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date: 04 March 2021

Queer of Color Critiquefree

  • Roderick A. FergusonRoderick A. FergusonUniversity of Illinois Chicago


Queer of color critique is a critical discourse that began within the U.S. academy in response to the social processes of migration, neoliberal state and economic formations, and the developments of racial knowledges and subjectivities about sexual and gender minorities within the United States. It was an attempt to maneuver analyses of sexuality toward critiques of race and political economy. As such, the formation was an address to Marxism, ethnic studies, queer studies, postcolonial and feminist studies. Queer of color critique also provided a method for analyzing cultural formations as registries of the intersections of race, political economy, gender, and sexuality. In this way, queer of color critique attempted to wrest cultural and aesthetic formations away from interpretations that neglected to situate those formations within analyses of racial capitalism and the racial state.

Queer of color critique began as a U.S.-based critical discourse responding to the circumstances of migration, neoliberal state and economic formations, and the developments of racial knowledges and subjectivities about sexual and gender minorities within the United States. As a convergence with and a departure from queer studies, queer of color critique signaled the ways in which the dominant literary, philosophical, and aesthetic engagements with queer sexuality distanced themselves from the study of race and from politico-economic concerns. While acknowledging the great advances that queer studies made in analyses of literary, philosophical, and aesthetic formations, the queer of color critique represented an interest in using research on queer social formations as ways of apprehending the overlaps between race and political economy.

For instance, Chandan Reddy’s 1997 article, “Home, Houses, Non-Identity: Paris Is Burning,” suggested the political and economic parameters of queer of color critique. In a discussion of the queer of color communities depicted in Jenny Livingston’s 1990 film Paris Is Burning—a film about the ball cultures and houses produced by African American and Latinx queers who were expelled from their homes because of their gender and sexual identities, Reddy wrote that neither Marxist nor liberal pluralist engagements with the figures of the nation-state or the home could fully appreciate the ways in which “queers of color as people of color . . . take up the critical task of both remembering and rejecting the model of the “home” offered in the United States.”1 As analytical objects, queers of color—according to Reddy—took up that critical task “first, by attending to the ways in which [home] was defined over and against people of color.”2 Secondly, queers of color remembered and rejected the U.S. nation’s model of home by interrogating “processes of group formation and self-formation from the experience of being expelled from their own dwellings and families for not conforming to” conventional norms of gender and sexuality.3

As such, the article addressed queer of color communities as formations that were eccentric to the nation’s understanding of home but also pointed to liberal and Marxist critiques of home as sites that occluded intertwining regulations of race, gender, sexuality, and class. In contrast to the universe of problems that occasioned queer studies, queer of color critique was articulated, as Reddy’s argument suggests, as both a critique of political economy and a critique of the collusions between liberal and radical orthodoxies. In addition, queer of color critique was also based on an awareness of and an interest in the racial, gender, and sexual discourses that constitute both bourgeois and Marxist ideologies. Rather than reproduce the pluralist elements of liberalism or the favoritism that Marxism has typically shown to class, queer of color critique would engage race, gender, and sexuality not as additives for social formations but as modes of difference that could help unpack social and subject formations on a variety of terrains—local, national, and global.

As Reddy’s reference to “Paris Is Burning” implies, queer of color critique would begin as a critique and use of culture as well. Of particular interest was the way in which culture was articulated with political, economic, and social formations. In this way, queer of color critique would address culture not as the reflection of the social but as an active participant in the constitution of the social world. As with queer of color critique’s engagement with political economy, that formation would also draw on and revise analyses of culture that worked to situate culture within various material contexts.

Queer of Color Critique and Queer Studies

As an effort designed to address connections between race, sexuality, and political economy, queer of color critique had to begin by confronting a founding limitation of queer studies, a limitation that obscured the very connections that queer of color critique was interested in exposing. That limitation had to do with an initial ambivalence within queer studies about the connections that sexuality has to other modes of difference. For instance, the queer theorist Michael Warner, in the introduction to the classic volume Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, presents intersectional analyses of race, gender, class, and sexuality as expressions of liberal multiculturalism and as proposals of authenticity. He argued, “The language of multiculturalism and alliance politics has encouraged us to recognize such strains and differences, as in the slogan, ‘race, class, and gender.’”4 Understanding intersectionality as an expression of multiculturalism, he went on to say that these “embodied identities could be visibly represented as parallel forms of identity” rather than indices of alliances, intersections, or incommensurabilities.5

The result of this identitarian project has, according to Warner, both intellectual and political consequences. As he states, “This ethnicizing political desire has exerted a formative influence on Anglo-American cultural studies in the form of an expressivist pluralism that might be called Rainbow Theory. It aspires to a representational politics of inclusion and a drama of authentic embodiment.”6 Within this interpretation, the coalitional politics suggested by “race, class, and gender” imply an equivalence of historical formations and a declaration of authentic embodiment and identity. This presumed equivalence and authenticity imply a liberal pluralism aimed at including racial and gender subjects into existing normative institutions and systems.

The introduction directed its ambivalence toward the intersectional and coalitional politics that forms of anti-racist feminism in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were trying to evolve. For instance, addressing that politics via a button that was popular at the time in gay bookstores, one with the slogan “Racism, Sexism, Homophobia: Grasp the Connections,” Warner writes, “Whatever the connections might be locally, they are not necessary or definitive for any of these antagonisms. Any one can do without the others and might have more connection with political conflicts less organized by identity.”7 While the introduction at times acknowledges the various meanings that sexuality might have for different racial subjects, in this passage it sets up forms of social struggle as contained within themselves, as formations that are not by necessity articulated in relation to other social formations and histories. As such, the connections between the social antagonisms of “racism, sexism, and homophobia” are incidental rather than definitive. Hence, the introduction implicitly dismisses an idea central to intersectional analyses and politics—that is, that forms of struggle and modes of oppression are necessarily interlocking.

