From Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: UnwinHyman, 1990, pp. 221-238.


Patricia Hill Collins


Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination


Black feminist thought demonstrates Black women's emerging poweras agents of knowledge. By portraying African-American women asself-defined, selt-reliant individuals confronting race, gender, andclass oppression, Afrocentric feminist thought speaks to theimportance that oppression, Afrocentric feminist thought speaks tothe importance that knowledge plays in empowering oppressed people.One distinguishing feature of Black feminist thought is itsinsistence that both the changed consciousness of individuals and thesocial transformation of political and economic institutionsconstitute essential ingredients for social change. New knowledge isimportant for both dimensions ot change.

Knowledge is a vitally important part of the social relations ofdomination and resistance. By objectifying African-American women andrecasting 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 ofanalysis offers fresh insights on the prevailing concepts, paradigms,and epistemologies of this worldview and on its feminist andAfrocentric critiques. Viewing the world through a both/andconceptual lens of the simultaneity of race, class, and genderoppression and of the need for a humanist vision of community createsnew possibilities for an empowering Afrocentric feminist knowledge.Many Black feminist intellectuals have long thought about the worldin this way because this is the way we experience the world.

Afrocentric feminist thought offers two significant contributionstoward turthering our understanding of the important connectionsamong knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment.First, Black feminist thought fosters a fundamental paradigmaticshift in how we think about oppression. By embracing a paradigm ofrace, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression, Blackfeminist thought reconceptualizes the social relations of dommationand resistance. Second, Black feminist thought addresses ongoingepistemological debates in feminist theory and in the sociology ofknowledge concerning ways of assessing "truth." Offering subordinategroups new knowledge about their own experiences can be empowering.But revealing new ways of knowing that allow subordinate groups todefine 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 withpeople who are different from you," maintains Barbara Smith. "I feelit is radical to be dealing with race and sex and class and sexualidentity all at one time. I think that is really radicalbecause it has never been done before." Black feminist thoughtfosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift that rejects additiveapproaches to oppression. Instead of starting with gender and thenadding in other variables such as age, sexual orientation, race,social class, and religion, Black feminist thought sees thesedistinctive systems of oppression as bemg part of one overarchingstructure of domination. Viewing relations of domination for Blackwomen for any given sociohistorical context as being structured via asystem of interlocking race, class, and gender oppression expands thefocus of analysis from merely describing the similarities anddifferences distinguishing these systems of oppression and focusesgreater attention on how they interconnect. Assummg that each systemneeds the others in order to function creates a distinct theoreticalstance that stimulates the rethinking of basic social scienceconcepts.

Afrocentric feminist notions of family reflect thisreconceptualization process. Black women's experiences asbloodmothers, othermothers, and community othermothers reveal thatthe mythical norm of a heterosexual, married couple, nuclear familywith a nonworking spouse and a husband earning a "family wage" is farfrom being natural, universal and preferred but instead is deeplyembedded in specific race and class formations. PlacmgAfrican-American women in the center of analysis not only revealsmuch-needed information about Black women's experiences but alsoquestions Eurocentric masculinist perspectives on family

Black women's experiences and the Afrocentric feminist thoughtrearticulating them also challenge prevailing definitions ofcommunity. Black women's actions in the struggle or group survivalsuggest a vision of community that stands in opposition to thatextant in the dominant culture. The definition of community implicitin the market model sees community as arbitrary and fragile,structured fundamentally by competition and domination. In contrast,Afrocentric models of community stress connections, caring, andpersonal accountability. As cultural workers African-American womenhave rejected the generalized ideology of domination advanced by thedominant group in order to conserve Afrocentric conceptualizations ofcommunity. Denied access to the podium, Black women have been unableto spend time theorizing about alternative conceptualizations ofcommunity. Instead, through daily actions African-American women havecreated alternative communities that empower.

