Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment

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Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of
From Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought:
Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of
Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), pp. 221
Black feminist thought demonstrates Black women’s emerging power as agents of
knowledge. By portraying African-American women as self-defined, selt-reliant individuals
confronting race, gender, and class oppression, Afrocentric feminist thought speaks to the
importance that oppression, Afrocentric feminist thought speaks to the importance that
knowledge plays in empowering oppressed people. One distinguishing feature of Black
feminist thought is its insistence that both the changed consciousness of individuals and the
social transformation of political and economic institutions constitute essential ingredients
for social change. New knowledge is important for both dimensions ot change.
Knowledge is a vitally important part of the social relations of domination and resistance.
By objectifying African-American women and recasting our experiences to serve the
interests of elite white men, much of the Eurocentric masculinist worldview fosters Black
women’s subordination. But placing Black women’s experiences at the center of analysis
offers fresh insights on the prevailing concepts, paradigms, and epistemologies of this
worldview and on its feminist and Afrocentric critiques. Viewing the world through a
both/and conceptual lens of the simultaneity of race, class, and gender oppression and of the
need for a humanist vision of community creates new possibilities for an empowering
Afrocentric feminist knowledge. Many Black feminist intellectuals have long thought about
the world in this way because this is the way we experience the world.
Afrocentric feminist thought offers two significant contributions toward turthering our
understanding of the important connections among knowledge, consciousness, and the
politics of empowerment. First, Black feminist thought fosters a fundamental paradigmatic
shift in how we think about oppression. By embracing a paradigm of race, class, and gender
as interlocking systems of oppression, Black feminist thought reconceptualizes the social
relations of dommation and resistance. Second, Black feminist thought addresses ongoing
epistemological debates in feminist theory and in the sociology of knowledge concerning
ways of assessing “truth.” Offering subordinate groups new knowledge about their own
experiences can be empowering. But revealing new ways of knowing that allow subordinate
groups to define their own reality has far greater implications.
Reconceptualizing Race, Class, and Gender as Interlocking Systems of
“What I really feel is radical is trying to make coalitions with people who are different from
you,” maintains Barbara Smith. “I feel it is radical to be dealing with race and sex and class
and sexual identity all at one time. I think that is really radical because it has never been
done before.” Black feminist thought fosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift that rejects
additive approaches to oppression. Instead of starting with gender and then adding in other
variables such as age, sexual orientation, race, social class, and religion, Black feminist
thought sees these distinctive systems of oppression as bemg part of one overarching
structure of domination. Viewing relations of domination for Black women for any given
sociohistorical context as being structured via a system of interlocking race, class, and
gender oppression expands the focus of analysis from merely describing the similarities and
differences distinguishing these systems of oppression and focuses greater attention on how
they interconnect. Assummg that each system needs the others in order to function creates a
distinct theoretical stance that stimulates the rethinking of basic social science concepts.
Afrocentric feminist notions of family reflect this reconceptualization process. Black
women’s experiences as bloodmothers, othermothers, and community othermothers reveal
that the mythical norm of a heterosexual, married couple, nuclear family with a nonworking
spouse and a husband earning a “family wage” is far from being natural, universal and
preferred but instead is deeply embedded in specific race and class formations. Placmg
African-American women in the center of analysis not only reveals much-needed
information about Black women’s experiences but also questions Eurocentric masculinist
perspectives on family
Black women’s experiences and the Afrocentric feminist thought rearticulating them also
challenge prevailing definitions of community. Black women’s actions in the struggle or
group survival suggest a vision of community that stands in opposition to that extant in the
dominant culture. The definition of community implicit in the market model sees
community as arbitrary and fragile, structured fundamentally by competition and
domination. In contrast, Afrocentric models of community stress connections, caring, and
personal accountability. As cultural workers African-American women have rejected the
generalized ideology of domination advanced by the dominant group in order to conserve
Afrocentric conceptualizations of community. Denied access to the podium, Black women
have been unable to spend time theorizing about alternative conceptualizations of
community. Instead, through daily actions African-American women have created
alternative communities that empower.
