Patricia Hill Collins
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Patricia Hill Collins (1948–) is a sociologist, African American feminist and critical race theorist. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as an only child and educated through the public education system, she found herself acutely aware of her position in social space. The further she got in her education, the more frequently she found herself in positions at which she was the 'only' black woman in the room. As she was discriminated against for most of her life for being an unwilling representative of black woman in commonly white spaces, she began articulating these inequalities by relating herself to the many different positions of hierarchies that surround social existence. Faced with opposition, she graduated Brandeis University with a degree in sociology, with an emphasis on phenomenology, studying the sociology of knowledge. She would then move on to further activism for the black community around that area.
Ultimately, her work provided the ideological foundation for intersectional oppressions and anti-racist feminist movements. Because of the work that Kimberle Krensaw did on intersectionality, Collins was able to synthesize her ideas further with literature, history, and images to provide a landscape for the modern problem of American, and potentially international oppressions.
Black Feminist Thought
Black Feminist Thought is Collins' most provocative and famous/infamous work, highlighting a historical approach to understanding the structures of meaning that have coalesced into what we know our society to be today. In particular, she highlights the race relations of American development in the structural, geographical, and cultural understandings of what separates people and why. She takes a few different strategies to understanding these ideas, and puts them across in a way that undercuts our social reality and questions its very existence.
Collins' starts with an analysis on the historical effects of slavery in the U.S. In particular, the effect on black women of the historical oppression. After racial distinctions were made for slaves after Bacon's Rebellion, there were interesting developments that would occur under the institution of abject slavery. For one, the women and men who were slaves would experience a form of division of labor. While men and women slaves performed backbreaking work for cotton plantations and other types of agriculture, male black slaves were preferred for harder laborous jobs, such as construction and the like. Women in contrast were treated as weaker, as animals, objects to be assigned to males to placate them. In essence, their role was one of permanent subjugation, as a woman, as a black person, and as a slave.
As both genders were treated as objects, black men were treated as objects, tools for colonizing construction. However, black women were instead treated as sexualized objects, commonly subjugated to instances of rape and sexual assault. This would further create a forced divide in the social structure, as it led to an important contradiction: Even though the races were separate (black slaves to white slave owners), the men and women were nonetheless separated from each other also in terms of the white slave owner. They were both owned by the slave owner and were not connected to each other organically, but in prescribed roles that the slave owner had assigned to them in practice. Therefore, the black woman and black man were forced apart from each other despite being lumped together within an oppressed class.
Throughout a history of rebellion, activism, and revolt, black identity would further get attached to other forms of domination. Given how important the black church was in shaping black identity in the U.S., it was a place that could create an institution at which black people were not disadvantaged in a world that disadvantaged them at every turn. In essence, they used the privilege that religion was given during the time to synthesize community and consensus to shape further social action. However, this sort of behavior is not solely in terms of religion, nor does it need to remain there. Collins' goes further to point out that ideas of subjugation and domination shape ideas of black identity beyond what is 'policed' into them, and rather instead shaped from history. Whereas the black person had attained their freedoms from abject slavery and legal segregation, they had nonetheless adopted ideas that, while initially foundations for revolutionary action, would continue in developing into further tools of oppression.
Where black men may get some privilege from being a man, and white women may get privilege from being white, black women are located at the nexus of non-privilege. Careful not to suggest a racist idea of a savage black man, Collins' points out that black civil justice movements, while addressing inequality, can sometimes contradict with ideas of feminism. Instances of black men finally attaining places of power in a society that had disadvantaged black people for so long being caught in a sexual assault scandal force social justice movements to "take a side", so to speak. They must choose between supporting what little progress has been made in terms of attaining places of power that had been denied for so long, or deny women power by overlooking a sexist activity that had taken place. This is well-indicated in examples such as Clarence Thomas, the second black Supreme Court justice in the history of the United States. That title does not hold lightly, and to throw that away in the face of feminist justice puts Thomas, and in extension the black class (because like it or not, black people in power become representatives for their race as subjugated groups) in jeopardy. Essentially, the situation, despite being seemingly fair, puts black people and black women especially in a double bind at which no matter what they choose, they deny themselves a part of social justice.
Despite black women being the most educated in terms of proportion to black graduates by gender, they tend to be at the place in the social order that is the most subjugated. In a country with severe ties to racial and sexist oppression towards nonwhite and non-male individuals, it would follow that black women (and even trans black people) would naturally be at the intersectional double jeopardy, so to speak. But how could such an educated and important factor of black society be at such a place if they are the ones that appear to be the most in touch with reality, and specifically their own reality? Collins' discusses the black female identity not in terms of self-definition, but rather in terms of overlapping oppressions that locate individuals in patterns of domination. Thus, a black woman, holding both of those positions in a hierarchical society, would naturally be the most disadvantaged. Collins' makes note of patriarchy that has even been internalized by some black men in terms of evolving ideas through history and privilege attained from acting upon these ideas to levitate themselves up from a place of oppression. She notes that even black women will sometimes act on heterosexual vs. homosexual oppression, as gaining the privilege of a heterosexual person is sometimes the only privilege that a black woman might have access to at all.
Collins' makes the last point very clear: black activism moving forward must address intersectional ideas of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion amongst other categories of people to understand and pinpoint just exactly what should be done to address these inequalities. A vital tool that black women, therefore, are able to utilize is the power of self-definition in order to gain a foothold in the narrative that has been taking hold of black women. Images of a subservient black women must be fought and addressed not always through education, but through collective individual activism designed to reject terms of descriptions for black women's identities and solidify them. Black women may use multiple tools at their disposal, such as how they raise their children, how they work in their job, and even interact with people in their service jobs.
Fighting images of demure black women treated as nothing but objects because of a historical evolution of the use of black women as a motivation, not as a goal, is the primary purpose of this type of self-definition activism. One must reject the terms of their existence promoted by the dominant ideas of race and class, and therefore must be redefined on their own terms. As Collins states, even the most familial black woman can be more of an activist than an educated black woman if they exercise their power of self-definition, even if they might be defined as conservative. Therefore, not only does Collins question the intersectional roles of people in particular groups and social constructs, but she questions the activism itself. If one is to state ideas of equality but not act appropriately, who are we to say that that is activism at all? Conversely, if one is subject to oppression but refuses to be put on lower standing than the oppressor, how can we call them anything other than an activist and socialist? This, she reasons, is the power of self-definition.
- Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins (2008) Routledge. ISBN 0415964725. First published in 1990.