This vision of community sustained by African-American women inconjunction with African-American men addresses the larger issue ofreconceptualizing power. The type of Black women's power discussedhere does resemble feminist theories of power which emphasize energyand community. However, in contrast to this body of literature whosecelebration of women's power is often accompanied by a lack ofattention to the importance of power as domination, Black women'sexperiences as mothers, community othermothers, educators, churchleaders, labor union center-women, and community leaders seem tosuggest that power as energy can be fostered by creative acts ofresistance.

The spheres of influence created and sustained by African-Americanwomen are not meant solely to provide a respite from oppressivesituations or a retreat from their effects. Rather, these Blackfemale spheres of influence constitute potential sanctuaries whereindividual Black women and men are nurtured in order to confrontoppressive social institutions. Power from this perspective is acreative power used for the good of the community, whether thatcommunity is conceptualized as one's family, church community, or thenext generation of the community's children. By making the communitystronger, Atrican-American women become empowered, and that samecommunity can serve as a source of support when Black women encounterrace, gender, and class oppression. . . .

Approaches that assume that race, gender, and class areinterconnected have immediate practical applications. For example,African-American women continue to be inadequately protected by TitleVII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The primary purpose of thestatute is to eradicate all aspects of discrimination. But judicialtreatment of Black women's employment discrimination claims hasencouraged Black women to identify race or sex as the so-calledprimary discrimination. "To resolve the inequities that confrontBlack women," counsels Scarborough, the courts must first correctlyconceptualize them as 'Black women,' a distinct class protected byTitle VII." Such a shift, from protected categories to protectedclasses of people whose Title VII claims might be based on more thantwo discriminations, would work to alter the entire basis of currentantidiscrimination efforts.

Reconceptualizing phenomena such as the rapid growth offemale-headed households in African-American communities would alsobenefit from a race-, class-, and gender-inclusive analysis. Casestudies of Black women heading households must be attentive toracially segmented local labor markets and community patterns, tochanges in local political economies specific to a given city orregion, and to established racial and gender ideology for a givenlocation. This approach would go far to deconstruct Eurocentric,masculinist analyses that implicitly rely on controlling images ofthe matriarch or the welfare mother as guiding conceptual premises. .. . Black feminist thought that rearticulates experiences such asthese fosters an enhanced theoretical understanding of how race,gender, and class oppression are part of a single, historicallycreated system.


The Matrix of Domination


Additive models of oppression are firmly rooted in the either/ordichotomous thinking of Eurocentric, masculinist thought. One must beeither Black or white in such thought systems--persons of ambiguousracial and ethnic identity constantly battle with questions such as"what are your, anyway?" This emphasis on quantification andcategorization occurs in conjunction with the belief that either/orcategories must be ranked. The search for certainty of this sortrequires that one side of a dichotomy be privileged while its otheris denigrated. Privilege becomes defined in relation to its other.

Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking onescreates possibilities for new paradigms. The significance of seeingrace, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is thatsuch an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusivelyabout other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion,and ethnicity. Race, class, and gender represent the three systems ofoppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But thesesystems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions thatsupport them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and theycertainly affect many more groups than Black women. Other people ofcolor, Jews, the poor white women, and gays and lesbians have all hadsimilar ideological justifications offered for their subordination.All categories of humans labeled Others have been equated to oneanother, to animals, and to nature.

Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in thecenter of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptualstance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penaltyand privilege in one historically created system. In this system, forexample, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged bytheir race. Depending on the context, an individual may be anoppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneouslyoppressor 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 socialstructural level of institutions, gender oppression seems better ableto annex the basic power of the erotic and intrude in personalrelationships via family dynamics and within individualconsciousness. This may be because racial oppression has fosteredhistorically concrete communities among African-Americans and otherracial/ethnic groups. These communities have stimulated cultures ofresistance. While these communities segregate Blacks from whites,they simultaneously provide counter-institutional buffers thatsubordinate groups such as African-Americans use to resist the ideasand institutions of dominant groups. Social class may be similarlystructured. Traditionally conceptualized as a relationship ofindividual employees to their employers, social class might bebetter viewed as a relationship of communities to capitalistpolitical economies. Moreover, significant overlap exists betweenracial and social class oppression when viewing them through thecollective lens of family and community. Existing communitystructures provide a primary line of resistance against racial andclass oppression. But because gender cross-cuts these structures, itfinds 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 seeas the more fundamental issue of the social relations of domination.Race, class, and gender constitute axes of oppression thatcharacterize Black women's experiences within a more generalizedmatrix of domination. Other groups may encounter different dimensionsof the matrix, such as sexual orientation, religion, and age, but theoverarching relationship is one of domination and the types ofactivism it generates.

