Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment

Hans Hofmann, The Vanquished, 1959


Commentary on the book by P.attricia hill collins.

This work by Patricia Hill Collins is internationally recognized as a great and historic contribution to contemporary social thought. Collins' work articulates several theoretical currents, such as studies of gender and ethnicity, social classes, sociology of science, Marxist social thought and critical theory.

The author analyzes racism as a central theme in the lives of black women, along with other feelings of oppression, a contemporary expression of very old problems. The work specifically problematizes African-American women, listing themes that are important to North American society and analyzing the black population in the United States of America (USA) before racism, capitalism and slavery. Feminism emerges in this historical and material condition. According to the author, critical social theory allows analyzing the situation of black women, as well as understanding the suppression and devaluation of black feminist thought.

For Collins, the condition of American reality is not something that falls from the sky like an ideology, but is something that is constituted from the ground up, involving ideas and actions of how to deal with the problems of being a black woman in the new world. According to the researcher, there are many feminisms and also many black feminisms, but she does not consider American black feminism superior to the others; therefore, she approaches it as a particular form of black feminism among many others.

The sociologist states that critical social theory emerges as the only possibility to understand women as a historically dominated, oppressed group that still survives in unfavorable socioeconomic conditions. For Collins, we need to integrate all these feminisms, black feminism, Latino feminism, lesbian feminism, indigenous feminism, among others. She also emphasizes that all these movements can coexist to break existing barriers in contemporary society. Therefore, the understanding of black feminist thought turns to its content, its interpretative structures, epistemological approaches and the politics of “empowerment”.

By making use of the notions of intersectionality and matrix of domination, the author demonstrates how “class, race, gender, and sexuality constitute systems of oppression that feed back”. It presents us with two challenges: first, to think about how the intersectional paradigms of oppression organize the form of domination; second, to understand how intersectional oppressions originate, insert and develop. Afro-descendant women cannot be considered passive victims of the situation in which they find themselves, at the same time they are not completely aware of the oppression to which they are subjugated.

For this reason, the sociologist's objective is not limited to creating a social theory whose objective is simply to understand and analyze the situation of North American black women, but also to promote their "empowerment" in the struggle for social justice, because "they constitute an oppressed group”. The author problematizes how anti-black racism works. For Collins, there is a process of dehumanization and domination, which are two great essential ideas for any system of oppression. The purpose of this process is to make people feel less human, creating ways to dominate them politically, economically and culturally. These two ideas about how power works in the case of anti-black racism, according to the researcher, work differently. Dehumanization seeks to kill the spirit, control the mind and leave the body behind for domination and exploitation.

In other words, “Thus, a fundamental issue of black feminist thought in the United States is the analysis of black women's work, and especially their victimization as 'mules' in the labor market. As dehumanized objects, mules are living machines and can be treated as part of the landscape. Fully human women are less easily exploited.” (p. 99).

This was the essence of slavery in the United States, given that domination seeks the holistic relationship between body, spirit and mind. This form of domination still exists today. Domination controls the mind, makes a person believe that his thoughts are not worth it, teaches him not to trust his own experiences, his analyzes and those of those around him.

In the specific case of slavery, abolition did not mean the end of racial domination, but only meant that one system of domination was replaced by another, thus requiring a change in the patterns of oppression so that the subordination of blacks would now remain under another form. In this sense, the author emphasizes that violence is an important control mechanism, seen as a technology of domination. After a while, we no longer need to see people die in front of us. This logic embodies in our minds that we don't need to die, because the threat that this could happen to us or to someone we care about is enough to sustain domination, be it racism or another form of oppression.

Collins claims that, in this case, the ideas of dehumanization and domination take a particular form on blacks in the US, on the legacy of slavery. Slavery is a prison. Even with the abolition of slavery, many realities of the past are present in everyday life. For the author, “American black women found a specific set of social practices that accompany our particular history within a matrix of exclusive domination characterized by intersectional oppressions” (p. 63).

The situation of Afro-descendant women, who live in precarious economic conditions, is quite difficult. Most of them have been segregated from formal education, many work as domestic servants in middle-class white family homes, and many have been raped by their employers. However, some black women stand out in this system that marginalizes and dehumanizes women. According to the author, a significant amount of African-American women are in the middle class.