In order to make such claims about the presumed efforts of anti-racist and feminist work to produce “fantasized spaces” of equivalence and to “aspire to a representational politics of inclusion and a drama of authenticity,”8 the introduction to the volume obscured the complex critiques conducted by women of color feminists in particular. Historically it has been these feminists who have both disrupted the promotion of race, sexuality, and gender as discourses of authenticity and have questioned the assimilation of minoritized subjects into normative institutional orders. Consider, for instance, Norma Alarcón’s critique of the identity politics of Anglo-American feminism in her 1990 essay “The Theoretical Subjects of This Bridge Called My Back.” In that essay Alarcón considers the epistemological impact of women of color feminism, in general, and the 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. For Alarcón, the overall work of women of color feminists and the volume are significant not because they offered a “rainbow theory” or a discourse of authenticity. They were significant because they called into question the implicit subject of Anglo-American feminism. As Alarcón put it, “[The] most popular subject of Anglo-American feminism is an autonomous, self-making, self-determining subject who first proceeds according to the logic of identification with regard to the subject of consciousness, a notion usually viewed as the purview of man, but now claimed for women.”9

Drawing out the implications between this notion of agency and Anglo-American feminism, Alarcón writes, “Believing that in this respect she is the same as man, she now claims the right to pursue her own identity, to name herself, to pursue self-knowledge, and, in the words of Adrienne Rich, to effect ‘a change in the concept of sexual identity.’”10 For Alarcón, This Bridge and women of color feminism analyzed the ways in which patriarchal and liberal notions of agency account for the ideological structure of Anglo-American feminism. In doing so, Alarcón produces a devastating critique of how Anglo-American feminism attempted to base feminist authenticity on a replication rather than a repudiation of heteropatriarchal agency. Put plainly, she suggested that This Bridge was a rejection of bourgeois white feminism’s attempt to include itself within patriarchal systems of value and authorization. As such, she implied that women of color feminism can be read as a technology for exposing the identity politics and liberalism of Anglo-American feminism, a means of illuminating how hegemonic feminism’s own theory of social change and ethical development was taken from the very patriarchal histories and ideologies that it decried.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s classic article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” provided another example of how intersectional work was a critique of authenticity politics. For instance, in her discussion of identity politics, she argued, “The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend differences, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intra-group differences.”11 Crenshaw offered intersectionality as a critique of the ways in which race and gender were politicized as consistent with ideologies of discreteness and authenticity. As she stated, “Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur in mutually exclusive terrains.”12 In designating race and gender as categories that are constituted in relation to each other as well as other social differences, Crenshaw presented intersectionality as a means for disrupting discourses of authenticity and providing alternatives to those discourses.

Instead of arguing for the authenticity of categories of race and gender, women of color feminism and its intersectional strategies can be productively interpreted as attempts to show the limits of authenticity discourses and the ways that those discourses marginalized women of color. Contrary to the notion that modes of difference can be understood singularly, women of color feminists advanced arguments that posited those modes as necessarily constituted in relation to one another, for historical and political reasons. As Alarcón states, “With gender as the central concept in feminist thinking, epistemology is flattened out in such a way that we lose sight of the complex and multiple ways in which the subject and object of possible experience are constituted.”13

To the extent that queer studies understood sexuality to be singularly constituted, the field betrayed its own investments in Eurocentric presumptions of uniformity. Alarcón argument about Anglo-American feminism applies to queer studies in this instance as well: “The theory of the subject of consciousness as a unitary and synthesizing agent of knowledge is a posture of domination.”14 Hence, despite its disavowal of identity politics, as queer studies based its identity on its disarticulation from other modes of difference, it implanted itself in the historical and discursive conventions of identity politics. Building on the insights of women of color feminism, queer of color critique, then, emerged out of a sense that the field of queer studies was insufficiently disarticulated from identity politics.

Despite the introduction’s dismissal of intersectional engagements, there were seeds within the presumed canonical boundaries of queer studies itself that contested that dismissal. In her 1993 book Tendencies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, for instance, argued: A lot of the most exciting recent work around ‘queer’ spins the term outward along dimensions that can’t be subsumed under gender and sexuality at all.”15 Here, she pointed to “the ways that race, ethnicity, postcolonial nationality criss-cross with these and other identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses, for example.”16 Sedgwick pointed to queer of color cultural producers as subjects who were attempting to disrupt the coherence of queer formations: “Intellectuals and artists of color whose sexual self-definition includes ‘queer’—I think of an Isaac Julien, a Gloria Anzaldúa, a Richard Fung—are using the leverage of ‘queer’ to do a new kind of justice to the fractal intricacies of language, skin, migration, state.”17 Sedgwick identified the kinds of epistemological pressures that the work of the aforementioned artists and intellectuals of color put on the category “queer”: “Thereby, the gravity (I mean the gravitas, the meaning but also the center of gravity) of the term ‘queer’ itself deepens and shifts.”18 Published in the same year as Fear of a Queer Planet, Sedgwick’s Tendencies exposes a contestation that was developing within queer studies, a contestation over the place of other modes of difference in the field’s critical universe. Queer of color critique, we might say, assumed the mantled of that contestation and emerged as a way to use the insights of women of color feminism to maneuver the term “queer” and the study of sexuality to illuminate various social processes and formations.

