Black feminism

On the Outsider Within and Black Feminist Sociology

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins coined the term outsider within in a 1986 Social Problems article and expanded on the concept in a 1999 article for the Journal of Career Development. Collins developed the concept to describe “how a social group’s placement in the specific, historical context of race, gender, and class inequality might influence its point of view on the world.”[1] These articles outline this concept to draw attention to the significance of placing Black women at the center of sociological analysis.

The concept of the outsider within builds on feminist standpoint theory and Black feminist thought to illuminate how the intersectionality of racism, sexism, and classism sustains social inequalities and injustices.

How Black Women Intellectuals Do Sociology

Collins brings attention to how sociology has marginalized Black women in her 1986 article. Mainstream sociology places the perspectives and views of white men and historically either omitted Black women from research and theory or has distorted Black womanhood through controlling images designed to justify their oppression. The standpoint of Black women differs from the standpoint bolstered by mainstream sociology. So when Black feminist sociologists begin at the standpoint of Black women, they bring Black women, in the words of bell hooks, from the margins to the center.

According to Collins, Black women intellectuals theorize from the experiences of Black women to make clear the collective, Black women’s standpoint. To do so, they draw on the personal or cultural biographies of Black women as sources of knowledge. Through this work, they produce Black feminist thought characterized by three themes:

  1. The capacity for self-definition and self-valuation among Black women
  2. The intersectionality of oppression
  3. The importance of Black women’s culture

Drawing on these themes, Black women intellectuals can use their outsider within status to introduce a unique perspective to existing sociological approaches. For example, I do this type of Black feminist sociology in my work on the #SayHerName campaign.

Self-Definition and Self-Valuation for Black Women

The theme of self-definition and self-valuation in Black feminist thought addresses the dehumanization and internalized oppression that underlie the power dynamics that contribute to the controlling images that affect Black women. While self-definition refers to the ways Black women challenge stereotypes, self-valuation involves the ways they create authentic images of themselves to replace these stereotypes.

The intersectionality of oppression

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined intersectionality to argue that racism and sexism operate as mutually interlocking systems of oppression that result in forms of disadvantage that affect Black women uniquely at the political, representational, and structural levels of society. Black feminists address intersectionality to determine how social systems interact and link together. In the 1986 article, Collins writes that this way of thinking contrasts with mainstream sociological thinking that trades in binaries in a way that implies hierarchical differences among various groups. Instead, Black feminists promote a holistic and humanistic vision of a societal organization that does not encourage separatism.

The Value of Black Women’s Culture

Collins also argues in the 1986 article that through self-valuation and self-definition, Black women express their own material culture through symbols and values. These symbols and values emerge through the relationship among action, resistance, and oppression. Collins encourages sociologists to examine this relationship in addition to Black women’s consciousness itself.

Black women have a diverse culture that shapes diverse forms of activism. The self-definitions and self-valuations they create to cope with intersecting oppressions result from historically specific political economies. For example, the politics of respectability that informed the activism of Black women in the anti-lynching movement are interrelated, yet distinct from the political strategies of Black women in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Challenges Related to the Outsider-Within Standpoint

Collins further expands on the outsider-within concept in the article published in 1999 to challenge misunderstandings about the concept. Some people failed to recognize how the outsider-within by definition incorporates intersectionality.

My initial use of the term described how a social group’s placement in specific, historical context of race, gender, and class inequality might influence its point of view on the world.
– Collins (1999:85)

This misunderstanding leads to an incorrect assumption that anyone in society could occupy this positionality. As a result, the use of a term Collins created to empower Black women often erases the specificity of their experiences and creates false equivalencies to other forms of oppression.

Collins points out that the outsider within illuminates the interrelations among group history, the diversity of individual experiences among group members, and the knowledge they cultivate through social justice projects. Therefore, these false equivalencies fail to acknowledge the ways Black women develop a unique, oppositional consciousness even as they experience difficulty building coalitions with other marginalized people.

Thus, outsider-within identities are situational identities that are attached to specific histories of social injustice-they are not a decontextualized identity category divorced from historical social inequalities that can be assumed by anyone at will.
– Collins (1999:86

Another challenge the outsider-within faces relates to how marketplace ideologies create a circumstance such that the outsider-within social location does not always produce social justice projects. This creates a situation where an outsider-within gets treated as a commodity that reinforces rather than adjusts existing power relations. In particular, Collins notes that this commodification will lead to the suppression of Black women’s empowerment and transform the outsider-within into a permanent marginal status.

However, Collins asserts that Black women can also use their outsider-within status to innovate. In turn, organizations should support Black women in their social justice projects as they work to eliminate the oppression that created the marginal social location that shapes their standpoint.

  1. Collins 1999:85 ↩︎