In her 1998 article, renowned sociologist Patricia Hill Collins aimed to delve into ideas of the family and how they are used in political discourse and social organisation in the United States. Her central argument is that mainstream notions of what constitute the ‘traditional family’ and ‘family values’ are used to explain and justify hierarchy and discrimination along gender and racial lines, as well as the construction of the ‘nation’ as a social category. She seeks to identify their common underpinnings in order to broaden our understanding of intersectionality, a relatively new concept at the time.
Patricia Hill Collins is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and former head of the American Sociological Association (ASA).
The power of the concept of family in upholding discriminatory structures rests on a shared assumption that the roles that its members play within it are ‘natural’ and grounded in biological fact. However, Collins contends that it is an ideological construct defined by a set of principles, of which she explores six:
1) Natural hierarchy,
2) The home as a marker of belonging
3) The protection of blood ties
4) The rights and responsibilities of family members
5) The inheritance of socioeconomic status
6) Family planning
Together, these dimensions highlight important links between gender, race, and national identity.
For Collins, the key drivers of the assumption of natural hierarchy is the hierarchical organisation of the family, with the male breadwinner being the source of authority and direction. His wife is expected to defer to that authority and stays at home to care for the children, which both parents exercise control over. One’s position within hierarchies of class, gender, and age is therefore learned through one’s role in the family and equivocated to the family’s role within them. Long-term socialisation makes hierarchy appear organic, and that logic is then extended to other social categories. For example, Black people are analogised to children based on the false notion that they are intellectually underdeveloped compared to white people, and thus naturally ought to defer to white authority. Furthermore, the implicit norm of heterosexuality reinforced by the family structure obscures and delegitimises queer identities.
The home is a concept with various meanings, including the family household and one’s native country. It idealises a private space in which people feel a sense of comfort, familiarity and belonging, and creates a need to delineate such spaces. Race and gender often intersect in the formation of social ‘homes.’ Collins cites the the phenomenon of 'white flight' from neighbourhoods with increasing racial diversity as evidence of the connection of the concept of the home to racial segregation, where non-whites are seen as intruders to a private space. Since women are meant to remain protected and safe at home, men are required to leave the home space to enforce the violence that is an obligatory feature of segregation. The home becomes a space associated with femininity and racial purity through such ideas.
In the United States, family relations are usually defined through genetic transmission, or colloquially: ‘blood ties.’ As race is understood through a familial lens, white supremacy necessitates the maintenance of perceived genetic purity through the restriction of interracial marriage, as this prevents outsiders from gaining membership to the in-group. It also provides an impetus to police the sexual behaviour of women, as they are seen to have the responsibility of keeping the bloodline ‘untainted.’ Similarly, national identity can also rest on the organisation of society along lines of ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ bloodlines, where white people are deemed the most valued population group. Thus, emigrants of colour encounter much difficulty in becoming naturalised citizens regardless of their affinity to the dominant culture or their contribution to the national economy.
Collins draws attention to the specific responsibility that each member of the family has depending on their position within the familial hierarchy, as well as a set of unwritten rights that are accorded to them by virtue of their membership, such as the children’s right to receive parental care and nurture. However, non-members are not endowed with any rights by the family. Therefore, according to the familial conception of race and hierarchy, non-whites do not possess the societal protections that whites have from mistreatment. The experiences of Black women demonstrate where gender and race intersect under this framework. Eligibility rules for Social Security benefits favoured those women living in stable marriages when the rate of poverty and thus divorce and single motherhood were much higher among Black women.
Family wealth is not only an important indicator of social standing, but of economic class, which can be transmitted through generations. Families use the resources that are available to them to maintain or improve their socioeconomic status, and this is often racialised, especially in the United States. Systemic dispossession, relocation of Native Americans and the legacy of slavery and discrimination of African-Americans leave them with far fewer resources to climb up the class ladder. Interestingly, the racialisation of class inheritance extends to working-class families as well. Collins cites the example of majority white trade unions discriminating against black labourers, justifying their actions by claiming that their profession is the only good that they can pass down to their children.
Lastly, the family is deemed to be extremely significant to the project of nation-building in its role as the producer of a nation’s population. The management of family affairs through family planning programs is therefore made a priority in the national agenda. Women’s bodies are thereby closely scrutinised by the state, and this is heightened in systems of racial hierarchy. Collins cites the work of Omi and Winant (1994), who interpreted the return of ‘family values’ rhetoric in conservative political campaigning as an attempt to link national interests to their ideas of what racial and gender hierarchy ought to look like. They also recalled the logic of eugenics, whereby those with undesirable genetic traits behaviour would be sterilized.
Collins’ article sheds light on a crucial social institution that ties together various forms of oppression and urges us to think critically about the thought processes that perpetuate the ordeals of the marginalised. She ends on the observation that movements that seek to subvert oppressive structures without considering the intersectionality of their different forms risk reproducing them within their own communities, and the importance of identifying and reclaiming notions of ‘family’ that serve democratic and emancipatory ends.
Andersen, Margaret L. (1991). Feminism and the American family ideal. Journal of Comparative Family Studies 22(2, 235-46.
Collins, P. H. (1998). It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation. Hypatia, 13(3), 62–82.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. (1994). Racial formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge
Viandito Pasaribu is a final year undergraduate at SOAS in BA Politics & International Relations. He is an Intersections writer as well as a contributor to the SOAS Spirit, an independent student-run newspaper.