|image of book cover is from here|
It has often been argued that writings by white feminist philosophers such as Andrea Dworkin lack subtlety. "Subtlety" is often male supremacist code for "the appropriate level of intellectual deference and demure posturing in the form of "well, I may not be right about this but I thought I'd speak up anyway--please forgive me if your sensibilities are offended". The cloaked male supremacy that often is inferred or invested in demands for white women to speak more personally, less generally, is a critique that is practiced with nauseating regularity by men across race and region; it is a way for men to try and maintain control and dominance. Not surprisingly it is a tactic that is employed against radical feminists across race and ethnicity.
When white radical feminists are challenged by Black radical feminists and their allies and supporters to be more sensitive to some issues written about as "universal truths", this challenge is pro-feminist and entirely radical. The challenge is an act of valuing women's experience, conditions, and analysis of society that remains outside white women's experience and conditions, and therefore remains outside their analysis of society as well.
Catharine A. MacKinnon wrote a very telling piece called "From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman, Anyway?" It has been thoroughly and respectfully critiqued by another white radical feminist woman but because the critique is in a US Law Journal, not an internationally distributed and sold book, and also because, sadly, it is not available to most readers online, it is not regarded as important in part because because it is not read.
But if you wish to see a white feminist detail how other white feminists deny white (racist-misogynist) power among white women, please try and find the following article in the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Spring, 1993: WHITENESS AND WOMEN, IN PRACTICE AND THEORY: A RESPONSE TO CATHARINE MACKINNON, by Martha R. Mahoney.
I'll summarise my own views, while encouraging you to read both pieces of writing and come to your own conclusions. In her writing, MacKinnon offers up a view of white women as "women:privileged" but somehow not raced politically in ways that are directly and systematically oppressive and harmful to women of color. Her thematic point is that white women are not just white people/oppressors, as some women contend (or experience them to be). In this writing she effectively removes from reality white women as a raced class of human beings with raced power to oppress racially subordinated people across gender, region, and class.
The radical challenge to MacKinnon, by Mahoney and other theorists and activists, is that white women are also white, and practice white supremacy, albeit from a decidedly different vantage-point than do white men. White women like MacKinnon are promoted among white radical feminists as one of the authors of "must read" radical feminist texts. See, for example, the recommended reading resources list at Rad Fem Hub, just below (or click on the word "resources").
Books – Theory
Beyond God the Father
Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality
Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality
Pornography: Men Possessing Women
Right Wing Women
Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference
Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals
The War Against Women
The Whole Woman
The Idea of Prostitution
The Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy of the Global Sex Trade
The Spinster and Her Enemies
Unpacking Queer Politics: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective
Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins
Changing Our Minds: Lesbian Feminism and Psychology
Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues
Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law
Toward a Feminist Theory of the State
Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws
Kate Millet [sic]
Janice G. Raymond
The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male
Women As Wombs: Reproductive Technologies and the Battle over Women’s Freedom
Man Made Language
Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth
Books — History
Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography by June Purvis
From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World, Volume I: Origins: From Prehistory to the First Millennium by Marilyn French
From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World, Volume II: The Masculine Mystique: From Feudalism to the French Revolution by Marilyn French
From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World, Volume III: Infernos and Paradises, The Triumph of Capitalism in the 19th Century by Marilyn French
From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World, Volume IV: Revolutions and Struggles for Justice in the 20th Century by Marilyn French
Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militance of the National Woman’s Party 1912-1920 by Linda G. Ford
Unshackled: Story of How We Won the Vote by Christabel Pankhurst
Woman’s Evolution from Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family by Evelyn Reed
Ought not their blog be called "White Rad Fem Hub" and if not, why not? Is it considered insulting or offensive for me to state that their blog is a white rad fem hub? If so, what's insulting or offensive about it? Let us also ask, if Kate Millett's important Western- and Anglo-centric canonical radical feminist text, Sexual Politics, is fundamentally and only about the lives, literature, and conditions of whites, why isn't it called White Sexual Politics? I understand why it wasn't named that at the time and that reason is largely due to white privilege and entitlement to view white experience as universal, human, and unraced. It most assuredly is human--which is in part MacKinnon's point. But we must note that it is racist to view the book as unraced, as not positioned in real white supremacist space, and as a consequence, we are left with realities like the "NBA" and the "WNBA, the "World Cup" and the Women's World Cup", the "PGA" and the "WPGA", and "Sexual Politics" and "Black Sexual Politics".
|image of book cover is from here|
Covertly, overtly, and racistly, relatively young white radical feminists, along with their older white sisters, have been rejecting--or simply ignoring--radical feminist intersectional analyses, such as the brilliant one presented below, for allegedly (and erroneously) being too much in support of patriarchy.
