Books · Gender · Whiteness & racism

Re-visioning knowledge

Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of EmpowermentBlack Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not really a review, more a butterfly-view.

I had a rare flash of brilliance and decided to read the glossary first. This kind of sensible idea rarely occurs to me. I was immediately struck by Collins’ definition of

intersectionality: analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation and age form mutually constructing features of social organisation, which shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by Black women

In other words, intersectional analysis, first articulated by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1991, is explicitly and inseparably about Black women. Re-reading ‘Mapping the Margins’, Crenshaw’s original article, I see Collins’ framing there, except the centred specificity of Blackness is extended to all women of colour. Anyway, let it not be forgot.

The first chapter, The Politics of Black Feminist Thought explains in detail how Black women’s ideas and existence have been suppressed, erased and excluded from the academy, and why much Black feminist work has sought to excavate and reclaim the work of earlier Black women intellectuals. It’s important to note that Collins defines such intellectuals not by education or academic output: Sojourner Truth is one example who could not read or write, yet contributed to Black feminist oppositional knowledges. She identifies two historical factors that helped foster the critical social theory of Black US women: ghettoisation, which was designed for political control, but had the effect of enabling community structures and spaces for Black people to use African-derived ideas to craft resistance to racial oppression, and Black women’s positions in the labour market as domestic workers, in close proximity to Whites, giving them a perspective that Collins terms outsider-within, also applicable to Black women in many institutions.

She asks how do Black women in the academy ‘find ways of doing intellectual work that challenge injustice’? Collins shares her own experience of being tokenised and suppressed by her very scarcity. Her work must involve disrupting academic norms that are hostile to emotion and subjectivity: the subject position is precisely what has been denied to Black women. The concept here that most provoked my own thought and self-reflection was the orientation of both/and, reflecting Black feminists’ rejection of or resistance to the binarism of Eurocentric tradition. One aspect is a BOTH scholar AND activist tradition, another manifests in Collins’ approach to fellow intellectuals. She mentions that Sister Souljah is often dismissed as antifeminist for her acceptance of patriarchal masculinity, but her work has still contributed to Black feminist thought. Both/and reading makes space for celebration, solidarity, critique, acceptance and complexity.

Distinguishing Features of Black Feminist Thought firmly asserts that this thought exists because the oppression of Black women remains, and thus requires an activist response. Since this oppression is intersectional, Black feminists have always recognised that their liberation requires the dismantling of multiple structures of domination, and thus their work ‘supports broad principles of social justice that transcend US Black women’s particular needs’ Collins uses a technique throughout the book of quoting ordinary African-American woman of varying ages and social positions, here to note how daily experience stimulates the creation of oppositional knowledge. She also constantly refers to Black women intellectuals and studies; the book is superbly, lovingly researched. What emerges is a contrast with White feminist’s ‘consciousness raising’ – Black feminism publicly articulates already developed, taken for granted knowledges.

Collins explains why Black women must lead and be in charge of Black feminism:

Black women intellectuals from all walks of life must aggressively push the theme of self-definition because speaking for oneself and crafting one’s own agenda is essential for empowerment

but its work resonates widely: ‘if you write from a black experience, you’re writing from a universal experience as well… you don’t have to whitewash yourself to be universal’ says Sonia Sanchez. Other groups engaged in social justice projects can identify points of connection that forward Black feminist as well as their own agendas. Collins notes that such people may become ‘traitors’, to their own privilege, for example whiteness. Another key point here is the dynamism of Black feminist thought; it responds directly to changing social conditions, for example to changing relationships between African Americans as they have moved through the labour market and social classes since WWII.

In her discussion of Work, Family and Black Women’s Oppression, Collins reminds us that the heterosexual nuclear family ideal is not natural as is made to appear, but a creation of the state. For African American women it has never applied: slavery allowed no such structures, and later, most Black men never had sufficiently secure income to allow female partners, who found it easier to get jobs but were much less well paid, to work full time at home. US gender norms based on work roles thus rendered black women ‘unfeminine’. Kinship structures beyond immediate family developed. While White communities increasingly followed ‘market-driven, exchange-based models’, Black communities had a high degree of solidarity and collective effort. She also notes that parenting passes on internalised oppression or oppositional knowledges.

In the post WWII period, Black Usians experienced both upward and downward social mobility. The introduction of cocaine and other drugs created an informal economy and enabled the rapid expansion of the criminal justice system. Housing remained segregated, but community began to erode. Black women generally moved from domestic work (immigrant women largely replaced them) into industry and clerical work (forming a working class often ignored by Black feminism and conflated with the working poor) and low paid insecure service jobs (becoming working poor) which resemble domestic service. Collins notes a contrast between a 1972 study of adolescent Black girls, who were hopeful despite living in harsh conditions, and a 1984 replication, in which girls and young women complained about unmet emotional needs as the extended family network that once supported Black girls had become overstretched due to economic shifts.