The Historical and Political Context for Queer of Color Critique

The stakes of spinning the category “queer” outward were ever present in the decade in which queer of color critique was first conceived. To begin with, the 1990s United States was a period of retrenchment on several fronts—that is, in terms of civil rights, immigration, and criminalization. The reasons for evolving queer of color critique to speak to political, economic, and social issues and do so via an explicit engagement with critiques of culture and historiography were very immediate during the period of that formations articulation. Those retrenchments could be seen on the east and west coasts of the United States

In Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora, Martin Manalansan discusses the ways in which racial and sexual repression were inextricably linked in 1990s New York. Discussing the ways in which local police violence was used in the service of racial repression, he writes, “In a city marked by overlapping and contradictory sites, New York City queers of color spaces are oftentimes circumscribed by larger forces such as federal, city, and state laws. During my fieldwork from the early to late 1990s, the New York City police were accused of harassment and cruelty against people of color.”19 This racial repression overlapped with the city’s targeting of queer communities and institutions as well. As Manalansan states, “At the same time, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani promulgated a ‘quality of life’ campaign that virtually wiped out public queer spaces in many areas of the city.”20 For Manalansan, the Giuliani administration’s racial project with regard to people of color cannot be neatly separated from its campaign against queers. The reality of this overlap would make queer of color spaces qualitatively different from white queer spaces within the city. As he puts it, “In addition, the ambivalent and mercurial quality of several queer of color spaces point to the abject and marginal status of these sites in relation to the mainstream gay topography.”21

Further illustrating the ways in which the 1990s United States was characterized by repressive policies targeting communities of color, voters in the state of California passed Proposition 184 in 1994, a proposition that “increased sentences for repeat criminal offenses.” The proposition would “extend the sentences of tens of thousands of Californians over the next fifteen years, including at least 8200 condemned to spend the rest of their lives inside one of the state’s eighteen maximum-security prisons, and it further heightened racial disparities within the criminal justice system.”22 That same year the state passed Proposition 187, which “declared undocumented immigrants ineligible for public social and health services [and] public education.”23 About the proposition, ethnic studies scholar Lisa Cacho argues, the proposition was motivated by a discourse of white injury, one in which white Californians were constructed as the victims of illegal immigration. Central to that discourse was a simultaneously racial, gender, and sexual discourse that held that Latinx immigrants were wildly reproductive and detrimental to social services within the state. As Cacho argues, “Proposition 187 did not target the already brutal and exploitative relationship between laborers and capitalists. It targeted pregnant women, children, and the sick by trying to take away the already vulnerable human rights guaranteed to non-citizens by the state, such as education for children, immunization shots for families, and pre-natal care for future citizens.”24 Connecting the proposition to its implications for labor, she writes, “This measure was never about deterring workers from immigrating; it was about capitalizing on the work of immigrants.”25

The circumstances of queer of color immigrants illustrate the overlap between immigration exclusion and labor exploitation. This overlap has shaped the racial contours of government and capital within the United States. In terms of New York City, Manalansan argues for instance, “The gleaming modernity of New York City’s financial, commercial, and cultural centers with highly educated, mostly white personnel is supported by a gendered, ethnicized, and racialized substratum.”26 The exploitation of immigrant labor would, thus, inform the character of racial capitalism and its impact on the working lives of queer of color immigrants.

In addition to the rise of immigration exclusion policies, the 1990s were also characterized by the retrenchment of civil rights gains. In 1996, for instance, the California electorate passed Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action in “public hiring, contracting, and public education.”27 As the ethnic studies scholar George Lipsitz says about Proposition 209, “With the implementation of the regents’ ban on affirmative action and the success of Proposition 209, young people of color interested in higher education in California faced a stark new reality.”28 Describing that reality, Lipsitz argues, “Already victimized by diminished state spending on recreation centers, libraries, counseling services, health, and schools, they now confronted a program targeted expressly against those among them who have the most ambition, who have studied the hardest, and who have stayed away from drugs and gangs.”29 These particular propositions helped to increase the marginalization of already disfranchised communities within the state of California and promoted similar retrenchment efforts in the broader United States.

The context of repression would also be the location for developing queer of color subjectivities and cultural production. For Filipino queer men, that would mean trying to creatively negotiate with the enabling and disabling aspects of cities like New York. Manalansan contends, for instance, “For immigrants and other mobile people, the city represents the coming together of ‘worlds’ and ‘nations’ into one geographic area . . . For many queers, urban space is the site for constituting selves and communities . . . Many people, my informants included, perceive these interlocking worlds of New York City as a unique milieu in which to create a gay sense of self.”30

In her classic article “Nostalgia, Desire, and Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion,” queer theorist Gayatri Gopinath points to the ways in which an alignment occurs in the 1990s over the repression of queer diasporic sexualities and the political and cultural assertiveness of the formations that attempt to cultivate those sexualities. In the context of South Asian sexualities, New York was also the site of a contestation over whether or not queerness was a part of South Asian identity and culture. That contestation took place in an ongoing struggle between queer and feminist groups such as the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) and Sakhi for South Asian Women and the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA), a group of Indian immigrant businessmen. Specifically, the FIA contested SALGA and Sakhi’s participation in the annual India Day Parade in 1995 but then allowed Sakhi to participate in 1996. The FIA prohibited SALGA from participating on the grounds that because of the group’s queer constituency it was “anti-national” and therefore anti-Hindu and anti-Indian.31 In doing so, the FIA constructed the feminist organization Sakhi as devoid of queers and lesbians.32 Sakhi and SALGA existed partly as ways to negotiate the existing forms of social repression by cultivating South Asian queer identities and communities. In this way, they joined groups such as the Audre Lorde Project, which was established in 1994 in New York to create strategies across various queer of color communities in New York “to address the multiple issues impacting [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans, and Gender Nonconforming People of Color] Communities.”33 Queer of color critique emerged out of this national climate, one characterized by the increasing exclusion and criminalization of people of color within the United States. As a critical formation, it also arose within the context of cultural and activist responses to that exclusion and criminalization.