Bell Hooks labels this matrix a "politic of domination" anddescribes how it operates along interlocking axes of race, class, andgender 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 ofsuperior and inferior, which are components of all of those systems.For me it's like a house, they share the foundation, but thefoundation is the ideological beliefs around which notions ofdomination are constructed.

Johnella Butler claims that new methodologies growing from thisnew paradigm would be "non-hierarchical" and would "refuse primacy toeither race, class, gender, or ethnicity, demanding instead arecognition of their matrix-like interaction." Race, class, andgender may not be the most fundamental or important systems ofoppression, but they have most profoundly affected African-Americanwomen. One significant dimension of Black feminist thought is itspotential to reveal insights about the social relations of dominationorganized along other axes such as religion, ethnicity, sexualorientation, and age. Investigating Black women's particularexperiences thus promises to reveal much about the more universalprocess 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 severallevels. People experience and resist oppression on three levels: thelevel of personal biography; the group or community level of thecultural context created by race, class, and gender; and the systemiclevel of social institutions. Black feminist thought emphasizes allthree levels as sites of domination and as potential sites ofresistance.

Each individual has a unique personal biography made up ofconcrete experiences, values, motivations, and emotions. No twoindividuals occupy the same social space; thus no two biographies areidentical. Human ties can be freeing and empowering, as is the casewith Black women's heterosexual love relationships or in the power ofmotherhood in African-American families and communities. Human tiescan also be confining and oppressive. Situations of domestic violenceand abuse or cases in which controlling images foster Black women'sinternalized oppression represent domination on the personal level.The same situation can look quite different depending on theconsciousness one brings to interpret it.

This level of individual consciousness is a fundamental area wherenew knowledge can generate change. Traditional accounts assume thatpower as domination operates from the top down by forcing andcontrolling unwilling victims to bend to the will of more powerfulsuperiors. But these accounts fail to account for questionsconcerning why, for example, women stay with abusive men even withample opportunity to leave or why slaves did not kill their ownersmore often. The willingness of the victim to collude in her or hisown victimization becomes lost. They also fail to account forsustained resistance by victims, even when chances for victory appearremote. By emphasizing the power of self-definition and the necessityof a free mind, Black feminist thought speaks to the importanceAfrican-American women thinkers place on consciousness as a sphere offreedom. Black women intellectuals realize that domination operatesnot only by structuring power from the top down but by simultaneouslyannexing the power as energy of those on the bottom for its own ends.In their efforts to rearticulate the standpoint of African-Americanwomen as a group, Black feminist thinkers offer individualAfrican-American women the conceptual tools to resist oppression.

The cultural context formed by those experiences and ideas thatare shared with other members of a group or community which givemeaning to individual biographies constitutes a second level at whichdomination is experienced and resisted. Each individual biography isrooted in several overlapping cultural contexts--for example, groupsdefined by race, social class, age, gender, religion, and sexualorientation. The cultural component contributes, among other things,the concepts used in thinking and acting, group validation of anindividual's interpretation of concepts, the "thought models" used inthe acquisition of knowledge, and standards used to evaluateindividual thought and behavior. The most cohesive cultural contextsare those with identifiable histories, geographic locations, andsocial institutions. For Black women African-American communitieshave provided the location for an Afrocentric group perspective toendure.