This vision of community sustained by African-American women in conjunction with
African-American men addresses the larger issue of reconceptualizing power. The type of
Black women’s power discussed here does resemble feminist theories of power which
emphasize energy and community. However, in contrast to this body of literature whose
celebration of women’s power is often accompanied by a lack of attention to the importance
of power as domination, Black women’s experiences as mothers, community othermothers,
educators, church leaders, labor union center-women, and community leaders seem to
suggest that power as energy can be fostered by creative acts of resistance.
The spheres of influence created and sustained by African-American women are not meant
solely to provide a respite from oppressive situations or a retreat from their effects. Rather,
these Black female spheres of influence constitute potential sanctuaries where individual
Black women and men are nurtured in order to confront oppressive social institutions.
Power from this perspective is a creative power used for the good of the community,
whether that community is conceptualized as one’s family, church community, or the next
generation of the community’s children. By making the community stronger, AtricanAmerican women become empowered, and that same community can serve as a source of
support when Black women encounter race, gender, and class oppression. . . .
Approaches that assume that race, gender, and class are interconnected have immediate
practical applications. For example, African-American women continue to be inadequately
protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The primary purpose of the statute is
to eradicate all aspects of discrimination. But judicial treatment of Black women’s
employment discrimination claims has encouraged Black women to identify race or sex as
the so-called primary discrimination. “To resolve the inequities that confront Black women,”
counsels Scarborough, the courts must first correctly conceptualize them as ‘Black women,’
a distinct class protected by Title VII.” Such a shift, from protected categories to protected
classes of people whose Title VII claims might be based on more than two discriminations,
would work to alter the entire basis of current antidiscrimination efforts.
Reconceptualizing phenomena such as the rapid growth of female-headed households in
African-American communities would also benefit from a race-, class-, and gender-inclusive
analysis. Case studies of Black women heading households must be attentive to racially
segmented local labor markets and community patterns, to changes in local political
economies specific to a given city or region, and to established racial and gender ideology
for a given location. This approach would go far to deconstruct Eurocentric, masculinist
analyses that implicitly rely on controlling images of the matriarch or the welfare mother as
guiding conceptual premises. . . . Black feminist thought that rearticulates experiences such
as these fosters an enhanced theoretical understanding of how race, gender, and class
oppression are part of a single, historically created system.
The Matrix of Domination
Additive models of oppression are firmly rooted in the either/or dichotomous thinking of
Eurocentric, masculinist thought. One must be either Black or white in such thought
systems–persons of ambiguous racial and ethnic identity constantly battle with questions
such as “what are your, anyway?” This emphasis on quantification and categorization occurs
in conjunction with the belief that either/or categories must be ranked. The search for
certainty of this sort requires that one side of a dichotomy be privileged while its other is
denigrated. Privilege becomes defined in relation to its other.
Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones creates possibilities for new
paradigms. The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of
oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about
other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. Race, class, and
gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American
women. But these systems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions that
support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many
more groups than Black women. Other people of color, Jews, the poor white women, and
gays and lesbians have all had similar ideological justifications offered for their
subordination. All categories of humans labeled Others have been equated to one another, to
animals, and to nature.
Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens
up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying
amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for
example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending
on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or
simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.
Adhering to a both/and conceptual stance does not mean that race, class, and gender
oppression are interchangeable. For example, whereas race, class, and gender oppression
operate on the social structural level of institutions, gender oppression seems better able to
annex the basic power of the erotic and intrude in personal relationships via family
dynamics and within individual consciousness. This may be because racial oppression has
fostered historically concrete communities among African-Americans and other
racial/ethnic groups. These communities have stimulated cultures of resistance. While these
communities segregate Blacks from whites, they simultaneously provide counterinstitutional buffers that subordinate groups such as African-Americans use to resist the
ideas and institutions of dominant groups. Social class may be similarly structured.
Traditionally conceptualized as a relationship of individual employees to their employers,
social class might be better viewed as a relationship of communities to capitalist political
economies. Moreover, significant overlap exists between racial and social class oppression
when viewing them through the collective lens of family and community. Existing
community structures provide a primary line of resistance against racial and class
oppression. But because gender cross-cuts these structures, it finds fewer comparable
institutional bases to foster resistance.