Queer of Color Critique and the Terrains of Exclusion and Regulation

It is important to remember that the climate of repression was, in many ways, concealed by the national narrative of the United States, which presented the country as the beacon of hope for people minoritized by the very forms of exclusion that constituted inequalities within the United States. As Lisa Lowe has argued, “The heroic quest, the triumph over weakness, the promises of salvation, prosperity and progress: this is the American feeling, the style of life, the ethos and spirit of being.”34 While the United States; reputation for progressivism both promoted and concealed social repression, it also occasioned a growing critical awareness of the ways in which liberalism could be a vehicle for racial regulation and exclusion and a mode of gender and sexual normalization. These revelations were crucial to the development of queer of color critique. Those revelations would occasion a founding engagement with the contradictions inherent within discourses of liberalism. This could be seen in the analysis of canonical sociology as a liberal discourse in Roderick A. Ferguson’s Aberration in Black: Toward a Queer of Critique, the first book to propose queer of color critique as an engagement with the politics of knowledge and with political economy. The book analyzed U.S. canonical sociology as a discursive formation where race, gender, sexuality, and class and as the ideological foundation for U.S. industrial and post-industrial economies. The book attempted to demonstrate the ways in which the discipline’s liberal regard for African Americans was precisely the mechanism for constructing African American culture as outside of the normative boundaries of the archetypal Western subject and the citizen-subject of the United States. Moreover, the book argued that canonical sociology produced this racial knowledge about African Americans by relying on discourses of gender and sexuality and that this construction led to labor segmentation among African Americans.

Queer of color critique’s investment in the politics of knowledge production and political economy was a renovation of Marxist, feminist, and anti-racist critiques of liberal modernity. While the Marxist critique of liberal modernity challenged liberalism’s ideals of equality and its rights-based initiatives as ways of extending property relations and as anti-racist and feminist critiques of liberal modernity pointed to how the rights-bearing subject was idealized through rational, bourgeois, Western, patriarchal man; queer of color critique would combine and elaborate these analyses, showing how liberalism’s idealizations of democratic capitalism promoted racialized and patriarchal notions of property, ones that depended upon discourses of sexual normativity as well. As such, Aberrations in Black defined queer of color critique along these lines: queer of color critique “interrogates social formations as the intersections of racial, gender, class with particular interest in how those formations correspond with and diverge from nationalist ideals and practices. Queer of color analysis is a heterogeneous enterprise made up of women of color feminism, materialist analysis, post-structuralist theory, and queer critique.”35

Chandan Reddy’s 2011 book Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality, and the US State represented another interrogation of liberalism’s contradictions. In it, Reddy analyzes gay rights as a racial project that extends U.S. modes of surveillance and neo-imperial warfare. One example of this can be seen in Reddy’s attention to the fact that the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 attached an amendment entitled the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crime’s Prevention Act to the defense bill. As Reddy argues, attaching the hate crimes bill, which expanded “the 1969 federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability”36 to the defense bill conditioned the recognition of gay rights on the expansion of the U.S. military budget. In doing so, the Obama administration could extend U.S. military might and thereby appease conservatives while also currying favor with gay rights activists. Put simply, the administration would use the legal recognition of gays and racial minorities to legitimate state violence. As an expression of queer of color critique, Reddy’s argument worked to extend an awareness of how liberal social formations became vehicles for legitimating state violence.

This interest in liberalism’s complicities with practices of exclusion and domination would extend beyond the United States for scholars in other national settings who extended queer of color critique beyond its original setting within the United States, attempting to use the rubric and formation to assess the makeup of national and transnational terrains. A concern with the contradictions inherent in liberal formations could also be seen in Fatima El-Tayeb’s use of queer of color critique to illuminate the contradictions that inhered within the formation of the European Union. As El-Tayeb argues in European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Europe, the European Union set itself up as the modern and “color-blind” formation that transcended the chauvinism of nation-states. The book demonstrates though that the European Union continued the regulation and subordination of European of color communities, reading Europeans of color as “eternal newcomers, forever suspended in time, forever ‘just arriving,’ defined by a static foreignness overriding both individual experience and historical facts.”37 For El-Tayeb, “hip hop artists, feminist organizers, queer performers, and migration activists” within Europe have historically been the social actors who have pointed to the contradictions between the EU’s ideals of universality and its social exclusions. As she states, they “represent the first concerted efforts of racialized minorities to enter and define as Europeans the debate on what it means to be European.”38 Efforts such as El-Tayeb’s and others demonstrate the possibility of using queer of color critique to address exigencies that impact people of color communities and queers of color outside the United States.39 Queer of color critique, thus, would be born out of circumstances that required a critique of liberal social formations and their contradictions, circumstances that would emanate from a variety of local, national, and international contexts. As an engagement with the contradictions of liberal social formations, the work would become another critical venue for considering how discourses of progress have produced the ideological conditions for promoting rather than challenging violence. Attending to these contradictions has led queer of color critique to use and revise the existing frameworks of critical formations.

