The concepts of “essentialism” and “identity politics” speak to black feminist thought and its usefulness for interrogating the experiences of black women in contemporary culture. These women “speak” from a specific position and place in society, one which is marginalized and “othered”, and seeks to critique the structures of domination within society. In her examination of the impact that an incorporation of this stream of thought can have in sociology, Patricia Hill Collins (1986) highlights its main tenets. I will be using her discussion to outline a rough picture of what black feminism is and its purpose.
Hill Collins (1986) defines black feminist thought as “…consist[ing] of ideas produced by Black women that clarify a stand-point of and for Black women.” (pp. S15) There are four main parts to this definition. First, the historical background of women who produce thought in this field is significant to its articulation, therefore black feminist thought is written by black women. Second, the perspectives raised by black feminists are meant to reflect the conditions of a larger group of women of colour in particular, and also explain the experiences of women who are oppressed on the grounds of race, class, or gender in general. Third, while universal themes may arise in these writings, differences in class, age, sexual orientation, etc. will cause different perspectives to be raised; there is no one, monolithic, account of the “black woman”. Last, the perspectives advanced by black feminists may not necessarily be recognized by other women, but when learned they can “…clarify a Black women’s standpoint for Black women.” (pp. S15)
Self-definition is key to subverting dominant stereotypes about black women (Hill Collins 1986). Stereotypes function to dehumanize. They are applied to all women in a patriarchal society, and by dehumanizing they justify abuse; you may abuse a mule in a way that you would not a human being. By self-defining, black women become subjects in opposition to controlling images. The intersectionalities of race, gender, and class in affecting the lived experiences of women is also a very important aspect of black feminist thought that has led to its “humanistic” (pp. S21) side. This humanistic element recognizes that systems of oppression imposed by the dominant group affect everyone in society – the marginalized and the privileged. Finally, black feminists’ focus on culture is also significant because it has lead to the unveiling of multiple sites of activism continually implemented by women to combat oppression, even at times when they were commonly perceived as passive receivers of abuse.
As much as possible, try to self-define. bell hooks is one of my favourite authors, and the reasons why I like her so much include the fact that she speaks from experience, gets straight to the point, and doesn’t bullshit. Besides, where else are you going to find someone who links together the words “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and uses them as a legit term? Whatever you are – whether white, black, yellow, red; man, woman, or in-between – you must try to find yourself amidst all the noise of the world. For me, self-definition was aided through learning; reading historical, feminist and anti-colonial texts catalyzed the process.
A personal anecdote: In high-school I had (unbeknownst to me) strong Afrocentric and feminist tendencies. I chopped off my hair because I was tired of people calling me that “pretty + light-skinned girl with the long hair”, and at the time I must admit that I felt a little “off” for doing so. Why was I so angry at the label that I risked self-sabotage? It was not until I started university that I began to find the words to explain my aversion to the category that I had been slotted into since I was a child. I discovered hooks and was able to identify that part of my problem had to do with living my life being privy to that “light-skinned privilege” that fairer blacks inherited from the days of slavery. I also took a course that introduced me to the idea of “sexual objectification” and realized that to be my second problem with the category (one of the main reasons why I cut my hair was to conduct my own social experiment and see if the boys who had swooned over me before would still find me attractive. The results? Negative. I got the point).
The point is that I now – finally – had the concepts that I could use to explain my experiences living black and female in 21st century North America.
I continue to learn.
T. M. G.
Hill Collins, P. (1986). “Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of black feminist thought.” Social Problems 33 (6), pp. S14-S32.