Patricia Hill Collins on black feminism and social justice

By Rosemary McClure ’13Editor-in-Chief

On Jan. 30, renowned author Dr. Patricia Hill Collins delivered a lecture titled “Missing in Action? Black Feminism, Intersectionality and Social Justice” at Pomona College. Collins’ lecture explored intersectionality as a legacy of black feminism and how the discipline’s incorporation into conservative academia can undermine its goals.

As ASPC President Sarah Appelbaum noted in her introduction of the speaker, Collins “literally wrote the book on black feminism.” That book would be Collins’ first book, the 1990 “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment,” which is used as a textbook in university classrooms across the country.

The term intersectionality refers to the ways in which multiple systems of oppression or power interact. While multiple power structures have perpetuated social inequality for hundreds of years, a classic example of intersecting power is the marginalization of black women and poor women within second-wave feminism in the U.S. Second-wave feminist movements sometimes favored the goals of the most elite, such as stay-at-home mothers who fought for their right to work outside the home in the 60s despite the fact that poor women—regardless of race—had been working outside the home for many years.

Collins emphasized that black feminism is at its core bound to praxis. Its philosophy requires its theories and ideas to be practiced and enacted outside of academic circles. Said Collins, “You can’t think your way out of oppression.”

She pointed out how black feminism’s emphasis on intersectionality and grassroots participation counters existing narratives in academia which value ideas over actions, top-down power over bottom-up models, and abstraction as a higher form of knowledge than personal experience.

But in the process of being mainstreamed into colleges and other conservative institutions, the radical inclusion of marginalized voices is lost as a guiding principle. She joked about the inherent absurdity of academic claims that marginalized people can “bring black feminism down” or that intersectionality is too biased toward marginalized people to be credible.

Black feminism, like social justice, is never “finished.” And while it of course requires theories to flourish, it will fail if it is confined to academic institutions and separated from praxis.

Though her lecture dealt with heavy topics, Collins witty and downright funny in her delivery, even stopping mid-lecture to call out an audience member for yawning. During the question-and-answer session after the lecture, she confided that dance has always been a great joy in her life, and that Zumba is her current obsession.

Collins currently teaches in the Sociology department at University of Maryland. In 2009 she became the first black female president of the American Sociological Association.