I always disliked standpoint theories. They seemed naïve, as if their proponents thought that subjects who were marginalized in society were by some magical means not produced in and by the power mechanisms of that society.
I’m still not ready to accept standpoint completely, as I think there are a lot of things that operate in ways people aren’t aware of in their quotidian lives—and which cultural common sense works to maintain outside of awareness—but I have at long last found some things to like about standpoint.
For instance, I never knew—and it was interesting and useful to learn—about the concept’s roots in Marxist thought. Though I mistrust what seems like a simple (and indeed I’m tempted to say “simplistic”) flipping of the binary to privilege the downtrodden by arguing that the vision of the proletariat, in looking from “underneath,” can see social structure better than someone “on top,” and would instead like something like the more complex and subtle standpoint articulated by Narayan (2010) and Collins (2010) (see below), I do appreciate the part of this that is a de-centering of those who perceive themselves as the center.
Second, in having learned about standpoint previously in a generalized way without having deep engagement with specific texts (except Collins’ Black Feminist Thought ), until this point I had not appreciated the subtlety of some iterations of standpoint, which I find much more palatable.
That is, if we can, on the model of what the Bad Subjects Collective of whiteness studies fame calls “vulgar multiculturalism” (Hill, 1997; Newitz & Wray, 1997), speak of “vulgar standpoint theory,” it’s that version that gives the whole enterprise a bad rap. Standpoint is often associated with essentialism in this vulgar instantiation—the idea that (insert oppressed group here) has a unique or superior understanding of the world simply due to their essence as members of that category.
Collins (2010) and Narayan (2010), on the other hand, articulate careful, specific descriptions of when and how standpoint works. They refute, first, the contention that the experience of oppression, in itself, is enough to generate critical thought. Narayan (2010, pp. 338-9) explains the idea of standpoint as one in which “the oppressed are seen as having an ‘epistemic advantage’ because they can operate with two sets of practices and in two different contexts. This advantage is thought to lead to critical insights because each framework provides a critical perspective on the other”—and this is a much-needed explanation of how it is that being marginalized can give critical insights on the “center”—but perhaps more importantly for my purposes here she argues that “mere access to two different and incompatible contexts is not a guarantee that a critical stance on the part of an individual will result.” Similarly, Collins (2010, p. 343) points out that being black and female doesn’t automatically produce black feminism.
Narayan, in particular, notes that standpoint has its problems. First, in addition to a critical view being only one possible outcome of experiencing inequality, she notes that it comes at a cost: “the decision to inhabit two contexts critically, although it may lead to an ‘epistemic advantage,’ is likely to exact a certain price. It may lead to a sense of totally lacking roots or any space where one is at home in a relaxed manner” (Narayan, 2010, p. 339).
Second, Narayan (2010, p. 338) recognizes the danger of essentialism in standpoint, arguing that “sympathetic members of a dominant group need not necessarily defer to our views on any particular issue because that may reduce itself to another subtle form of condescension”; in this way, it is clear that standpoint, when it is taken as an indication that only people who have an experience can know about it and having the experience results in automatically knowing about it, can reproduce a variety of the “wise person of color” or “noble savage” discourses which mean well but are just as essentializing and Othering as negative stereotyping.
Relatedly, Narayan (2010, p. 340) calls our attention to the danger of romanticism, arguing that “the thesis that oppression may bestow an epistemic advantage should not tempt us in the direction of idealizing or romanticizing oppression and blind us to its real material and psychic deprivations.
Finally, in addition to disputing these misperceptions about what standpoint is, Collins and Narayan improve upon other articulations of the theory by delineating a means by which quotidian experience can turn into a standpoint.
Collins (2010, p. 343) argues that “the legacy of struggle against racism and sexism is a common thread binding African-American women” such that the experience of encountering these structures on a daily basis provides the ground for being able to see and question them.
Similarly, Narayan (2010, pp. 337-8) explains that “those who actually live the oppressions of class, race, or gender have faced the issues that such oppressions generate in a variety of different situations. The insights and emotional responses generated by these situations are a legacy with which they confront any new issue or situation.”
What both are contending, then, is that if you run into invisible walls enough times you eventually figure out where they are and how to work with and around that constraint, and I do find this a compelling argument. It makes a certain amount of sense that one could learn to navigate the world through standpoint even without necessarily knowing the full extent of the walls and while still being guided by some of them you haven’t run into enough times to see.
Collins, P. H. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Collins, P. H. (2010). Defining Black Feminist Thought. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 341-356). New York: Routledge.
Hill, M. (1997). Introduction: Vipers in Shangri-la Whiteness, Writing, and other Ordinary Terrors. In M. Hill (Ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader (pp. 1-18). New York: NYU Press.
Narayan, U. (2010). The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectoves from a Nonwesterm Feminist. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 332-340). New York: Routledge.
Newitz, A., & Wray, M. (1997). Introduction. In A. Newitz & M. Wray (Eds.), White Trash: Race and Class in America (pp. 1-12). New York: Routledge.