Upwardly mobile Black women who made it into the middle class have had to endure a kind of ‘mammification’; they are expected to be nuturing and are disproportionately employed in caring roles:

Black women are expected to fix systems which are in crisis due to underfunding, infrastructure deterioration, and demoralized staffs

or as Barbara Omolade puts it:

Black professional women are often in high-visibility positions which require them to serve white superiors while quieting the natives

. Collins emphasises the need for Black feminist thought to work through these modern class relations to prevent Black women from becoming oppressors of each other.

considers how binary thinking and objectification result in the construction of Black women as the Other. Social theorist Dona Richards is referenced: she posits that the White tradition requires objectification in positing a knowing self distinct from a known object. Feminist scholarship has articulated the construction of women in proximity to nature as integral to their conquest by men, while Black scholarship has traced the parallel situation of Black (and other non-White) people are more ‘natural’ or ‘instinctive’, supporting the political economy of domination in slavery and (neo)colonialism.

As the “Others” of society who can never really belong, strangers threaten the moral and social order. But they are simultaneously essential for its survival because those individuals who stand at the margins of society clarify its boundaries. African-American women, by not belonging, emphasize the significance of belonging.

The ‘mammy’ image of the faithful and obedient domestic servant who cares for everyone and makes no demands is the oldest image, while the ‘bad black mother’, the matriarch is contrasted with her. This aggressive, unfeminine woman is the counter-ideal on which the cult of true womanhood stands in all its Whiteness. This image means that assertiveness is penalised in various ways in all women, but especially Black women. The ‘absence of a Black patriarchy’ has been said to indicate cultural inferiority, so this image feeds White supremacy and pressures Black men to be more dominating. Collins explains and thoroughly exposes the oppressive functioning of other controlling images: ‘welfare mother’ ‘black lady’ ‘hoochie’. All of these images, in different ways pathologise the sexuality and fertililty of Black women. Collins discusses the hoochie’s deviant behaviour as both hyper-heterosexual and lesbian, ‘freaky’ in either case, in the words of 2 Live Crew. I would like to go back to Mapping the Margins briefly here:

Crenshaw compares the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial to the permissiveness granted to Madonna, who portrayed masturbation & insinuated group sex onstage, without interference. The court denied that 2 Live Crew’s music had cultural specificity or artistic merit, which Crenshaw shows to be disingenuous and simultaneously a dismissal of the value of rap music made by Black people and a move to universalise and whitewash Black cultural expression. Obviously, like Collins, Crenshaw decries the violently misogynistic content of the work in question and mounts a strong feminist+antiracist critique of the arguments of its defenders, but she also challenges the court decisions’ implication that it has no political value as a discourse of resistance. Furthermore, she points out that obscenity trials and critiques by Whites did nothing to protect the Black women objectified by the lyrics they targeted, instead furthering racial subjugation of Black men and devaluing of Black women by ignoring their specificity and viewing them as stand ins for White women, always the implicit victims of Black male sexual violence.

Collins discusses beauty standards, colorism and the feelings of inferiority that affect Black girls and women living in the midst of White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She gives attention to the ways Black women fiction writers have worked against controlling images, by presenting oppositional images of Black women as emergent, as well as tracing the causes of their individual subjugation. Such portraits return full humanity and subjectivity to objectified women.

This leads in to (this book has flow) The Power of Self Definition which is about the myriad creative ways that African-American resist and have resisted controlling images, subordinate roles and white supremacist hegemony, in every day ways, through blues music, literature, self-reliance, activism, academic and intellectual work and research. I became very frustrated on behalf of women of colour attempting to organise safe spaces. These are often misdescribed and criticised as ‘separatist’ and ‘essentialist’, but spaces free from surveillance by more powerful groups are obviously deeply needed to develop the ‘self-definitions [that] become politicised Black feminist standpoints’.

One of the striking aspects of the chapter is the idea of self that emerges: one based on accountability and rooted in connectedness in difference and individuality in community. This is one of the hardest aspects of the book for me to get a handle on, and one I want to understand much better: ‘identity is not the goal but rather the point of departure in self-definition’

When it comes to The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood ‘everyone has spoken for Black women, making it difficult to speak for ourselves’. Women’s studies, for instance, has tended to fit Black women into frameworks developed around White women to point out how Black women ‘have it worse’. But the silence around sexual politics among Black women, an important subject here, also relates to racism and the pressure to choose between gender and race, when speaking out against rape and misogyny might harm Black men. Black feminism, by treating race, gender and class as intersecting structures of domination rather than individual attributes, has made work in this area possible. One example is reproductive justice discourse, a wider framework for reproductive autonomy than the pro-choice focus often taken White feminists, (but now being claimed by them as a new discovery) that grew as a response to the various suppressions and forms of population control enacted against African-Americans, from forced sterilizations to ‘welfare-queen’ controlling images.

