Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories
Black Feminist Thought – Patricia Hill Collins
Patricia Hill Collins (1948 – ) is Charles Phelps Taft Professor of
Sociology within and former Chair of the Department of African American Studies
The approach and analysis of Collins is similar to that of
Smith, but focuses on the situation and experiences of African-American women
Some of the major themes Collins addresses are the following.
1. Knowledge/knowing. The essay of Collins deals with black feminist thought as a means of countering the systems of oppression faced by black women. The dominant systems of thought and knowledge in American society are those developed by ‘experts,’ using positivism and Eurocentric masculinist thinking. Just as this form of knowledge makes the contribution of women’s ways of knowing invisible, so it asks “African-American women to objectify themselves, devalue their emotional life” (Adams and Sydie, p. 227). One of the aims of Collins is to recover the knowledge, experiences, and wisdom of black women and help them use this to counter the subordination they face.
Includes in Collins’s approach to knowledge are:
experiences and ways of knowing – knowledge and wisdom (Adams and Sydie, 228)
fresh insights (Collins, p. 1)
knowledge to include values, emotions, interests (Adams and Sydie, 227)
ethic of caring (229) – emotions and empathy/ accountability (Adams and Sydie, 229)
dialogue (Adams and Sydie, 229) (allusions to Habermas?)
Collins views these forms of knowledge as possibilities for “empowering oppressed people” and “offering subordinate groups new knowledge about their own experiences can be empowering.” (Collins, p. 1). Use this knowledge to challenge systems of oppression and use for good of community.
Example of Afrocentric feminist view of family – community, caring, connections, personal accountability. Create alternative, empowering communities through their daily activities. Black female spheres of influence constitute a sanctuary where individual black men and women are nurtured to confront an alien, oppressive social institutions.
Counters the dominant model of heterosexual, married couple in a nuclear family. Black women’s experiences as mothers, community othermothers and leaders, educators, church leaders, etc.
2. Domination/Interlocking systems of oppression
Collins argues that race, class, and gender comprise interlocking systems of oppression or a matrix of domination (Collins, p. 3). That is, it is not just that women have been dominated and subordinated to men, but women of colour, and poor people are also dominated by others. While each of these forms of domination and subordination is distinct, they all form part of “one overarching structure of domination.” (Collins, p. 2). Rather than describe the experiences of only one of these groups, Collins focuses on how the systems interconnect. She does not wish to describe the situation of any oppressed groups as an either/or matter (black-white, male-female), arguing that this dichotomous form of thinking is Eurocentric and masculinist thought. Rather, she sees persons of “ambiguous racial and ethnic identity” (Collins, p. 3) and oppressions related to age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. By placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the centre of analysis, this opens up new ways of thinking and forms of analysis.
The “interlocking nature of oppressions…are structured on multiple levels” and any individual may be “both a member of multiple dominant groups and a member of multiple subordinate groups” so any individual may be affected “in varying degrees on systemic versus interpersonal mechanisms of domination” (Collins, p. 6). In this analysis it is possible for people to be both oppressed and oppressor – for example, black men can be involved in both, as can middle class white women. For black women, the main forms of oppression are race, class, and gender.
Collins does not name these systems of oppression, or what the matrix of domination is. That is, she does not state that these are patriarchy, capitalism, or racism. Rather, she argues that these are connected and act to create forms of oppression. But her focus is on how the experiences and knowledge of black women can be applied to counter these forms of subordination and oppression. In doing these she discusses power as a means by which this domination occurs, but then argues that knowledge can be power, and this power can be used by oppressed people – “Power from this perspective is a creative poswer used for the good of the community” (Collins, p. 2) – where community can be family, church, or the children of the next generation.
One image she attempts to counter is that of the black woman as matriarch of black family, or the welfare mother. These are common images of black women in the media and in social science analysis of the problems of African-Americans. Collins argues that where there has been a rapid growth of female-headed households in African-American areas, it is necessary to examine political economy of local situations to see how segmented labour markets, community patterns, discrimination, etc. have created racial and gender ideology and situation (Collins, p. 3).
Focus on the collective, community, and the self-definition of these, whereby individuals come together to define their common experiences and create a community.
A market model suggests that community is “arbitrary and fragile” and subject to “competition and domination.” Collins contrasts this view with the “Afrocentric models of community stress connections, caring, and personal accountability….through daily actons African-American women have created alternative communities that empower.” Black women’s experiences as mothers, community othermothers and leaders, educators, church leaders, etc. (Collins, p. 2).
Reference to blues singers, poets, storytellers, and orators among black women’s history. Also note that her most recent book is on hip-hop.
4. Resistance and change
Collins argues that there are not only different dimensions of oppression (race, gender, social class) but that each of these also operates at different levels – the personal, the group or community and cultural level, and “the systemic level of social institutions” and structures (Collins, p. 4). Each of these constitutes a site of resistance.
· Individual or personal level. Personal, individual, biographic level of consciousness and experience. Each person has an individual biography, with a different set of experiences that can be freeing and empowering or confining or oppressive, or perhaps with elements of both. Collins objects to concentrating only on explanations that regard power as operating from the top down and forcing people to act in certain ways. These ignore why women stick with men who may be violent toward them or why slaves did not kill owners. That is, in certain cases, victims collude with their own victimization, while at other times they resist victimization. Collins considers power to operate at two levels – from the top down but also from the bottom up, whereby people use power they have to achieve their ends. Black feminist thought can be useful to individuals in the latter situation, to resist oppression.
· Cultual context. These are the shared views and experiences of members of a community or a group. Each individual within this has a set of personal experiences and knowledge, but there are some commonalities among these. By sharing and discussing these similarities and differences, there is a “group validation of an individual’s interpretation of concepts” (p. 5). Further, dominant powers have attempted to obliterate the knowledge of black women’s experiences and culture of resistance. Dominant groups have attempted to impose their own standards on subjugated groups, so that Collins refers to “externally derived standards of beauty leads many African-American women to dislike their skin color or hair texture” (p. 5).
· Social institutions. At the level of institutions – schools, churches, media, formal organizations – dominant groups attempt to impose their ideas, concepts, interests, and ways of acting.
Change – education – female sphere
Outsider within – Adams and Sydie, 225-6. Collins, p. 8 – black women in academia and organizations.
Can lead to outsider assimilating and accommodating to the dominant group’s specialized thought. Collins suggests that it would be fruitful for such outsiders to “rearticulate a black women’s standpoint.” While these are often local and particular, “the universal comes from the particular.” (Collins, p. 9).
[Influenced by Smith and Dubois?]
Change consciousness of individuals and social transformation
marginalized groups – each with partial knowledge
Personal, cultural, institutional (Collins, p. 5)
Domination not just top down
Change – education – female sphere
Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. from Black Feminist Thought, Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Unwin Hyman. References in this section of the notes are to pp. 221-238, from http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~lridener/courses/BLKFEM.HTML
Ruth A. and Alison Wolf.
1995. Contemporary Sociological Theory:Continuing
the Classical Tradition, fourth edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs,