This book invites readers to re-think disciplinary boundaries by orientating critical psychology to the activism of Black feminist theory and, in particular, to ask critical psychologists to consider the work of Audre Lorde. Lorde never identified herself as a critical psychologist, but she did identify herself as a ‘sister outsider’ who critically examined the notion of being an outsider positioned outside of that represented as legitimate. Lorde was concerned with the ways in which Black women’s psychology is constituted by and through the social contexts they inhabit. Lorde’s critical social theory of ‘outsider’ positions makes her an ideal candidate outside of critical psychology to participate in the critique of the psy-complex,1
and questions the borders that constitute contemporary critiques. In what could be described as one of the most detailed evaluations of Lorde’s contribution to Black feminist thought, Rudolph Byrd states that: ‘Lorde made … a new critical social theory that provides us with the grammar and vocabulary to describe and define difference and the complex nature of oppression’ (Byrd, 2009
There are times in this book when there is very little mention of the term ‘critical psychology’, and this is a challenge to the identity and constitution of critical psychology itself. However, this re-reading of Lorde is absolutely a sustained and rigorous critical analysis of the psychologization of Black women in terms of how social structures produce Black women and what Black women produce. The focus is on the ways in which racist, homophobic, patriarchal social structures create racist, homophobic, patriarchal psychic structures (Oliver, 2001
: 34). Furthermore, it is about the production and function of borders.
The activism of Black feminist theory
The term ‘activism of Black feminist theory’ is used throughout this book to emphasize the intersection of ‘activism’ with ‘Black feminist theory’: that is, ‘activism’ or ‘action’ that translates into concrete, tangible outputs that produce outcomes that make a measurable difference to Black women’s lives. Thus, ‘Black feminist theory’ is brought to life and articulated as the thinking upon which the action is contingent. The emphasis on the production and function of action is vital to any approach to forms of critical psychology that analyse the relationship between theory and outcomes. hooks and West point out that:
Theory is inescapable because it is an indispensable weapon in struggle, and it is an indispensable weapon in struggle because it provides certain kinds of understanding, certain kinds of illumination, certain kinds of insights that are requisite if we are to act effectively.
The emphasis on the activism of Black feminist theory is because the process of surviving the daily trauma of being a Black woman in the context of a racist, homophobic patriarchy needs to be understood in the context of Black women’s lives. Lorde explains that:
… survival isn’t theoretical, we live it every day. We live it on the streets, we live it in the banks, we live it with our children.
… those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill.
The work of Lorde has been instrumental in providing ‘certain kinds of understanding, certain kinds of illumination, certain kinds of insights that are requisite if we are to act effectively’ (hooks & West, 1991
: 34–5). Lorde has been positioned as outside of the discipline of critical psychology, and this book seeks to bring the translation and relevance of her work to current emancipatory approaches to practice and experience. In other words, the absence of the activism of Black feminist theory (including the work of Lorde) in critical psychology needs to be questioned. Derek Hook makes a similar point in relation to the relative absence of post-colonial thinking in critical psychology, and the issues and questions that Hook raises are relevant to the position of the activism of Black feminist theory. Speaking of writers such as Fanon, Biko and Bhabha, Hook states:
Each of these above sets of critical formulations provide powerful ways of thinking [about] the conjunction of the psychological and the
political, the affective and the structural, the psychical and the governmental. We have as such a powerfully critical combination of registers that one would take to lie at the centre of critical psychology’s ostensibly critical concerns (Hayes, 1989; Hook, 2004
). Why then have such post- or anti-colonial thinkers not featured more strongly in the conceptual resources of critical social psychology? How might their work, and their characteristic concerns – racism, colonial discourse, cultural dispossession, alterity, psychical mutilation, resistance, etc. – alert us to gaps in the growing orthodoxy of critical psychology? To approach the question from another direction: what might be said to be the ‘critical psychology’ of these theorists, and particularly of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko? How might their use of the register of the psychological within the political and their concerns with the cultural dynamics of colonisation alert us to the possibilities of psychology as a vocabulary of resistance? Furthermore, what does each of these critics have to tell us about the crowning problematic of the colonial and postcolonial condition, namely that of racism, a phenomena that seems as political as it does psychical in nature?
(Hook, 2005: n.p.; refer to original source for details of citations within extract)
This book identifies and seeks to address the gap of the activism of Black feminist theory in the ‘growing orthodoxy of critical psychology’ not merely to fill the gap with something that is sorely missing, but to raise questions about the gap itself. Indeed, critical psychology should be alert to, and suspicious of, any orthodoxy (in any stage of its growth) because, otherwise, it will fall foul of the problematic doctrinal constructions and diagnostic categories that it seeks to contest (Henwood et al., 1998
). In another direction, the ‘critical psychology’ of the activism of Black feminist theory, and particularly of Lorde, uses the register of the psychological within the political that provides a language, model and practice of resistance. It could be argued that this is actually the reason for the gap; one has to wonder why such vital registers, scholarship and examples of political activism are not explicitly named at the heart of critical psychology. Sara Ahmed takes up this issue in the following way:
I would argue that the question we need to ask is not, “should feminism use theory?”, as feminism (as with any other political discourse) always does use theory: it is always going to involve ways of ordering the world. For me, the question is rather: “is this theoretical framework explicit or not?” Feminism needs to make explicit its theoretical frameworks and it needs to do so precisely in order to re-conceptualise the relation between theory and practice.
