Patricia Hill Collins born to Albert Hill and Eunice Rudolph Hill on May 1st, 1948 in Philadelphia grew up in a middle-class family as an only child. She later works on the intersectionality between race, class, gender was influenced by her early childhood experiences of being the only African-American or first African-American woman in her educational environment. She completed her Bachelors in Sociology from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1969 and Masters in teaching from Harvard University in 1970. It was during this time that her worldview and horizon expanded and she got exposed to the sociology of knowledge which later proved fundamental in her development of the concept of ‘standpoint epistemology’. Collins worked as a school teacher and curriculum expert at schools in Boston. It was while teaching a course called ‘The Black Woman’ to middle school girls in 1970 that Collins realised the dearth of intellectual material on the lives of African-American women and the significance of this dearth. Her earlier study of the sociology of knowledge helped her understand how structures of white male oppression systematically denied representation to black and women voices in the intellectual realm and how this realm was inaccessible to many oppressed classes. This became the subject of her first and most famous book, “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and Politics of Empowerment” (1990) which won the Jessie Bernard Award of American Sociological Association (A P A) and the C. Wright Mills Award from Society for the Study of Social Problems. She returned to graduate and received her PhD in Sociology from Brandeis University in 1984. In 1982, Collins joined the Department of African-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati where she taught for the next 23 years. She was also the Chair from 1999 to 2002. Patricia Hill Collins has gained many distinctions over the years. In 1996, she became the Charles Phelps Taft Distinguished Professor of Sociology and is now Emeritus. In 2005, she joined as the Wilson Elkins Professor of Sociology in the University of Maryland. Her work has taken her across the globe where she seeks to unravel the connections between race, class, gender, regions and communities.
Patricia Hill Collins: Major Works
Patricia Hill Collins gained fame through her article, “Learning from the Outsider Within” published in Social Problems in 1986. She discusses the intersectionality of standpoint, which is the idea that different individuals perceive the social reality around them differently based on the social group they belong to. Collins has always questioned the traditional framing of structures and believes that structures are created by dominant thought reflective of power narratives. She believes that they need to be a deeper understanding of the social forces that create at structures so that a counter-narrative can be formed.
“Black Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment” published in 1991 was an attempt by Collins to fill the void of academic representation of black women voices. She identified an intersectional narrative which is horizontal rather than hierarchical, i.e. no one identity trumps another identity as the primary marker of oppression. She talks about how oppressed classes develop their intellectual traditions despite formal discursive exclusion.
In her work “Fighting Words”(1998), Collins shows elite discourses present an idea of social reality which seeks to portray thoughts and actions of highly educated white men as normative and superior.
In “Black Sexual Politics: African-Americans, Gender and the New Racism” (2004) she has better-explored sexism and racism as a phenomenon prevalent across borders. She highlights that even anti-racist, African-American politics should address issues of gender and sexuality. She views the Afrocentric movement as largely male-dominated and also though she recognises the value in fighting racism, that should not give place to sexism within the movement.
Her most recent work, “From Black Power to Hip Hop: Essays on Racism, Nationalism and Feminism” (2006) explores black youth and how ideas of black nationalism form and challenge black youth identity. Patricia Hill Collins’ work is part of the canon of black feminist writings and has been instrumental in providing the black perspective in the intersectional wave of feminism.
Patricia Hill’s work has elements of feminist, standpoint and critical theory, Afrocentrism, poststructuralism and postmodernism.
Although first formally articulated by Kimberly Crenshaw, Collins is credited with fully developing the term intersectionality. She explained how oppression from anyone identity could not be studied in isolation with the web of oppression that operates due to a multitude of identities.
Collins used her research background in sociology of knowledge to further Dorothy Smith’s idea of standpoint and created standpoint epistemology. Dorothy Smith viewed ‘standpoint’ as “the design of a subject position in institutional ethnography which creates a point of entry into discovering the society that does not subordinate the knowing subject to objectified forms of knowledge of society of political economy”. Elaborating on the same in context to the collective knowledge of a community, she claimed that no knowledge is rational or objective since what one knows is affected by the standpoint (or position) one has in society. Keeping in view Foucault’s ideology, she stresses that where there are sites of oppression, there are also potential sites of resistance.
Matrix of Dominance
Collins does not subscribe to the European masculinist idea of a hierarchy of oppression which is that one’s oppression by virtue of a certain identity is greater than others. She underscores that an individual’s status in society is determined not by a single standpoint but by a multitude of standpoints. Other critical accounts such as the Frankfurt School believe that power operates in a top-down hierarchy, i.e. group higher up the hierarchy force unwilling with victims to bend to their will. However, Collins (1990/2000 : 226) asserts that “depending on the context, an individual may be oppressor, a member of an oppressed group or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed… Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lines”.
Self Defined Standpoint
Collins broke off earlier critical traditions and gave agency and subjectivity to individual opinions. She believes that “each individual has a unique personal biography made of concrete experiences, values, motivations and emotions” (Collins 1998:47). Thus she highlights oppression at the personal level in acknowledging that while all black women face racism and sexism, their worldview and standpoint need not be similar because they might have different experiences, occupations, economic status, etc.
Black Feminist Thought
Black Feminist Thought reflects the standpoint of the community expressed in the works of pioneer feminist such as Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker as well as the experiences of the common black women. Collins does not invalidate the everyday experiences of black women just because they are not formally documented because she has understood the power needed in the generation of knowledge and the inaccessibility of that knowledge to the common masses. She states that experience of racism and oppression by the white masculinist structure makes black women sceptical of knowledge generated by that structure. Hence, they become reliant on their experiential pieces of information.
Collins’ work puts forth the black feminist perspectives and highlights the white-dominated nature of feminist scholarship. She also highlights the masculinist underpinnings of Afrocentrism. She shows that while the feminist and anti-racist movement are meant to liberate women and people of colour, these movements are primarily dominated by white women and black men respectively, so black women’s voices are lost in both movements. It is this need for intersectionality with the movements that have been the core of Collins’ ideology.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, And The Politics Of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990
Collins, Patricia Hill. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. University of Minnesota Press, 1998