It is sometimes contended that feminists of color take the much-needed focus off of how men oppress women: this is white radical feminism's primary and often only concern because it allows white women to not deal with how their whiteness also is misogyny--racist-misogyny. How it is that African American feminists' declarations of truth, and women of color's many declarations of truth across ethnicity and region, are viewed essentially as an obstacle to achieving women's liberation only means to me that far too many white women don't care about liberation for any woman who isn't white, unless it occurs as a parenthetical consequence of liberating white women. This is to say, the only white-approved means for women of color to work towards being liberated from men is on white women's terms, in ways that most directly benefit white women--in theory if not yet in practice (due to the sheer stubborn force of male supremacy), using the methods and approaches owned and operated by white women. Women of color daring to venture forth beyond the scope and sociological confines of white women's experiences are assumed to be working hand in hand with men.
What is less often recognised by white women is how white women work with white men to maintain their own white power and privileges--including the privilege of thinking of oneself as gendered by not raced.
This might sound like a strong critique coming from a male--a white one at that. It is. I've called out the white male supremacy of white men, the male supremacy of men of color, and more recently in a series of posts, the white supremacy of white women as a form of virulently dangerous white power-protectionism. I do this because any preservation of whiteness is more than a parenthetical obstacle to liberation for women of color, particularly but not only for women who live among whites. White and male supremacy are fused political ideologies, whereby whiteness is male supremacist and manhood is white supremacist. This is flatly and fiercely denied by virtually every white women writer I have ever read, including Catharine MacKinnon, except for one: Andrea Dworkin.
I encourage any woman readers of this post to ask any white feminist if she believes her whiteness functions as a serious obstacle to women's liberation from globalised Eurocentric male supremacy. The "patriarchy" referred to as only one historical thing by far too many white women, allegedly does not have raced power system embedded in it (in them) at all. But where in the world is patriarchy not raced? Given that it is always raced, how does ignoring the political effects of that oppressively and gynocidally raced power on women of color amount to a practice of radical feminism, and why is it so protected as a common practice?
What I learned from my feminist mentor, from Andrea Dworkin, and from Audre Lorde was that oppression must be named and called out--by all who see it. And when men do it, they'd better be respectful of women across race and not racist or misogynistic in the ways they do it. White women do call it out when men of color are misogynistic. Sometimes they do so in ways that are not racist. But regardless, I've rarely heard white women critique each other for challenging the misogyny of men of color--there seems to be an ethic created by the importance and urgency of women calling out men's misogyny wherever it exists. Indeed, white women have made it a practice to call out any misogyny anywhere in the world, whether in respectful alliance with women from other regions or not.
What's misogynistic about a white male calling out white women's racism, when that racism is racist-misogyny? How is such a practice 'anti-feminist' or 'anti-woman'--if women of color are, in fact, women? My actions are politically anti-white, I suppose, so it makes sense that if white women only view themselves as women, my critique of their white supremacist ways will be seen as anti-woman, even when they are not. I'm not at all saying I'm incapable of being misogynistic or just plain ol' sexist, or white supremacist or racist, for that matter. I can be at any moment of the day. I was just yesterday, actually.
I hope I've been careful to describe my objections and critiques in ways that welcome discussion and don't intentionally shame or insult the white women. They may well feel insulted or ashamed or any number of other things too. Those of us who are white people usually do feel all that--and seriously threatened--when it is called out. Men generally do feel significantly threatened when anyone calls out their male supremacist practices.
So I return to a declaration of the need to make room in the partial, privileged house of white radical feminism for the perspectives, truths, and realities of women of color across class, region, and sexuality. But far more important than that is the need--not "my" need--for whites across gender to do what men across race systematically refuse to do: to center the views and values of radical feminist women of color; to understand our own whiteness is real as raced privilege, entitlement, and power; and it is collectively and institutionally protected with whites in control. I believe that we collectively must understand that if we don't move outside our whiteness in our allegedly pro-feminist practices, we continue the age-old practice of silencing and subordinating women of color.
For me, what follows is another critical and key voice in radical feminism--a voice that ought to be central and regarded as just as important as that of Mary Daly, Catharine MacKinnon, or Andrea Dworkin. Collins' works of theory astutely tackle some very significant problems plaguing much of white radical feminist thinking. What I didn't know until reading this, and the work of Marimba Ani, was exactly how Eurocentric and masculinist a lot of white radical feminist thinking and theorising was, even while I have witnessed it's controlling and condescending effects on women who are located differently than are the white authors.
