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Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 9:68–85, 2008 Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 1524-0657 print

/1940-9206 online DOI: 10.1080/15240650701759292

Reply to Commentaries: Black Sexual Politics Revisited
Patricia Hill Collins, Ph.D.

In this reply, I comment on one theme raised by each symposium author, expand on explicit ideas in Black Sexual Politics (2005) itself, and/or raise additional questions that broaden those of the symposium participants. First, I examine Ange-Marie Hancock’s claim that my seeming privileging of race in Black Sexual Politics contradicts my prior work on intersectionality. Next, I respond to Shanette Harris’s analysis of the power of the gaze. Finally, I examine Jean Wyatt’s focus on the interior space of black humanity to speculate about the ways in which healing constitutes a site of politics.


o one article, talk, book, or film can say all things to all people. Black Sexual Politics (2005) is no exception. This book, like my scholarship overall, provides an opportunity for readers to engage selected dimensions of one core question that frames the corpus of my work: What is the relationship between oppression and resistance? I approach this task of studying social inequalities and people’s responses to them through a strategy of dynamic centering, a stance of foregrounding selected themes and ideas while moving others to the background. In some studies, I focus more on oppression, whereas in other work I stress resistance. Sometimes I explore the signifi-

Patricia Hill Collins is a Distinguished University Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, and the author of Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990).


© 2008 The Analytic Press

Reply to Commentaries 69 cance that the interior space of consciousness might play in shaping capitulation and/or resistance to varying forms of oppression. Ange-Marie Hancock enters the argument from the vantage point of academic social theory and suggests that my seeming privileging of race in Black Sexual Politics contradicts my prior work on intersectionality. Shanette Harris stresses the significance of preserving Black hu- . This process of dynamic centering also allows me to examine more closely particular “types” of oppression—race. class. I have identified one core theme from each essay that seems especially important to each author and that also resonates with a larger concern within the corpus of my scholarship as well as within this particular work. for example. age. In other scholarship. keeping in mind that academics and general audiences read my work quite differently. my basic methodology of dynamic centering. Rather than responding to the articles themselves. and my need to remain cognizant of the political hierarchies that frame possible readerships. I am honored to have Black Sexual Politics included in this special symposium. She wonders why I focus on race and racism and further contests the version of racism that I do present. Because I work in the terrain of knowledge—my space of intellectual activism—I remain intimately focused on questions of audience. nation. who will encounter it with ease and who will be denied access to it? What can I say that will both speak to the concerns of different audiences and then engage specific aspects of my core concern of oppression and resistance? I open with these general comments to provide some guiding principles for the corpus of my intellectual production. Overall. gender. sexuality. I typically ask myself these questions: Who has the skills and ability to read what I write and who does not? Even though they possess the basic literacy to decode my work. I suggest that readers of Black Sexual Politics situate this book not solely within pre-established theoretical and/or ideological frameworks but also within my goal of addressing the larger question of oppression and resistance. social policies and social movement politics. Sometimes I’m more concerned with theory and other times with praxis. and ethnicity as intersecting systems of power—while giving each varying theoretical weight from one work to the next. I emphasize external social structures and social practices of both oppression and resistance.

Instead. the approach that I take in Black Sexual Politics illustrates how I use dynamic centering as part of an ongoing project. that of the Strong Black Woman (SBW). Hancock assumes that I have privileged race in this volume. Wyatt tackles the clinical implications of one idea. “How does the explicit and unapologetic privileging of race in Black Sexual Politics challenge Collins’s earlier both/and constructions in Black Feminist Thought and Fighting Words?” Via this question. I haven’t. What does one do when faced with the task of theorizing social phenomena through the lens of intersectionality while recognizing that the lens itself is a continually shifting entity? I see at least three sites of intersectional scholarship. namely. Ange-Marie Hancock asks. (2) conceptualizing sys- . in particular. DYNAMIC CENTERING AND INTERSECTIONALITY In her essay. namely. namely. posits that intersectional scholarship should look a certain way. namely. I’ll address each of these three issues by commenting on specific aspects of the theme raised by a particular author. the manifestations of racial power across varying social class segments. (1) developing intersectional analyses of specific topics and/or social practices (the case of racism in the post-rights era). which goes beyond this specific book. to conceptualize intersectionality. and/ or raising additional questions that broaden those of the symposium participants. as well as how the interior space of Black lived experience can be marshaled to counter it. and wonders why I have strayed from my own path. This raises questions about the shifting social organization of the gaze. Quite simply. how I approached it in earlier work. In this section of the essay. asking how the argument might be extended in useful directions for a new politics of Black feminism. I want to sketch out in broad brush strokes how I negotiate a fundamental question that I recognize in my own work.70 Patricia Hill Collins manity by taking on the issue of the power of the gaze to destroy it and the necessity to defend it. In what follows. Jean Wyatt focuses on the interior space of Black humanity to speculate about the ways in which healing constitutes a site of politics. expanding on explicit ideas in Black Sexual Politics itself.

