Black Feminist Thought And The Pitfalls Of A Critical Mass
This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.
Analyzing the common experience of racism in everyday life, Patricia Hill Collins does not attack the issue from a purely academic stance, but instead uses her daily life experiences to inform her critique. In “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” from Black Feminist Thought (Routledge, 2000) Collins quotes black female workers in their unfiltered and natural states. For example, we are introduced to Rosa Wakefield, a black female worker, who briefly describes the privileged status of people who do not “buy or iron” their own clothes and think such to be a result of divine “spirit” (p. 39). Yielding space for these voices may be a political statement, but it also serves as a revelatory accusation to the readers of Collins’s work: namely, those who inhabit the circles of academic institutions.
In reading the language of the street from those affected by the subjection of class, race, and gender in the form of first-hand accounts, we are greeted by unheard voices of people often rendered speechless and thus never heard in academic institutions. As a result of this omission, their statements have gone unobserved and therefore disqualified for use by social researchers. However, does the coalescing of bodies into a “critical mass” that falls under a socially constructed category, such as “hispanics” or “blacks,” really empower those individuals who enter into the umbrella of identity and promote empowerment from within the institutions that aim to oppress them?
Collins mentions the “creation of a critical mass of African-American women” employed at academic institutions (p. 40). If the very basis of the symbolic gesture of coalescing into a large-bodied mass to make their statement of action more prominent can be misinterpreted, then the critical mass that Collins takes into account can just as easily fall victim to superficial and thus easily modified and obscured intentions. The presence of a collection of bodies does not necessarily imply the collection of a uniform ideology and platform. This is a major problem when any attempt to change, the kind for which Collins calls — which maps onto the position of black female feminists, though it can be applied more generally to the intersections that contaminate all oppressed bodies — is met with resistance from within in the sense that no cohesion remains intact in a structure of bodies without an ideological architecture.
A recent political attempt to disrupt the structures of oppression was Occupy Wall Street. At Zuccotti Park, a collection of bodies held banners. Their cardboard slogans displayed in a seemingly unkempt environment began to pollute their ultimately ineffectual call for change. Occupy’s in-cohesive semblance of bodies represented all forms of ideologies — including some holding nothing and others who were simply curious.
Can a body act as an agent of change merely by occupying space? Acting only as body, the identity of this body can easily be changed from its actual identity. When subsumed into a collection of bodies, the singular subject will lose her sovereignty for the sake of constituting a larger collective identity. If a black female feminist did occupy a tenured position at a university, could her capacity to instill a thirst for change within the students be controlled, limited, or oppressed by the pre-established nature of an institution that nevertheless aimed to uphold her integrity?