By Jenae Nicoletta
In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins asserts that within the U.S., Black intellectuals often struggle to justify the credibility of the knowledge they posses due to the oppressive processes by which knowledge is validated. She argued that knowledge validation processes work to suppress Black intellectual knowledge. These processes are oppressive because they tend to reflect the interests of the dominant group of elite White American males (271). In order to properly theorize knowledge, Collins suggests the importance of understanding the concept of epistemology. Collins defines epistemology as the investigation of “the standards used to assess knowledge or why we believe what we believe to be true” and also “the ways in which power relations shape who is believed and why” (270). Collins’ deconstruction of the ways is which knowledge is validated suggests that knowledge can be biased towards the dominant group. This gives the dominant group the power to silence the knowledge of the “Other”.
Collins identifies two political standards that serve to manipulate knowledge validation processes. First, knowledge is appraised by a scholarly community, which generally consists of “White avowedly heterosexual men holding U.S. citizenship” (271). Collins contends that no scholar can escape from the influence of his or her positionality on personal experiences. We reflect and analyze knowledge based on our experiences, which not only shape the ways in which we view reality, but also what we believe to be true. Second, any scholar or scholarly community advocating a claim in opposition of the dominant cultural ideologies may be in jeopardy of being discredited. Furthermore, the few Black women holding positions of authority within institutions where knowledge is validated are used to prevent the majority of Black women from collaborating in knowledge validation processes. One tactic used is to encourage these women to work within the dominant cultural ideologies surrounding Black female inferiority (272). This omission of many Black females from positions of authority leads to the rejection of many competing knowledge claims made by Black women.
U.S. Black women bump up against many walls when trying to validate knowledge through the dominant process. Therefore, they are forced to deviate from standard academic theory. Collins claims that “reinterpreting existing works through theoretical frameworks” is one way of developing Black feminist thought (17). Moreover, U.S. Black feminist thought can take the form of poetry, music and essays (Collins 11). For example, blues songs written by Black females during the 1920s and 1930s are considered a site of academia, as are hip-hop songs of the 1990s (Collins 19). Also, Black female writers and filmmakers are considered a site of academia (Collins 115). All of these outlets are considered site of academia due to the artist’s ability to reveal her awareness of herself and the issues concerning Black women’s oppression. “Through their words and actions, grassroots political activists also contribute to Black women’s intellectual traditions” (Collins 20).
Collins still provides hope toward reaching truth even though Black female knowledge faces such culturally embedded obstacles. She declares, “all U.S. black women who somehow contribute to Black feminist thought as critical social theory are deemed to be ‘intellectuals’ (17). However, in Strange Bedfellows: Black Feminist and Antipornography Feminism, Jennifer C. Nash criticizes the argument that “every cultural product black women create is a kind of theory” (Nash 57). Nash reasons, “this incredibly expansive conception of the theoretical tends to overpoliticize black woman’s cultural production suggesting that we can distill theoretical meanings out of black women’s seemingly quotidian social practice” (57). Nash seems to be warning other Black feminists against claiming that every black woman’s reflection on her own experience is theoretical. Nash is calling for more meaningful engagements with issues pertinent to Black Feminism.
Yet, Collins does offer alternative validation processes. She believes that by being an advocate for her ideas, she then validates her knowledge claims. Not only does this validate her claims, but also it inspires her readers to resist oppression. Furthermore, Collins argues “Black women intellectuals best contribute to Black women’s group standpoint by using their experience as situated knowers” (22). Later she states that women who claim to be experts and have lived through corresponding experiences are more credible that those who simply read about and studied such experiences (276). Collins backs up this claim by differentiating between knowledge and wisdom. “Knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate” (Collins 276).
Although Black feminist thought is not as widely accepted and celebrated in comparison to the dominant “truths,” Collins believes it is important to understand systems of oppression in order to seek out one’s own “truths.” “Partiality, and not universality, is the condition of being heard; individuals and groups forwarding knowledge claims without owning their position are deemed less credible than those who do” (Collins 290). This empowering statement illustrates Collins’ conceptualization of what she believes is true validated knowledge, not simply the knowledge that bolsters dominant ideas. Furthermore, “the existence of a self-defined Black woman’s standpoint using Black feminist epistemology calls into question the content of what currently passes as truth and simultaneously challenges the process of arriving at the truth” (Collins 290). We all must question, analyze, and trace the origins of and the ideologies backing the claims that are deemed as “truths” to understand why we believe them to be true.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge Classics, 2009.
Nash, Jennifer C. “Strange Bedfellows: Black Feminism and Antipornography Feminism.” Social Text. 26.4 (2008): 51-70.