Members of the new middle class work for large companies and in the public sector. In this sense, “the middle class dominates work and, in turn, subordinates itself to capital” (p. 63). For the sociologist, “work, family and oppression” show that slavery in the United States had disastrous consequences for people of African descent, especially women. The author also problematizes the slave systems and the repercussions that slavery had/will have on the lives of black women today in the XNUMXst century; coated with new characters in capitalist society, exploitation is often not perceptible.

Slavery “shaped” the female gender according to the needs of the current society: the more children slaves had, the more wealth they generated for the slave owners. In this sense, “women had no control over their bodies, time, technology used, the type or amount of work. In his, the forced incorporation of West African women, as enslaved, into a capitalist political economy meant that they became economically exploited and politically powerless labor unit […] Slavery also gave racial contours to the division of labor in US capitalism, so that African-Americans were relegated to vile, manual, non-intellectual jobs.” (p. 107).

Another reality in the US and problematized by the theory refers to the existing working conditions. In the post-war period, North American society experienced profound changes that led to the emergence of new phenomena in the black community: the growth in the number of single teenage mothers and the emergence of middle-class black women who ascended through work. Black women who work but remain poor form an important segment of the working class. Trends in the labor markets and changes in state public policies have made this group economically marginalized. The precariousness of working conditions reveals a visible and tangible reality of the conditions of racism that exist in the soul of the white American.

Another essential point is the issue of self-definition which, from the author's point of view, can lead to a process that transforms the situation of black women. The constitution of identity enhances resistance. For Collins, “Identity is not the goal, but the starting point in the process of self-definition” (p. 333). Self-definition makes black women renounce external control of their own image, create/enhance/build independence and their own bodies, forging elements for empowerment.

The construction of an epistemology that values ​​the perspective of black women is essential for the consolidation of new paradigms for society in the XNUMXst century. The experience of North American black women with regard to the type of work they are subject to, the type of community they live in and the type of relationship they have with each other, makes the experience of these women different from that of black women. In order to validate the proposed knowledge, Collins bets on black women as agents of knowledge, since they would be the people authorized to discuss theoretical knowledge based on their own experiences. To do so, it is necessary to resist the hegemonic theory and find spaces and paths for black feminist thought.

The author states, in this direction, that it is “relevant to evaluate the activism of black women less by the ideological content of each individual belief system - be it conservative, reformist, progressive or radical - and more by the collective actions of black women who face daily the dominance in these multifaceted spheres”. (p. 332).

In this sense, empowerment also requires changing the unjust social institutions that African Americans have struggled with for generation after generation. In the sociologist's words, black feminist thought promotes a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we think about unjust power relations. For a feminist sociologist, “rethinking black feminism as a project of social justice implies a complex notion of empowerment. Changing the focus of the analysis to investigate how the matrix of domination is structured around specific axes – race, gender, class, sexuality and nation – and how it operates in interconnected domains of power – structural, interpersonal, disciplinary and hegemonic – reveals that the dialectical relationship that connects oppression and activism is much more complex than simple models of oppressors and oppressed suggest”. (p. 454).

The author also emphasizes that, “when it comes to knowledge, the empowerment of black women implies rejecting the dimensions of knowledge that perpetuate objectification, commodification and exploitation”. She goes on to assert that African-American women and other groups are empowered when they understand and use these dimensions of individual, group, and educated modes of knowing that advance humanity. The researcher also emphasizes that, when black women define our self-definitions, we participate in the domestic and transnational activist traditions of black women, we see the skills acquired in school as an education aimed at the development of the black community and we place black feminist epistemologies at the center of our worldviews, we empower ourselves.” (p. 455).

Therefore, empowering black women implies, according to the author, revitalizing US black feminism as an organized social justice project and in a transactional context, given that only collective action can effectively produce the lasting institutional transformations that are necessary to have social justice.

* André Luiz de Souza is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).


Patricia Hill Collins. Black feminist thought: knowledge and the politics of empowerment. Translation: Jamile Pinheiro Dias. São Paulo: Boitempo, 480 pages.


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