The Critique of Political Economy

As an intervention into the contradictions of nation-state formations, queer of color critique was conceived as a way of interpreting capitalist political economies. This necessarily meant unpacking categories such as “nation-state” and “capital” and subsequently revising them. Such a move would take queer of color critique to the history of Marxism and to those authors that attempted to read Marxism as an open text and capital as a multivalent entity. In doing so, queer of color critique would attempt to question the universalist nature of the conventional (i.e., Marxist) critique of political economy. It would attempt to do so by asking how historical formations around race, gender, class, and sexuality pressed against abstract constructions of labor, capital, and the state. Acknowledging Marxism’s universalist articulations of those categories suggested that Marxism was not a program to uncritically follow but a formation that required study and revision. As with the texts that inspired it, the formation was a revision of the notion of political economy itself.

In doing so, queer of color critique drew on those interventions that challenged the notion that capital was a closed system. Such inspiration came from black studies, Asian American Studies, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and women of color feminism. For instance, in Cedric Robinson’s 1983 book Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Robinson argued that the history of slavery and its relationship to capitalism promotes an awareness of capitalism’s constitution through race. He argued, “For more than 300 years slave labor persisted beyond the beginnings of modern capitalism, complementing wage labor, peonage, serfdom, and other methods of labor coercion.”40 According to Robinson, the engagement with slave labor under the trans-Atlantic trade necessitated a confrontation with Marxism’s theoretical assumptions:

Ultimately, this meant that the interpretation of history in terms of the dialectic of capitalist class struggles would prove inadequate, a mistake ordained by the preoccupation of Marxism with the industrial and manufacturing centers of capitalism; a mistake founded on the presumptions that Europe itself had produced, that the motive and material forces that generated the capitalist system were to be wholly located in what was a fictive historical entity. From its very foundations capitalism had never been—any more than Europe—a “closed system.”41

Robinson identified the dialectic of capitalist class struggle as a founding inadequacy in Marxist thinking, inadequate because of its failure to observe that a racial formation like slavery was contemporaneous to the development of capitalism. In doing so, he showed how the Marxist dialectic was rife with silences that obscured rather than fully illuminated the nature of capitalism itself. Moreover, Black Marxism helped to show that capitalism—because of its constitution through slavery—was not a univocal formation and therefore only deriving its language from the terms of class. Instead, capitalism was a heteroglot system constituted by formations in addition to but other than class.

Addressing the silences of Marxism—silences that can be found in Marx’s uses of categories such as “labor,” “value,” “division of labor”—and how those silences affirmed bourgeois ideologies, Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar asked, “By what right does Marx accept in these initial abstractions the categories from which Smith and Ricardo started, thus suggesting that he thinks in continuity with their object, and that therefore there is no break in object between them and him?” Althusser and Balibar argued that this silence was fertile ground for the “ideology of a relation of real correspondence between the real and its intuition and representation, and the presence of an ‘abstraction’ which operates on this real in order to disengage from it these ‘abstract general relations,’ i.e., an empiricist ideology of abstraction.”42 For Althusser and Balibar, this silence denoted how Marx took certain bourgeois presumptions at face value. Queer of color critique extended this observation asking how Marx and Marxism repeat bourgeois silences around the workings of race, gender, and sexuality in the development of modern social formations.

At the heart of this challenge to the silences of bourgeois and canonical Marxism was an effort to illuminate how various social formations and differences articulate with one another. Stuart Hall clarified the place of articulation in politico-economic analyses. Defining articulation, for instance, he argued, “An articulation is thus the form of the connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions. It is a linkage which is not necessary, determined, absolute and essential for all time.”43 For Hall, an articulation is an opportunity to inquire about the possibility of an intellectual and political alignment. As he says, “You have to ask, under what circumstances can a connection be forged or made? So the so-called ‘unity’ of a discourse is really the articulation of different, distinct elements which can be rearticulated in different ways because they have no necessary belongingness.”44 Delving into the basis of those connections or the circumstances that prevent them is, for Hall, the raw material for a theoretical engagement. He put it this way: “[A] theory of articulation is both a way of understanding how ideological elements come, under certain conditions, to cohere together within a discourse, and a way of asking how they do or do not become articulated, at specific conjunctures to certain political subjects.”45 In terms of queer of color critique, the articulation of “different and distinct elements” made way for the possibility that apparently “non-economic” entities like race, gender, and sexuality might be part of political economy’s constitution and obligated formations like queer of color critique to pursue those elements.

The theory of articulation would have an impact on even the most taken-for-granted categories of Marxism. One such category was that of labor. Lisa Lowe’s critique of abstract labor in her highly influential 1996 book Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics was one effect of this impact. In addition to Althusser, Balibar, and Hall, her critique of abstract labor provided yet another building block for queer of color critique. She wrote, “According to Marx, abstract labor in the economic sphere underwrites abstract citizenship in the political sphere. Abstract labor, subject to capitalist rationalization and the logic of equivalence through wages, is the adjunct of the formal political equality granted through rights and representation by the state.” This construction of labor as abstract is inadequate, she argued for the circumstances of racialization within the United States. As she stated, “Yet in the history of United States, capital has maximized its profits not through rendering labor abstract but precisely through the social productions of ‘difference,’ of restrictive particularity and illegitimacy marked by race, nation, geographical origins, and gender.”46

Lowe’s analysis was important for demonstrating how foundational notions such as “labor” had to be revised in order to account for the ways that the categories of political and economic observations were constituted through differences of race, gender, sexuality, and so on. Like Robinson’s work, Lowe’s interpretation made the stakes of such an intervention clear. Taking Marx’s categories for granted would obscure the historical circumstances by which labor under colonialism, slavery, segregation, and migration was developed.

