“The other side of words”: Essentializing


To say that “women are talkative”, that “Africans have rhythm in their skin” or that “the French are rude”, is not just a stereotype, that is to say a ready-made opinion on an individual or a group, it is also a form of essentialization.

This term has appeared in recent years with the debates about identities and it is used mainly when talking about gender, sex, religion or race. “Essentializing”, in its most common sense, is to reduce an individual’s identity to supposedly innate moral, psychological or behavioral characteristics. These characteristics would be transmitted from generation to generation within a human group to which the individual in question is supposed to belong.

The phenomenon of essentialization is thus decried because of its tendency to lock everyone into an impermeable and immutable identity.

We cannot grasp its current meaning without resorting to its counterpart “essentialism”, a philosophical concept, the opposite of nominalism and existentialism which consists, in turn, in believing that ideas exist in themselves, that essence precedes existence, or that a being is contained in its definition.

Thus, to “essentialize” consists in reducing a thing or a person to a single characteristic and holding this characteristic as essential. If this word takes an important place in the public debate to the point that we are wary of it, it is because essentialist thought can generate reductive, discriminatory, even extremist ideologies.

Thus, in public debate, essentializing tends to become pejorative. Yet, paradoxically, some groups likely to be victims go so far as to claim it. This is the case of so-called “essentialist” (or differentialist) feminist movements which seek to take gender differences into consideration in their struggle. They highlight qualities considered specific to women in order to counter the devaluation of the feminine.

Similarly, in the 1980s, the Indian literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, known for her work on postcolonialism, made essentialization a strategy , pushing minority groups to temporarily “essentialize” themselves by adopting the views in which they are confined. The objective: to understand the foundations of essentialist thought in order to dismantle its workings. Long before Spivak, it is this strategy that Josephine Baker seems to use by adopting an approach that can be described as “self-essentialization” in order to correspond to the colonial imagination.

If the verb “essentialize” is currently enjoying a fortune in circles fighting against racism, feminism and homophobia, in France the end of the 2000s can be identified as a key moment in its arrival in public debate. . During the political debate promoted under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency on French identity, it was quickly understood that embarking on the definition of what François Rachline calls “being French” carried the certain risk of essentialization due to the complex and composite character of what constitutes French identity .

Ultimately, whether individual or collective, human identities are built on multiple criteria: physical, ethnic, sexual, cultural, etc. They are dynamic, that is to say they evolve continuously, in perpetual construction. It is for this reason that the social sciences push to consider the complexity of the term “identity” so as not to easily give in to the siren song of essentialization.

Author Bio: Erick Cakpo is a Historian, researcher at the University of Lorraine