Monday, November 26, 2012

Collins: Black Feminist Epistemology

Patricia Hill Collins is a well-known promoter of black feminist thought and a social scientist that has focused her research and education on matters of race, gender and power.  In Black Feminist Epistemology Hill addresses a crucial problem within the process of validating knowledge.  In the United States, as well as in other countries, black feminist thought is a presentation of ideals and viewpoints from the people in power.  Those in power are “elite white men who have the authority to manipulate Western structures of knowledge validation” (Collins 407).  Due to controlled social institutions of knowledge African American women are forced to choose between two identities: “one representing elite White male interests and the other is expressing Black feminist thought from the black woman perspective” (Collins 408).  Choosing between these two identities is essential; on one hand a black woman is deciding to represent and reproduce dominant elite conventional ideals, where they can gain positions of power in academia more easily and be respected among their colleagues.  If they choose to express the reality of being a black woman in America they are excluded from positions of power in academia.  This has lead black feminists, to create alternative forms of validating knowledge in order to narrate their truths, leading to an evolved sense of consciousness.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge and the process of justifying information as true.  By examining the “standards used to assess knowledge or why we believe, what we believe to be true” (Collins 408) is key to understanding its construction and distribution.  According to Collins, questioning the “level of epistemology” is fundamental “because it determines which questions [deserve] investigation, which interpretive frameworks will be used to analyze findings, and to what use any [of the results of the research will be utilized]” (Collins 408). In questioning the structure of epistemology we come across the process of how “truth” is investigated and claimed as justifiable.  A group of experts validate information and decide if it’s credible, based on elitist ideals.  According to Collins the standards of epistemology sway in the direction of power, which suppresses black thought.  This process decides what type of knowledge is important for society to know.  This is a slippery slope because the people who control knowledge will decide what information needs to be distributed and taught to others.  It makes me question which truth is the truth?
I chose a quarter to represent conflicting ideals of knowledge validation because according to Collins the black feminist must know both sides in order to defend the other.
What are black feminists doing about this dilemma? They are using their own standards to measure knowledge.  Alternative knowledge validation is utilized “to create independent self-definitions and self-evaluations and to rearticulate them through [their] own specialists…[by developing] distinctive black women’s standpoint” (Collins 410).  The “alternative ways black feminists use to produce and validate knowledge” is what empowers black women because they are able to use their voice as a tool to tell their story and shatter dominant theories imposed on them.  The film Claudine is a great example of black women using their voice to fight stereotypes. Diahann Carroll stars as Claudine and portrays the story of a single African-American woman on welfare trying to support herself and her six children.  She meets and starts dating a garbage man named Rupert B. Marshall, played by James Earl Jones.  Due to government restraints that the welfare system imposes on Claudine, Rupert and her family we see the disintegration of the black family. From this we can notice the imposition of black stereotypes on black men and women.  Claudine Price gives audience members the duality of the black woman: the stereotype and the reality.  The stereotype is the collective dominant belief of the black women in the media, which in this case is the Welfare Queen.  The reality of her story is that she is trying to secretly work as a maid to support her children; she doesn’t wish to be under the constraints of the Welfare System.  The film depicts the importance of valuing the content of characteristics belonging to individuals, rather than accepting stereotypes as a reality. 
Although Black Feminists are fighting to create their own methodological process in producing their unique ideals and themes in epistemology, but there are obstacles they encounter.  One, they come across rejection by the panel of experts who control the knowledge validation process, “on the grounds that black women’s work does not constitute credible research” (Collins 410).  The reasons were black women’s competing methods and models do not fit the dominant archetypes of epistemology, in turn “academic disciplines reject” their claims as nonfactual.  Another obstacle is “attaining validation from ordinary African-American women” (Collins 414).  It is crucial to portray the black women’s perspective in relations to black culture, such as music, literature, daily conversations, religion and so forth, as a collective identity of their truth.  This isn’t to say all black women’s experiences are the same, but there are contingent experiences among black women, such as struggling to gain power. 
Black women scholars who want to distribute ideals of black feminist thought must meet the black feminist epistemological standards in framing their work.  They also must meet “epistemological standards met by dominant groups who control schools, graduate programs, tenure processes, publication outlets and other mechanisms that legitimatize knowledge” (Collins 413).  Black women must master white male epistemologies in order to use existing alternative black feminist ways of knowing.  This leads to “frustration and creativity” because in mastering both forms of knowledge it “dichotomizes” their perspective and ultimately they “become two different people” (Collins 413).  Meaning in the process of defending the alternative black feminist thought they must use the epistemological standards of the dominant group.  Having to flip flop between both communities can be difficult to manage because most women scholars stand alone in attempting to defend black feminist thought.  This can be frustrating because in defending one group the other will denounce knowledgeable claims.  Collins believes black women scholars need to release trying to fit in or “translate every notion into a framework” (Collins 413) because once they stop insisting, other choices will come into view.  For instance when trying to translate languages, let’s say Spanish into English the translator must understand that not all words can be transferable.  This is where creativity is needed in order to “rearticulate a black woman’s standpoint” (Collins 413).

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