I've recently been in conversation with a white radical lesbian, not doing a very good job of articulating my own viewpoints relative to her own. Needless to say, hers are infinitely more sensitive than are mine to the harms being done to Lesbian communities she's been part of. But my experience of late has not been grounded in Gay or Lesbian spaces; my political community is women of color internationally. And those women are describing a constellation of oppressive realities that no one who is white in the US is experiencing due the protections and privileges that come with being white (and US) across gender.
What has frustrated me greatly, due to my alliance with radical feminist women of color, is how whites across gender, almost without exception, refuse to deal with the meaning and reality of their whiteness--and how it shapes their own theories, views, values, and political (including interpersonal) practices. I hope the work that follows continues to serve to break open the codes and help end the practices of white and male supremacist protectionism among whites and men.
What follows was found *here*, but that version contains a bunch of typos which I've attempted to correct in the copy that appears below. (Now if only I could correct the typos in my own posts!!) It may also be viewed as a PDF doc, *here*. That too is an earlier version that has been revised and updated in the 2008 edition of the book, published by Routledge.
In the newer edition of the text (2000, 2008), see especially the chapter 1: "The Politics of Black Feminist Thought" (pp. 1-20) and most especially chapter 11: "Black Feminist Epistemology" (pp. 251-272).
* * *
From Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990, pp. 221-238. [JR's note: This is not from the latest edition of Black Feminist Thought. Page numbers mentioned here do not correlate to the pagination in the latest editions of the text. See just above for more.]
Patricia Hill Collins
Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination
Black feminist thought demonstrates Black women's emerging power as agents of knowledge. By portraying African-American women as self-defined, self-reliant individuals confronting race, gender, and class oppression, Afrocentric feminist thought speaks to the importance that oppression, Afrocentric feminist thought speaks to the importance that knowledge plays in empowering oppressed people. One distinguishing feature of Black feminist thought is its insistence that both the changed consciousness of individuals and the social transformation of political and economic institutions constitute essential ingredients for social change. New knowledge is important for both dimensions to change.
Knowledge is a vitally important part of the social relations of domination and resistance. By objectifying African-American women and recasting our experiences to serve the interests of elite white men,much of the Eurocentric masculinist worldview fosters Black women'ssubordination. But placing Black women's experiences at the center of analysis offers fresh insights on the prevailing concepts, paradigms,and epistemologies of this worldview and on its feminist and Afrocentric critiques. Viewing the world through a both/and conceptual lens of the simultaneity of race, class, and gender oppression and of the need for a humanist vision of community creates new possibilities for an empowering Afrocentric feminist knowledge. Many Black feminist intellectuals have long thought about the world in this way because this is the way we experience the world.
Afrocentric feminist thought offers two significant contributions toward furthering our understanding of the important connections among knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. First, Black feminist thought fosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift in how we think about oppression. By embracing a paradigm of race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression,Black feminist thought reconceptualizes the social relations of domination and resistance. Second, Black feminist thought addresses ongoing epistemological debates in feminist theory and in the sociology of knowledge concerning ways of assessing "truth." Offering subordinate groups new knowledge about their own experiences can be empowering. But revealing new ways of knowing that allow subordinate groups to define their own reality has far greater implications.
Reconceptualizing Race, Class, and Gender
as Interlocking Systems of Oppression
"What I really feel is radical is trying to make coalitions with people who are different from you," maintains Barbara Smith. "I feel it is radical to be dealing with race and sex and class and sexual identity all at one time. I think that is really radical because it has never been done before." Black feminist thought fosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift that rejects additive approaches to oppression. Instead of starting with gender and then adding in other variables such as age, sexual orientation, race, social class, and religion, Black feminist thought sees these distinctive systems of oppression as being part of one overarching structure of domination. Viewing relations of domination for Black women for any given sociohistorical context as being structured via a system of interlocking race, class, and gender oppression expands the focus of analysis from merely describing the similarities and differences distinguishing these systems of oppression and focuses greater attention on how they interconnect. Assuming that each system needs the others in order to function creates a distinct theoretical stance that stimulates the rethinking of basic social science concepts.
Afrocentric feminist notions of family reflect this reconceptualization process. Black women's experiences as blood mothers, other mothers, and community other mothers reveal that the mythical norm of a heterosexual, married couple, nuclear family with a nonworking spouse and a husband earning a "family wage" is far from being natural, universal and preferred but instead is deeply embedded in specific race and class formations. Placing African-American women in the center of analysis not only reveals much-needed information about Black women's experiences but also questions Eurocentric masculinist perspectives on family.