a sexuality-first stance bundled together with psychoanalytic theory. ethnicity. and/or methodological approaches gained from a given thinker’s point of origin (e. it is difficult if not impossible to develop any of these three sites without knowing quite a bit about separate systems of power of race. class. for example. the default position typically consists of working within the one system that one encountered first and/or knows best. race and gender or race and class. Hancock’s approach of starting her analysis via a dialogue between psychoanalysis and a seemingly already defined intersectionality). The next step typically consists of extrapolating the theories. for example. These starting points can become the taken-for-granted frameworks upon which all subsequent work is constructed. and gender among others intersect as systems of power and/or developing a meta-theoretical analysis of the construct of intersectionality. and so on. and ability. yet a problem occurs when thinkers reify their respective starting points and cease to examine the assumptions that frame them.Reply to Commentaries 71 tems of power via intersectional frameworks (how race. whether it be gender. Yet few of us can ever grasp the nuances of scholarship produced within these separate fields of study with sufficient depth and scope to produce a thoroughly intersectional analysis of our subject. gender. I’ve become fascinated with mapping how thinkers actually cut into the magnitude of this task of completing an intersectional analysis of a chosen topic or expanding knowledge about how race. or class. and so forth. class. among others. or a gender-first analysis wedded to Michel Foucault’s power analysis to each of the three sites of intersectional scholarship) and applying it to the task at hand. intersectional work is typically partial. and divergence among what are conceptualized as separate entities but that collectively comprise one entity. or sexuality.g.g.. as well as privileging theories and interpretive paradigms with which one seemingly has the most affinity (e. Ironically. For many. It is also initially inherently comparative. and gender. a methodology?). or a race-first position coupled with Marxist social theory. convergence. paradigms. might mutually construct one another as systems of power). Given these complexities. a paradigm. and (3) conceptualizing intersectionality itself (is it a theory. class. a dynamic chain of similarities and differences that enable us to see points of overlap. One has to start somewhere. By default. When coupled with the exponential growth of systems . age.. sexuality.

If we are not careful. typically unsuccessfully. and what a thinker typically perceives both to be can ref lect his or her particular point of origin thinking. difference) to replace the specificity of the multiple. gender and sexuality operate as proximate systems of power. class. class. There is a rush to tidy up the messiness of always having to say race and class and gender and sexuality and ethnicity and age and nationality and ability by searching for overarching terms that will capture this complexity.. and gender. This approach to intersectionality simply assumes that all systems of power are both structured and operate in a similar fashion and that they can be added together as a megaoppression for which we should search for one term (e. annexing the power of the erotic and the everyday. These two points of origin do not preclude one another—clearly gender and sexuality have social policy implications and race and . one might stress interpersonal relations and the significance of interior space as the site of interest.72 Patricia Hill Collins of power that are now more visible—I look nostalgically at the good old days of race. if one approached intersectionality from a gendered point of origin. For example. more situated systems that catalyze analysis in the first place. the term “intersectionality” runs the same risk of trying to explain everything yet ending up saying nothing. Within this logic.g. whereas if one approached it from a race/class/ethnicity point of origin. the notion that one system of power can be substituted for another. Thus. racial discrimination is the same as gender discrimination. they also may be structured quite differently within the same society and across diverse societies. and so forth. Yet different systems of power not only may be organized quite differently (with corresponding bodies of literature that situate their scholarly practitioners in distinctive points of origin). through practices such as segregating social groups and the unequal treatment that can ensue. This combination of holding fast to one’s point of origin and the rush to close intersectionality prematurely can foster a f lawed myth of equivalent oppressions. whereas race. The term “difference” tries to do this kind of heavy lifting. and ethnicity tend to be organized in more macro-structural ways. which themselves have yet to be reconciled via an intersectional analysis—we search for shortcuts that will move us from the point of origin of recognizing the need for an intersectional analysis and proclaiming that we have accomplished it. one might stress social policies and social movement politics.