Embracing a both/and conceptual stance moves us from additive, separate systems
approaches to oppression and toward what I now see as the more fundamental issue of the
social relations of domination. Race, class, and gender constitute axes of oppression that
characterize Black women’s experiences within a more generalized matrix of domination.
Other groups may encounter different dimensions of the matrix, such as sexual orientation,
religion, and age, but the overarching relationship is one of domination and the types of
activism it generates.
Bell Hooks labels this matrix a “politic of domination” and describes how it operates along
interlocking axes of race, class, and gender oppression. This politic of domination
refers to the ideological ground that they share, which is a belief in domination,
and a belief in the notions of superior and inferior, which are components of all
of those systems. For me it’s like a house, they share the foundation, but the
foundation is the ideological beliefs around which notions of domination are
Johnella Butler claims that new methodologies growing from this new paradigm would be
“non-hierarchical” and would “refuse primacy to either race, class, gender, or ethnicity,
demanding instead a recognition of their matrix-like interaction.” Race, class, and gender
may not be the most fundamental or important systems of oppression, but they have most
profoundly affected African-American women. One significant dimension of Black feminist
thought is its potential to reveal insights about the social relations of domination organized
along other axes such as religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. Investigating Black
women’s particular experiences thus promises to reveal much about the more universal
process of domination.
Multiple Levels of Domination
In addition to being structured along axes such as race, gender, and social class, the matrix
of domination is structured on several levels. People experience and resist oppression on
three levels: the level of personal biography; the group or community level of the cultural
context created by race, class, and gender; and the systemic level of social institutions.
Black feminist thought emphasizes all three levels as sites of domination and as potential
sites of resistance.
Each individual has a unique personal biography made up of concrete experiences, values,
motivations, and emotions. No two individuals occupy the same social space; thus no two
biographies are identical. Human ties can be freeing and empowering, as is the case with
Black women’s heterosexual love relationships or in the power of motherhood in AfricanAmerican families and communities. Human ties can also be confining and oppressive.
Situations of domestic violence and abuse or cases in which controlling images foster Black
women’s internalized oppression represent domination on the personal level. The same
situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.
This level of individual consciousness is a fundamental area where new knowledge can
generate change. Traditional accounts assume that power as domination operates from the
top down by forcing and controlling unwilling victims to bend to the will of more powerful
superiors. But these accounts fail to account for questions concerning why, for example,
women stay with abusive men even with ample opportunity to leave or why slaves did not
kill their owners more often. The willingness of the victim to collude in her or his own
victimization becomes lost. They also fail to account for sustained resistance by victims,
even when chances for victory appear remote. By emphasizing the power of self-definition
and the necessity of a free mind, Black feminist thought speaks to the importance AfricanAmerican women thinkers place on consciousness as a sphere of freedom. Black women
intellectuals realize that domination operates not only by structuring power from the top
down but by simultaneously annexing the power as energy of those on the bottom for its
own ends. In their efforts to rearticulate the standpoint of African-American women as a
group, Black feminist thinkers offer individual African-American women the conceptual
tools to resist oppression.
The cultural context formed by those experiences and ideas that are shared with other
members of a group or community which give meaning to individual biographies constitutes
a second level at which domination is experienced and resisted. Each individual biography
is rooted in several overlapping cultural contexts–for example, groups defined by race,
social class, age, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. The cultural component
contributes, among other things, the concepts used in thinking and acting, group validation
of an individual’s interpretation of concepts, the “thought models” used in the acquisition of
knowledge, and standards used to evaluate individual thought and behavior. The most
cohesive cultural contexts are those with identifiable histories, geographic locations, and
social institutions. For Black women African-American communities have provided the
location for an Afrocentric group perspective to endure.
