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Position Statement on the Matrix of Domination

April 11, 2009

For Immediate Release [first published on April 11, 2009]

The League to Fight Neurelitism, a public sociology and an advocacy journalism project, promotes the consistent application of United Nations values on human rights and social justice to all autistics.

Patricia Hill Collins is the first centenary (2009) president of the American Sociological Association and the first African American woman to occupy that distinguished office. As Professor of Sociology at Johnson County Community College, I have used her reader, jointly edited with Margaret L. Anderson, for sixteen years. Collins’ concept of a matrix of domination or intersectionality, discussed in the introduction to the reader, is elaborated upon below:

Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed….

Although most individuals have little difficulty identifying their own victimization within some major system of oppression–whether it be by race, social class, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or gender–they typically fail to see how their thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination. In essence, each group identifies the oppression with which it feels most comfortable as being fundamental and classifies all others as being of lesser importance. Oppression is filled with such contradictions because these approaches fail to recognize that a matrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors. Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lives.

According to Collins’ relational model, in approaching the matrix of domination, with its intersecting paths of oppressing and oppressed statuses, individuals should utilize a process she terms, shifting the center of one’s thinking. Here, the observer would determine the dominated or oppressed statuses in any given situation and attempt to view it from the point of view of the oppressed. Doing so would result, not only in an understanding of oppressed statuses, but of oppressor statuses, as well.

Collins’ critical theoretical framework presents a thoroughly sociological perspective on oppression. By emphasizing statuses or positions, rather than individuals, she allows for the possibility that a person acting as an oppressor in one situation might hold an oppressed status in another. One might, hypothetically, imagine certain women, sexually harrassed in their workplace, who then return home and oppose the construction of a minority housing project in their neighborhood.

Shifting the center is not exactly the same as sociologist Max Weber’s concept of Verstehen (literally, German for understanding). In Verstehen, the researcher attempts to examine a given social setting through the eyes of those she is studying. In so doing, the observer allegedly brackets, or sets aside, her own subjectivity from the process of observation.

In shifting the center, one endeavors to view a context of experience through the eyes of those who occupy oppressed statuses. Whether one belongs to that status oneself is irrelevant to the process. Indeed, it is not uncommon for oppressed persons to accept the legitimacy of a worldview which has been constructed for them by their oppressors. This problematic would, from a Marxian standpoint, be designated as a false consciousness.

Collins’ relational model, with its concepts of a matrix of domination and shifting the center of one’s thinking, offers us a useful perspective for autistics involved in activist work. It can encourage a person to reflect on the manners in which each one of us may play the roles of an oppressed person and an oppressor in a diversity of social contexts. After becoming conscious of this matrix of domination, the individual can develop mutually beneficial relationships with persons who, in other situations, experience oppression themselves.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark A. Foster, Ph.D.
Founding Director,
The League to Fight Neurelitism


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