundamental humanity, hence goodness, of all peoples” (The Study of Ethnomusicology, 10).

Colonialism and the Production of Hybrid Culture

Colonialism affected the people who were colonized economically, socially, and politically. In addition, cultural changes manifested themselves in literature, art, and music. When elements are brought, coerced, or drawn together, they may either repel, mingle, or do a bit of both. Examples of musical hybrids abound as the post-colonial period of history reigns. The colonized and the colonists affected and influenced one another. The diaspora of migrants contribute to the fusion of different cultures’ musical instruments, structure, and sound. The result of the hybrid musical forms demonstrates a new world sound, one that can not be compartmentalized according to land, language, and political borders.

Responses to Western Influences

Nettl cites three types or groups of motivation for non-Western societies in relation to their experience of colonization or the formation of cultural hybridity as expressed in their musical behavior in an essay entitle “Cultural Grey-Out” (The Study of Ethnomusicology, 347-48). The first is “the desire to leave traditional culture intact, survival without change” (Study, 347 ). The second is complete Westernization, “that is, simple incorporation of a society into the Western cultural system” (Study, 347). The third is moderate compared to the first two and is the motivation of “modernization,” a term which Nettl defines as “the adoption and adaptation of Western technology and other products of Western culture, as needed, simultaneously with an insistence that the core of cultural values will not change greatly and does not match those of the West” (Study, 348).

Hybrid Music Forms

In addition to Westernization, one must also consider the influence that the colonies have had on Western culture. Since the 1960′s, the promulgation of hybridity constitutes a large facet of music.

The band Yothu-Yindi derives its moniker from Aboriginal Australian identity as expressed by the mother-child or yothu-yindi link which is an organizational feature of traditional ritual song and popular music (Stokes,136 ). Aboriginal pop music groups formed in the 1970s and were powered by the business of the music industry, so that bands such as “the Galiwin’ku pop group, Soft Sands … accommodated familiar Western music styles by playing a mixture of Country and Western and Gospel songs” (Stokes, 146). Yothu-Yindi was part of a shift in the nature of Aboriginal pop as the group applied Yolngu worldview in their second album in 1991,entitled Tribal Voice. This album incorporated traditional songs with their original form and words. The “restructuring of song texts by incorporating a mixture of ritual symbolism and concern with colonial hegemony” builds further resistance against European musical values (Stokes, 147).

Miho Hatori, vocalist for the band Cibo Matto/ CC Licensed

Miho Hatori, vocalist for the band Cibo Matto/CC Licensed

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a band such as Cibo Matto exemplifies the assimilation of Western culture and the band displays the effects of Westernization with extreme and indulgent lyrics. <<White pepper ice cream / It’s like a line drawing / It’s snipped my heart / White pepper ice cream / In my mouth / It stings my lips, / It’s like an eclipse / As if I’m in the crossword puzzle / But I can’t fill in the blank… C’est ma égal.>> The band also makes the most of the technology developed by Westerners and the suave style of the beat-poets, applying it to the Japanese group’s own purposes. All of the lyrics on the album Viva! La Woman, a hybrid combination of inter-Western language and motto, are in English.

The distance between the two ends of the spectrum of hybridity abounds with smart rhythms and fresh sounds that demonstrate the movement of people as they migrate and circulate across the man-made boundaries between land and sea. Ravi Shankar has been instrumental in fusing classical Indian music with Western sounds since the 1960′s, when he began collaborating with The Beatles, specifically, George Harrison. DJ and producer Talvin Singh released a compilation of dance tracks called Soundz of the Asian Underground, ranging from trip hop to jungle beats to ambient, created by Asian musicians and features instruments indigenous to their culture.

The multi-talented Ashwin Batish joins “contemporary rock rhythms with Sitar melodies and solos as the lead voice” (Sitar Power #2) in his 1986 album named Sitar Power, which is followed up by Sitar Power #2, which blends tablas and sitar with synthesisers and guitars. Started by two brothers, the band Cornershop hails from England and composes songs that have evolved drastically over the course of their career. The band began with outspoken political views, most emblematically related to their denouncement of music icon Morrissey for his alleged racism. They were featured burning his photo at a concert. This activism was considered by many to compensate for what was thought to be less than proficient musical skill. This reputation was largely dispelled with the release of their album, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time. The album marks the group as a fore-running example of the possibilities of mixing Eastern and Western instruments (dholki, sitars, and tamboura work alongside keyboards, samples, and fuzzy guitar) as well as languages (Tjinder Singh sings lyrics in English, Punjabi, and some French).