Subjugated knowledges, such as a Black women's culture ofresistance, develop in cultural contexts controlled by oppressedgroups. Dominant groups aim to replace subjugated knowledge withtheir own specialized thought because they realize that gainingcontrol over this dimension of subordinate groups' lives simplifiescontrol. While efforts to influence this dimension of an oppressedgroup's experiences can be partially successful, this level is moredifficult to control than dominant groups would have us believe. Forexample, adhering to externally derived standards of beauty leadsmany African-American women to dislike their skin color or hairtexture. Similarly, internalizing Eurocentric gender ideology leadssome Black men to abuse Black women. These are cases of thesuccessful infusion of the dominant group's specialized thought intothe everyday cultural context of African-Americans. But thelong-standing existence of a Black women's culture of resistance asexpressed through Black women's relationships with one another, theBlack women's blues tradition, and the voices of contemporaryAfrican-American women writers all attest to the difficulty ofeliminating the cultural context as a fundamental site of resistance.

Domination is also experienced and resisted on the third level ofsocial institutions controlled by the dominant group: namely,schools, churches, the media, and other formal organizations. Theseinstitutions expose individuals to the specialized thoughtrepresenting the dominant group's standpoint and interests. Whilesuch institutions offer the promise of both literacy and other skillsthat can be used for individual empowerment and socialtransformation, they simultaneously require docility and passivity.Such institutions would have us believe that the theorizing of elitesconstitutes the whole of theory. The existence of African-Americanwomen thinkers such as Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Zora NealeHurston, and Fannie Lou Hamer who, though excluded from and/ormarginalized within such institutions, continued to produce theoryeffectively opposes this hegemonic view. Moreover, the more recentresurgence of Black feminist thought within these institutions, thecase of the outpouring of contemporary Black feminist thought inhistory and literature, directly challenges the Eurocentricmasculinist thought pervading these institutions.


Resisting the Matrix of Domination


Domination operates by seducing, pressuring, or forcingAfrican-American women and members of subordinated groups to replaceindividual and cultural ways of knowing with the dominant group'sspecialized thought. As a result, suggests Audre Lorde, "the truefocus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressivesituations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressorwhich is planted deep within each of us." Or as Toni Cade Bambarasuccinctly states, "revolution begins with the self, in the self."

Lorde and Bambara's suppositions raise an important issue forBlack feminist intellectuals and for all scholars and activistsworking for social change. Although most individuals have littledifficulty identifying their own victimization within some majorsystem of oppression--whether it be by race, social class, religion,physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or gender--theytypically fail to see how their thoughts and actions uphold someoneelse's subordination. Thus white feminists routinely point withconfidence to their oppression as women but resist seeing how muchtheir white skin privileges them. African-Americans who possesseloquent analyses of racism often persist in viewing poor white womenas symbols of white power. The radical left fares little better. "Ifonly people of color and women could see their true class interests,"they argue, "class solidarity would eliminate racism and sexism." Inessence, each group identifies the oppression with which it feelsmost comfortable as being fundamental and classifies all others asbeing of lesser importance. Oppression is filled with suchcontradictions because these approaches fail to recognize that amatrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors. Eachindividual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from themultiple systems of oppression which frame everyone's lives.

A broader focus stresses the interlocking nature of oppressionsthat are structured on multiple levels, from the individual to thesocial structural, and which are part of a larger matrix ofdomination. Adhering to this inclusive model provides the conceptualspace needed for each individual to see that she or he is botha member of multiple dominant groups and a member of multiplesubordinate groups. Shifting the analysis to investigating how thematrix of domination is structured along certain axes--race, gender,and class being the axes of investigation for AfricanAmericanwomen--reveals that different systems of oppression may rely invarying degrees on systemic versus interpersonal mechanisms ofdomination.

Empowerment involves rejecting the dimensions of knowledge,whether personal, cultural, or institutional, that perpetuateobjectification and dehumanization. African-American women and otherindividuals in subordinate groups become empowered when we understandand use those dimensions of our individual, group, and disciplinaryways 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 anAfrocentric feminist epistemology as central to our worldview, andview the skills gained in schools as part of a focused education forBlack community development. C. Wright Mills identifies this holisticepistemology as the "sociological imagination" and identifies itstask and its promise as a way of knowing that enables individuals tograsp the relations between history and biography within society.Using one's standpoint to engage the sociological imagination canempower the individual. "My fullest concentration of energy isavailable to me," Audre Lorde maintains, "only when I integrate allthe parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sourcesof my living to flow back and forth freely through all my differentselves, without the restriction of externally imposed definition."


