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Patricia Hill Collins, sociologist: ‘Intellectuals have done a good job of saying the world is awful, and young people are dispirited’

The American thinker and academic, winner of this year’s prestigious Berggruen Prize, maintains that the cultural and academic elite must leave their comfort zone and listen to the new generations

Patricia Hill Collins
Sociologist and academic Patricia Hill Collins at the University of Cambridge on November 13.Ione Saizar

Patricia Hill Collins, 75, greatly enjoys interacting with her students at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, where she is spending a few months as a visiting professor. Yet it is plain to see that this Philadelphia-born philosopher, sociologist and activist — who knows that it is in the streets, in the community projects, that consciences are changed and the fight for greater social justice is forged — has not fully adapted to the academic elitism of this British university town. It is a cold and windy day, despite the fact that a radiant sun is extracting the most vivid shades of green from the trees and meadows. Hill Collins allows herself to be photographed. She contributes willingly to this interview. She has just been awarded the prestigious Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture 2023, worth $1 million, which is handed out each year by an independent jury to “an individual whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.”

Black Feminist Thought, which she wrote over 30 years ago, drew from the sources of fiction, poetry, music and storytelling to describe the strength of Black women laboring under the double yoke of gender and race. Today it is essential reading to understand the multiple nuances of feminism, racism and the struggle for freedom.

Question. “What is necessary for Black people to be free?” This has been the basic question you have tried to answer for decades. Are you any closer to achieving it?

Answer. I don’t think I’m closer, but I think I have a much deeper understanding of what it means. Freedom is something you can only imagine. You can approach it, but you’re never going to arrive at it. It is a linear question, which leads you towards the goal you aspire to. What I do is observe everything people do to get closer to that dream. And it is inspiring. Working and speaking with young people, I get a really good sense of their belief in the possibilities that are in front of them.

Q. Your great method of analysis has been intersectionality: recognizing that one perspective is not enough to answer the big questions.

A. Because the question itself is not particular to Black people. It really is a question of broader human fulfillment. And in that sense, part of my job is to criticize what we currently have, and what’s there that needs to change. We have leaders who have failed us; they are not leaders, they are performers. They broker fear, they retard the possibilities for freedom, whether it’s individual freedom, freedom for Black people, or the freedom of humanity to live on this planet. We have to learn to tell the difference between those people who may sound very convincing, but who do not have a commitment to anything bigger than themselves, from the people who really are committed to things that are bigger than themselves.

Q. It is up to us to search for a consensus…

A. It also becomes a question of work organization. Let’s say you’ve got people who are situated in race or in class or in gender, and they’re organizing from that particular perspective, doing intellectual work from that particular perspective. What often happens is, in order to do that they have to ignore the other perspectives, and assume that what they’re doing is the universal answer. I would push back against someone who says it’s all colonialism, it’s all racism. Or the patriarchy. But it is not about saying to people ‘your specialty is wrong,’ but rather to say to them ‘what can we bring from your specialty to the greater questions of social justice, of approaching truth or approaching freedom?’ What is that the ethical core that drives the work that we do? How do we overcome conflict and reach consensus? The challenge lies in creating the intellectual space for those conversations to take place.

Q. What are the big questions of our time?

A. First of all, I would say hope. Many intellectuals have done a very good job of telling people, ‘Oh, the world is so awful, there’s no hope,’ to the point where young people can become very dispirited. I tend to be a pretty hopeful person. Because if I weren’t hopeful, why would I do this work? I have to believe that the work that I do will contribute to something better. I hadn’t realized young people in particular were feeling so nihilistic. Or that their greatest concern would be precisely the second big issue: climate change. I have always worked with young Black people. And I remember the shock I felt a few years ago at a meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, in which an activist who worked on neighborhood projects explained to me how the main problem in her community was that 12 and 14-year-old kids did not see a future for themselves. And I thought, how can you see no future for yourself if you are a child? There’s a way to anchor hope to these bigger issues without it being Pollyanna-ish. It is about understanding that challenges such as climate change will require a collective effort with many actors in many different places. And normally it is the young, or the most downtrodden, who display the greatest energy. We see it in cultural phenomena like the early days of hip hop.

Q. It’s funny, because you first held up hip hop as a vehicle that gave a wrong and hypersensual image of Black women...

A. It started out as something with a patriarchal masculinity, but under the umbrella of hip hop many things began to happen. Among others, women joined in to challenge the way that art form was made. The arts have been the salvation of people. That is why so many young women are so attracted to the world of fashion. It is fascinating. That aesthetic. That way of claiming your own body. This happened in hip hop in terms of ‘I’m claiming my body in a way that may offend you, but it’s my right to do that kind of thing.’

Q. And there arises the conflict with the classic feminists of the old school.

A. Well, classical feminists, ironically, were much more respectful of systems of power than they thought they were. And it’s these young women who say to them, ‘Didn’t you fight for our right to have control over our own bodies, and for this kind of freedom? We can understand that your battle was not about using our bodies so that big companies can get rich. But if we know what we are doing and we are aware of it, why shouldn’t we be able to?’ I admit that one was hard for me. But we must step out of our comfort zone and listen to what young people are telling us about what it means to be young, about the source of power they wield, and about their power to shape a culture.

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