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Black Feminist Women and Standpoint Theory

Updated on October 19, 2008

A standpoint is a particular intellectual place from which people see and understand social reality. A related metaphor is that of a "lens" through which we view the world differently depending on which lens we happen to be looking through. A standpoint helps in articulating a social group's perspective about its lived experiences and in mapping the practices of power structures that oppress them. Standpoint theories, like that of Black women, claim to represent the world from a particular socially situated perspective that can lay a claim to special kinds of knowledge, an epistemic privilege or authority.

Black feminist standpoint theories reject the notion of an unmediated truth, arguing that knowledge is always mediated by myriad factors related to an individual's or group's particular position in the sociohistorical landscape. The basic insight of standpoint theories is that members of oppressed groups, like Black women, have special kinds of knowledge in virtue of their marginalized status in society. From knowledge gained via their particular standpoint, Black women can best embark upon political empowerment achieved through a raised group consciousness. Even if Black women cannot make good on the claim that it has privileged access to reality, it may offer alternative representations of reality that are more useful to the group than are other truthful representations. As feminist standpoint theory developed, it focused more on the political nature of the standpoint, and it has attempted to attend to the diversity of women by incorporating the standpoints of other marginalized groups like those of Black women. Black feminist standpoint theory is a type of critical theory, whose aim it is to empower the oppressed to improve their situation. It is a position from which emancipatory action can be taken. Feminist standpoint theory derives from the Marxist position that the socially oppressed classes can access knowledge unavailable to the socially privileged, that different social groups have different points of view for gaining knowledge, particularly knowledge of social relations.

It appropriates the Marxist belief in the epistemological superiority-or at the very least, equality-of the perspective of the oppressed classes. In the Marxist view, workers do not have this standpoint to begin with. They attain it by gaining collective consciousness of their role in the capitalist system and in history, since several aspects of the workers' social situation enable them to attain an epistemically privileged perspective on society. Workers are oppressed, central to the capitalist mode of production, and endowed with a cognitive style based on their practical productive material interaction with nature. Oppression gives them an objective interest in the truth about whose interests really get served by the capitalist system. They have a special view of capitalism. Because under capitalism the standing of all other classes is defined in relation to them, in coming to know themselves, and their class position, workers come to know their society as a totality. Marxism offers the classic model of a standpoint theory, claiming an epistemic privilege over fundamental questions of economics, sociology, and history on behalf of the standpoint of the proletariat. And so, feminist standpoint theory considers knowledge of marginalized groups as equally important as that produced by dominant groups. A marginalized standpoint like that of Black women is not only important because it can view the dominant group from unflattering angles but can view many other different standpoints and critique them.

When these situated facts from different standpoints form a pattern, the patterns themselves could be seen as knowledge. The epistemic privilege of the oppressed is sometimes cast, following W. E. B. DuBois, in terms of "bifurcated consciousness," the ability to see things both from the perspective of the dominant and from the perspective of the oppressed and, therefore, to comparatively evaluate both perspectives. Black women are oppressed and, therefore, have an interest in representing social phenomena in ways that reveal rather than mask certain truths.

As in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's description of the master-slave relations, the subordinate slave is dependent upon the dominant master; it is in his or her interests to understand the master. Likewise, a subordinate group's standpoint is more complete as it has a greater reason to understand the dominant groups' standpoint and little reason to maintain the status quo. Black women also have direct experience of their oppression, unlike Black men or White women whose privilege enables them to ignore how their actions affect Black women as a class. Every standpoint theory must offer an account of how one gains access to its situated knowledge. This depends on whether membership in the group whose perspective is privileged is defined objectively, in terms of one's position in a social structure, or subjectively, in terms of one's subjective identification as a member of the group. In the early 1980s, Nancy Hartsock developed what she called "the feminist standpoint," a concept that attempted to adjust the Marxist idea that one's perspective is dependent only on one of the two major class positions in a capitalist society. Hartsock suggested instead that the position of women is structurally different from that of men, that the lived realities of women's lives are profoundly different from those of men.

She argued that the sexual division of labor forms the basis for a feminist standpoint. Just as Marx's understanding of the world from the standpoint of the proletariat enabled him to go beneath bourgeois ideology, so a feminist standpoint can allow us to understand patriarchal institutions and ideologies as perverse inversions of more humane social relations. Hartsock thus attempted to translate the concept of the standpoint of the proletariat, by analogy, into feminist terms. There is no homogeneous women's experience and hence no singular women's standpoint since women see things differently from different social locations; different marginalized groups have different social, economic, and symbolic viewpoints. For Black women, the logic of an epistemology that grounds epistemic privilege in oppression is to identify the multiply oppressed as multiply epistemically privileged. Within feminist theory, this logic has led to the development of Black feminist epistemology. Thus, Collins grounds Black feminist epistemology in Black women's personal experiences of racism and sexism and in cognitive styles associated with Black women. She uses this epistemology to supply Black women with self-representations that enable them to resist the demeaning racist and sexist images of Black women in the wider world and to take pride in their identities. Black women are "outsiders within" having enough personal experience as insiders to understand their social place but also enough critical distance to empower critique.

Standpoint theorists argue about its history, its status as theory, and its relevance to current thinking, some arguing that standpoint theory provides a circular basis for deciding which standpoints have epistemic privilege. Considering many standpoints in the production of knowledge has been criticized on the grounds that it opens the way for relativistic knowledge. But, in fact, the collection of many standpoints works toward a more robust empirical representation of epistemology. The many different representations of a single phenomenon, such as an historical event, can be critically evaluated to determine what patterns arise out of the accounts of the phenomena as it happened. Many different standpoints are accessed in an attempt to create a more robust account of a phenomenon. The consideration of many different standpoints, including that of Black women, gives an opportunity for the entirely polemical or plainly false standpoints to be seen as nonobjective.


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      Charly 19 months ago

      I'm currently writing an intro to a M.A. project about this very topic. Awesome read and very helpful as I go through the Feminist Standpoint literature. Thanks!

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      Socialblu 8 years ago

      Very powerful writing, Educated girl, I look forward to reading more.