Black Women as Agents of Knowledge


Living life as an African-American woman is a necessaryprerequisite for producing Black feminist thought because withinBlack women's communities thought is validated and produced withreference to a particular set of historical, material, andepistemological conditions. African-American women who adhere to theidea that claims about Black women must be substantiated by Blackwomen's sense of our own experiences and who anchor our knowledgeclaims in an Afrocentric feminist epistemology have produced a richtradition of Black feminist thought.

Traditionally such women were blues singers, poets,autobiographers, storytellers, and orators validated by everydayBlack women as experts on a Black women's standpoint. Only a fewunusual African-American feminist scholars have been able to defyEurocentric masculinist epistemologies and explicitly embrace anAfrocentric feminist epistemology. Consider Alice Walker'sdescription of Zora Neal Hurston:

In my mind, Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, andBessie Smith form a sort of unholy trinity. Zora belongs in thetradition of black women singers, rather than among "the literati." .. . Like Billie and Jessie she followed her own road, believed in herown gods pursued her own dreams, and refused to separate herself from"common" people.

Zora Neal Hurston is an exception for prior to 1950, fewAfrican-American women earned advanced degrees and most of those whodid complied with Eurocentric masculinist epistemologies. Althoughthese women worked on behalf of Black women, they did so within theconfines of pervasive race and gender oppression. Black womenscholars were in a position to see the exclusion of African-Americanwomen from scholarly discourse, and the thematic content of theirwork often reflected their interest in examining a Black women'sstandpoint. However, their tenuous status in academic institutionsled them to adhere to Eurocentric masculinist epistemologies so thattheir work would be accepted as scholarly. As a result, while theyproduced Black feminist thought, those African-American women mostlikely to gain academic credentials were often least likely toproduce Black feminist thought that used an Afrocentric feministepistemology.

An ongoing tension exists for Black women as agents of knowledge,a tension rooted in the sometimes conflicting demands ofAfrocentricity and feminism. Those Black women who are feminists arecritical of how Black culture and many of its traditions oppresswomen. For example, the strong pronatal beliefs in African-Americancommunities that foster early motherhood among adolescent girls, thelack of self-actualization that can accompany the double-day of paidemployment and work in the home, and the emotional and physical abusethat many Black women experience from their fathers, lovers, andhusbands all reflect practices opposed by African-American women whoare feminists. But these same women may have a parallel desire asmembers of an oppressed racial group to affirm the value of that sameculture and traditions. Thus strong Black mothers appear in Blackwomen's literature, Black women's economic contributions to familiesis lauded, and a curious silence exists concerning domestic abuse.

As more African-American women earn advanced degrees, the range ofBlack feminist scholarship is expanding. Increasing numbers ofAfrican-American women scholars are explicitly choosing to groundtheir work in Black women's experiences, and, by doing so, theyimplicitly adhere to an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Ratherthan being restrained by their both/and status of marginality, thesewomen make creative use of their outsider-within status and produceinnovative Afrocentric feminist thought. The difficulties these womenface lie less in demonstrating that they have mastered white maleepistemologies than in resisting the hegemonic nature of thesepatterns of thought in order to see, value, and use existingalternative Afrocentric feminist ways of knowing.

In establishing the legitimacy of their knowledge claims, Blackwomen scholars who want to develop Afrocentric feminist thought mayencounter the often conflicting standards of three key groups. First,Black feminist thought must be validated by ordinary Atrican-Americanwomen who, in the words of Hannah Nelson, grow to womanhood "in aworld where the saner you are, the madder you are made to appear." Tobe credible in the eyes of this group, scholars must be personaladvocates for their material, be accountable for the consequences oftheir work, have lived or experienced their material in some fashion,and be willing to engage in dialogues about their findings withordinary, everyday people. Second, Black feminist thought also mustbe accepted by the community of Black women scholars. These scholarsplace varying amounts of importance on rearticulating a Black women'sstandpoint using an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Third,Afrocentric feminist thought within academia must be prepared toconfront Eurocentric masculinist political and epistemologicalrequirements.

