Patricia Hill Collins is brilliant not just on intersectionality ‘out there’ a safe distance in the wider world, but with how we ourselves deal with it, particularly within academia. I thought writing this blog today would help me face a little better the prospect of tomorrow when Trump is sworn in, when I am far from the U.S. and all of my friends most at risk and deep in the struggle for survival. This is the long game we are playing.
For myself, so much of what she wrote seemed so obvious, yet it felt so good to see it named, to see the conflicts laid out, to benefit from her view on these issues all of us with some level of outsider status face within the academy from a perspective and positionality I have much to learn from.
Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8)
More that rings so true:
Living one’s life as a person on the bottom involves listening for lies all the time. The challenge lies in thinking critically about race, class, gender, and sexuality without driving yourself and your loved ones crazy. When oppressed groups embrace their own experience to challenge dominant curricular offerings and classroom practices, they create space for their own self-defined view of the world. (132)
This is why being in the position of academic is so difficult:
As individuals, each of us occupies a dual location: included in some groups, yet excluded from others. The issue for most of us lies in being a pure insider or outsider than in terms of our participation within all of the venues to which we belong… Negotiating the contemporary politics of knowledge production from “outsider within” social locations raises some fundamental dilemmas. (xi)
That whether or not we think about these dilemmas, they still affect us. Seeing them transforms us, and that is no easy thing. A wonderful quote from James Baldwin:
One of the problems of education is that “precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. it is your responsibility to change society, if you think of yourself as an educated person. (132)
In academia any fiery stance in this war is flattened by crushing hierarchy, feels like a series of endless hoops through which we move, and the undeniable derogation of work seen as too ‘popular’, work that’s too ‘political’ and thus not seen as academic, and in a world where institutions claim monopoly on knowledge production. We ourselves have to assert our claims on knowledge production as part of that, and so all that is co-produced or collectively created is seen as inferior.
We are groomed in very distinct ways, but we can choose a different path:
My lengthy educational training was designed to equip me to wield the language of power to serve the interests of the gatekeepers who granted me legitimacy. My teachers did not consider that I might choose to use those same weapons to challenge much of what I learned… (xii)
So how do we challenge? There are a number of ways, working on a number of levels — and I love that the essential knowledge that we must fight remains, while the complexities of how we conduct that fight are explored. I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to think that maybe this doctorate wasn’t a huge mistake, that actually truth to power can be — needs to be — spoken from this position.
Much of my academic writing strives to speak the truth to power, namely, to develop alternative analyses about social injustices that scholarly audiences will find credible… Speaking the truth to power in ways that undermine and challenge that power can often best be done as an insider. … Challenging power structures from the inside working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly. (xiii)
Broadening the cracks in the system… That is one way. Another:
A second strategy of intellectual activism aims to speak the truth directly to the people. (xiii)
Both of these are necessary, and both must subvert the dominant understandings of intelligence, scholarship and value. It isn’t often I throw around words like epistemology, but this is so key:
How do power relationships shape who is believed, who is disbelieved, and why? These questions lie at the heart of epistemology, a theory of knowledge that examines the standards used to assess what we know or why we believe what we believe. (24)
At this level perhaps we have the chance to shape these larger frames, while holding ourselves to this standard she lays out in the form of three questions to :
help us navigate new paths for engaged scholarship:
does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?
does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought equip people to resist oppression?
does engaged scholarship move people to struggle in favor of social justice? (26)
I like too, the emphasis on our accountability:
In this sense, there is an important distinction between scholarship in support of social justice and scholarship in service to social justice. scholarship in support of social justice implies a lack of accountability on the part of the scholar…In contrast, scholarship in service to social justice invokes the responsibilities that are associated with the idea of service itself… (43)
This means as committed academics we have to work on multiple levels. That of concrete action:
The overarching goal of scholarship in service to social justice is not to explain social inequality or social injustice, but to foster social justice, to bring about some sort of change. (42)
But that it is okay that not all of our work is at that level. I also appreciate more every day this distinction between ourselves, our struggle, and our job within the institution:
I’ve always recognized that one can do intellectual production in many different locations. When it comes to my scholarship, I have survived by reminding myself that I always have a choice. I never mistake my job as being synonymous with intellectual activism or my own life’s work. I also remind myself that, despite the fact that intellectual work remains devalued within U.S. society, I know that the power of ideas matters. (110)
I also appreciate more every day the necessity to find others, to do this collectively, to support one another:
There are so many different kinds of people from all walks of life who care deeply about building a better future. We need to develop better ways of recognizing and finding one another. Continuing to do social justice work, including intellectual activism within sociology, requires building communities of practice of people who value social justice work, especially if they look quite different than us. (111)
The importance of drawing sustenance from unexpected places — although given my shyness growing up, I always had this kind of relationship with authors I loved. Which is why I am an author now myself. It is hard in life to find like souls:
In the course of investigating the absence, I found a nurturing political community among people I could not meet face to face. Many of them were dead, were unknown to the rest of academia, or were not considered to be intellectuals or theorists. Yet, their ideas spoke so strongly to my experiences. (112)
We can look to other forms of pedagogical practice, like those of Paolo Freire and Myles Horton, educational processes for liberation. Substantively? She lays out a good list of what we still don’t quite know how to do in moving the struggle forward.
These judgments by category must be replaced with fully human relationships that transcend the legitimate differences created by race, class, and gender as categories of analysis. We require new categories of connection, new visions of what our relationships with one another can be.
Our task is immense. We must first recognize race, class, and gender as interlocking categories of analysis that together cultivate profound differences in our personal biographies. But then we must transcend these very difference by conceptualizing race, class, and gender to create new categories of connection. (215)
…we must shift our discourse away from additive analyses of oppression. (215)
That means we must find new, mutually respectful and supportive ways to come together, build stronger, better, broader coalitions to achieve fundamental changes. We need to be better.
Sharing a common cause assists individuals and groups in maintaining relationships that transcend these differences. Building effective coalitions involves struggling to hear one another and developing empathy for the other points of view. The coalitions that I have been involved in that lasted and last and that worked have been those where commitment to a specific issue mandated collaboration as the best strategy for addressing the issue at hand (225)
and of course, individual accountability…developing empathy and finding respect. She writes
Deconstructive politics may seem radical in the moment of destroying the walls of segregation that separate people from one another. The pile of rubble left behind holds the promise of a new society, yet it cannot be a new society until we build something new with the pieces. (235)
But I believe with her, that still today one of the essential questions in our world structured as it is continues to be:
Over and over again this question, ‘What will it take for Black women to be free?’ (50)