Hypatia 16.2 (2001) 91-93
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Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice
Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. By Patricia Hill Collins. University of Minnesota, 1998.
Patricia Hill Collins's earlier book, Black Feminist Thought (1990), developed a sophisticated and persuasive version of feminist standpoint theory that conceptualized the specific positioning of Black women and derived some epistemological consequences of that positioning.
Fighting Words (1998), a collection of seven thematically connected essays, continues this project of the social theory of group positioning and its epistemological consequences. The book has many suggestive ideas and well-thought-through social theoretical analyses; in some respects, however, it overgeneralizes or leaves its points underdeveloped.
The first and third parts of the book ask whether a feminist standpoint theory can be viable after critiques of essentialism and identity politics. They also ask whether and how the positioning of Black women has shifted in the last few decades. The second part is somewhat disjoined from these discussions; it consists of three chapters, each of which considers a literature on which Black feminist thought might draw: American sociology, postmodernism, and Afrocentrism. I find the first and third parts of the book the most interesting and original, and so will devote most of my comments to them. First I will briefly review the second part.
In each of these middle chapters Collins surveys a body of literature and finds that each in its own specific way falls seriously short of offering the theoretical frameworks Black feminist thought needs. The sociology chapter contains a useful, if hasty, history of postwar American sociology from the point of view of Black women, both as subjects of study and practitioners. It is largely a catalogue of writers and ideas, noting shifts in thinking about race and gender; it will be of most interest to those who work in the discipline of sociology.
The chapter on postmodernism is overly general, making claims about a large category of contemporary theory supported with reference to only a few writers. The chapter on Afrocentrism also catalogs a large body of writings and argues that the ideas serve certain aspects of the emancipatory interest of Black women. To the extent that Afrocentrism relies on a strong and rather static notion of Black culture nationalism, however, Collins argues, it tends to have male-biased implications. The three chapters taken together exhibit [End Page 91] the project of applying standards of critical epistemology to forms of social knowledge claims.
I find Collins's own efforts at positive theory in this book more productive than her epistemological reflection. Two aspects of this positive theorizing are particularly noteworthy: (1) an argument that recent social changes have resulted in a shifting position for African American women and their public presence, and (2) an argument that Black feminist thought can and should retain a theory of social group positioning even in the face of recent critiques of essentializing group identities.
In her first chapter Collins argues that the years since the Civil Rights movement have seen a significant shift in what it means for Black women to be public, which accompanies what she calls a new politics of containment. In the post Civil Rights era, racism takes more subtle forms than before, building on past unequal social structures of racialized division of labor and spatial segregation, which are reintegrated into a new rhetoric of family values and personal responsibility. Past racist and sexist structures tended to keep Black women out of a public eye at the same time that a vibrant African American civil society heavily relied on women's leadership skills and willingness to give their time. In recent decades the strength of this African American civil society has waned, and with it Black women's participation in a Black public sphere. At the same time, mainstream America has brought Black women under a new surveillance, where contradictory standards bring them under risk of judgment and condemnation. Black women are more public than ever, in this sense, but they have little control over whether...