Subjugated knowledges, such as a Black women’s culture of resistance, develop in cultural
contexts controlled by oppressed groups. Dominant groups aim to replace subjugated
knowledge with their own specialized thought because they realize that gaining control over
this dimension of subordinate groups’ lives simplifies control. While efforts to influence this
dimension of an oppressed group’s experiences can be partially successful, this level is more
difficult to control than dominant groups would have us believe. For example, adhering to
externally derived standards of beauty leads many African-American women to dislike their
skin color or hair texture. Similarly, internalizing Eurocentric gender ideology leads some
Black men to abuse Black women. These are cases of the successful infusion of the
dominant group’s specialized thought into the everyday cultural context of AfricanAmericans. But the long-standing existence of a Black women’s culture of resistance as
expressed through Black women’s relationships with one another, the Black women’s blues
tradition, and the voices of contemporary African-American women writers all attest to the
difficulty of eliminating the cultural context as a fundamental site of resistance.
Domination is also experienced and resisted on the third level of social institutions
controlled by the dominant group: namely, schools, churches, the media, and other formal
organizations. These institutions expose individuals to the specialized thought representing
the dominant group’s standpoint and interests. While such institutions offer the promise of
both literacy and other skills that can be used for individual empowerment and social
transformation, they simultaneously require docility and passivity. Such institutions would
have us believe that the theorizing of elites constitutes the whole of theory. The existence of
African-American women thinkers such as Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Zora Neale
Hurston, and Fannie Lou Hamer who, though excluded from and/or marginalized within
such institutions, continued to produce theory effectively opposes this hegemonic view.
Moreover, the more recent resurgence of Black feminist thought within these institutions,
the case of the outpouring of contemporary Black feminist thought in history and literature,
directly challenges the Eurocentric masculinist thought pervading these institutions.
Resisting the Matrix of Domination
Domination operates by seducing, pressuring, or forcing African-American women and
members of subordinated groups to replace individual and cultural ways of knowing with
the dominant group’s specialized thought. As a result, suggests Audre Lorde, “the true focus
of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape,
but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” Or as Toni Cade
Bambara succinctly states, “revolution begins with the self, in the self.”
Lorde and Bambara’s suppositions raise an important issue for Black feminist intellectuals
and for all scholars and activists working for social change. Although most individuals have
little difficulty identifying their own victimization within some major system of oppression–
whether it be by race, social class, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age
or gender–they typically fail to see how their thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s
subordination. Thus white feminists routinely point with confidence to their oppression as
women but resist seeing how much their white skin privileges them. African-Americans
who possess eloquent analyses of racism often persist in viewing poor white women as
symbols of white power. The radical left fares little better. “If only people of color and
women could see their true class interests,” they argue, “class solidarity would eliminate
racism and sexism.” In essence, each group identifies the oppression with which it feels
most comfortable as being fundamental and classifies all others as being of lesser
importance. Oppression is filled with such contradictions because these approaches fail to
recognize that a matrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors. Each
individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of
oppression which frame everyone’s lives.
A broader focus stresses the interlocking nature of oppressions that are structured on
multiple levels, from the individual to the social structural, and which are part of a larger
matrix of domination. Adhering to this inclusive model provides the conceptual space
needed for each individual to see that she or he is both a member of multiple dominant
groups and a member of multiple subordinate groups. Shifting the analysis to investigating
how the matrix of domination is structured along certain axes–race, gender, and class being
the axes of investigation for AfricanAmerican women–reveals that different systems of
oppression may rely in varying degrees on systemic versus interpersonal mechanisms of
Empowerment involves rejecting the dimensions of knowledge, whether personal, cultural,
or institutional, that perpetuate objectification and dehumanization. African-American
women and other individuals in subordinate groups become empowered when we
understand and use those dimensions of our individual, group, and disciplinary ways of
knowing that foster our humanity as fully human subjects. This is the case when Black
women value our self-definitions, participate in a Black women’s activist tradition, invoke
an Afrocentric feminist epistemology as central to our worldview, and view the skills gained
in schools as part of a focused education for Black community development. C. Wright
Mills identifies this holistic epistemology as the “sociological imagination” and identifies its
task and its promise as a way of knowing that enables individuals to grasp the relations
between history and biography within society. Using one’s standpoint to engage the
sociological imagination can empower the individual. “My fullest concentration of energy is
available to me,” Audre Lorde maintains, “only when I integrate all the parts of who I am,
openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely
through all my different selves, without the restriction of externally imposed definition.”
