Blogging the Theoretical

Black Feminist Politics in the Theory of Patricia Hill Collins [Revisited]

September 23, 2011 · No Comments

Kate Aseltine

The prevailing logic for social subjugation is a simple truth: a thing can only exist in juxtaposition to it antithesis. This translates itself into a variety of dichotomies- light and dark, order and chaos, right and wrong – because an idea is easier to describe if we begin with what it is not. Invariably, we come to know something best by comparing it to “the other.”  When we examine this phenomenon more closely, and as it relates to political economy and the intersections of gender, race and class, we can better understand why the United States, as a capitalist economy, must facilitate a society composed of disparate levels. Disparate levels which result in what Patricia Hill Collins qualifies as a “matrix of domination.” Wealth does not exist unless until it can be contrasted to poverty, and as wealth exists as the primary form of “capital” in capitalist societies, the United States has a vested interest in protecting a system that is fundamentally oppressive. Oppression is political, and the creation of public policy involves a concerted effort to establish a binary that preserves “advantaged vs. disadvantaged” social categories, within the axes of: race, gender, class, and sexuality. This discourse is of particular significance to an examination of how United States’ politics shape the experience[s] of Black women.  The United States’ matrix of domination is constructed by those who with a positionality our society privileges (i.e. wealthy, white males) and is maintained through the intersection of four domains of power, which she distinguishes as structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal (Collins 294).By examining American political economy, through this matrix, we are able to better understand, and begin to diagnose, the plight[s] of Black females, who have a uniquely disadvantaged positionality within our transversal politics, which subjugates them on the basis of race, gender, and, arguably as the result of this intersection, class.

The pursuit of capitalist gains inspires a particularly oppressive set of structural conditions which are seminal to an understanding of Black women’s experiences. Structural conditions, Patricia Hill Collins explains, organize the oppressive systems that are maintained by the disciplinary domain (Collins 294). Black women are subject to this systematic suppression as their “definitions intermingle and become more salient: oppression via gender may be more prominent as a mother, race as a homeowner, class when applying for credit ”(Collins 265). This theory of subjugation is particular relevant to the politics of oppression because it interrogates the effects of public policy on the lives of Black women. What does it mean to be Black? What it means to be female? What it means to not have enough money to pay the bills? For Black women in the USA this intersection means housing discrimination, lower wages, higher rates of unemployment, the list goes on. The structural domain organizes transversal identities and assigns them value within a hierarchy of conditions. It is, in turn, aided and abetted by the disciplinary domain, the bureaucracy that enforces these modes of oppression. Historically, the United States upheld policies of de jure racism and sexism — laws that explicitly denied basic rights to women and to people of color. Today, the same inequalities exist, but as a result of de facto injustices, as our new “enlightened” Constitution declares that all citizens have equal rights, regardless of race and sex. These de facto inequalities are just as sinister as their more transparent, de jure forbearers, Collins argues citing the example of a resulting discourse, involving the intersection of the disciplinary and hegemonic domains. She begins with the now pervasive rhetoric of “color-blindness,” arguing it fosters discrimination by rewriting structural conditions but preserving an ideology of oppression that undermines the obvious disparities in the way people of color are treated in order to preserve the interests of the dominant group[s].  This intersects with the myth of the meritocracy, which suggests that the American political economy will assure that anyone who works hard will do well. This discourse, a “utopian” illusion, has no place within a capitalist system, and serves as a classic example of how dominant groups use their position to create “commonsense” social ideologies that allow them to maintain power. These discourses [“color-blindness” and the “myth of the meritocracy”] have been fused to justify new rhetoric that argues: if there are gaps between white people and people of color, within a system that treats all people as equals, these discrepancies must be the result of other inherent “cultural” inequities. Read: White people are disproportionally better educated, better treated, and wealthier because they deserve it. The hegemonic domain utilizes this argument to perpetuate controlling images of Black women, such as that of the “welfare queen” who relies on government handouts because she is indolent. This also feeds into images of Black women as “hoochies,” a refashioning of the historic “Jezebel” model of Black female sexuality as something wanton and insatiable, a controlling images that continues to invalidate the cases of Black women who are victims of sexual assault and violence (Collins 303).

Patricia Hill Collins emphasizes the interpersonal domain as the realm in which an individual can begin to deconstruct the matrix of oppression, by highlighting the importance of the dialectic relationship between structural conditions and the actions of the individuals who occupy these structures. As the root word “structure” suggests, structural conditions are constantly shaped and reformed by the individuals who inhabit the social/cultural contexts they outline. In this way, for better or worse, the relationship between the structure and the individual is symbiotic. “Dialectic approaches emphasize the significance of knowledge in developing self-defined, group-based standpoints that, in turn, can foster group solidarity necessary for resisting oppressions” (Collins 293). Patricia Hill Collins’ posits that this dialectic approach can be used for good as well as evil, and argues that we can deconstruct the matrix of domination from within the domains of power. To do so, we must begin at the individual level, by denying power to controlling images and oppressive discourses in our day-to-day lives and thereby reclaiming the interpersonal domain. Then, we seek solidarity, by joining together to brainstorm and disperse “counter-hegemonic knowledge.” Finally, as a movement, we can present egalitarian dominant discourses that will reconstitute the structural and disciplinary domains. This is the solution.



Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge Classics, 2009.

Categories: Group Two · Kate · Patricia Hill Collins

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