Black Feminist Thought

From p. 398 in Social Theory Re-Wired

Placing U.S. Black women’s experiences in the center of analysis without privileging those experiences shows how intersectional paradigms can be especially important for rethinking the particular matrix of dominationThe matrix of domination, according to Collins, refers to how power is organized through overlapping or interlocking systems of oppression (and resistance) that are socially and historically specific. Whereas previous theorists, such as Marcuse and Marx, argued that power primarily operates from the top and moves downward through subjugation and exploitation, Collins suggests that power operates in different ways depending on our social position. These overlapping systems may deal with race, class, sexual orientation, religion, or gender, for example, but no system of oppression can be reduced to one category alone. And, because these systems overlap in unique ways for each of us, we often find ourselves in the position of being both the oppressor and the oppressed. that characterizes U.S. society. Claims that systems of race, social class, gender, and sexuality form mutually constructing features of social organization foster a basic rethinking of U.S. social institutions. For example, using intersecting paradigms to investigate U.S. Black women’s experiences challenges deeply held beliefs that work and family constitute separate spheres of social organization. Since U.S. Black women’s experiences have never fit the logic of work in the public sphere juxtaposed to family obligations in the private sphere, these categories lose meaning. As the persistent racial discrimination in schooling, housing, jobs, and public services indicates, Black women’s experiences certainly challenge U.S. class ideologies claiming that individual merit is all that matters in determining social rewards.The matrix of domination can be manifest in social institutions, such as education or the economy, as well as at the community and individual levels. A particularly poignant—and disheartening—example of how Black women experience a unique form of oppression based on their race and their gender is the wealth gap in the United States. According to this NPR report, Black women have, on average, a net worth of $100 dollars (and a median net worth of $5) compared to an average net worth of $41,000 for White women. Black women have also experienced a disproportionate decline in jobs since the beginning of the most recent U.S. recession compared to White women. The sexual politics of Black womanhood reveals the fallacy of assuming that gender affects all women in the same way—race and class matter greatly. U.S. Black women’s activism, especially its dual commitment to struggles for group survival and to institutional transformation, suggests that understandings of the political should be rethought. Thus, by using intersectional paradigms to explain both the U.S. matrix of domination and Black women’s individual and collective agency within it, Black feminist thought helps reconceptualize social relations of domination and resistance.Intersectionality is a method of analysis that examines how categories of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age, etc. overlap and “intersect” to shape how individuals experience oppression. It also examines how such oppression can be resisted from multiple, crisscrossing dimensions. An intersectional approach reveals how the matrix of domination operates in society to structure lived experiences and societal inequality. Law professor Kimberle Crenshaw, whose fascinating series of talks given to the Du Bois Institute in 2011 can be watched here, originally coined the term “intersectionality.” 

From p. 405 in Social Theory Re-Wired

African-American women academicians who persist in trying to rearticulate a Black women’s standpoint also face potential rejection of our knowledge claims on epistemological grounds. Just as the material realities of powerful and dominated groups produce separate standpoints, these groups may also deploy distinctive epistemologies or theories of knowledge.Recall from the Social Theory Re-Wired essay, “Shifting the Paradigm,” that epistemologies are ways of knowing, or how we know what we know. Like other feminist scholars, Collins suggests that epistemologies stem from our lived experience—that is, we are all “knowers” but how and what we know depends on our social position. Here she is arguing that the academy often espouses what is assumed to be fact or truth and ignores the possibility that all knowledge is situated within a lived experience of privilege and oppression. Moreover, Collins argues that the epistemologies of Black women are not often accepted as legitimate in academia. Go here to read more about feminist epistemologies, including the approach of Collins. Black women scholars may know that something is true—at least, by standards widely accepted among African-American women—but be unwilling or unable to legitimate our claims using prevailing scholarly norms. For any discourse, new knowledge claims must be consistent with an existing body of knowledge that the group controlling the interpretive context accepts as true. Take, for example, the differences between how U.S. Black women interpret their experiences as single mothers and how prevailing social science research analyzes the same reality. Dorothy Smith might come to mind as you read this passage. Smith argued in The Conceptual Practices of Power that how women experience the world oftentimes looks very different from how social science assumes they experience it, leading to a bifurcated consciousness. Similarly, Du Bois made the case that African-Americans see the world through the eyes of both the dominant and the oppressed through a “double consciousness.”Whereas Black women stress their struggles with job discrimination, inadequate child support, inferior housing, and street violence, far too much social science research seems mesmerized by images of lazy “welfare queens” content to stay on the dole. The methods used to validate knowledge claims must also be acceptable to the group controlling the knowledge validation process. Individual African-American women’s narratives about being single mothers are often rendered invisible in quantitative research methodologies that erase individuality in favor of proving patterns of welfare abuse. Thus, one important issue facing Black women intellectuals is the question of what constitutes adequate justification that a given knowledge claim, such as a fact or theory, is true. Just as Hemmings’s descendants were routinely disbelieved, so are many Black women not seen as credible witnesses for our own experiences. In this climate, Black women academics who choose to believe other Black women can become suspect.Collins is arguing that academia favors epistemologies that privilege abstraction and quantification and not situated knowledge of oppression. That the epistemologies of Black women are marginalized in higher education is evident in the few Black female academics working in those institutions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, African-Americans accounted for less than 6 percent of instructional faculty in national colleges and universities in 2007. Of these, less than 40 percent of the full professors were women. 