Dynamic centering affects my work in specific ways. the process of dynamic centering proves to be a useful framing technique for such relational thinking. When it comes to theorizing intersectionality. I have found the concept of relational thinking to be particularly helpful. Rather. Questioning the ways in which these two entities are related is quite different from simply comparing them. and/or standpoints on the topic at hand. the task lies in refusing to collapse one into the other by privileging one over the other. angles of vision. yet each also provides but one piece of a much larger story. Dynamic centering constitutes a way of working that places two or more entities at the center of analysis to get a closer look at their mutual construction. These dual concepts of relational thinking and dynamic centering shape the choices that I made concerning the overarching theoretical framework of Black Sexual Politics. It enables me to focus on the relationships among two or three entities without trying to think about everything all of the time. the question of the similarities and differences that characterize racism and heterosexism. For example. Each individual snapshot provides a distinctive look at the relationships that are captured within its frame. The goal here is not to freeze a slice of lived experience and reify it as truth but rather to examine one way of framing reality that can be combined with many photographs in the album (ideally taken by other people). in Black Feminist Thought: Knowl- . I have to decide which systems of power to bracket as so-called background systems and which of two or three entities of the pantheon of systems of power to emphasize in the foreground. Relational thinking moves from initial point-of-origin comparisons of asking how things are alike and different. Moreover.Reply to Commentaries 73 class shape individual lives. for example. It is similar to taking a snapshot of a graduation ceremony—you know that the event itself is far more comprehensive than what can be captured by the tool of one camera from one angle of vision at one point in time. One changes the entity at the center of analysis from one project to the next to assemble multiple analyses. to asking the ways in which racism and heterosexism mutually construct one another as systems of power (the question that I engaged in Black Sexual Politics). Let me say a bit more first about dynamic centering and next how it operates within this particular project. In negotiating this field of cognitive land mines.

namely. the . Black Sexual Politics is crafted at the intersection of two of the three previously mentioned sites of intersectional scholarship. In Black Sexual Politics. ethnicity. my choice of which intersecting systems of power will assume center stage and which I will bracket ref lects a careful look at actual social conditions and asking what I need to know to understand them. social class). Age and sexuality constitute topics of discussion. the “primary optic” used to analyze social phenomena. Although Black Sexual Politics can be read as also developing a meta-analysis of the theory of intersectionality. For any given project. Instead. and sexuality in the post-civil rights era of color-blind racism. and (2) developing an intersectional analysis of the topic of racism in the post-civil rights era. thinking relationally about race and gender occupies the front stage whereas sexuality and class are held more constant. Nationalism and Feminism (2006). and nation in that volume. In contrast. Consciousness. sexuality. a framing mechanism that would allow me to develop a more robust intersectional analysis of the intersecting power systems that constitute contemporary racism. I see race and racism as especially salient in the post-9/11 American climate. to utilize Hancock’s words. gender. not to privilege race but to get a more nuanced analysis of race in relationship to sexuality. one where considerable pressure to “move beyond” race by erasing the legacy of racism exists. all systems of power are always in every situation. this was not my explicit goal as it is in this section of this essay. Rather. Race is not. gender. (1) conceptualizing intersecting systems of power (I engage two sites to build upon my prior work on race and gender not simply to expand analyses of sexuality and to a lesser degree. but the salience of any given system of power will vary across time and space. and the Politics of Empowerment (1990). I certainly discuss class. and class. and nation in state power as well as on group-based political responses to it. I focus on intersections of race. in From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism. As I mention in Black Feminist Thought. Racism may be especially salient because it is not seen as being so. I drew upon the dual concepts of relational thinking and dynamic centering to use intersectionality as a heuristic device. dynamic centering shifts the focus to intersections of race. but the focus remains on the relationships (or intersections) of race and gender.74 Patricia Hill Collins edge. but they are not the analytical focus. gender.