Black women's experiences and the Afrocentric feminist thought rearticulating them also challenge prevailing definitions of community. Black women's actions in the struggle or group survival suggest a vision of community that stands in opposition to that extant in the dominant culture. The definition of community implicit in the market model sees community as arbitrary and fragile, structured fundamentally by competition and domination. In contrast, Afrocentric models of community stress connections, caring, and personal accountability. As cultural workers African-American women have rejected the generalized ideology of domination advanced by thedominant group in order to conserve Afrocentric conceptualizations of community. Denied access to the podium, Black women have been unable to spend time theorizing about alternative conceptualizations of community. Instead, through daily actions African-American women have created alternative communities that empower.
This vision of community sustained by African-American women in conjunction with African-American men addresses the larger issue of reconceptualizing power. The type of Black women's power discussed here does resemble feminist theories of power which emphasize energy and community. However, in contrast to this body of literature whose celebration of women's power is often accompanied by a lack of attention to the importance of power as domination, Black women's experiences as mothers, community other mothers, educators, churchl eaders, labor union center-women, and community leaders seem to suggest that power as energy can be fostered by creative acts of resistance.
The spheres of influence created and sustained by African-American women are not meant solely to provide a respite from oppressive situations or a retreat from their effects. Rather, these Black female spheres of influence constitute potential sanctuaries where individual Black women and men are nurtured in order to confront oppressive social institutions. Power from this perspective is a creative power used for the good of the community, whether that community is conceptualized as one's family, church community, or the next generation of the community's children. By making the community stronger, African-American women become empowered, and that same community can serve as a source of support when Black women encounter race, gender, and class oppression. . . .
Approaches that assume that race, gender, and class are interconnected have immediate practical applications. For example,African-American women continue to be inadequately protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The primary purpose of the statute is to eradicate all aspects of discrimination. But judicial treatment of Black women's employment discrimination claims has encouraged Black women to identify race or sex as the so-called primary discrimination. "To resolve the inequities that confront Black women," counsels Scarborough, the courts must first correctly conceptualize them as 'Black women,' a distinct class protected by Title VII." Such a shift, from protected categories to protected classes of people whose Title VII claims might be based on more than two discriminations, would work to alter the entire basis of current antidiscrimination efforts.
Reconceptualizing phenomena such as the rapid growth of female-headed households in African-American communities would also benefit from a race-, class-, and gender-inclusive analysis. Case studies of Black women heading households must be attentive to racially segmented local labor markets and community patterns, to changes in local political economies specific to a given city or region, and to established racial and gender ideology for a given location. This approach would go far to deconstruct Eurocentric, masculinist analyses that implicitly rely on controlling images of the matriarch or the welfare mother as guiding conceptual premises. .. . Black feminist thought that rearticulates experiences such as these fosters an enhanced theoretical understanding of how race,gender, and class oppression are part of a single, historically created system.
The Matrix of Domination
Additive models of oppression are firmly rooted in the either/or dichotomous thinking of Eurocentric, masculinist thought. One must be either Black or white in such thought systems--persons of ambiguous racial and ethnic identity constantly battle with questions such as "what are you, anyway?" This emphasis on quantification and categorization occurs in conjunction with the belief that either/or categories must be ranked. The search for certainty of this sort requires that one side of a dichotomy be privileged while its other is denigrated. Privilege becomes defined in relation to its other.
Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones creates possibilities for new paradigms.
The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But these systems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions that support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many more groups than Black women. Other people of color, Jews, the poor white women, and gays and lesbians have all had similar ideological justifications offered for their subordination. All categories of humans labeled Others have been equated to one another, to animals, and to nature.
Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.
Adhering to a both/and conceptual stance does not mean that race, class, and gender oppression are interchangeable. For example, whereas race, class, and gender oppression operate on the social-structural level of institutions, gender oppression seems better able to annex the basic power of the erotic and intrude in personal relationships via family dynamics and within individual consciousness. This may be because racial oppression has fostered historically concrete communities among African-Americans and other racial/ethnic groups. These communities have stimulated cultures of resistance. While these communities segregate Blacks from whites,they simultaneously provide counter-institutional buffers that subordinate groups such as African-Americans use to resist the ideas and institutions of dominant groups. Social class may be similarly structured. Traditionally conceptualized as a relationship of individual employees to their employers, social class might be better viewed as a relationship of communities to capitalist political economies. Moreover, significant overlap exists between racial and social class oppression when viewing them through the collective lens of family and community. Existing community structures provide a primary line of resistance against racial and class oppression. But because gender cross-cuts these structures, it finds fewer comparable institutional bases to foster resistance.
