How can white feminists productively engage with black feminist thought and practice? What are some of the excuses and stumbling blocks white feminists use and encounter that circumvent alliance with black feminists and others at the intersections of different raced and gendered realities? This essay suggests the need to further a comprehensive epistemological framework, one that distinguishes between a willful ignorance that reinforces hegemonic whiteness and the reflexivity required to move towards dismantling willful ignorance, improving knowledge projects, and creating liberatory frameworks and alliances.
So here, it could be said, one has an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority.1
Charles W. Mills has done much to demarcate the cartology of white ignorance in the service of hegemonic whiteness. For Mills, this ignorance serves as a highly functional cognitive barrier to understanding reality, one necessary to effectively support, reproduce, and benefit from white privilege. Philosophers of race and gender follow Mills in calling these “epistemologies of ignorance” that white people strategically use to silence people of color, to trivialize their raced realities at various intersections, and chiefly, to uphold the structures of racial apartheid that prevail in the United States today.2
IGNORANCE IS BLISS—A CONFESSION
Ah, the comfort of the canon—even the feminist canon. The familiar tones, soft contours, ancient and oft-repeated narratives humming on, reaffirming that at least some version of the past still holds sway. In stark contrast, a troubling revelation disturbed my first Feminist Philosophy course in the 1990s, which I had anticipated teaching with a sense of elation, even jubilation. As I drove to work that day it occurred to me that I had incorporated no black women writers into the syllabus. None. I felt neglectful that I was missing important voices, noticing less that I was also missing important ideas.
The flaws were in my own deficient understandings, my ignorance, and in an unarticulated worldview from a position of whiteness. “Black” and “thought” were somehow at odds, just as I had been taught that “women” and “reason” were incompatible. So I surreptitiously engaged in “add and stir,” a flawed process of back-filling missing women, people of color, and other underrepresented thinkers and thoughts into the curriculum after it has already been designed.3 I was operating out of what Patricia J. Williams identifies as “liberal guilt,” a sort of noblesse oblige that is, in fact, anathema.4
TWO TYPES OF IGNORANCE
Years of joyful and painful evolution have incrementally led to my recent work developing a model for a more comprehensive radical epistemology. Building on the work of Mills, Linda Martín Alcoff,5 and many others, I identify two types of ignorance: willful and reflexive. Alcoff helpfully underscores that hegemonic ignorance is not passive, it is willful—it requires an active effort on the part of oppressors not to see the world for what it is. But there is hope. One need not be mired in the ignorance implicated in reproducing oppression. In the context of knowing about intersections of, for example, race/gender/class/sexuality/ability/age and their varying relations to power, reflexivity can be chosen. In a much simplified form, this process is characterized by: (1) identifying specific areas of defective socially-constructed knowledge in oneself and one's communities, (2) actively confronting those knowledge claims and re-cognizing ignorance through (3) engagement with many forms of challenges to the existing paradigms, and (4) re-formulating understandings to lessen ignorance and consciously move towards more inclusive knowledge and better epistemological practices. Most of us will spend a fair amount of time swimming in ignorance, but radical epistemological praxis should steer us toward a more bountiful pool.
But understand, in the old days many teachers and scholars of my generation had no formal—or informal—preparation for what we were about to teach. We had never taken a black or women's studies course. There were none. The canon was just what it was—a perfect, logical progression. Within that framework we were taught to critique meticulously the ideas presented to us; anything outside did not exist.
So we—white women, black women, Chicanas, lesbians, and many women at various intersections of identities—struggled to create new, subversive canons out of the dust. Make no mistake; those in power were not happy about challenges to their monopoly on the curriculum. What was labeled “Area Studies” a few decades ago constituted a revolution perpetrated by sharp-minded academics and activists who overtly followed the rules while undermining them. Early on in this voyage, my spare-time reading included the novels of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde; their work represented a new world to me. But in philosophy the landscape of women and especially of black women thinkers seemed barren.