it constitutes a permeable border space where Black humanity must decide how much to reveal to non-Blacks. On the other hand. they do not belong or else belonging is contin- . under what terms. the veil can cut two ways. it can operate as a mechanism of power via its ideological justifications of Black subordination.Reply to Commentaries 75 primary optic is intersectionality (as described methodologically here) as applied to the important social topic of the contemporary situation of African Americans. one that provides Whites with ideological justifications for their racial prejudice and that encourages those Blacks who see themselves through the veil to take on the oppressor’s point of view. the gaze constitutes a technique of control whereby an individual or group with more power can control the less powerful via technologies of surveillance. The gaze is not simply one person staring another down—instead it references the many strategies that keep Blacks feeling “watched” in situations that they do not control and where. Du Bois (1903) also invoked the concept of a gaze as a technique of power. and his detailed genealogies of the emergence of the gaze as part of technologies of control in Western societies serve contemporary social theory well. and why. On the one hand. Du Bois identified the core question that the power relations attached to the racial veil seemingly raised for Black humanity: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Despite my suspicions about why this particular dimension of Du Bois’s writings remains the one that is so often retrieved from the vast corpus of his work. The veil is not a simple fence—rather. B. ostensibly. PRESERVING BLACK HUMANITY: THE PERMEABLE VEIL By now. William E. it is hard to get away from the concept of the gaze. On the one hand. the veil can also constitute a mechanism to protect the interior space of Black humanity from the external assaults of racism. Michel Foucault’s social theory seems to be everywhere. when claimed by Blacks. In essence. The gaze has a similar dual identity. His discussion of double consciousness among African Americans identifies the veil as a distorting barrier of racial images. Yet over a century ago in Souls of Black Folk. I very much like Shanette Harris’s linking of the metaphors of the veil and the gaze as techniques of power.

On the other hand. It marked the boundaries of the Black community. men possess the gaze and women undergo surveillance. intersecting power relations. whereas private space. the veil becomes a gendered spatial border. the space that escapes public scrutiny. Another implication of the construct of the gaze is that. one is either the owner of the power to gaze or the object that is gazed at. In the intense surveillance of public spaces organized via the racial gaze. one distinguishing male from female. Not only do the gaze and the veil reference racially marked groups—these core ideas are also implicitly gendered. it becomes virtually impossible to live as a fully human Black person in a society structured by racism in the public space of social institutions. Rather. Jim Crow segregation recognized that all Whites had the power to pinion all Blacks with the power of the White gaze. race relations. when applied to race. Through the lens of race and gender.S. . an interior space of collective Blackness where Black individuals could find affirming Black identities. public from private. and in the context of U. the place where the gaze is organized via social institutions. the veil also brought respite from White racism. is gendered as male. Yet another implication concerns gender. White from Black. In this context. To explore the question of preserving/protecting collective Black humanity within contemporary. Despite White intentions that the veil should diminish Black humanity. the gaze references power relationships of unequal social groups as refracted through social institutions and practices. I’d like to share a few thoughts concerning the relationship between the gaze and the veil in the context of the new racism. The veil distinguishes public from private space. with the public elevated over the private within this social binary. Public space. often developing quite sophisticated oppositional consciousness. Within a gendered framework. Previous generations of African Americans living under strict. One implication of the analysis of the veil and the gaze is that the gaze is not simply a relationship between equals—with the veil as a benign curtain separating two individuals who are joined by shared humanity yet separated by antiquated social customs (as “race” in brackets is popularly thought to be). the permeable boundary of the veil ironically marks the private space of Blackness by gendering it as female.76 Patricia Hill Collins gent on certain behaviors. by default. people who are watched by the gaze of the more powerful find ways to gaze back. becomes marked as female space.

