Patricia Hill Collins in Conversation
On Wednesday, March 20, UCD Women’s Studies hosts renowned sociologist, Prof. Hill Collins for a public lecture entitled ‘Where do we go from here? Intersectionality and Social Justice’. Prof. Hill Collins specialises in critical race theory and feminist theory, and is perhaps best known for her work on intersectionality, that is, the notion that people are often subject to multiple and mutually reinforcing disadvantages based on gender, race, or class, for instance. Below, Prof. Hill Collins discusses some of the key themes of her work.
CF: You have spent many years as an educator, scholar and activist exploring issues of social justice and inequality. How would you describe the relationship between grass-roots activism outside of the academy and change-making within academia?
PHC: I just published a book titled On Intellectual Activism where I take up these themes in depth. In a nutshell, the ties linking grassroots activism and the academy were much closer during periods of social movement activism than they are now. Universities are increasingly run like businesses, and do not see themselves in the business of addressing social justice themes, unless those themes can be recast in light of a particular university’s business model. This creates new challenges for social justice activists both inside and outside universities. I address these themes in my book On Intellectual Activism, especially in the Introduction where I make a distinction between speaking the truth to power and speaking the truth to people. Both forms of truth telling can occur both inside and outside the academy.
CF: Many will know you from your work on Black feminist thought and intersectionality. What has been the impetus behind much of this work, and could you explain what you mean by Black feminism and intersectionality?
PHC: The impetus behind this work was being able to read books that I should have been able to read. I also have a strong belief in social theory done by people on the bottom. In an era of decolonization and desegregation, the best ideas about social justice come from these locations, not necessarily from people who are positioned at the top. Why would people who experience social inequalities of race, gender, class, nation, ability, sexuality, ethnicity and religion expect people who benefit from these systems of power to have any vested interest in developing social theories that would undercut their privilege? I believe in our power to think for ourselves.
The areas of scholarship that have taken most of my time in this task of “theorizing from the bottom” are Black feminism and intersectionality.
Black feminism is a social justice project advanced by African American women and their allies in defense of the interests of African American women. Black women as individuals need not claim an identity as an "oppressed" person, yet each Black woman grapples with varying aspects of domestic and global social structures that routinely place Black women as a collectivity at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In this context, African American women have characteristic experiences that catalyze recurring political responses to their oppression in the U.S. context that may resemble and differ from that of Afro-British women, or African women in Nigeria, or women of African descent in Venezuela. Although Black women's political responses carry different names, in the U.S., Black feminism constitutes one generally accepted term that emerged in the late-twentieth-century to describe these oppositional political and intellectual responses. This grounding of U.S. Black feminism in African American women's quest for freedom positions Black feminism as a social justice project within a broader array of similar intellectual and political projects. Quite simply, if African American women were “free,” there would be no need for Black feminism.
As a working definition, intersectionality constitutes an analytical lens on the social world that examines how social inequalities are organized, endure and change. Some key ideas that reappear across intersectionality as a field of inquiry are (1) intersectional frameworks investigate how race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religion, and citizenship as systems of power interconnect to shape individual and group identities, social institutions, ideas and politics; (2) within the academy, intersectionality as a field of inquiry has fostered a paradigm shift within and across different fields of study concerning a range of topics; (3) outside the academy, activists, service providers, grassroots organizers and ordinary people from many walks of life use intersectionality to understand and challenge the social inequalities that they see in their everyday lives; and (4) as a broad field of inquiry that reaches across many fields, encompasses many practices and takes varying forms, intersectionality typically has an implicit and often explicit commitment to social justice.
CF: Intersectionality is now a widely used concept in sociology, women’s studies, philosophy, and in many other disciplines. How do you situate your work in the wider context of the scholarly development of intersectionality?
PHC: This is a very expansive question, however, the quick answer is: my work is tied to social justice traditions that come out of social movements, especially U.S. Black feminism. I do not approach intersectionality as a social theory of truth whose questions and concerns emanate primarily from within prevailing scholarly norms. I have to be attentive to those norms, but again, the academy is not a drum major for social justice.
CF: Your own career as a scholar has been extraordinary (including your appointment, as the first African American woman, to the position of president of the American Sociological Association). What advice would you give to aspiring scholars, activists, indeed anybody trying to realise their aspirations, who might find themselves marginalised by virtue of their race, class or gender?
PHC: I don’t give advice of this sort precisely because my career has been so atypical and because I reject theories of role modelling where we are convinced that we need to “follow” the paths trod by others. Instead, I believe that we each have the ability to think for ourselves and imagine new possibilities and then gain the political skills to make it happen. Focusing on the marginalization is disheartening, so I try not to do it. Instead, I focus on the principles of social justice and try to figure out how to breathe life into them.
CF: Finally, do you have any words in advance of your lecture for those uninitiated in social theory?
PHC: I think it is important to claim and redefine the word “theory”. People are scared of theory because they think that they cannot understand it. In fact, sometimes that is the very definition of how some thinkers approach their work – from a pedestal. Many people think that if they don’t understand a theoretical work, then it must be good. Nah. That’s just bad writing to me. The term theory is a power term that is often invoked to put “non-theorists” in their place. Smart people do theory and the rest of us simply apply it in our everyday lives, or, worse yet, we see ourselves as data for someone else’s theory. This term is vested with all sorts of anxieties.
That’s not what I do. In my work, I focus on some core questions that help me analyse everyday life – what makes sense, what arguments are convincing to me, what evidence do I believe and why? And if I can’t figure out an author’s work, my sense is that they either didn’t have me in mind when they wrote it, or they did have me in mind and wanted me to remain outside their work. So I try to be inclusive, to bring people into conversations about important ideas, not exclude by hitting them over the head with a “theory” club.
We can all theorize. We just do it from different social locations and with different agendas in mind. I say, take back the term and make it democratic!
Prof. Hill Collins is Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park and Charles Phelps Taft Emeritus Professor of Sociology within the Department of African American Studies at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Clara Fischer is UCD Women’s Studies Research Affiliate and a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network.
Prof. Hill Collins will deliver her talk on Wednesday, 20th March, at 6pm in Theatre L, the Arts Block, UCD, Belfield.