Blogging the Theoretical

Power and Black Feminist thought

September 16, 2011 · 3 Comments

Power in Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought is summarized in chapter 12 “Towards a politics of empowerment” in which she explains that there are two main theoretical frameworks on power relation that Black feminist theory exists within. The first is one in which “groups with greater power oppress those with lesser amounts.” while the later is conceptualizing power as something that isn’t possessed but instead is “an intangible entity that circulates within a particular matrix of domination and to which individuals stand in varying relationships.” (Collins, 2009, p. 292) She argues that these perspectives should be viewed as complimentary much in the same way that Black feminist theory approaches oppression as dialectic.  Thus she breaks down the dialectical perspective of power into four intersecting domains of power: structural, interpersonal, disciplinary, and hegemonic.  Her discussion of power makes the point that power isn’t a unidirectional force rather it operates in many seemly contradictory ways.  Thus Collin’s power theory analyzes the different sources and avenues of power and how to they operate synergistically.


The structural domain of power is best conceptualized as the domain of social institutions.  These institutions historically utilized segregation to prevent women of color from employing their rights as citizens. In recent years, however, these institutions have utilized the rhetoric of color-blindness and its sibling gender-neutrality to delegitimize discussion of the wealth gap and make such disparities an individual’s problem rather than a social injustice. In this way, institutionalized racism and sexism belong to the structural domain of power.  The most interesting aspect of this power relation is the way that the power which institutionalized oppression holds is an “intangible entity,” yet it is utilizing the same discourse that dominant groups have used to justify oppressing other less powerful groups namely erasing themselves from the equation. Thus often it isn’t gender studies but women studies as why study men when they’re the norm.


The interpersonal domain of power operates in a similarly intricate way through social interactions.  In the interpersonal domain people utilize power in a “systematic, recurrent, and so familiar [way] that they often go unnoticed.”(Collins, 2009, p. 307)  Though people utilize power on an interpersonal level this power comes from many sources especially in modern times.  An excellent example of cross over is through institutionalized oppression’s interaction with colorblindness and gender-neutrality in which talk of discrimination can be dismissed as irrelevant.


The disciplinary domain of power operates through the organization of social institutions such as bureaucracy.  Institutions are ordered in such a way as to prevent deviation from the status quo, which in this case is one of inequality.  Collins calls the force which works to police black women “surveillance”(Collins, 2009, p. 299) and in doing so draws on the discourses of the interpersonal domain of power and the idea of the white male gaze.  The disciplinary also interacts with the structural to divide black feminist theory and black female activism ironically through the methods of resistance within the disciplinary domain.  For as black women attempt to gain positions of authority through the bureaucracy, Collins notes, “[a] different set of rules may be applied to them that distinguish[es] them from their counterparts” (Collins, 2009, p.301) thereby targeting their legitimacy among the black female activist community.


The hegemonic domain of power acts as a meta-domain operating to justify the use of power in the other domains and showing how they are all interrelated.  This domain operates utilizing “commonsense” ideas (Collins, 2009, p.302) much in the same way that absolutist monarchy drew on religious discourses to justify their right to rule.  These “commonsense” ideas are reproduced through various media and forums through controlling images, which shoehorn black women into one-dimensional roles all either aberrant or powerless.  Thus hegemony lies in-between the combinations of each of the domains justifying and allowing for traffic between. These four domains legitimize one another while acting in synergy to create a multifaceted system of oppression that is both widely accepted as the norm and deeply rooted in American society.


Collins, P. H. (2009) Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge Classics.

Categories: Rich

3 responses so far ↓

  •   ahvang08 // Sep 18th 2011 at 6:42 pm

    You do an excellent job summarizing the issues of power that Collin’s discuss in her book. I like the way in which you structured blog with each paragraph explaining the different domains of power. It is also very helpful that you include examples of each domain of power in order to further understand what Collin’s is explaining. The part of chapter 12 that discuss color blindness I think is fascinating. Great job, I think you wrote a really great blog.

  •   janico08 // Sep 19th 2011 at 9:50 am


    Awesome job! There are a few typos you need to check for.

    I think it may be interesting if you added how power can serve as a way for Black feminism to oppress others too. We usually would not think of Black feminism as a means of oppression, yet here is a “heterosexual privilege” by which other sexualities are then oppressed. You do a very nice job at illustrating the complex issues that power can create, but I think the heterosexual privilege adds another less thought of layer. You can find the information on page 136 in Collins.


  •   degan // Sep 21st 2011 at 4:53 am

    Rich! You do a great job explaining and giving examples of the ideas and concepts. Also, great use of the text. It is very clear where your ideas come from and how different conceptions are intertwined.
    I might be wrong with this but I was thinking that maybe your post could use more closure. Almost seems as though you are ending abruptly though your last statement does tend to tie your thought together.

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