I can’t really contain my levels of excitement to appropriate levels because this week, I get to talk about feminist and gender theories…HELL YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I get to talk about some of my favorite minds of ALL time, including the incredible Patricia Hill Collins (going to have a field day talking about her), as well as several others which I’ll go over. So strap in, and be prepared for hopefully a somewhat informative post, if you can manage to read between the gushing.
So, first the textbook (Appelrouth & Edles, Chapter 14) lays out for us Dorothy Smith. Smith is widely regarded as a major feminist thinker. She is most known for her concept of “standpoint theory”. Marxist in nature, standpoint theory rejects “objective” claims of social research, and instead calls on the social sciences to begin inquiring about the nature of the social structures and processes through the lens of those marginalized. It is the thought of this theory that this is the most effective and accurate method in performing social research.
And then Smith gets to talking about some of her concepts. One of them being: bifurcation of consciousness. Branching from her feminist standpoint theory, it refers to the separation of two modes that exist within a woman: the world as one actually experiences it, and the dominant view to which you must adapt. Marginalized groups (women) are conditioned to view the world from the perspective of the dominant group (men), because the perspectives of the latter are practiced and embedded into every facet of every institution of that world. Meanwhile, the dominant group, remains naively oblivious and ignorant to the perspectives of the oppressed or marginalized group, as they seldom (if ever) have to adapt to their worldview. It is a privileged position that requires no consideration for those that are oppressed, and no accommodation is necessary on their part, contrary to the experience of the oppressed. This privileged perspective from the dominant group is referred to as the “objective” reality, when really, a women’s voice provides existing realities that are overlooked or invisible to those not seeing the world through the eyes of a woman.
I’m going to move on to talking about Patricia Hill Collins, whom I consider to be one of the most important and influential thinkers of Sociology and of feminist studies (particularly black feminism). Collins most notable work, Black Feminist Thought, gives a decent introduction to black feminist thought. It’s accessible in terms of its ideas, moreso than other works in the field (i.e. Judith Butler), but it’s not for the faint of heart; it’s a fairly complex theory that can still be a bit touch to wade through at times. I still highly recommend to any readers looking to get a decent overview/foundation for black feminist thought (or Bell Hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody for those that want to start out with something really basic)!
I think black feminism as a branch or a sect of feminism is highly important to consider and recognize when you’re looking at feminism as a movement. I find it highly problematic that black feminism is not more prevalent or recognized in the popular, modern Western feminist movements. Remember how some men act when feminism is brought up? Angry, defensive, denying, derailing and so on? This exact reaction is very common among white feminists when black feminism is brought up. The branch of feminism movements we most commonly see in the United States is liberal-feminism. My beef with liberal feminism is that, in the end, they withhold the patriarchal institutions by co-opting them into a neoliberal (a conservative, libertarian ideology) paradigm. The belief that having more women CEOs, or having more women politicians, will help the system and steer it away from misogyny, is flawed. I don’t believe that having more women in oppressive positions of power is a viable way of dealing with the problems that society faces, especially when feminism is connected to so many other issues such as race, class, etc. I feel like liberal feminism has a lot to learn from black feminism, and the black feminism that Collins purports. I dislike liberal feminism and I don’t think it really “fixes” anything – it just plays into the system. Liberal feminism doesn’t want to “rock the boat” too much, just enough so some women (ahem, white, educated, middle, all the other values) can have power and privilege.
Now, Collins goes into one of her concepts that I think has the coolest title for a concept I think I’ll ever hear in academia: MATRIX OF DOMINATION!! It just sounds like every time it’s said, it should be followed with a dramatic sound effect. Y’know, the one that is like “dun dun DUUUUNNNN” (link here for the confused: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bW7Op86ox9g). I’ll loop back to matrix of domination in just a second here. First, let’s remember black feminism (distinct from other waves or movements of feminism, particularly the aforementioned liberal-feminism) argues that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. The way these relate to each other is called intersectionality. Forms of feminism that strive to overcome sexism and class oppression but ignore race can discriminate against many people, including women, through racial bias. Black feminist theory has argued that black women are positioned within structures of power in fundamentally different ways than white women. So, to those unfamiliar or those that are a novice to black feminism may be wondering: What is intersectionality? Intersectionality examines how various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.
Looping back around: So what is the matrix of domination? It’s a paradigm that explains issues of oppression that deal with race, class, and gender, which, though recognized as different social classifications, are all interconnected. As an example: many argue that Colin Powell’s success (as one Black man out of millions) is proof that discrimination based on race has been, or is close to being, eradicated in the United States – however, proponents of the theory of the matrix of domination would argue that this overlooks issues of social class, gender, and age, Powell being an upper class, middle-aged/elderly male. What is important to take away from matrix of domination is that is relies heavily on context; while one may be privileged in one facet, they may be starkly oppressed through another facet of their identity.
A few years ago, I read Patricia Hill Collins’ Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender As Categories of Analysis and Connection, and it completely changed my worldview, and I always think of it when I think of standpoint epistemology, intersectionality, and matrix of domination. She details how it is naive to suggest that one can truly know the experience of a black woman, and it is important to recognize the difference in experiences. I don’t have the exact text any longer (it was a PDF), so I’m paraphrasing here, but she asserts the three most important things to do as someone who is not at that level of oppression: (1) Recognizing the privilege you have, (2) Form coalitions, and perhaps most importantly, (3) Having empathy. She ends with one of my favorite quotes of all time that I’ll never forget:
“Men who declare themselves feminists, members of the middle class who ally themselves with anti-poverty struggles, heterosexuals who support gays and lesbians, are all trying to grow, and their efforts place them far ahead of the majority who never think of engaging in such important struggles.” ~Patricia Hill Collins
Modern Application of Theory
This comic is a good basic descriptor of why many black women choose to identify with Bell Hooks /Alice Walker womanism rather than feminism or the Western movements of feminism that cater to white, privileged, women. When you keep telling black women to sit down and wait your turn, they’re just going to peace out. Intersectionality is trying to make that space where black women can voice their concerns within the movement, without having to be told essentially that they’re dividing the group message, or that it’s not important right now.
All social movements suffer from the loudest voices (the middle-class) taking over and patronizing everyone else, who promptly fuck off. It’s why feminism has made some progress on access to higher education and well paid jobs, but not on shared/free childcare: middle-class women earn enough to pay working-class women to take care of the housework and the children, and they dominate the movement by being more articulate, more confident and more powerful, whilst knowing far less about the reality of discrimination (kind of like that whole stanpoint thing/bifurcation of consciousness mentioned earlier).
This is where intersectionality fails a bit. Class is listed as one amongst many axes of privilege but it isn’t – it is the over-arching privilege. Your race, sex, sexuality, able-bodiedness and so on all affect your chances of being born/remaining/becoming economically privileged. But people don’t like being told they have massive advantages in life compared to others, so the middle-class intersectionalistas place everything as equal, and they shout the loudest so that is what sticks.
Essentially, solidarity is for rich women.
Possible Research Questions
1. How has technology empowered women, regardless of gender identity, sexual preferences, race, physical ability, class (i.e. Intersectionality meeting free culture and free software)?
2. Do black women in America feel that modern, popular feminist efforts cater to only one or two axes of their identity (class, gender, religion, sexuality, etc.) and ignore their race?
BONUS: A cute comic for further understanding of intersecionality:
Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles. 2012. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory.2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.