3 Pillars of Black Feminist Theory
Updated: Feb 15
Black feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins suggests that there are 3 key tenets to Black feminist theory: 1) self-definition and self-valuation; 2) addressing the intersecting nature of oppression, and 3) the importance of redefining culture. This post shares Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment on what these 3 pillars mean.
1) Self-definition and Self-valuation
Black feminists like Patricia Hill Collins remind us that as it pertains to anti-blackness, not all white feminists were (or are) invested in “patterns of suppression” against anti-Black racism. For this reason, The Combahee River Collective (pioneers in Black feminist theory) are quoted: “we believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression” (quoted in Becky Thompson, 2003: 400).
What this means is that Black women need to define ourselves for ourselves, and on our terms. It is through self-definition that Black women are able to push back against negative and harmful stereotypes that frame us in limiting and damaging ways. As Black feminist poet Audre Lorde once famously said, “if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.” This sentiment is precisely what the first pillar of Black feminist theory gets to.
For Patricia Hill Collins “Black women’s insistence on self-definition, self-valuation, and the necessity for a Black female-centered analysis is significant for two reasons” (16). First, “defining and valuing one’s consciousness of one’s own self-defined standpoint in the face of images that foster a self-definition as the objectified ‘other’ is an important way of resisting the dehumanization essential to systems of domination” (16). “Secondly, Black female self-definition and self-valuation concerns their value in allowing Black women to reject internalized, psychological oppression” (16). On this International Women’s Day, I hope you get the opportunity to construct your own definitions of self in holistic ways that attest to the fullness of you and all of your lived experiences.
2) Addressing the Intersecting Nature of Oppression
Black women are not homogenous by any means. Rather, the multiple ways Black women embody several identities at once is the very premise behind the second principle of Black feminist theory which stresses the importance of an intersectional approach to feminism.
Not addressing how anti-Black racism worked in tandem with patriarchy posed an issue for Black feminists who were and are still unable to disentangle their gender from their race, as white feminists often requested that we do. To address Black feminist multiplicities, Black feminist activist-scholar and lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) coined the term intersectionality.
Intersectionality is a theoretical framework born out of Black feminist theorizing. Crenshaw’s (1991) seminal work argued that as Black women we do not navigate the world (and feminism) simply as women. At any given moment our multiple identities and sites of oppression intersect with one another. Crenshaw theorized that it was impossible for Black women to address gender-related issues without simultaneously addressing race and anti-Blackness among other intersections of identity. Patricia Hill Collins (2000) calls this site where identities intersect, and oppressions interlock the matrix of domination. Collins (2001) adds, “the Black feminist attention to the interlocking nature of oppression is significant. This viewpoint shifts the entire focus of investigation from one aimed at explicating elements of race or gender or class oppression to one whose goal is to determine what the links are among these systems. […] The more holistic approach implied in Black feminist thought treats the interaction among multiple systems as the object of study” (17). On this International Women’s Day, may you remember to center and include all of those who are traditionally and typically left out of the conversation? May you remember that Black women are more than just our sex, gender, or race. That in addition to human beings, we exist in this world as multiplicities. Vast and expansive. Glorious and deserving.
The Importance of Redefining Culture
Patricia Hill Collins (2000) states, “Black women intellectuals are neither all academics nor found primarily in the black middle class” (14). This is the third principle of Black feminist theory Patricia Hill Collins (2001:15) highlights. That the ideas produced by and for Black women are revolutionary in a world that suggests otherwise. Differently situated Black women located in all sorts of communities including working-class women, poor people, those on the frontlines and at the grassroots, they are all equally responsible for shaping culture in as much as their elite counterparts (Collins, 2000). In this sense, for Black feminists of all kinds, globally, we redefine culture, re-imagine the world, and contribute to valid and critical world-making. In doing so, Collins writes, “Black feminists not only uncover previously unexplored areas of the Black female experience, but they also identify concrete areas of social relations where Afro-American women create and pass on self-definitions and self-valuations essential to coping with the simultaneity of oppression they experience” (17).
Positioning Black women as knowledge producers capable of cultural production takes a departure from mainstream logic that devalues not only Black women, but our labour, creations, and creativity. This is particularly true in spaces of higher learning where conversations of race still tend to get stifled and negated. On this International Women’s Day, may you recognize the personal, internal, and spiritual powers that you wield? Know that Black women like yourself drive culture and always have. Keep dreaming, creating, and believing. Add your unique imprint. You deserve!
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Until next time, in solidarity.
Photo Cred: C.J. Cromwell
Image Description: A Black woman with curly hair sits with her hands on her chin. She is wearing orange, yellow, blue, and brown kente pants with an orange tube top.