5.10.2004

pat hill-collins: not that great.

so last thursday, instead of watching friends live with 52 million of my closest friends, i attended a lecture given by patricia hill-collins at school. for those of you who are unfamiliar, pat hill-collins wrote what is widely considered a seminal work in sociology circles called "Black Feminist Thought". from what i can tell, it is the most complete examination of how traditional feminist theories are completely grounded in white middle class culture and exclude women of color and other groups who might be affected by the oppression of women. it's a good read if you have the time, but on the other hands, i've read much better and interesting sociology books. in any case, she's a bona fide academic celebrity, so i wanted to go and see all what the fuss was about.

in any case, she was here to talk about her latest book, "Black Sexual Politics". the crux of her argument is that the representation and the constitution of black people in american society is inextricably tied to the image of the black person as a sexual deviant, which in turn, is tied to class. i won't go into the specifics of her argument, but i do have some general thoughts about the talk and on pat hill collins in general.

1. while it was a fairly good talk, it was a done on a rather elementary level. i guess that she had more undergrads in mind than grad students when she prepared this lecture. on the one hand, she is a funny person and a very engaging speaker. no monotone, no reading from a prepared essay, she even had a powerpoint presentation. on the other hand, she spent a great deal of time talking to us like we knew very little about race. one of her points was about the new racism, and she spent a great deal of time on it. perhaps i'm just a snob, but i think that it's a concept that most people who would want to go see pat hill-collins in the first place would know, so it almost seemed condescending that she would hold our hand through some basic stuff like that. i guess it's not a big deal and you never know what your audience is going to already know, but i found myself tuning out a little bit during this portion. (on another note, not that she was claiming credit for the concept of new racism, but how "new" is the new racism. balibar wrote about it in the nineties and william julius wilson, cornel west, et. al have been writing about it their whole academic lives. shouldn't we stop calling it "new"?)

2. she had some good points about how the archetypical characterizations of black people all revolve around some aspect of overt sexuality or undersexuality. the undersexuality is not something that i've thought of before, but her examples of the mammy or the sissy all make sense to me. however, overall, i'm still waiting for her to tell me something i don't know. the sexualization of black people i think is also something that has been thoroughly examined and studied.

3. she spent almost no time on what i was wanting to hear the most about, the link between these sexual identities and class. here, i understood her basic argument to be, lower class = over sexual, middle class = undersexual. of course, i think that this is somewhat problematic, since in this case, i really do think that race trumps class here, that for the most part, all black people will be represented or characterized by oversexuality. one of her examples were sports figures, particularly in her assertion that these characterizations emphasize hyperheterosexuality. i feel that often times, sports does the exact opposite in underscoring homoerotic themes, providing men an outlet to have emotions and desire for male bodies in a way that isn't overtly gay. anyways, mike tyson was one of her examples of how lower class black males = rapist. i asked her if kobe complicates this classification system since kobe represents a more middle class black male, and she basically didn't answer my question.

4. the worst part of the night was her "what do we do with this?" part of the talk. it came off as a pep talk to high school kids to go out and don't accept these characterizations. at the beginning she also stated that one of the main ways this ideology is reproduced is through the mass media, so i guess i should have known that i wouldn't agree with her since i almost wholly reject this argument. anyways, she came off sounding very naive and utopian, things that i generally hate (and envy) in people. at one point she said something to the effect of resisting these things by rejecting the mass media characterizations so that media corporations couldn't make money off of it. i muttered under my breath "heh-heh...too late...they've already co-opted both sides here".

5. she said that tiger woods was half white, at which point i turned to my asian friend helene sitting next to me and said, "ding...he's half thai." the crazy thing is that she probably could have made a better point with this argument since she was using tiger woods as an exemplar of the middle class black person, since asians are seen as the model minority who have been successful in assimilating.

overall, like i said, it was a decent talk. i probably should read her book to find out exactly what she means when she says that these sexual identities are tied to class. however, she also could have just as easily told me in her lecture. the point is academic celebrities are just like their hollywood counterparts. sometimes, its better that they remain separated from us adoring fans, since almost anything they do or say will end up disappointing us.

up next, the one you all been waiting for, what do i think about ross and rachel finally getting together.

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