Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

March 24, 2006


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 at the University of Cincinnati. Professor Collins received her B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from Brandeis University, and an M.A.T. degree from Harvard University. A social theorist, her research and scholarship have dealt primarily with issues of race, gender, social class, sexuality and/or nation specifically relating to African American women. She has published many articles in professional journals such as Ethnic and Racial Studies, Signs, Sociological Theory, Social Problems, and Black Scholar, as well as in edited volumes. Her first book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, published in 1990, with a revised tenth year anniversary edition published in 2000, won the Jessie Bernard Award of the American Sociological Association for significant scholarship in gender, and the C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Her second book, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology (1992, 1995, 1998, 2001; 2004) edited with Margaret Andersen, is currently in its fifth edition and is widely used in undergraduate classrooms in over 200 colleges and universities.  Her third book, Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1998.  Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, her fourth book, was published by Routledge in February 2004.  Professor Collins has taught at several institutions, held editorial positions with professional journals, lectured widely in the United States and abroad, served in many capacities in professional organizations, and has acted as consultant for a number of businesses and community organizations.  She is currently finishing a book of essays titled From Black Power to Hip Hop: Essays on Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism, to be published by Temple University Press in 2005.  (Information from 


The approach and analysis of Collins is similar to that of Smith, but focuses on the situation and experiences of African-American women in the United States.  Collins argues that this focus is relevant not only for black women but for others who are in subordinate positions as a result of their race, class, or gender where they face “interlocking systems of oppression.”   Collins begins with much the same approach as Smith, working from the standpoint of black women and for these women, just as Smith developed an analysis from the standpoint of women and for women.  Compared with Smith and many other sociological approaches, the writing of Collins appears more upbeat and optimistic – arguing that African-American experiences, community life, and  black feminist thought, can all help to point the way toward ending multiple systems of oppression, establish dialogue and empathy among individuals and groups, and create ways that humans can act to improve their situation.   She concludes her essay by stating “The existence of Afrocentric feminist thought suggests that there is always choice, and power to act, no matter how bleak the situation may appear to be.” (Collins, p. 11).


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). 


3.  Afrocentric


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

Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf.  1995.  Contemporary Sociological Theory:Continuing the Classical Tradition, fourth edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.



Last edited March 26, 2006