Holding onto the veil too tightly is no solution either. It is critical to . This type of social withdrawal redefines the veil as a fixed border. that taking off the veil (which often symbolizes backwardness of ethnicity and/or religion) to become thoroughly Western will empower individual women. the places where gazing and gazing back occur across the now more permeable border of the post-civil rights veil. in particular. Yet for women. public space is not yet safe space. African Americans are encouraged to throw off the “veil” of race-holding and become less “Black. Many White Americans whose conceptions of freedom remain tied to assumptions of individualism and shopping in an unfettered marketplace find it hard to imagine why anyone would choose metaphorically to “veil” himself or herself with non-Western identities of race. It is completely plausible to hide behind the veil as a retreat from the politics of engaging these same inequalities of public space. femininity and masculinity. bears striking resemblance to the advice offered to African Americans under the new racism. Throwing off the veil does not mean that one automatically acquires the power of the gaze. namely. constitutes a template for thinking through how the gaze as a technique of power operates differently with different Black sub-populations as well as what types of “veiling” might occur in response. an impenetrable shell that can cut off those inside from the full spectrum of fully human relationships.Reply to Commentaries 77 The popular solution offered to veiled women. gender. Westerners who see the veil as a symbol of women’s oppression in non-Western and/or Muslim societies offer facile advice such as “take off your veil and you will be free” as a quick fix to perceived gender inequalities. my focus on the new racism emphasized selected complexities of the post-civil rights era. Blacks. and/or ethnicity.” Yet this strategy of unquestioned assimilation only makes sense in the context of a new racism that argues that racial problems are passé. straight and gay. across different social classes. My presentation of a structural argument of the heterogeneity of lived Black experience. In Black Sexual Politics. I think that social class differences matter greatly in determining how Blacks might respond to class-specific manifestations of the gaze. In a similar fashion. religion. the multiple social locations where oppression and resistance operate. which sub-populations will encounter pressures to assimilate and any use of “veiling” that might ensue. namely. In this regard. and minority religious and/or ethnic groups living within Western societies.

but the system of social class is the group-based arrangement of power and money that is invoked. To overgeneralize for purposes of this brief argument. an opera singer. especially Black youth. concern with the presentation of the Black self in public meant that manipulating public images of Blackness became increasingly important to politics. acquiring a social class identity requires no agency. the fact of birth shapes life experiences thereafter. Social class differences in the post-civil rights era have generated for African Americans. The veil operated like mirrored sunglasses. any social mobility up or down that may occur in one’s lifetime. That was then. or in-between.78 Patricia Hill Collins remember that social class is not simply an apolitical identity category that is equivalent to being a cheerleader. other than the police. rich. entirely new challenges concerning the connections between the gaze and the veil as a strategy of response. permeated the politics of the civil rights era. let alone differential patterns in deploying it. One is born poor. African Americans as a group simultaneously occupied a more homogeneous social class position and also routinely expressed concern about Whites’ perceptions of them. as well as the need for the concept of the veil. ref lecting back to the White world their own image of what they wanted to see. the greatly changed circumstances of social organization of the post-civil rights era mean that large numbers of poor and working-class Black kids in urban areas encounter a disproportionately small number of Whites. with . an opera singer. In this climate. including access to the gaze as a technique of power. Unlike becoming a cheerleader. Harris’s work has pushed me to think a bit more about the utility of the metaphors of the veil and the gaze in examining the strategies used by different class segments of African Americans in negotiating complex contemporary social realities. Unequal social structures lie at the heart of social class analysis—social class as a structure of power assigns class identities to individuals and shapes the social roles that are available to them. sometimes with tragic results. despite the myth of the meritocracy. Before the 1960s. or a soccer Mom. or a soccer Mom. no construction on the part of the individual. buttressed by de jure and de facto discrimination. This attentiveness to the power of a White gaze. Not being attentive to the White gaze could get any Black person in trouble at any time. and. Individuals playing these social roles can summon power and money.