Queer of color critique would also take inspiration from earlier interventions by women of color and queer of color activists and writers. The Combahee River Collective Statement written by an organization of black lesbian feminist socialists in the 1970s was pivotal for locating the revision of Marxism and the critique of capital within queer of color organizing and theorization. In its statement, for instance, the group argued:

We are socialists because we believe the work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create the resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.47

The statement continues by arguing that their agnosticism about a socialism devoid of feminist and anti-racist agendas necessarily meant a revision of Marxism: “Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as black women.”

As it looked back to groups like the Combahee River Collective for inspiration and insight, queer of color critique became a kind of archival project aimed at disinterring and highlighting the subjugated histories of women of color feminism—their theorizations of racialized sexuality and their engagements with political economy. To this end, the work of postcolonial feminist and queer scholar M. Jacqui Alexander provided a model and inspiration for the kinds of interventions imagined by queer of color critique. In her classic piece, “Not Just Anybody Can Be a Citizen,” Alexander analyzed how the Bahamas, Trinidad, and Tobago provided support for the privatization and globalization of capital in those regions, arguing that “these international processes help to refigure definitions of masculinity and femininity and simultaneously undermine the ideological bases upon which the state organizes, separates, and draws from the ‘public’ and ‘private’ domains.”48 Those processes coalesce in the tourism industry. As she states, “Tourism is the arena in which the moves to privatize the economy through foreign investment, imperial constructions of masculinity and femininity and state constructions of sexualized women all intersect.”49 As a revision of politico-economic analyses and as an archival project, queer of color critique would express both a historical and interpretive agenda for political, economic, and activist formations.

Culture and Queer of Color Critique

Queer of color’s archival and hermeneutical investments where political economy is concerned drew inspiration from the terrain of culture. Culture emerged as a site for imagining people of color and queer of color communities as well as assessing the social impingements on and the social insurgencies of those communities. To do so, queer of color critique drew on the cultural work of women of color and queer of color intellectuals and artists. Such texts as Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Barbara Smith’s Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Cherie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Joseph Beam’s In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, and Essex Hemphill’s Brother to Brother: Writings by Black Gay Men demonstrated the possibilities that cultural forms held in assessing racial, gender, class, and sexual exclusions as well as the critical possibilities emerging within queer of color cultural practices and production.

José Esteban Muñoz’s 1999 book Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics was crucial for articulating queer of color critique’s relationship to cultural analysis. Indeed, the book offered a theory of “disdentification,” one that provided insight about how to engage canonical formations. For instance, Muñoz defines the hermeneutical properties of disidentification by arguing, “For the critic, disidentification is the hermeneutical performance of decoding mass, high, or any other cultural field from the perspective of a minority subject who is disempowered in such a representational hierarchy.”50 As queer of color critique decoded feminist, Marxist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, structuralist, and post-structuralist discourses with the histories and cultural formations of queers of color in mind, it engaged in critical acts of disidentification.

Queer of color critique also borrowed from materialist interests in using culture to evolve new political horizons. In their introduction to the 1997 anthology The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd asserted a notion of culture tied to the maneuvers of modern political economy. Distancing their use of culture from conventionally aesthetic or anthropological enunciations, they wrote, “Against either of these notions—culture specialized as the aesthetic, or culture defined in anthropological terms—we have sought to elaborate a conception of culture as emerging in the economic and political processes of modernization.”51 While offering this definition of culture as articulated in relation to political economy, Lowe and Lloyd drew a distinction between this version of culture and notions that reduce it to the mere status of reflection for the economic. As they argue, “This is not to say that culture is the space in which capitalism as commodification reigns; rather, as we have been arguing, it is the space through which both the reproduction of capitalist social relations and antagonism to that reproduction are articulated.”52

Relatedly, in his 1994 text Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place, the historian and cultural studies theorist George Lipsitz argued for the potentially critical role that postcolonial cultures were exhibiting in the moment of transnational capital: “Rather than viewing post-colonial culture as a product of the absence of faith in yesterday’s struggles for self-determination, it might be better to view it as a product of the presence of new sensibilities uniquely suited for contesting the multinational nature of capital.”53 Along with The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, Lipsitz’s book would help to engender an understanding of culture as the site for registering and challenging political and economic formations.

This understanding of culture would inform an argument in Aberrations in Black. That book, for instance, addressed the discipline of sociology as a field that pathologized the gender and sexual diversity of African American communities and read that pathologization as a way of devaluing African American labor and citizenship. The text then pointed to African American culture as a site that historically has born witness to that diversification and that devaluation, writing, “As the site of nonheteronormative difference, African American culture materially and discursively registers the gender and sexual heterogeneity of African American racial formations as critiques of the contradictions of state and capital and the regulations of canonical sociology.”54 Such a maneuver would be repeated by scholars developing queer of color critique through interrogations of cultural forms such as music, performance, and visual culture.

Historiography and Queer of Color Critique

Queer of color critique evinced an interest in revising the terms of political economy, in expanding the components of social articulation, and in deploying cultural forms as a critical assessment of social formations. These interests necessarily made queer of color critique into a historiographical venture. At least two areas have emerged as locations for interrogation—the development of non-white and non-Western queer subjects and the nature of comparative and coalitional practices.

