Patricia Hill Collins studies inequality, arguing that inequality in our society is complicated and we should try to see different standpoints. Like Dorothy Smith, Collins sees the importance of the individual’s standpoint. Unlike Smith, however, she asks us to examine the standpoint of black feminists and rather than feminists in general. Inequality and stratification are complex matters and work through “matrices of domination.” The matrix of domination is the way in which power is structured in our society.
Since black women are uniquely situated at the intersection of race and gender, two of the most important systems of oppression in out society, Collins argues that this allows for a very powerful approach to begin an intersectional analysis. She refers to the intersection of two or more systems of oppression or domination as “intersectionality.” Through knowledge of the intersection of race and gender, that black women experience, we should be able to further examine the intersection of many other systems of domination. A black, middle class, pagan, lesbian will have much different experiences than a poor, black, heterosexual, Baptist woman.
“Black feminist epistemology” is also an important term coined by Collins. Epistemology is the science of knowing. She states that social reform is often impeded by the quest for social, scientific knowledge. We often lose sight of the very different experiences lived by different people when we ignore the intersectionality of systems of oppression. Through a black feminist epistemology we are able to validate knowledge that goes against the status quo.
Collins gives four main tenets of black feminist epistemology. First, alternative epistemologies are found in the lived experiences of persons, beginning with “connected knowers.” We must not remove ourselves from the experiences of our subjects and we must not objectify our subjects, because it is important to understand that not all people experience the same type or level of oppression.
The second tenet states that the use of dialogue is more beneficial than the use of debate. Through dialogue, social knowledge doesn’t exist objectively, but rather through lived experiences. Often, in alternative epistemologies, the terms “I” and “we” are found, unlike in objective social science. The author often tells a narrative, and is present in the text.
Implied by the first two tenets, the third tenet emerges—knowledge is created through the “ethics of caring.” Collins argues that knowledge is not free of individual values but, in fact, it is laden with values and should be tested through empathy and compassion. Unlike Eurocentric approaches, this tenet allows for more holistic research and seeks to heal the break between intellect and emotion, thoughts and feelings, researcher and his/her experiences.
The fourth tenet in black feminist epistemology holds that personal accountability is necessary. Accountability is required due to the fact that knowledge is framed through lived experiences, and thus often based in individual beliefs, which are things that we assume to be true. If we assume something to be true then we must take personal responsibility for it, therefore personal accountability is intrinsic to black feminist epistemology.
Since the ways of knowing and knowledge are inseparable, according to Collins, implications on how we see ourselves, how we live our lives, and how we treat other people are present. Collins write that there are three ways that these connections are especially important.
The first way is that there is a difference between common challenges and diverse experiences. If we take the idea of “lived experience” to the extreme, we can exclude the collective standpoint in favor of an individual experience. There is also a difference between common challenges and diverse responses. Individual black women might respond differently but important issues, such as racism, misogyny, and poverty, can all be part of the individual’s self-identity through acknowledgement and integration.
Lastly, the diversity within the commonality is an implication of black feminist epistemology. Through understanding, “safe spaces” are made which are “social spaces where Black women speak freely” (Collins). Of course, safe spaces are found for all oppressed peoples, not just black women. These spaces are necessary though. It is important for people to have a safe place to express themselves outside of the dominant ideologies, so that they can empower themselves through the creation of a self-definition. Safe places give black women a place to be seen as un-objectified and not as the Other. They are places of diversity, but also exclusion. Collins explains, “By definition, such spaces become less ‘safe’ if shared with those who were not Black and female.”
What “safe spaces” for black women are found at VCU?
Would EmpowerMom, the VCU student group for student mothers, be considered a “safe space?”