Embracing a both/and conceptual stance moves us from additive, separate systems approaches to oppression and toward what I now see as the more fundamental issue of the social relations of domination. Race, class, and gender constitute axes of oppression that characterize Black women's experiences within a more generalized matrix of domination. Other groups may encounter different dimensions of the matrix, such as sexual orientation, religion, and age, but the overarching relationship is one of domination and the types of activism it generates.
bell hooks labels this matrix a "politic of domination" and describes how it operates along interlocking axes of race, class, and gender oppression. This politic of domination
refers to the ideological ground that they share, which is a belief in domination, and a belief in the notions of superior and inferior, which are components of all of those systems. For me it's like a house, they share the foundation, but the foundation is the ideological beliefs around which notions of domination are constructed.Johnella Butler claims that new methodologies growing from this new paradigm would be "non-hierarchical" and would "refuse primacy to either race, class, gender, or ethnicity, demanding instead are cognition of their matrix-like interaction." Race, class, and gender may not be the most fundamental or important systems of oppression, but they have most profoundly affected African-American women. One significant dimension of Black feminist thought is its potential to reveal insights about the social relations of domination organized along other axes such as religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. Investigating Black women's particular experiences thus promises to reveal much about the more universal process of domination.
Multiple Levels of Domination
In addition to being structured along axes such as race, gender, and social class, the matrix of domination is structured on several levels. People experience and resist oppression on three levels: the level of personal biography; the group or community level of the cultural context created by race, class, and gender; and the systemic level of social institutions. Black feminist thought emphasizes all three levels as sites of domination and as potential sites of resistance.
Each individual has a unique personal biography made up of concrete experiences, values, motivations, and emotions. No two individuals occupy the same social space; thus no two biographies are identical. Human ties can be freeing and empowering, as is the case with Black women's heterosexual love relationships or in the power of motherhood in African-American families and communities. Human ties can also be confining and oppressive. Situations of domestic violence and abuse or cases in which controlling images foster Black women's internalized oppression represent domination on the personal level. The same situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.
This level of individual consciousness is a fundamental area where new knowledge can generate change. Traditional accounts assume that power as domination operates from the top down by forcing and controlling unwilling victims to bend to the will of more powerful superiors. But these accounts fail to account for questions concerning why, for example, women stay with abusive men even with ample opportunity to leave or why slaves did not kill their owners more often. The willingness of the victim to collude in her or his own victimization becomes lost. They also fail to account for sustained resistance by victims, even when chances for victory appear remote. By emphasizing the power of self-definition and the necessity of a free mind, Black feminist thought speaks to the importance African-American women thinkers place on consciousness as a sphere of freedom. Black women intellectuals realize that domination operates not only by structuring power from the top down but by simultaneously annexing the power as energy of those on the bottom for its own ends. In their efforts to rearticulate the standpoint of African-American women as a group, Black feminist thinkers offer individual African-American women the conceptual tools to resist oppression.
The cultural context formed by those experiences and ideas that are shared with other members of a group or community which give meaning to individual biographies constitutes a second level at which domination is experienced and resisted. Each individual biography is rooted in several overlapping cultural contexts--for example, groups defined by race, social class, age, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. The cultural component contributes, among other things,the concepts used in thinking and acting, group validation of an individual's interpretation of concepts, the "thought models" used in the acquisition of knowledge, and standards used to evaluate individual thought and behavior. The most cohesive cultural contexts are those with identifiable histories, geographic locations, and social institutions. For Black women African-American communities have provided the location for an Afrocentric group perspective to endure.
Subjugated knowledges, such as a Black women's culture of resistance, develop in cultural contexts controlled by oppressed groups. Dominant groups aim to replace subjugated knowledge with their own specialized thought because they realize that gaining control over this dimension of subordinate groups' lives simplifies control. While efforts to influence this dimension of an oppressed group's experiences can be partially successful, this level is more difficult to control than dominant groups would have us believe. For example, adhering to externally derived standards of beauty leads many African-American women to dislike their skin color or hair texture. Similarly, internalizing Eurocentric gender ideology leads some Black men to abuse Black women. These are cases of the successful infusion of the dominant group's specialized thought into the everyday cultural context of African-Americans. But the long-standing existence of a Black women's culture of resistance as expressed through Black women's relationships with one another, the Black women's blues tradition, and the voices of contemporary African-American women writers all attest to the difficulty of eliminating the cultural context as a fundamental site of resistance.
Domination is also experienced and resisted on the third level of social institutions controlled by the dominant group: namely, schools, churches, the media, and other formal organizations. These institutions expose individuals to the specialized thought representing the dominant group's standpoint and interests. While such institutions offer the promise of both literacy and other skills that can be used for individual empowerment and social transformation, they simultaneously require docility and passivity. Such institutions would have us believe that the theorizing of elites constitutes the whole of theory. The existence of African-American women thinkers such as Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Zora Neale Hurston, and Fannie Lou Hamer who, though excluded from and/or marginalized within such institutions, continued to produce theory effectively opposes this hegemonic view. Moreover, the more recent resurgence of Black feminist thought within these institutions, the case of the outpouring of contemporary Black feminist thought in history and literature, directly challenges the Eurocentric masculinist thought pervading these institutions.