Sexism (and heterosexism) are only possible in a binary system of thought. The devalued jezebel/hoochie makes pure White womanhood possible. Collins reminds us that ideas about what is natural and normal are state sanctioned and promoted in schools, the media, religious institutions and government policies. I love this quote from Toni Cade Bambara on Eurocentric gender: “I have always, I think, opposed the stereotypical definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’… because I always found the either/or implicit in those definitions antithetical to what I was all about; and what revolution for the self is all about, the whole person”. For me this relates to Julia Serano’s critique of oppositional sexism in Whipping Girl. (I think Serano is very inaccurately portrayed as a defender of stereotypical femininity and I find her thought on this very helpful, but Bambara’s/Collins’ framing highlights that Serano is working, albeit critically, within a White, Eurocentric epistemology)

The exploitation and regulation of Black women’s bodies under slavery, Collins argues, form the foundation of pornography today. Alice Walker pointed out that White women are objects in pornography, while Black women are ‘animals’. Collins suggests that this puts White women in an intermediate position between culture and nature (an object is the work of man), while Black women, uncultured, remain available for the untrammeled exploitation meted out to the rest of nature.

The next topic is Black Women’s Love Relationships which heart-hurtingly tells subjugation leaves so little space for love to flourish. One obstacle is that

White men have exploited, objectified, and refused to marry African-American women and have held out the trappings of power to their poorer brothers who endorse this ideology

Another obstacle is White women, those institutionally desirable creatures painted as ‘racial innocents’ yet often seeming to rub salt in the wound by boasting to Black acquaintances about their relationships with Black men, from whom Black women so often experience rejection. Briefly mentioned here is a thread of Black Feminist thought towards redefining beauty in, for example, contrast and action, making use of African-derived ideas – not replacing one ideal with another, binary style, but creating space for erotic autonomy. Love between Black women, erotic or otherwise, is also important here.

Black Women and Motherhood and Rethinking Black Women’s Activism deal with the problems US Black women have faced as mothers and the strategies they have used for survival and empowerment of themselves, their communities and their children. It’s really disgusting to read how ‘maternal politics’ has been dismissed as ‘immature’ or inferior to feminism because it is not focussed on ‘personal rights’ by Julia Wells and others. A couple of key points are the whiteness of higher education and the whiteness (and maleness) of trade unions and other workers’ organisations. If Black women have rarely participated strongly in these areas and other forms of organized liberation struggle, that reflects their opportunities more than their interests. Black feminists have thought about power and leadership in terms of social reproduction and decentralisation – there are acute critiques here of civil rights/black power leaders who did not teach others to lead, accepting their status as figureheads.

US Black Feminism in Transnational Context looks at issues of global solidarity, oppression by nation, commonalities and differences between African-Americans, other diasporas and women in Africa. The style of collaboration fostered by US Black feminist groups provides a good foundation for ‘transversal politics’ that enables different groups to learn from each other. There is a sharp observation that police are the ‘foreign’ occupiers for US Black women.

In Black Feminist Epistemology. Collins compares positivist ways of knowing generally used by white men and institutions , where emotion and personality must be removed, ethics are considered an encumbrance to ‘objectivity’, and quality is checked by testing the work against robust attack, as an example of a contrast with a set of alternative metrics used by African American women – an ethics of care, personal accountability, lived experience as creating meaning, and the use of dialogue to test and develop ideas. This chapter explains the obstacles to Black feminist ideas being heard, and the pressures on Black women in academia to support dominant ideologies

She lays to rest the binarist version of standpoint theory that leads to ‘oppression olympics’, where added layers of oppression somehow gift clearer vision. Collins contends that truths are validated by the fact that people speaking and knowing from many standpoints agree on them or find commonality in them

Each group perceives its own knowledge as… unfinished [and] becomes better able to consider other group’s standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own or suppressing other groups’ partial perspectives

bell hooks calls this dialogic method humanising speech ‘one that challenges and resists domination’. I will continue to struggle away from binary thinking, positivist ways of deciding who is right and that everyone else must be wrong, away from domination and epistemic violence, towards both/and.

Finally in Towards a Politics of Empowerment she suggests social justice movements need a new common vocabulary to help foster a politics of empowerment. She describes four ‘domains of power’ that contextualise Black feminist thought. The structural domain is made up of institutions reproducing Black women’s subordination over time. Legal victories have continually improved conditions, but this has led to the rhetoric of colorblindness The disciplinary domain backs up the structural domain with bureaucratic hierarchies and techniques of surveillance. I was reminded of Neil McGregor’s discussion of the stability of a solid bureaucracy. It is easy to hire Black women to watch and regulate each other or force their complicity in these activities. Neither structural nor disciplinary domination could operate without the hegemonic domain, which produces and perpetuates ‘common sense’ white supremacist patriarchy in the form of controlling images. The interpersonal domain is the micro-level where these interlocking power relationships play out. As Collins reminds us many times, Black feminism is concerned with improving the lives of African-American women and others. Key to this is her remark that working within the epistemology of US Black women is far more powerful than creating new knowledge with the master’s tools.

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