Scholars who were developing the itineraries of queer of color critique addressed early on how queer sexuality was assumed to develop along developmental lines, beginning in the proverbial closet and ending with the modern triumph of visibility, a destination captured in the notion of “coming out.” Scholars such as Manalansan interrupted that discourse by explaining how this assumption was a thoroughly Western one that obscured the specific components of non-Western queer formations. In his 1997 essay “In the Shadows of Stonewall: Examining Gay Transnational Politics and the Diasporic Dilemma,” he argues, “Like the straight modern political subject, the gay subject moves from the immature concealment of his or her sexuality to the mature visibility of political participation in the public sphere.”55 Manalansan shows that this developmental narrative of queer sexuality ejects queer of color and non-Western queer communities from the boundaries of the modern:

By privileging Western definitions of same-sex sexual practices, non-Western practices are marginalized and cast as “premodern” or unliberated. Practices that do not conform with Western narratives of development of individual political subjects are dismissed as unliberated or coded as “homophobic.”56

Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures also prompted a reconsideration of conventional narratives of queer subjectivity and their developmental predilections. In her discussion of the nonheteronormative components of South Asian popular and public culture, Gopinath wrote, for instance, “Reading various cultural forms and practices as both constituting and constituted by a queer South Asian diaspora resituates the conventions by which homosexuality has been encoded in a Euro-American context.”57 She theorized these cultural forms as culminating in a “mode of reading and seeing same-sex eroticism that challenges modern epistemologies of visibility, revelation, and subjectivity.”58 For her, this challenge struck at the heart of modernist discourses: “As such, the notion of queer South Asian diaspora can be understood as a conceptual apparatus that poses a critique of modernity and its various narratives of progress and development.”59 Such analyses would help to establish queer of color critique as a challenge to modernist linear narratives of sexual formations, a narrative that rendered the particular subjectivities of non-white and non-Western queers illegible.

One of the other historiographical avenues of queer of color critique can be seen in recent efforts to distinguish women of color and queer of color investments in comparative analyses and coalitional politics from the comparative and coalitional conventions set by dominant Western and cultural nationalist formations, conventions that presumed monolithic, transparent, and fixed notions of culture and difference. In the introduction to Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization, Grace Hong and Roderick A. Ferguson argue, “Women of color feminism and queer of color critique developed an alternative mode of comparison in opposition to the comparative analytic of minority nationalisms that, while themselves critical of the racial violence underpinning modern power, ultimately reproduced its comparative method.”60 Outlining women of color feminism and queer of color critique’s alternative engagement with comparison, they assert the heterotopic nature of their comparative method “insofar as it refuses to maintain that objects of comparison are static, unchanging, and empirically observable, and refuses to render illegible the shifting configurations of power that define such objects in the first place.”61 Clarifying how a focus on difference alters the comparative engagement, they write, “Instead women of color feminisms and queer of color critique were fundamentally organized around difference, the difference between and within racialized, gendered, sexualized collectivities.”62

Hong and Ferguson trace the alternative analytics of those formations in order to draw out their implications for coalitional politics and to alienate liberal multiculturalism, writing, “[The] mobilization of difference by women of color feminism and queer of color critique was intended not to erase the differentials of power, value and social death within and among groups, as in a multiculturalist model.”63 Instead of suppressing those differences or fostering a discourse of authenticity, the comparative method of women of color feminism and queer of color critique attempts “to highlight such differentials and to attempt to do the vexed work of forging a coalitional politics through these differences.”

Queer of color critique can be understood to be an attempt to reimagine the critical errands of Marxism, queer studies, women of color feminism, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and ethnic studies. It arose in a moment of social urgencies produced by the criminalization of communities of color, the expansion of the U.S. military industrial complex, the assault on immigrant communities, and the continued exploitation of racialized labor. Part of its search for critical responses to these urgencies has been to look to political and cultural formations as locations for imagining alternatives to the social arrangements prescribed and authorized by state and capital. Moreover, its genesis and promise continue to lie in its attention to how questions of racialized gender and sexuality are constitutive not only of those exigencies but their alternatives as well.

Further Reading

  • Abdur-Rahman, Aliyyah. Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Alarcon, Norma. “The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back.” In Making Face, Making Soul: Hacienda Caras, Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color. Edited by Gloria Anzaldua, 356–369. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1990.
  • Alexander, M. Jacqui. “Not Just (Any) Body Can Be a Citizen: The Politics of Law, Sexuality, and Postcoloniality in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas.” Feminist Review Autumn, no. 48 (1994): 5–23.
  • Bakshi, Sandeep, Jivraj Suhraiya, and Silvia Posocco. Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions. Oxford: Counterpress, 2016.
  • El-Tayeb, Fatima. European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
  • Eng, David, Jack Halberstam, and Jose Esteban Munoz. “Introduction: What's Queer about Queer Studies Now?” Social Text 23, no. 3–4 (Fall–Winter 2005): 1–17.
  • Ferguson, Roderick. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
  • Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
  • Gopinath, Gayatri. “Nostalgia, Desire, and Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion.” Positions 5, no. 2 (1997): 467–489.
  • Hong, Grace Kyongwon, and Roderick Ferguson. “Introduction.” In Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization. Edited by Grace Kyongwon Hong and Roderick Ferguson, 1–22. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Manalansan, Martin. Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Manalansan, Martin. “In the Shadows of Stonewall: Examining Gay Transnational Politics and the Diasporic Dilemma.” In The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Edited by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, 485–505. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Mendoza, Victor Roman. Metroimperial Intimacies: Fantasy, Racial-Sexual Governance, and the Philippines in U.S. Imperialism, 1899–1913. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  • Ngo, Fiona I. B. Imperial Blues: Geographies of Race and Sex in Jazz Age New York. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.
  • Reddy, Chandan. “Home, Houses, Nonidentity: ‘Paris Is Burning.’” In Burning Down the House: Recycling Domesticity. Edited by Rosemary Marangoly George, 355–380. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997.
  • Sedgwick, Eve. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Statement, The Combahee River Collective. “Combahee River Collective.” In Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Edited by Barbara Smith, 272–282. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983.
  • Tellis, Ashley, and Sruti Bala. The Global Trajectories of Queerness: Re-Thinking Same-Sex Politics in the Global South. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.
  • Warner, Michael. “Introduction.” In Fear of a Queer Planet. Edited by Michael Warner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.