Resisting the Matrix of Domination
Domination operates by seducing, pressuring, or forcing African-American women and members of subordinated groups to replace individual and cultural ways of knowing with the dominant group's specialized thought. As a result, suggests Audre Lorde, "the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us." Or as Toni Cade Bambara succinctly states, "revolution begins with the self, in the self."
Lorde and Bambara's suppositions raise an important issue for Black feminist intellectuals and for all scholars and activists working for social change. Although most individuals have little difficulty identifying their own victimization within some major system of oppression--whether it be by race, social class, religion,physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or gender—they typically fail to see how their thoughts and actions uphold someone else's subordination. Thus white feminists routinely point with confidence to their oppression as women but resist seeing how much their white skin privileges them. African-Americans who possess eloquent analyses of racism often persist in viewing poor white women as symbols of white power. The radical left fares little better. "If only people of color and women could see their true class interests," they argue, "class solidarity would eliminate racism and sexism." In essence, each group identifies the oppression with which it feels most comfortable as being fundamental and classifies all others as being of lesser importance. Oppression is filled with such contradictions because these approaches fail to recognize that a matrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors. Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone's lives.
A broader focus stresses the interlocking nature of oppressions that are structured on multiple levels, from the individual to the social structural, and which are part of a larger matrix of domination. Adhering to this inclusive model provides the conceptual space needed for each individual to see that she or he is both a member of multiple dominant groups and a member of multiple subordinate groups. Shifting the analysis to investigating how the matrix of domination is structured along certain axes--race, gender,and class being the axes of investigation for African-American women--reveals that different systems of oppression may rely in varying degrees on systemic versus interpersonal mechanisms of domination.
Empowerment involves rejecting the dimensions of knowledge,whether personal, cultural, or institutional, that perpetuate objectification and dehumanization. African-American women and other individuals in subordinate groups become empowered when we understand and use those dimensions of our individual, group, and disciplinary ways of knowing that foster our humanity as fully human subjects. This is the case when Black women value our self-definitions,participate in a Black women's activist tradition, invoke an Afrocentric feminist epistemology as central to our worldview, and view the skills gained in schools as part of a focused education for Black community development. C. Wright Mills identifies this holistic epistemology as the "sociological imagination" and identifies its task and its promise as a way of knowing that enables individuals to grasp the relations between history and biography within society. Using one's standpoint to engage the sociological imagination can empower the individual. "My fullest concentration of energy is available to me," Audre Lorde maintains, "only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restriction of externally imposed definition."
Black Women as Agents of Knowledge
Living life as an African-American woman is a necessary prerequisite for producing Black feminist thought because within Black women's communities thought is validated and produced with reference to a particular set of historical, material, and epistemological conditions. African-American women who adhere to the idea that claims about Black women must be substantiated by Black women's sense of our own experiences and who anchor our knowledge claims in an Afrocentric feminist epistemology have produced a rich tradition of Black feminist thought.
Traditionally such women were blues singers, poets,autobiographers, storytellers, and orators validated by everyday Black women as experts on a Black women's standpoint. Only a few unusual African-American feminist scholars have been able to defy Eurocentric masculinist epistemologies and explicitly embrace an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Consider Alice Walker's description of Zora Neal Hurston:
In my mind, Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith form a sort of unholy trinity. Zora belongs in the tradition of black women singers, rather than among "the literati." ... Like Billie and Jessie she followed her own road, believed in her own gods pursued her own dreams, and refused to separate herself from"common" people.Zora Neal Hurston is an exception for prior to 1950, few African-American women earned advanced degrees and most of those who did complied with Eurocentric masculinist epistemologies. Although these women worked on behalf of Black women, they did so within the confines of pervasive race and gender oppression. Black women scholars were in a position to see the exclusion of African-American women from scholarly discourse, and the thematic content of their work often reflected their interest in examining a Black women's standpoint. However, their tenuous status in academic institutions led them to adhere to Eurocentric masculinist epistemologies so that their work would be accepted as scholarly. As a result, while they produced Black feminist thought, those African-American women most likely to gain academic credentials were often least likely to produce Black feminist thought that used an Afrocentric feminist epistemology.
An ongoing tension exists for Black women as agents of knowledge,a tension rooted in the sometimes conflicting demands of Afrocentricity and feminism. Those Black women who are feminists are critical of how Black culture and many of its traditions oppress women. For example, the strong pronatal beliefs in African-American communities that foster early motherhood among adolescent girls, the lack of self-actualization that can accompany the double-day of paid employment and work in the home, and the emotional and physical abuse that many Black women experience from their fathers, lovers, and husbands all reflect practices opposed by African-American women who are feminists. But these same women may have a parallel desire as members of an oppressed racial group to affirm the value of that same culture and traditions. Thus strong Black mothers appear in Black women's literature, Black women's economic contributions to families is lauded, and a curious silence exists concerning domestic abuse.