The dilemma facing Black women scholars engaged in creating Blackfeminist thought is that a knowledge claim that meets the criteria ofadequacy for one group and thus is judged to be an acceptableknowledge claim may not be translatable into the terms of a differentgroup. Using the example of Black English, June Jordan illustratesthe difficulty of moving among epistemologies:

You cannot "translate" instances of Standard Englishpreoccupied with abstraction or with nothing/nobody evidently aliveinto Black English. That would warp the language into usesantithetical 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-centeredassumptions of Black English.

Although both worldviews share a common vocabulary, the ideasthemselves defy direct translation.

For Black women who are agents of knowledge, the marginality thataccompanies outsider-within status can be the source of bothfrustration and creativity. In an attempt to minimize the differencesbetween the cultural context of African-American communities and theexpectations of social institutions, some women dichotomize theirbehavior and become two different people. Over time, the strain ofdoing this can be enormous. Others reject their cultural context andwork against their own best interests by enforcing the dominantgroup's specialized thought. Still others manage to inhabit bothcontexts but do so critically, using their outsider-withinperspectives as a source of insights and ideas. But while outsiderswithin can make substantial personal cost. "Eventually it comes toyou," observes Lorraine Hansberry, "the thing that makes youexceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must alsomake you lonely."

Once Black feminist scholars face the notion that, on certaindimensions of a Black women's standpoint, it may be fruitless to tryand translate ideas from an Afrocentric feminist epistemology into aEurocentric masculinist framework, then other choices emerge. Ratherthan trying to uncover universal knowledge claims that can withstandthe translation from one epistemology to another (initially, atleast), Black women intellectuals might find efforts to rearticulatea Black women's standpoint especially fruitful. Rearticulating aBlack women's standpoint refashions the concrete and reveals the moreuniversal human dimensions of Black women's everyday lives. "I dateall my work," notes Nikki Giovanni, "because I think poetry, or anywriting, is but a reflection of the moment. The universal comes fromthe particular." Bell Hooks maintains, "my goal as a feminist thinkerand theorist is to take that abstraction and articulate it in alanguage that renders it accessible--not less complex orrigorous--but simply more accessible." The complexity exists;interpreting it remains the unfulfilled challenge for Black womenintellectuals.


Situated Knowledge, Subjugated Knowledge,

and Partial Perspectives


"My life seems to be an increasing revelation of the intimatetrace 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 thatleads you into land reform into Black English into Angola leads youback to your own bed where you lie by yourself; wondering it youdeserve to be peaceful, or trusted or desired or left to the freedomof your own unfaltering heart. And the scale shrinks to the use of askull: your own interior cage.

Lorraine Hansberry expresses a similar idea: "I believe that oneof the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order tocreate the universal, you must pay very great attention to thespecific. Universality, I think, emerges from the truthful identityof what is." Jordan and Hansberry's insights that universal struggleand truth may wear a particularistic, intimate face suggest a newepistemological stance concerning how we negotiate competingknowledge claims and identify "truth."

The context in which African-American women's ideas are nurturedor suppressed matters. Understanding the content and epistemology ofBlack women's ideas as specialized knowledge requires attending tothe context from which those ideas emerge. While produced byindividuals, Black feminist thought as situated knowledge is embeddedin the communities in which African-American women find ourselves.

A Black women's standpoint and those of other oppressed groups isnot only embedded in a context but exists in a situationcharacterized by domination. Because Black women's ideas have beensuppressed, this suppression has stimulated African-American women tocreate knowledge that empowers people to resist domination. ThusAfrocentric feminist thought represents a subjugated knowledge. ABlack women's standpoint may provide a preferred stance from which toview the matrix of domination because, in principle, Black feministthought as specialized thought is less likely than the specializedknowledge produced by dominant groups to deny the connection betweenideas and the vested interests of their creators. However, Blackfeminist thought as subjugated knowledge is not exempt from criticalanalysis, because subjugation is not grounds for an epistemology.