THE RIGHTNESS OF BLACK FEMINIST THOUGHT
While my initial “add and stir” moment was compelled by a patronizing portion of liberal guilt, black feminist thought (BFT) soon became a passion.6 The more I read, the more I became convinced of its rightness—epistemological deconstruction of the matrices of oppression, the centrality of subjective experience, and socially just engagement—ideas that found their best expression in the work of Patricia Hill Collins.7 Intense discussions with feminists and women of color along with extensive forays into literature and theory helped to raise my consciousness.8 Social justice and epistemic frames became more sophisticated.9 Matrices of oppression banished single-axis approaches and transmuted into intersectionalities, hybridities, border crossings, and even creolizations.10 We were finally moving forward.
More recently, the dynamic aspects of intersectional analysis cleared the way for an open-ended, fluid process that is now helping me incorporate knowledge generated from transgendered subject positions into courses and scholarship. For example, to decenter my position as a cisgender white woman, I intentionally use multiple pathways to include experiences that differ from my own. As a class reading, Susan Stryker and Paisley Currah's introduction to the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly carries students beyond a simple definitional engagement with the subject to “the political economy of transgender knowledge production.”11 With BFT as a powerful theoretical model of the benefits of inclusionary epistemologies also exemplified through the TSQ example, it seems the counterproductive, foundationalist culture wars have been superseded by emergent epistemological trajectories and powerful methodologies applicable across a range of disciplines.
NO EXCUSES—THEN AND NOW
The feminist culture wars of the 1980s created deep divisions. In Collins's Black Feminist Thought, she works to define terms. Uniting theory and practice in the manner of standpoint epistemologies, she privileges the experiences of black women, but she also seems to hold that the experience of being a black woman is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for engaging with BFT:
By placing African-American women's ideas in the center of analysis, I not only privilege those ideas but encourage white feminists, African-American men, and all others to investigate the similarities and differences among their own standpoints and those of African-American women.12
Fear and uncertainty made me hesitant. Given the centrality of subjective experience, how could I possibly engage in and with black feminist conversations? In the second edition to Black Feminist Thought, Collins elaborates:
Another pattern of suppression lies in paying lip service to the need for diversity, but changing little about one's own practice. Currently some US white women who possess great competence in researching a range of issues acknowledge the need for diversity yet omit women of color from their work. These women claim that they are unqualified to understand or even speak of “Black women's experiences” because they themselves are not black… [which] reflects a basic unwillingness by many US White feminists to alter the paradigms that guide their work.13
This challenge still resonates for me.
Curious and reflective about excuses, I worried about criticism and believe that others still worry as well. However, being “called out,” is a part of all academic work. For some white feminists, I wonder if failing to engage is less about the worry of receiving criticism—ubiquitous in any academic profession—and more about fear of being called out by black women. If so, this stance is both lazy and highly suspect.
There could be no cheap excuses, no ducking out of doing the necessary work. If I wanted to imbibe BFT deeply, then I had to take some risks, allowing myself to be vulnerable, even to painful personal assessments from others. I also had to be willing to undertake radical realignments not only of theoretical models, but also of personal ones, including my self-perceptions; in other words, to engage in reflexivity.
BLACK FEMINIST THEORIZING: THERE IS WORK TO DO
Given the ongoing occlusion of work by and about black women and other marginalized thinkers, an army of laborers is required to do this. Especially in recalcitrant fields such as philosophy, every means available must be deployed to create space for excluded voices. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:
of the 370 American citizens and permanent residents who earned PhDs in philosophy and ethics in 2014, just 15, or 4 percent, were African-American. Of philosophy doctoral recipients overall, less than one-third were women… . It's a striking number, given that only about 40 black women have ever earned philosophy doctorates in the United States.14
In my field, leaving the labor of black feminist philosophical work to black women amounts to abandonment. It is also tokenizing in its patronizing assumption that most women of color will choose to undertake philosophy of race and gender instead of many other sub-fields.