As more African-American women earn advanced degrees, the range of Black feminist scholarship is expanding. Increasing numbers of African-American women scholars are explicitly choosing to ground their work in Black women's experiences, and, by doing so, they implicitly adhere to an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Rather than being restrained by their both/and status of marginality, these women make creative use of their outsider-within status and produce innovative Afrocentric feminist thought. The difficulties these women face lie less in demonstrating that they have mastered white male epistemologies than in resisting the hegemonic nature of these patterns of thought in order to see, value, and use existing alternative Afrocentric feminist ways of knowing.
In establishing the legitimacy of their knowledge claims, Black women scholars who want to develop Afrocentric feminist thought may encounter the often conflicting standards of three key groups. First, Black feminist thought must be validated by ordinary African-American women who, in the words of Hannah Nelson, grow to womanhood "in a world where the saner you are, the madder you are made to appear." To be credible in the eyes of this group, scholars must be personal advocates for their material, be accountable for the consequences of their work, have lived or experienced their material in some fashion,and be willing to engage in dialogues about their findings with ordinary, everyday people. Second, Black feminist thought also must be accepted by the community of Black women scholars. These scholars place varying amounts of importance on rearticulating a Black women's standpoint using an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Third,Afrocentric feminist thought within academia must be prepared to confront Eurocentric masculinist political and epistemological requirements.
The dilemma facing Black women scholars engaged in creating Black feminist thought is that a knowledge claim that meets the criteria ofadequacy for one group and thus is judged to be an acceptable knowledge claim may not be translatable into the terms of a different group. Using the example of Black English, June Jordan illustrate sthe difficulty of moving among epistemologies:
You cannot "translate" instances of Standard English preoccupied with abstraction or with nothing/nobody evidently alive into Black English. That would warp the language into uses antithetical to the guiding perspective of its community of users. Rather you must first change those Standard English sentences,themselves, into ideas consistent with the person-centered assumptions of Black English.Although both worldviews share a common vocabulary, the ideas themselves defy direct translation.
For Black women who are agents of knowledge, the marginality that accompanies outsider-within status can be the source of both frustration and creativity. In an attempt to minimize the differences between the cultural context of African-American communities and the expectations of social institutions, some women dichotomize their behavior and become two different people. Over time, the strain of doing this can be enormous. Others reject their cultural context and work against their own best interests by enforcing the dominant group's specialized thought. Still others manage to inhabit both contexts but do so critically, using their outsider-within perspectives as a source of insights and ideas. But while outsiders within can make substantial personal cost. "Eventually it comes to you," observes Lorraine Hansberry, "the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely."
Once Black feminist scholars face the notion that, on certain dimensions of a Black women's standpoint, it may be fruitless to try and translate ideas from an Afrocentric feminist epistemology into a Eurocentric masculinist framework, then other choices emerge. Rather than trying to uncover universal knowledge claims that can withstand the translation from one epistemology to another (initially, at least), Black women intellectuals might find efforts to rearticulate a Black women's standpoint especially fruitful. Rearticulating a Black women's standpoint refashions the concrete and reveals the more universal human dimensions of Black women's everyday lives. "I date all my work," notes Nikki Giovanni, "because I think poetry, or any writing, is but a reflection of the moment. The universal comes from the particular." bell hooks maintains, "my goal as a feminist thinker and theorist is to take that abstraction and articulate it in a language that renders it accessible--not less complex or rigorous--but simply more accessible." The complexity exists;interpreting it remains the unfulfilled challenge for Black women intellectuals.
Situated Knowledge, Subjugated Knowledge,
and Partial Perspectives
"My life seems to be an increasing revelation of the intimate trace of universal struggle," claims June Jordan:
You begin with your family and the kids on the block,and next you open your eyes to what you call your people and that leads you into land reform into Black English into Angola leads you back to your own bed where you lie by yourself; wondering it you deserve to be peaceful, or trusted or desired or left to the freedom of your own unfaltering heart. And the scale shrinks to the use of a skull: your own interior cage.Lorraine Hansberry expresses a similar idea: "I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from the truthful identity of what is." Jordan and Hansberry's insights that universal struggle and truth may wear a particularistic, intimate face suggest a new epistemological stance concerning how we negotiate competing knowledge claims and identify "truth."