Black Women as Agents of Knowledge
Living life as an African-American woman is a necessary prerequisite for producing Black
feminist thought because within Black women’s communities thought is validated and
produced with reference to a particular set of historical, material, and epistemological
conditions. African-American women who adhere to the idea that claims about Black
women must be substantiated by Black women’s sense of our own experiences and who
anchor our knowledge claims in an Afrocentric feminist epistemology have produced a rich
tradition of Black feminist thought.
Traditionally such women were blues singers, poets, autobiographers, storytellers, and
orators validated by everyday Black women as experts on a Black women’s standpoint. Only
a few unusual African-American feminist scholars have been able to defy Eurocentric
masculinist epistemologies and explicitly embrace an Afrocentric feminist epistemology.
Consider Alice Walker’s description of Zora Neal Hurston:
In my mind, Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith form a sort
of unholy trinity. Zora belongs in the tradition of black women singers, rather
than among “the literati.” . . . Like Billie and Jessie she followed her own road,
believed in her own gods pursued her own dreams, and refused to separate
herself from “common” people.
Zora Neal Hurston is an exception for prior to 1950, few African-American women earned
advanced degrees and most of those who did complied with Eurocentric masculinist
epistemologies. Although these women worked on behalf of Black women, they did so
within the confines of pervasive race and gender oppression. Black women scholars were in
a position to see the exclusion of African-American women from scholarly discourse, and
the thematic content of their work often reflected their interest in examining a Black
women’s standpoint. However, their tenuous status in academic institutions led them to
adhere to Eurocentric masculinist epistemologies so that their work would be accepted as
scholarly. As a result, while they produced Black feminist thought, those African-American
women most likely to gain academic credentials were often least likely to produce Black
feminist thought that used an Afrocentric feminist epistemology.
An ongoing tension exists for Black women as agents of knowledge, a tension rooted in the
sometimes conflicting demands of Afrocentricity and feminism. Those Black women who
are feminists are critical of how Black culture and many of its traditions oppress women.
For example, the strong pronatal beliefs in African-American communities that foster early
motherhood among adolescent girls, the lack of self-actualization that can accompany the
double-day of paid employment and work in the home, and the emotional and physical
abuse that many Black women experience from their fathers, lovers, and husbands all reflect
practices opposed by African-American women who are feminists. But these same women
may have a parallel desire as members of an oppressed racial group to affirm the value of
that same culture and traditions. Thus strong Black mothers appear in Black women’s
literature, Black women’s economic contributions to families is lauded, and a curious silence
exists concerning domestic abuse.
As more African-American women earn advanced degrees, the range of Black feminist
scholarship is expanding. Increasing numbers of African-American women scholars are
explicitly choosing to ground their work in Black women’s experiences, and, by doing so,
they implicitly adhere to an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Rather than being restrained
by their both/and status of marginality, these women make creative use of their outsiderwithin status and produce innovative Afrocentric feminist thought. The difficulties these
women face lie less in demonstrating that they have mastered white male epistemologies
than in resisting the hegemonic nature of these patterns of thought in order to see, value, and
use existing alternative Afrocentric feminist ways of knowing.
In establishing the legitimacy of their knowledge claims, Black women scholars who want
to develop Afrocentric feminist thought may encounter the often conflicting standards of
three key groups. First, Black feminist thought must be validated by ordinary AtricanAmerican women who, in the words of Hannah Nelson, grow to womanhood “in a world
where the saner you are, the madder you are made to appear.” To be credible in the eyes of
this group, scholars must be personal advocates for their material, be accountable for the
consequences of their work, have lived or experienced their material in some fashion, and be
willing to engage in dialogues about their findings with ordinary, everyday people. Second,
Black feminist thought also must be accepted by the community of Black women scholars.
These scholars place varying amounts of importance on rearticulating a Black women’s
standpoint using an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Third, Afrocentric feminist thought
within academia must be prepared to confront Eurocentric masculinist political and
epistemological requirements.