It could be argued that the constitution and impact of the teaching, debates, seminars, conferences and scholarship of critical psychology would be very different if they were built on an explicit foundation of the activism of Black feminist theory. Critical psychology would do well to remember that ‘[s]ocial theory in particular can serve to reproduce existing power relations or to foster social and economic justice’ (Collins, 1998
: xi). The tools we use, why and how we use them, what we leave out and what we include, and the connections we make between tools, reflect power relations. The point is that any hope of meaningful alliances within and outside of critical psychology to combat the psychologization of Black women will fail if Black feminist interventions, wisdom and experience continue to be marginalized. Furthermore, they will fail if any element in those alliances replicates the unequal power relations at work in the psy-complex through hegemonic thinking and positioning in those alliances, thereby replicating the very problem they seek to address.
What is critical psychology?
The structure of this book uses a re-reading of Lorde in order to examine how the activism of Black feminist theory is both effective in challenging the tactics of a racist, homophobic patriarchy and, potentially, in danger of falling foul of the very tactics it is challenging. The significance of these insights is relevant to the activism of all liberation theories, including critical psychology. Before proceeding any further, it is perhaps important to say something about what critical psychology is. Ian Parker (1999)
offers four characteristics that distinguish ‘critical’ psychology from ‘mainstream’ psychology, or to put it another way, four characteristics that form the nucleus of the ‘critical’ and why the ‘critical’ goes way beyond the verb to ‘criticize’. Parker’s (1999
: 13–15) summary is as follows:
Critical psychology here is therefore, first of all,
the systematic examination of how some varieties of psychological action and experience are privileged over others, how dominant accounts of ‘psychology’ operate ideologically and in the service of power.
(p. 13; italics in original)
Second, then, critical psychology is,
the study of the ways in which all varieties of psychology are culturally historically constructed, and how alternative varieties of psychology may confirm or resist ideological assumptions in mainstream models.
(p. 13; italics in original)
Third, then, critical psychology is,
the study of forms of surveillance and self-regulation in everyday life and the ways in which psychological culture operates beyond the boundaries of academic and professional practice.
(p. 14; italics in original)
Fourth, then, critical psychology is,
the exploration of the way everyday ‘ordinary psychology’ structures academic and professional work in psychology and how everyday activities might provide the basis for resistance to contemporary disciplinary practices.
(p. 15; italics in original)
Bringing the activism of Black feminist theory to this summary of critical psychology might provoke the following questions: ‘First, what does Black feminist thought confront as
critical social theory? […] Second, what issues does Black feminist thought raise for
critical social theory? […] Finally, what contributions can Black feminist thought make to
critical social theory?’ (Collins, 1998
: xvii–xviii; emphasis in original). Thus, in relation to key elements highlighted by Parker’s summary of critical psychology above, the activism of Black feminist theory responds to the questions raised by Collins by:
- confronting the workings of dominant ideology assumptions in the service of power, surveillance and self-regulation;
- raising the need to examine oppressive constructs as products of social, historical and cultural spaces;
- contributing models of resistance to contemporary disciplinary practices.
This book takes what may, at first, seem like an unusual and surprising step across the disciplinary boundary of psychology to Lorde’s political essays and speeches. Yet, the activism of Black feminist theory is concerned with issues that are central to psychology: issues such as identity, alienation, trauma, loss, the relationship between the internal and external world, and the position and constitution of the individual within relationships, the family, community and society. Furthermore, the activism of Black feminist theory tackles issues that are central to critical psychology, such as individualism, essentialism and normalization.
The psychologization of Black women
The activism of Black feminist theory questions ideological representations of the individual as separated from social relationships. Furthermore, the activism of Black feminist theory questions forms of thinking and practices that represent and diagnose social change as a form of deviance. Indeed, it could be argued that the systematic suppression of the activism of Black feminist theory, and of the women who speak and write this theory, is precisely because they are seen as a form of deviance. However, it is precisely this situation of suppression that gave birth to, and continues to sustain, the activism of Black feminist theory, and it is precisely this situation of suppression that the activism of Black feminist theory confronts. The point is that the relationship between theory and context is crucial because:
Social theory is a body of knowledge and a set of institutional practices that actively grapple with the central questions facing a group of people in a specific political, social, and historic context. Instead of circulating exclusively as a body of decontextualized ideas among privileged intellectuals, social theory emerges from, is legitimated by, and reflects the concerns of actual groups of people in particular institutional settings. This definition creates space for all types of groups to participate in theorizing about social issues. Moreover, it suggests that differences in perspective about social issues will reflect differen...