Criteria for methodological adequacy associated with positivism illustrate the standards that Black women scholars, especially those in the social sciences, would have to satisfy in legitimating Black feminist thought. Though I describe Western or Eurocentric epistemologies as a single cluster, many interpretive frameworks or paradigms are subsumed under this category. Moreover, my focus on positivism should be interpreted neither to mean that all dimensions of positivism are inherently problematic for Black women nor that nonpositivist frameworks are better.

Positivist approaches aim to create scientific descriptions of reality by producing objective generalizations. Because researchers have widely differing values, experiences, and emotions, genuine science is thought to be unattainable unless all human characteristics except rationality are eliminated from the research process. By following strict methodological rules, scientists aim to distance themselves from the values, vested interests, and emotions generated by their class, race, sex, or unique situation. By decontextualizing themselves, they allegedly become detached observers and manipulators of nature (Jaggar 1983; Harding 1986).Positivism is the philosophy that true knowledge of the world can be discovered through logic and empirical methods that distance one from the settings under study. In this view, objective knowledge about the social world is gathered by abstracting away from the social context. Positivism in sociology is often attributed to Auguste Comte, a nineteenth-century French philosopher who thought that progress in the social world could be uncovered through scientific methodologies. Similarly, Emile Durkheim had some positivist tendencies, arguing that social facts could be investigated objectively through sound methodology. Collins is describing here how Black feminist epistemologies are antithetical to the positivist idea that knowledge of the social world can be understood apart from one’s positions within it. True knowledge of the social world is contextual and socially located, according to Collins. She is also critical of Eurocentric positivism, which has tended to focus primarily on issues of class (i.e., Marx) and have neglected race and gender. 

From p. 410 in Social Theory Re-Wired

Alternative knowledge claims in and of themselves are rarely threatening to conventional knowledge. Such claims are routinely ignored, discredited, or simply absorbed and marginalized in existing paradigms. Much more threatening is the challenge that alternative epistemologies offer to the basic process used by the powerful to legitimate knowledge claims that in turn justify their right to rule. If the epistemology used to validate knowledge comes into question, then all prior knowledge claims validated under the dominant model become suspect.Although Collins describes one alternative epistemology—Black feminism—she also points to the importance of others. Alternative epistemologies are any ways of knowing that run counter to and challenge dominant ideas and assumptions about knowledge. However, not all alternative epistemologies make their way into higher education. To find out some reasons why, check out this lengthy video of Collins discussing her recent book, Another Kind of Public EducationAlternative epistemologies challenge all certified knowledge and open up the question of whether what has been taken to be true can stand the test of alternative ways of validating truth. The existence of a self-defined Black women’s standpoint using Black feminist epistemology calls into question the content of what currently passes as truth and simultaneously challenges the process of arriving at that truth.

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"Images of Intersectionality"