The dilemma facing Black women scholars engaged in creating Black feminist thought is
that a knowledge claim that meets the criteria of adequacy for one group and thus is judged
to be an acceptable knowledge claim may not be translatable into the terms of a different
group. Using the example of Black English, June Jordan illustrates the difficulty of moving
among epistemologies:
You cannot “translate” instances of Standard English preoccupied with
abstraction or with nothing/nobody evidently alive into Black English. That
would warp the language into uses antithetical to the guiding perspective of its
community of users. Rather you must first change those Standard English
sentences, themselves, into ideas consistent with the person-centered
assumptions of Black English.
Although both worldviews share a common vocabulary, the ideas themselves defy direct
For Black women who are agents of knowledge, the marginality that accompanies outsiderwithin status can be the source of both frustration and creativity. In an attempt to minimize
the differences between the cultural context of African-American communities and the
expectations of social institutions, some women dichotomize their behavior and become two
different people. Over time, the strain of doing this can be enormous. Others reject their
cultural context and work against their own best interests by enforcing the dominant group’s
specialized thought. Still others manage to inhabit both contexts but do so critically, using
their outsider-within perspectives as a source of insights and ideas. But while outsiders
within can make substantial personal cost. “Eventually it comes to you,” observes Lorraine
Hansberry, “the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which
must also make you lonely.”
Once Black feminist scholars face the notion that, on certain dimensions of a Black women’s
standpoint, it may be fruitless to try and translate ideas from an Afrocentric feminist
epistemology into a Eurocentric masculinist framework, then other choices emerge. Rather
than trying to uncover universal knowledge claims that can withstand the translation from
one epistemology to another (initially, at least), Black women intellectuals might find efforts
to rearticulate a Black women’s standpoint especially fruitful. Rearticulating a Black
women’s standpoint refashions the concrete and reveals the more universal human
dimensions of Black women’s everyday lives. “I date all my work,” notes Nikki Giovanni,
“because I think poetry, or any writing, is but a reflection of the moment. The universal
comes from the particular.” Bell Hooks maintains, “my goal as a feminist thinker and
theorist is to take that abstraction and articulate it in a language that renders it accessible–
not less complex or rigorous–but simply more accessible.” The complexity exists;
interpreting it remains the unfulfilled challenge for Black women intellectuals.
Situated Knowledge, Subjugated Knowledge, and Partial Perspectives
“My life seems to be an increasing revelation of the intimate trace of universal struggle,”
claims June Jordan:
You begin with your family and the kids on the block, and next you open your eyes to what
you call your people and that leads you into land reform into Black English into Angola
leads you back to your own bed where you lie by yourself; wondering it you deserve to be
peaceful, or trusted or desired or left to the freedom of your own unfaltering heart. And the
scale shrinks to the use of a skull: your own interior cage.
Lorraine Hansberry expresses a similar idea: “I believe that one of the most sound ideas in
dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to
the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from the truthful identity of what is.” Jordan and
Hansberry’s insights that universal struggle and truth may wear a particularistic, intimate
face suggest a new epistemological stance concerning how we negotiate competing
knowledge claims and identify “truth.”
The context in which African-American women’s ideas are nurtured or suppressed matters.
Understanding the content and epistemology of Black women’s ideas as specialized
knowledge requires attending to the context from which those ideas emerge. While
produced by individuals, Black feminist thought as situated knowledge is embedded in the
communities in which African-American women find ourselves.
A Black women’s standpoint and those of other oppressed groups is not only embedded in a
context but exists in a situation characterized by domination. Because Black women’s ideas
have been suppressed, this suppression has stimulated African-American women to create
knowledge that empowers people to resist domination. Thus Afrocentric feminist thought
represents a subjugated knowledge. A Black women’s standpoint may provide a preferred
stance from which to view the matrix of domination because, in principle, Black feminist
thought as specialized thought is less likely than the specialized knowledge produced by
dominant groups to deny the connection between ideas and the vested interests of their
creators. However, Black feminist thought as subjugated knowledge is not exempt from
critical analysis, because subjugation is not grounds for an epistemology.
