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Feminism 101: Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination February 15, 2008

Posted by Winter in Feminism 101.
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This is the second in a series of posts offering readings in feminist theory. We hope that these posts will make some important feminist ideas more accessible to people who haven’t read much theory.

I have decided to discuss Patricia Hill Collins’s chapter ‘Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination’ from her book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, because it gives a very good explanation of intersectionality, a theory which I’m sure you’ve seen discussed on feminist blogs. ‘Intersectionality’ argues that we should focus on how different systems of oppression interlock. The chapter is quite long, dense and theoretical but I’ll try and pick out some points which have significant implications for feminism.

Collins begins by emphasising the importance of knowledge in empowering oppressed people. She proposes:

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. [Emphasis mine]

I have put the sentence in bold because it’s fundamental to intersectionality as a way of thinking about oppression. Ok, you might say, but how does this ‘interlocking’ approach differ from the way white feminists have already conceptualised oppression? And why is it important to think like this?

Collins argues that, with respect to thinking about oppression, black feminist thought has fostered a ‘paradigmatic shift’ (which means a shift in thought patterns) because it ‘rejects additive approaches to oppression.’ This means that it does not start with gender and then add other variables such as race, class, sexual orientation, disability etc. It sees these distinctive systems of oppression as being part of one overarching structure of domination in which all these systems are dependent on one another. Instead of arguing about who experiences the worst oppression, intersectionality focuses attention on how these systems of oppression interconnect in different peoples’ lives. This approach rejects a phenomenon you may have heard called “oppression olympics” — endless, circular arguments in which the claiming of ‘most oppressed’ status appears to be at stake. It also therefore rejects grounding feminist theory in the idea that gender oppression is the oldest and most fundamental oppression upon which all the others are based.

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.

Ok, that’s not too difficult to acknowledge, but:

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 [Emphasis mine].

This is important and much more challenging. Collins continues:

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 … 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.

Of course it’s much easier to think of ourselves as oppressed than it is to think about the ways in which we are invested in systems of oppression.  For example, as a lesbian and a woman I have experienced homophobic and sexist oppression in my family, in school, the workplace, on the streets etc.  However, I am also white, not disabled, and from a middle-class background which means I have access to enormous privileges and advantages that working-class, disabled people and people of colour are routinely denied. I am not subject to racism or ableism and I have had the advantages of a middle-class upbringing, one of the greatest benefits of which is probably my sense of entitlement to high quality education and well-paid jobs. So, while I am oppressed in certain ways, my identity is invested and perhaps even socially constructed, in relation to the systems which oppress people of colour, disabled people and working-class people, because I am benefitting from those systems of oppression in various ways. This doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person, or that my own oppression is any less serious, but it means that I need to de-center my experience of oppression and stop seeing it as the most important or as universal.

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 a recognition 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.

A theory which looks at how systems of oppression interlock differently in different peoples’ lives is also very important in helping us to understand why feminism has become so divided. A person’s experience of the ‘matrix of domination’ will be very different depending on who they are, so this approach rejects the idea of an essential female experience to which we can turn for feminist analysis.

If you haven’t already, I would recommend that you read Sojurner Truth’s speech Ain’t I a Woman?. Here, back in 1851, we have a woman of colour brilliantly deconstructing the notion of essential female experience upon which the contemporary conversation about women’s rights was based:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Truth draws attention to the nonsense of talking about “women” as if there is a universal female experience and, perhaps more importantly, makes it clear that the concept of “woman” is itself tied up with race and class ideology.

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.

The same situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.

I’ll try and give a few examples of where the lack of an intersectional approach has caused problems for feminism. White, middle-class, Eurocentric feminists can be extremely disparaging of the family and organised religion, but women of colour and poor women often find the strength to survive and fight racism and classism in their families and churches. There is a very anti-child and anti-motherhood trend within feminism which women from communities of colour in which motherhood is viewed as empowering find very painful and impossible to relate to.  Moreover, when it comes to reproductive rights, the dominant feminist discourse often tends to focus entirely on abortion because, historically, white, middle-class women are the ones most likely to be denied abortion and they tend to be the ones with the loudest voices in mainstream feminism.  But women of colour, poor women and disabled women may have very different perspectives on this issue because, historically, they have been forced into abortions and sterilisations, or had their children removed by the state because they are not trusted as mothers, or because their children are not considered as desirable as the children of white, middle-class women.

Right now, we have black women in the US being told by white feminists that they should vote for Hilary Clinton because she’s a woman and it’s more important that a woman, rather than a black man, becomes president. This totally ignores black women’s experience of racism and abrogates responsibility for the role white women have played in perpetuating racism. Why should black women necessarily trust a white woman to represent their interests?  

If this is difficult to understand, please read this post by Karnythia at The Angry Black Woman blog. Here’s an extract:

I’m a black woman. I’m a feminist that’s voting for Obama. I was on the verge of ceasing to call myself a feminist since it’s become quite obvious that many white feminists think I’m too stupid to notice them saying nigger under their breath after every call for sisterhood. But then it occurred to me that there’s no reason to let them be the face of the feminist movement. So if you want to vote for Hillary because her values align with yours? That’s great. But don’t you dare try to tell WOC how to vote while insinuating that they’re too stupid to think for themselves. And since I know there are young white feminists that can see the elephant in the room? Let me say that I don’t think a vote for Hillary is a vote for racism. But, I do think insisting that a black woman shouldn’t vote for a black man because he’s got a penis is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. If it’s admirable to vote for Hillary based on gender; what’s wrong with voting for Obama based on race? As for the young white women voting for Obama? Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to vote for a woman you disagree with in order to be a “true” feminist.

These are only a few examples of how lacking an interconnected approach to oppression can damage feminism. There are many, many more.

Collins emphasises the importance for oppressed groups of rejecting ‘dimensions of knowledge, whether personal, cultural or institutional, that perpetuate objectification and dehumanization.’

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 group

Sometimes feminists from more dominant groups do have vested interests in suppressing the knowledge produced by subordinate groups. And sometimes they don’t want to listen to what women who have different experiences of oppression are saying because it might challenge their thinking or force a change in feminist priorities.

Ok, so how do we deal with all these competing truths?  Collins rejects the relativist approach of arguing that each group’s thought is equally valid. Instead, she proposes:

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.

This means that we must all learn to see our experiences as partial, situated in specific contexts, and unfinished.

It also means that no one is always placed at the centre of the analysis or gets to speak for all women.