Another example of musical hybridity is the album Lambarena: Bach to Africa. This album is a tribute to physician, musician, and Bach scholar, Albert Schweizer ( 1875-1965), who spent a large part of his life in Gabon. African rhythms and the sound of the Western classical compositions of J.S. Bach meet and engage in an aural cross-cultural dance. A sample of a work with the sounds of consolidated cultures is the simplest way to demonstrate the aural fecundity that exists at this time in the history of music. On this page is a clip from track #2 of Lambarena. The piece is “Sankanda+Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen.” Against the rhythm of the Ndjobi dance from Haut-Ogooué, Bach’s horn part is blended with the sounds of the antelope horn, an instrument which is used in both hunting as well as for invoking the spirits during ritual ceremonies” (Lambarena, liner notes).

Selected Bibliography

  • Arena Productions. Drum N’ Bass Arena. 1996, 97. Web. 3 Nov. 1997. <>
  • Banco de Gaia. Last Train to Lhasa. Mammoth, 1995. CD
  • —. Maya. Planet Dog, 1994. CD.
  • Batish, Ashwin. Star Power #2. Batish Records, 1994. CD.
  • Baumann, Max Peter, ed. Music in the Dialogue of Cultures: Traditional Music and Cultural Policy. Wilhelmshaven: Floren Noetzel Verlag, 1991.
  • Blacking, John. Music, Culture, & Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking. Ed. Reginald Byron and Bruno Nettl. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Chamberlain, M.E. Decolonization: The Fall of the European Empires. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
  • Cibo Matto. Viva! La Woman. Warner Bros., 1996. CD.
  • Cornershop. When I Was Born for the Seventh Time. Luaka Bop, 1997. CD.
  • de Courson, Hughes, and Pierre Akendengué. Lambarena: Bach to Africa: An Homage to Abert Schweitzer. Sony, 1995. CD.
  • Godement, François. The New Asian Renaissance: From Colonialism to the Post-Cold War. Trans. Elisabeth J. Parcell. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Goonatilake, Susantha. Crippled Minds: An Exploration into Colonial Culture. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1982.
  • Harrison, Klisala and Elizabeth Mackinlay and Svanibor Pettan. Applied ethnomusicology : historical and contemporary approaches. ed. Klisala Harrison, Elizabeth Mackinlay, and Svanibor Pettan. International Council for Traditional Music. Study Group on Applied Ethnomusicology. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK : Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
  • Healy, Chris. From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory. Cambridge: University Press, 1997.
  • de Jong, Nanette. Tambú : Curaçao’s African-Caribbean ritual and the politics of memory / Nanette de Jong. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2012.
  • Keswani, Raj. New Indian Beat. Web. 4 Nov. 1997. <>
  • Leftfield. Leftism. Sony, 1995. CD.
  • Luaka Bop/Warner Bros. Cornershop.1997. Web. 3 Nov. 1997. <>
  • Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. On Colonialism: Articles from the”New York Tribune” and Other Writings. New York: International Publishers, 1972.
  • Nettl, Bruno. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-nine Issues and Concepts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
  • —, comp. The Western Impact on World Music: Change, Adaptation, and Survival. New York: Schirmer Books, 1985.
  • —. Nettl’s elephant : on the history of ethnomusicology.Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2010.
  • Post, Jennifer C. Ethnomusicology : a contemporary reader. ed by Jennifer C. Post. New York : Routledge, 2006.
  • Price, A. Grenfell. The Western Invasions of the Pacific and Its Continents: A Study of Moving Frontiers and Changing Landscapes, 1513-1958 .Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
  • Shankar, Ravi. In Celebration Highlights. Anourag Music Ltd.,1995. CD.
  • Singh, Talvin. Presents: Soundz of the Asian Underground. OmniLtd., 1997. CD.
  • Steven, Colin, and Rachel Patey. Knowledge. Web. 4 Nov. 1997. <>
  • Stokes, Martin, ed. Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford: Berg, 1994.
  • Walker, Eric A. Colonies. Cambridge: University Press, 1944.

Author: Yim Tan Lisa Wong, Fall 1997
Last edited: July 2012