Black feminism encompasses both Black feminist thought and practice. My research looks at the Black feminist practices of contemporary social movements. For example, I analyzed the intersectional social media activism of #SayHerName proponents on Twitter. For my conceptual framework, I used intersectionality as theorized by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1991 article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.”
However, Patricia Hill Collins writes in the landmark text on the subject that the work of Black women intellectuals constitutes just one feature of Black feminist thought in the United States. Furthermore, not only Black women intellectuals engage in Black feminist thought. Everyday Black women contribute to Black feminist thought.
For example, Cashawn Thompson, an early childhood development expert living in D.C., coined #BlackGirlMagic as a lens for Black women and girls to self-define and innovate positive representations of their identities as a counternarrative to the negative controlling images of Black women and girls that perpetuated by the social institutions of mainstream society. In this blog, I describe the six features of U.S. Black feminist thought according to the second chapter of Collin’s Black Feminist Thought.
The Black Women’s Standpoint
Collins writes that Black women engage in activism as a response to how the intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation shape their lives. The unique experience of living as a Black woman in America reveals the contradictions of marginalization within a democratic society.
This experience shapes the consciousness of Black women. Collins argues that this consciousness amounts to the collective wisdom of Black women, derived from a shared experience of Black womanhood that creates a distinctive, collective Black women’s standpoint. Collins uses the term standpoint to refer to group knowledge. Read more on standpoint theory in this introduction by feminist philosopher Sandra Harding.
Not Just One Black Feminism
The Black women’s standpoint, Collins argues, has several core themes due to the shared legacy of struggle for Black women in the United States. Nevertheless, the ways individual Black women respond to these themes may differ because common challenges do not mean universal experiences. Black women differ depending on the historical era they share, their class position, their sexuality, ethnic heritage, etc.
Collins asserts that no homogeneous Black women’s standpoint exists and to assert otherwise suppresses the individuality and diversity of Black women. Instead, Collins emphasizes that the different ways individual Black women respond to their group commonalities characterizes a collective Black women’s standpoint.
Black Feminism as Critical Social Theory
Black feminist thought and Black feminist practice inform one another. Collins highlights that Black feminist thought, as a critical social theory, provides Black women with the tools to resist intersecting oppressions. By critical social theory, Collins means that the knowledge of Black feminist thought serves the purpose of ending social and economic injustices.
Through their standpoint, Black women rearticulate and reaffirm their own identities to a create a different perspective on themselves and the world. This standpoint stimulates resistance, activism, and oppositional knowledges or practices aimed at self-definition and autonomy among Black women.
Black Women’s Intellectual Labor
The work of Black women intellectuals emerges out of theories about the everyday life of Black women. The use their knowledge as experts or specialists in accordance with the unique lens they possess as Black women in the pursuit of the self-definition and empowerment of Black womanhood.
Collins argues that Black women intellectuals, both within and beyond academia, play an important role in Black feminism. They use their positionality to build coalitions that cut across the lines of various social identities.
The Dymanism of Black Feminism
Black women, like members of other marginalized groups, do not control how dominant society imposes controlling images of race and gender onto them to subordinate them. Additionally, dominant society also actively suppresses ideas from the standpoint of the marginalized.
Therefore, Black women have turned to or created alternative spaces to produce and share their oppositional knowledge. This makes Black feminist thought and Black feminist practice dynamic rather than static, to actively resist changes in social conditions that negatively affect Black women.
Black Feminism’s Humanistic Vision
According to Collins, though many Black feminists begin their consciousness through Black nationalist projects, ultimately Black feminism advocates for coalitions rather than separatism. Black feminists see the struggle of interconnected with the struggle of other marginalized people. Therefore, they assert that the empowerment of Black women leads to the empowerment of all people because Black women’s struggles are human struggles.
To learn more about Black feminism, check out #BlackFeministLit : A 30-day mini-course I created for the University of Maryland Critical Race Initiative.