The revelations that led me to embrace BFT found first expression in Women and Men Political Theorists.15 Designed as a corrective to the all-white Euro-American male political theory canon, the book was part of a much larger movement to rediscover women writers, and I was determined to make this project intersectional. For example, a traditional reading, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, was paired with Maria W. Stewart's 1833 lecture, “On African Rights and Liberty.” The most intersectional chapter grouped Karl Marx, Matilda Joslyn Gage's still neglected work on oppression through church and state, and a series of Frederick Douglass's essays.16 But rescuing writers from obscurity is not enough to ensure their survival when significance is judged by the body of new and heuristic scholarship envisioned for future endeavors. Thus began the next project.
While we were stitching together Black Women's Intellectual Traditions, co-editor Carol B. Conaway argued that our best efforts would be in presenting the work of young scholars on equal standing with recognized giants in the fields.17 We were intentional in insisting there are still-relevant centuries-old traditions of black feminist thought and in nurturing the production of secondary literature, at the same time providing evidence of scholarship for hiring, promoting, and tenuring black women scholars who could find limited platforms for their work. As such, our collection carved out canonical space for generations of black women intellectuals to speak to and with each other, while documenting the paradoxical contradiction of how much and how little has actually changed at the marginalized intersections of gender and race.
MOVING FORWARD IN PHILOSOPHY
Over the years several beacons have appeared. In 2007, Kathryn T. Gines at Pennsylvania State University founded the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, which is devoted to mentoring, creating networking opportunities, and cultivating a graduate program friendly to budding philosophers of color. In recent years, Falguni Sheth and Mickaella Perina have brought their leadership to the California Roundtable on Philosophy and Race. It also helped that Charles Mills was upfront about his feminism when it was unpopular for black men to do so. Those of us in the field know the names of the handful of those “first generation” black women philosophers, including, but not limited to, Anita L. Allen, Michele Moody-Adams, Joyce Mitchell Cook, Adrian Piper, Jacqueline Scott, and Angela Y. Davis. For white women philosophers, I see no alternative to making common cause and honoring safe spaces.
MOVING FORWARD IN BLACK FEMINIST THOUGHT
Part of the struggle for BFT is moving towards global understandings of oppression and precarity while insisting the conditions of modernity embedded in global colonization are grounded specifically in gendered theories of race.18 So while exploring concepts related to intersectionality such as hybridity, border crossings, and even multiculturalism, a challenge to all theories of oppression is centering the role gendered blackness played/plays in creating global power structures. Given that black feminism is the one theory that insists upon the presence—the existence—of women of color and rescues them from literal obliteration through state-sanctioned violence, the necessity of BFT is especially profound to theorizing how forces of global domination work.
As scholars and activists, we should never be at peace with our work. Resisting the complex process of colonization of the self as knower requires an ongoing epistemic attitude of reflexivity opposed to willful ignorance. Questioning and challenging dominant narratives and creating ones that are truer to reality means immersion in resistant knowledge-production and liberatory practice. For myself, this means employing privilege to: call out overt and subtle practices in the various sites of knowledge production in national, local, and university settings. In the educational sphere, an activist would challenge the composition and content of textbooks and curricula; advocate fiercely for more inclusive hiring practices; demand dedicated operational funding lines for interdisciplinary programs that are vulnerable to administrative whims; reject the limp excuses for hiring, promotion, and tenure failures; and challenge the merry-go-round excuses that perpetuate the status quo while blaming outliers for lying outside of it. Advocating for and securing resources and real administrative commitment is fundamental to my engagement with black feminist thought.
If willful ignorance is the deep ocean, then reflexive ignorance may ride the tide washing towards knowledge and then away from it. That is why only immersive engagement with communities will, in each instance, re-inform strategies and practices. It is not just an attitude or disposition; it is a way of life.