The context in which African-American women's ideas are nurtured or suppressed matters. Understanding the content and epistemology of Black women's ideas as specialized knowledge requires attending tothe context from which those ideas emerge. While produced by individuals, Black feminist thought as situated knowledge is embedded in the communities in which African-American women find ourselves.
A Black women's standpoint and those of other oppressed groups is not only embedded in a context but exists in a situation characterized by domination. Because Black women's ideas have been suppressed, this suppression has stimulated African-American women to create knowledge that empowers people to resist domination. Thus Afrocentric feminist thought represents a subjugated knowledge. A Black women's standpoint may provide a preferred stance from which to view the matrix of domination because, in principle, Black feminist thought as specialized thought is less likely than the specialized knowledge produced by dominant groups to deny the connection between ideas and the vested interests of their creators. However, Black feminist thought as subjugated knowledge is not exempt from critical analysis, because subjugation is not grounds for an epistemology.
Despite African-American women's potential power to reveal new insights about the matrix of domination, a Black women's standpoint is only one angle of vision. Thus Black feminist thought represents a partial perspective. The overarching matrix of domination houses multiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty and privilege that produce corresponding partial perspectives, situated knowledges, and, for clearly identifiable subordinate groups,subjugated knowledges. No one group has a clear angle of vision. No one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute "truth" or, worse yet, proclaim its theories and methodologies as the universal norm evaluating other groups' experiences. Given that groups are unequal in power in making themselves heard, dominant groups have a vested interest in suppressing the knowledge produced by subordinate groups. Given the existence of multiple and competing knowledge claims to "truth"produced by groups with partial perspectives, what epistemological approach offers the most promise?
Dialogue and Empathy
Western social and political thought contains two alternative approaches to ascertaining "truth." The first, reflected in positivist science, has long claimed that absolute truths exist and that the task of scholarship is to develop objective, unbiased tools of science to measure these truths. . . . Relativism, the second approach, has been forwarded as the antithesis of and inevitable outcome of rejecting a positivist science. From a relativist perspective all groups produce specialized thought and each group's thought is equally valid. No group can claim to have a better interpretation of the "truth" than another. In a sense, relativism represents the opposite of scientific ideologies of objectivity. As epistemological stances, both positivist science and relativism minimize the importance of specific location in influencing a group's knowledge claims, the power inequities among groups that produce subjugated knowledges, and the strengths and limitations of partial perspective.
The existence of Black feminist thought suggests another alternative to the ostensibly objective norms of science and to relativism's claims that groups with competing knowledge claims are equal . . . This approach to Afrocentric feminist thought allows African-American women to bring a Black women's standpoint to larger epistemological dialogues concerning the nature of the matrix of domination Eventually such dialogues may get us to a point at which,claims Elsa Barkley Brown, "all people can learn to center in another experience, validate it, and judge it by its own standards without need of comparison or need to adopt that framework as their own." In such dialogues, "one has no need to 'decenter' anyone in order to center someone else; one has only to constantly, appropriately,'pivot the center.' "
Those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women,African-American men, Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Prehistorical men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from its unique standpoint, thus become the most "objective" truths. Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge But because each group perceives its own truth as partial,its knowledge is unfinished. Each group becomes better able to consider other groups' standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own standpoint or suppressing other groups' partial perspectives "What is always needed in the appreciation of art, or life," maintains Alice Walker, "is the larger perspective. Connections made, or at least attempted, where none existed before,the straining to encompass in one's glance at the varied world the common thread, the unifying theme through immense diversity."Partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard;individuals and groups forwarding knowledge claims without owning their position are deemed less credible than those who do.
Dialogue is critical to the success of this epistemological approach, the type of dialogue long extant in the Afrocentric call-and-response tradition whereby power dynamics are fluid,everyone has a voice, but everyone must listen and respond to other voices in order to be allowed to remain in the community. Sharing a common cause fosters dialogue and encourages groups to transcend their differences. . . .
African-American women have been victimized by race, gender, and class oppression. But portraying Black women solely as passive,unfortunate recipients of racial and sexual abuse stifles notions that Black women can actively work to change our circumstances and bring about changes in our lives. Similarly, presenting African-American women solely as heroic figures who easily engage in resisting oppression on all fronts minimizes the very real costs of oppression and can foster the perception that Black women need no help because we can "take it."
Black feminist thought's emphasis on the ongoing interplay between Black women's oppression and Black women's activism presents the matrix of domination as responsive to human agency. Such thought views the world as a dynamic place where the goal is not merely to survive or to fit in or to cope; rather, it becomes a place where we feel ownership and accountability. 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. Viewing the world as one in the making raises the issue of individual responsibility for bringing about change. It also shows that while individual empowerment is key, only collective action can effectively generate lasting social transformation of political and economic institutions.