  • 1. Chandan Reddy, “Home, Houses, Non-Identity: ‘Paris Is Burning,’” in Burning Down the House: Recycling Domesticity, ed. Rosemary Marangoly George (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997), 356.

  • 2. Reddy, “Home, Houses, Non-Identity,” 356.

  • 3. Reddy, “Home, Houses, Non-Identity, 356–357.

  • 4. Michael Warner, “Introduction,” in Fear of a Queer Planet, ed. Michael Warner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xix.

  • 5. Warner, “Introduction,” xix.

  • 6. Warner, “Introduction,” xix.

  • 7. Warner, “Introduction,” xix.

  • 8. Warner, “Introduction,” xix.

  • 9. Norma Alarcón, “The Theoretical Subjects of This Bridge Called My Back,” in Making Face, Making Soul: Hacienda Caras, Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color, ed. Gloria Anzaldua (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1990), 357.

  • 10. Alarcón, “The Theoretical Subjects of This Bridge Called My Back,” 357.

  • 11. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (1993): 1242.

  • 12. Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins,” 1242.

  • 13. Alarcón, “The Theoretical Subjects of This Bridge Called My Back,” 361.

  • 14. Alarcón, “The Theoretical Subjects of This Bridge Called My Back,” 364.

  • 15. Eve Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 9.

  • 16. Sedgwick, Tendencies, 9.

  • 17. Sedgwick, Tendencies, 9.

  • 18. Sedgwick, Tendencies, 9.

  • 19. Martin Manalansan, Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 88.

  • 20. Manalansan, Global Divas, 88.

  • 21. Manalansan, Global Divas, 88.

  • 22. Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 161.

  • 23. HoSang, Racial Propositions, 3.

  • 24. Lisa Marie Cacho, “‘The People of California Are Suffering’: The Ideology of White Injury in the Discourse of Immigration,” Cultural Values 4, no. 4 (2000): 390.

  • 25. Cacho, “‘The People of California Are Suffering,” 390

  • 26. Manalansan, Global Divas, 64.

  • 27. HoSang, Racial Propositions, 3.

  • 28. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 230.

  • 29. Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, 230.

  • 30. Manalansan, Global Divas, 65.

  • 31. Gayatri Gopinath, “Nostalgia, Desire, and Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion,” Positions 5, no. 2 (1997): 471.

  • 32. Gopinath, “Nostalgia, Desire, and Diaspora,” 471.

  • 33. About ALP,” the Audre Lorde Project website.

  • 34. Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 2.

  • 35. Roderick A. Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 149.

  • 36. Chandan Reddy, Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality and the U.S. State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2.

  • 37. Fatima El-Tayeb, European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011), xxxix.

  • 38. El-Tayeb, European Others, xxxix.

  • 39. See, for instance, Gianmaria Colpani’s 2017 dissertation at the University of Utrecht “Queer Hegemonies: Politics and Ideology in Contemporary Queer Debates.”

  • 40. Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 4.

  • 41. Robinson, Black Marxism, 4.

  • 42. Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital (London: Verso, 1979), 88.

  • 43. Lawrence Grossberg, “On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview with Stuart Hall,” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, eds. David and Kuan-Hsing Chen Morley (London: Routledge, 2003), 141.

  • 44. Grossberg, “On Postmodernism and Articulation,” 141.

  • 45. Grossberg, “On Postmodernism and Articulation,” 141.

  • 46. Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 27.

  • 47. The Combahee River Collective, “Statement,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983), 276.

  • 48. Jacqui Alexander, “Not Just (Any) Body Can Be a Citizen: The Politics of Law, Sexuality, and Postcoloniality in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas,” Feminist Review Autumn, no. 48 (1994): 18.

  • 49. Alexander, “Not Just (Any) Body Can Be a Citizen,” 19.

  • 50. José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 25.

  • 51. Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, “Introduction,” in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, eds. Lisa Lowe and David Lloye (Durham, NC: Duke, 1997), 23.

  • 52. Lowe and Lloyd, “Introduction,” 23–24.

  • 53. George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place (London: Verso, 1994), 30.

  • 54. Ferguson, Aberrations in Black, 23.

  • 55. Martin Manalansan, “In the Shadows of Stonewall: Examining Gay Transnational Politics and the Diasporic Dilemma,” in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, eds. Lowe and Lloyd, 489–490.

  • 56. Manalansan, “In the Shadows of Stonewall,” 486.

  • 57. Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultues (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 12.

  • 58. Gopinath, Impossible Desires, 12.

  • 59. Gopinath, Impossible Desires, 12

  • 60. Grace Kyongwon Hong and Roderick Ferguson, “Introduction,” in Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization, eds. Grace Kyongwon Hong and Roderick Ferguson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 8.

  • 61. Hong and Ferguson, “Introduction,” 9.

  • 62. Hong and Ferguson, “Introduction,” 9.

  • 63. Hong and Ferguson, “Introduction,” 9.