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Patricia Hill Collins, “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation.”

February 13, 2013

Patricia Hill Collins, “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation.” In Decentering the Center: Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World, edited by Uma Narayan and Sandra Harding (Indiana University Press, 2000). Pp. 156-176.

A brilliant article which provides insight into HOW gender and race are socially constructed out of dysfunctional definitions of “the family.”

Many of us accept the argument that gender and race are socially constructed categories rather than essential and biological ones.  Patrice Hill Collins explains how such categories are created.  She looks at how idealized and often dysfunctional images of “the family” project a hierarchy that functions in the best interest of all.  It ia said to require a male breadwinner able to protect and maintain other family members, a stay-at-home wife and mother, and obedient children.  In such families the “public” of economics and politics has no impact on the “private” domestic sphere of women and children.  We know that such an ideal was always grossly impossible for many, and today is becoming unrealistic for many more. I didn’t rebel against what my mother taught me about being a woman, but I found it had no survival value for me and my children.

Even worse, we take our imagined image of the family and use it to justify other hierarchies, especially those of gender and race.  We project our family images to picture our nation and use it define policies.  From this false but happy, hierarchical image of the family, it is a small step to accepting the idea that a few white men, with sufficient wealth and power can act to protect and maintain and protect all the national family always acting in our own best interest.  If we protest, we are seen as ungrateful children.  Hill takes us through a series of ways in which her theory reveals the interplay between heirarchical “family values” and alleged national imperatives.  As we follow her examples, we can begin to see why it is so important to many conservative politicians that women and people of color stay in their place and act like the children they claim we are.

Collins is among the leaders who would help us think in new ways about gender and other assumptions that confine us all to dysfunction patterns.  She is African American and her book on African American women’s thought and experience, Black Feminist Thought, was one of the first to explore how experience itself can lead us to the understanding of particular situations in ways that strictly scientific and empirical methods fail to explain adequately.   I still think it was an important book, not only in its content but in its methodology.

Hill’s article appears in a fine  anthology of similar articles entitled Decentering the Center: Philosophy for  a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World, edited by Uma Narayan and Sandra Harding ( Indiana University Press, 2000).  The essays in this book are all part of the larger project of redefining concepts so that we can better understand our diverse, lived realities. Many of them are somewhat theoretical, but not impossibly so. All seek to move beyond provable evidence and relativism to more expansive ways of knowing.

I strongly recommend Hill’s article and the book, Decentering the Center, in which it appears to all seeking ways to move away from ethnocentric, androcentric thinking.

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