Despite African-American women’s potential power to reveal new insights about the matrix
of domination, a Black women’s standpoint is only one angle of vision. Thus Black feminist
thought represents a partial perspective. The overarching matrix of domination houses
multiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty and privilege that produce
corresponding partial perspectives, situated knowledges, and, for clearly identifiable
subordinate groups, subjugated knowledges. No one group has a clear angle of vision. No
one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute “truth”
or, worse yet, proclaim its theories and methodologies as the universal norm evaluating
other groups’ experiences. Given that groups are unequal in power in making themselves
heard, dominant groups have a vested interest in suppressing the knowledge produced by
subordinate groups. Given the existence of multiple and competing knowledge claims to
“truth” produced by groups with partial perspectives, what epistemological approach offers
the most promise?
Dialogue and Empathy
Western social and political thought contains two alternative approaches to ascertaining
“truth.” The first, reflected in positivist science, has long claimed that absolute truths exist
and that the task of scholarship is to develop objective, unbiased tools of science to measure
these truths. . . . Relativism, the second approach, has been forwarded as the antithesis of
and inevitable outcome of rejecting a positivist science. From a relativist perspective all
groups produce specialized thought and each group’s thought is equally valid. No group can
claim to have a better interpretation of the “truth” than another. In a sense, relativism
represents the opposite of scientific ideologies of objectivity. As epistemological stances,
both positivist science and relativism minimize the importance of specific location in
influencing a group’s knowledge claims, the power inequities among groups that produce
subjugated knowledges, and the strengths and limitations of partial perspective.
The existence of Black feminist thought suggests another alternative to the ostensibly
objective norms of science and to relativism’s claims that groups with competing knowledge
claims are equal. . . . This approach to Afrocentric feminist thought allows African-
American women to bring a Black women’s standpoint to larger epistemological dialogues
concerning the nature of the matrix of domination. Eventually such dialogues may get us to
a point at which, claims Elsa Barkley Brown, “all people can learn to center in another
experience, validate it, and judge it by its own standards without need of comparison or
need to adopt that framework as their own.” In such dialogues, “one has no need to
‘decenter’ anyone in order to center someone else; one has only to constantly, appropriately,
‘pivot the center.’ ”
Those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women, African-American men,
Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Puerto Rican men, and other groups with
distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from
its unique standpoint, thus become the most “objective” truths. Each group speaks from its
own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group
perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished. Each group becomes better
able to consider other groups’ standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own
standpoint or suppressing other groups’ partial perspectives. “What is always needed in the
appreciation of art, or life,” maintains Alice Walker, “is the larger perspective. Connections
made, or at least attempted, where none existed before, the straining to encompass in one’s
glance at the varied world the common thread, the unifying theme through immense
diversity.” Partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard; individuals and
groups forwarding knowledge claims without owning their position are deemed less credible
than those who do.
Dialogue is critical to the success of this epistemological approach, the type of dialogue
long extant in the Afrocentric call-and-response tradition whereby power dynamics are fluid,
everyone has a voice, but everyone must listen and respond to other voices in order to be
allowed to remain in the community. Sharing a common cause fosters dialogue and
encourages groups to transcend their differences. . . .
African-American women have been victimized by race, gender, and class oppression. But
portraying Black women solely as passive, unfortunate recipients of racial and sexual abuse
stifles notions that Black women can actively work to change our circumstances and bring
about changes in our lives. Similarly, presenting African-American women solely as heroic
figures who easily engage in resisting oppression on all fronts minimizes the very real costs
of oppression and can foster the perception that Black women need no help because we can
“take it.”
Black feminist thought’s emphasis on the ongoing interplay between Black women’s
oppression and Black women’s activism presents the matrix of domination as responsive to
human agency. Such thought views the world as a dynamic place where the goal is not
merely to survive or to fit in or to cope; rather, it becomes a place where we feel ownership
and accountability. The existence of Afrocentric feminist thought suggests that there is
always choice, and power to act, no matter how bleak the situation may appear to be.
Viewing the world as one in the making raises the issue of individual responsibility for
bringing about change. It also shows that while individual empowerment is key, only
collective action can effectively generate lasting social transformation of political and
economic institutions.

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