What light does “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” by Patricia Hill Collins (in The African American Studies Reader, ed. By Nathaniel Norment, Jr., 2001) shine on the questions of women-only spaces?
Patricia Hill Collins argues that both the content and method of meaning-making in the dominant Eurocentric, masculinist world of thought are oppressive to black women, as well as simply inadequate. Accurate knowledge about black women is unlikely to ever come from “within a white-male-controlled academic community because both the kinds of questions that could be asked and the explanations that would be found satisfying would necessarily reflect a basic lack of familiarity with black women’s reality” (170). Black women scholars can only be welcomed into the dominant world of ideas/academia if they swallow any truths that contradict the findings of the Eurocentric, masculinist body of knowledge, because this inconsistency is a threat to dominant truths (and thereby the knowledge validation process that affirmed these truths). A black women-only scholarly space, therefore, results by necessity as these thinkers are squeezed out of dominant academia, in which credentials are controlled by white male academicians (170). This space is also necessary because an oppressed group’s “lack of control over the apparatuses of society that sustain ideological hegemony makes the articulation of their self-defined standpoint difficult” (168).
Women tend to use “concrete knowledge” or experience in meaning-making and knowledge validation (174). A women-only scholarly space is concerned not only with knowledge, but also with wisdom. Wisdom, unlike knowledge, only comes with experience (173). Wisdom may come more naturally to oppressed groups, but is certainly most necessary for oppressed groups, as it “is essential to the survival of the subordinate” (173). For both “ordinary African American women” and “black women scholars,” great credence is given to real life, “ thus, concrete experience as a criterion for credibility frequently is invoked by black women when making knowledge claims” (173). Women tend to be “connected knowers” drawing on their capacity for empathy (174). A black women scholars work in their own spaces (or spaces that are black women-centric), what epistemologies and truths are they able to develop using experience, empathy and wisdom? The more these spaces exist unfettered by Eurocentric, masculinist tradition, the more these epistemologies and truths can flourish. Many black women scholars are able to speak from both their own epistemological tradition as well as a white-male-dominated tradition, but “resisting the hegemonic nature of [white male] patterns of thought in order to see, value, and use existing alternative Afrocentric feminist ways of knowing” is a challenge (176).
Though black women scholars may be able to speak from multiple epistemologies, “an acceptable knowledge claim may not be translatable into the terms of a different group” (176). There may be common language, but world views may be too diverse for the ideas themselves to be translated. “Black female scholars may know that something is true but be unwilling or unable to legitimate their claims using Eurocentric masculinist criteria for consistency with substantiated knowledge and Eurocentric masculinist criteria for methodological adequacy” (170). Is this a permanent withholding? It does not appear to be, though Collins writes that black women’s sisterhood is only available to black women, and implies that this is permanently true (175). If the very experience of sisterhood is exclusive to black women, and experience is necessary for black women’s epistemologies, it seems that there will be truths that will also only be available to black women.
However, Collins offers hope that universal truths can someday be uncovered. First each group must focus on its own meaning-making. For black women this involves “rearticulating a preexisting black women’s standpoint and recentering the language of existing academic discourse to accommodate these knowledge claims” (177). As different groups develop methods and content that are personal to their group, universal truths may be uncovered. “Those black feminists who develop knowledge claims that both [black feminist and white male] epistemologies can accommodate may have found a route to the elusive goal of generating so-called objective generalizations that can stand as universal truths. Those ideas that are validated as true by African American women, African American men, white men, white women, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from its unique standpoint, thus become the most objective truths (177).
Why must there be a community of experts who evaluate knowledge? Expediency? Is expertise necessarily oppressive? Classist? Hierarchical? (170)
Are black women scholars speaking FOR “ordinary” black women? Is that what “ordinary” black women want? What do “ordinary” black women gain from black feminist scholarship?
Are universal truths objective truths? (177)
What epistemology comes from the “unique standpoint” of white women (my subject position)? I think we tend to agree that experiential knowledge is essential to our meaning-making. What are the differences between black feminist and white feminist (and other feminist) epistemologies?
Why so many typos?
Filed under: articles on November 24th, 2010 by Anna Lisa