I suggest that the lived experiences of poor and working-class Black urban youth have profoundly shifted the meaning and potential utility of the very concepts of the gaze and the veil. a posture of cursing. Trends within hip-hop. provide one clue. some versions (I’m thinking of conscious rap) continued the relative lack of concern with the White gaze by raising critical social issues that affected Blacks. By the 1990s. the explosive success of commercial hip-hop. gangsta rap and its progeny. each group might express a distinctive relationship between the gaze and the veil. as hip-hop became more mainstream. At the same time. In contrast. Kids in hip-hop did not see themselves as being a problem and most certainly did not want to share their feelings about how they “felt” about Whites seeing them as a problem. expressing the realities of their lives honed within social institutions that increasingly treated young Black men as fodder for the criminal justice system and young Black women as deadbeat welfare mothers. they must be more careful of what they say and/or do because the repercussions seem high. hip-hop initially expressed little interest in molding itself in response to the pressures of the White gaze. and as some would say. crotch grabbing. Commercial hip-hop can be seen as a masculine. a cultural movement begun by Black youth in New York City. Racial segregation has removed Whites from their daily social settings. despite the unevenness of various artists’ ability to present compelling analyses of racism and capitalism. “in your face” spectacle that rejects middle-class discourses of Black respectability and their connections with the feminized space of Blackness behind the veil. Rather. hip-hop was primarily an art form for Black urban kids by Black urban kids. sexist reverse gaze. Commercial hip-hop can also be seen as an example . rap artists were quite clear that they saw the circumstances of their lives as being a greater problem. Ever under surveillance. Both groups encounter different techniques of surveillance and just as each group occupies a distinctive social location. Commercial hip-hop takes the gaze and turns it back upon itself in fascinating and troubling ways.Reply to Commentaries 79 sufficient power to cause them to worry much about being careful of what they say and/or do around Whites. in particular. seemingly confronted the power of the gaze. As a cultural product of distressed Black neighborhoods. In the 1980s. Black middle-class kids in racially integrated settings encounter a disproportionately large number of Whites who scrutinize their daily activities.

poor and working-class Black youth express much less interest in engaging in self-reflexive dialogue about White people’s perceptions of them as problems than expressing anger about the realities of their lives. Overall. rejecting any politics thought to be associated with race.80 Patricia Hill Collins of the successful assimilation of those Blacks who have carefully gazed back at White power and embrace one set of core values of American society. Black humanity may gain a modicum of protection behind the veil. most of who lived in neighborhoods and attended schools that shielded them from the power of the White gaze. as individuals. Here the price of acceptance may be the ability to act White while remaining physically marked as Black. In contrast. the veil constitutes a shifting line in the sand of Black social class relations in f lux. namely. Yet Black humanity becomes simultaneously vulnerable behind that veil because new relations must be worked out behind it. but their behavior places them squarely within American entrepreneurial traditions. The dress and demeanor of young Blacks who sell Black culture may invoke thug life. either integrate all-White settings and/or function primarily in social settings where they constitute a small racial minority. I would anticipate that differential strategies of “veiling” frame the responses of young African American men and women faced with the pressures of assimilation. Collectively. middle-class African American youth seemingly face a qualitatively different set of issues concerning processes of gazing back and the utility of the veil as a gendered strategy for protecting the space of Black humanity. whether the uncompromising claiming of the “hood” expressed in rap videos or the continuation of all-Black tables in college dining halls. Moreover. one that signifies the contradictions that accompany the White gaze as a technique of power. How does one do this? How does one appropriate the power of the White gaze against oneself? This demand was virtually unheard of for the youth of Du Bois’s day. getting rich. That’s the impetus of much of Black Sexual Politics—to respect the power of gazing back but also to . Yet the children of the one third of African Americans who are classified as being middle class negotiate these relations of surveillance and veiling on a daily basis. in other words. I would expect to see the greatest concern expressed about the gaze and the veil’s related question of “how does it feel to be a problem” among middle-class African American youth who.