Despite African-American women's potential power to reveal newinsights about the matrix of domination, a Black women's standpointis only one angle of vision. Thus Black feminist thought represents apartial perspective. The overarching matrix of domination housesmultiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty andprivilege that produce corresponding partial perspectives, situatedknowledges, and, for clearly identifiable subordinate groups,subjugated knowledges. No one group has a clear angle of vision. Noone group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it todiscover the absolute "truth" or, worse yet, proclaim its theoriesand methodologies as the universal norm evaluating other groups'experiences. Given that groups are unequal in power in makingthemselves heard, dominant groups have a vested interest insuppressing the knowledge produced by subordinate groups. Given theexistence of multiple and competing knowledge claims to "truth"produced by groups with partial perspectives, what epistemologicalapproach offers the most promise?


Dialogue and Empathy


Western social and political thought contains two alternativeapproaches to ascertaining "truth." The first, reflected inpositivist science, has long claimed that absolute truths exist andthat the task of scholarship is to develop objective, unbiased toolsof science to measure these truths. . . . Relativism, the secondapproach, has been forwarded as the antithesis of and inevitableoutcome of rejecting a positivist science. From a relativistperspective all groups produce specialized thought and each group'sthought is equally valid. No group can claim to have a betterinterpretation of the "truth" than another. In a sense, relativismrepresents the opposite of scientific ideologies of objectivity. Asepistemological stances, both positivist science and relativismminimize the importance of specific location in influencing a group'sknowledge claims, the power inequities among groups that producesubjugated knowledges, and the strengths and limitations of partialperspective.

The existence of Black feminist thought suggests anotheralternative to the ostensibly objective norms of science and torelativism's claims that groups with competing knowledge claims areequal. . . . This approach to Afrocentric feminist thought allowsAfrican-American women to bring a Black women's standpoint to largerepistemological dialogues concerning the nature of the matrix ofdomination. Eventually such dialogues may get us to a point at which,claims Elsa Barkley Brown, "all people can learn to center in anotherexperience, validate it, and judge it by its own standards withoutneed of comparison or need to adopt that framework as their own." Insuch dialogues, "one has no need to 'decenter' anyone in order tocenter 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, PuertoRican men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with eachgroup using the epistemological approaches growing from its uniquestandpoint, thus become the most "objective" truths. Each groupspeaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situatedknowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial,its knowledge is unfinished. Each group becomes better able toconsider other groups' standpoints without relinquishing theuniqueness of its own standpoint or suppressing other groups' partialperspectives. "What is always needed in the appreciation of art, orlife," 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 thecommon thread, the unifying theme through immense diversity."Partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard;individuals and groups forwarding knowledge claims without owningtheir position are deemed less credible than those who do.

Dialogue is critical to the success of this epistemologicalapproach, the type of dialogue long extant in the Afrocentriccall-and-response tradition whereby power dynamics are fluid,everyone has a voice, but everyone must listen and respond to othervoices in order to be allowed to remain in the community. Sharing acommon cause fosters dialogue and encourages groups to transcendtheir differences. . . .

African-American women have been victimized by race, gender, andclass oppression. But portraying Black women solely as passive,unfortunate recipients of racial and sexual abuse stifles notionsthat Black women can actively work to change our circumstances andbring about changes in our lives. Similarly, presentingAfrican-American women solely as heroic figures who easily engage inresisting oppression on all fronts minimizes the very real costs ofoppression and can foster the perception that Black women need nohelp because we can "take it."

Black feminist thought's emphasis on the ongoing interplay betweenBlack women's oppression and Black women's activism presents thematrix of domination as responsive to human agency. Such thoughtviews the world as a dynamic place where the goal is not merely tosurvive or to fit in or to cope; rather, it becomes a place where wefeel ownership and accountability. The existence of Afrocentricfeminist thought suggests that there is always choice, and power toact, no matter how bleak the situation may appear to be. Viewing theworld as one in the making raises the issue of individualresponsibility for bringing about change. It also shows that whileindividual empowerment is key, only collective action can effectivelygenerate lasting social transformation of political and economicinstitutions.

 


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