First. Wyatt identifies the significance of a therapeutic praxis that might incorporate an understanding of the complexities of Black sexual politics. Wyatt suggests. all the while masquerading as an anti-racist politics. may offer some protection via strategies of reverse gazing. sexuality. those of gender and sexuality) can continue uninterrupted. for African American women as a collectivity as well as Black feminism as a discourse devoted to Black women’s well being to get there? Let me discuss three issues that come to mind in addressing Wyatt’s question. nor by African American men who were searching for better ways to exploit the women in their lives. This image also has a long history within African American communities. and tightly bundled in with the changing social relations of the new racism? HEALING AS A SITE OF POLITICS Through her analysis of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) image. but such gazing done without an intersectional analysis of gender. always dynamic. protected by the veil yet also locked in by it. I think that it is critical to consider whose interests are served by the perpetuation of the SBW image and how this might affect Black women’s willingness to perform it. and class remains limited. this image also ref lects Black women’s agency in striving for self-definitions unencumbered by the negatives associated with other controlling images.Reply to Commentaries 81 challenge unquestioned assumptions such as the utility of sexist postures of gazing back or the assumption that community crafted behind the veil is a comfortable space of retreat for everyone.” What will it take. one . regardless of social class. Stated differently. “Liberation would come from a redefinition of what it means to be strong and black and a woman. What kind of politics can occur in this space. one that is complexly defined. Created neither solely by Whites (although Whites certainly benefit from being able to exploit Black women’s seeming strength). however. Relations of inequality that structure wider society and that also have long existed within Black communities (in Black Sexual Politics. Identifying the profession of pain as a political statement. the interior space of Blackness. Jean Wyatt moves us closer to answering the question of what kinds of politics might be needed within the space of Black humanity behind the veil. By encouraging us seriously to consider healing as a site of politics.

82). Rejecting images such as the mule or the whore are easier because these images are clearly designed to be controlling images that serve the interests of others. it causes us to be either for or against all controlling images.” where one protects the private space that is p. this discourse has emphasized the penalties that Black women pay for being Black women. Conversely Black and female from the external gaze. this suggests that bla very same strength. The SBW image it falls squarely within the category of protecting oneself from the the SBW is viewe power of the White gaze via a gender-specific expression of armorhaving the ability ing oneself to do battle with the world. putatively: reputed to be… has a tone of "but it's not Second. By rejecting the SBW image altogether. Often lacking the ability to see beyond the binary (and I would include some of my earlier work here). versions of hip-hop feminism follow this same Black feminist logic. On the other hand. creates vulnerabilities. In contrast. Redefining the SBW controlling image requires a more precise vocabulary that will enable us to dig ourselves (and Black feminism) out of the hole of not seeing the connections between the SBW . modern Black feminism plays a special role in efforts to develop a more robust analysis of the SBW image. and relatedly. primarily due to the need to redefine control in the context of Black community politics. Putting on armor invokes the the power of the W tradition of “veiling. Black feminism has striven to remove the SBW image from the space of privilege it enjoys within Black civil society and squeeze it into its own framework of penalty. They can internal Not only can the SBW image foster the impression that Black women that by asking for need no help. the SBW image has both positive and negative meanings for African American women. On the one hand. I think that it is important to recognize that. deconstructing the putatively positive SBW image becomes more complicated. yet it is also one that often comes with heavy costs. including this one. only this time the veil to be shed consists of the strictures of living the SBW image. Because Black feminism has devoted itself to analyzing how taken-for-granted ideas that create controlling images affect Black women’s lives. Third. this very same armoring. those women who do can be seen as “race traitors” or and violence com as inauthentic Black women. as a both/and construct. the SBW remains one of the most positive and potentially liberating.82 Patricia Hill Collins where Black women have been praised for their contributions to Black communities and Black politics. In the pantheon of images available to "inauthentic black Black women from which to craft individual and collective identities. We have yet another version of unveiling.

identifies the culpability of abusers and potential responsibility for restitution. and husbands are one starting place. The focus is on the individual victim. If one is damaged by the SBW role. in the absence of alternatives for Black women as a collectivity. neighbors. because it places greater emphasis on the relationship between abuser and victim. Prematurely relinquishing this piece of battle armor can garner worse treatment than The importance before. Individual strength emerges from rejecting the putative strength of the SBW role. For the individual. I remain cautious about claiming damage and prematurely relinquishing the SBW role. the solution is simple—stop doing it and let the chips fall where they may. These two terms certainly draw meaning from one another. yet without indicting the harm done by a culture of . Quite frankly. fathers. Healing occurs when individual Black women shed the veil of the SBW image. Sadly. Black women who take the risk of sharing vulnerabilities in place before must have support systems and networks in place. many poor and working-class African American communities remain dangerous places where any sign of weakness can get you killed. To develop a new meaning of Black and woman and strong.Reply to Commentaries 83 image and Black women’s agency and either/or thinking that encourages people to be either “for” or “against” the image. Abusive boyfriends. and “harm. This is a worthy goal.” with its focus on the state of the victim. Yet at the same time. None of the Black shed the SBW feminists who counsel Black women to expose the damage done to them by the SBW image can guarantee that the vast majority of African American women who take this risk in everyday life will be healed or even supported. I see a distinction between using the term “damage. what do Black women gain by relinquishing the SBW image via admitting that they are damaged? The battle that catalyzed the need for armor will not cease by simply taking off one’s armor.” which. Discourses of damage produce descriptive inventories of suffering that encourage victims to identify and share their pain. yet they also suggest very different outcomes for the SBW image as well as any politics that might accompany it. I suspect that the SBW construct remains so widely embraced by many Black women because it offers the familiar yet uneven protection of armoring in response to new forms of verbal and physical violence that characterize the new racism. of trying to make her whole. claiming damage done by expressing one’s feelings about being a problem can produce the benefits of healing.

including harm done to Black women. thus creating space for new agency around the concept of strength. Knowing that deciding to armor (claiming the SBW persona) is a strategic decision and is not hardwired into Black women’s nature is essential. Assessing harm requires investigating the question of individual and collective responsibility for all social outcomes. A robust. intersectional analysis of harm might rejoin damage. What sister in her right mind is going to share her pain in this context? There’s no guarantee that anyone will care.” fussing about the inner workings of the SBW image can be seen as splitting hairs. In contrast to this focus on the decontextualized. harm. A politics of healing that focuses on individual and collective harm.84 Patricia Hill Collins violence that so denigrates Black women that White men comfortably call us “nappy-headed hos. In essence. yet that also recognizes that many Black women have in fact been damaged by oppression. Harm potentially is a more robust construct that does not stop analysis at simply fixing the damaged victim and then sending her back out into an unchanged world. harm implies an analysis of how Black women’s relationships with all sorts of individuals as well as with social institutions foster growth or damage. and social context. damaged individual. damage will continue to occur to individual Black women until the sources of harm to Black women as a collectivity are identified. and citizenship categories and how social actors who are differentially embedded in these same relations and who engage in such harm are culpable. strength comes from recognizing the nature of the battle itself. because discourses of harm focus on the relationship between those engaging in harmful acts and those who experience them. The focus on harm places constructs such as the SBW in a network of relationships: how racism and sexism harm African American women differently across different social classes. sexualities. including her overworked counselor at her urban public high school or mental health worker at her neighborhood clinic. suggests a different kind of politics. Instead. for example. they suggest different analyses and courses of action. SES . Rather than assuming the battle armor of the SBW image and f lailing away in the darkness at unseen enemies. ages. the earlier discussion of social class and gendered responses to the gaze. it is im like the SBW af depending on th in life (age. One continually chooses and re-chooses how to play the game of being an SBW However.

REFERENCES Collins. and Feminism. New York: The Modern Library. E. Black Sexual Politics is not as a finished recipe that can be followed to achieve freedom. we each must make our own way. . MD 20742-1315 pcollins@socy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. _____ (2005). Black Sexual Politics: African Americans. The Souls of Black Folk. Black Sexual Politics is not designed primarily to be a theory of intersectionality or an analysis of the gaze or even a discussion of healing as a site of politics. Boston: Unwin Hyman. Nationalism. (1990). 1993. Du Bois. For that. _____ (2005). From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism. Black Sexual Politics is a theoretical and political book that aims to equip individuals with the tools to craft individual and collective political solutions to contemporary expressions of oppression.umd. 2006. New York: Routledge. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge. P. B. H. W.Reply to Commentaries 85 rather than assuming that it is a fixed identity or script where the outcome is known at the beginning. Consciousness. and the New Racism. (1903). and the Politics of Empowerment. Gender. Department of Sociology University of Maryland 2112 Art-Sociology Building College Park.