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Why is the Neutral or Objective Observer a Counterpoint to Black Feminist Ethnography?

Ethnography has been instrumental in understanding the culture and behavior of groups of people and their relationships with the rest of society. This is particularly critical for groups that have not received much limelight in a literary sense because they are often hidden from the discourses in mainstream scholarship and society. African Americans have been underrepresented or misrepresented in knowledge creation and academic works because of the biased lenses of classism, sexism, and racism. Black feminism, specifically, depicts experiences of identity, oppression, subjugation, and other social injustices skewed by these lenses, thus excluding black feminists from mainstream feminism. Besides, some contemporary black feminists have not experienced the oppression to that of African American women of the civil rights era.[1] This has undermined the ethnography of black feminism in which the black feminists are excluded from contributing to feminism knowledge in the mainstream scholarly circles. The neutrality and objectivity of a black feminist ethnographer is a disservice to the advancement of black feminism ethnography. This discussion argues that such neutrality and objectivity is a counterpoint to black feminist ethnography and advances why this is so.

The black feminist movement has suffered a double tragedy, which misrepresents their contribution to social justice and equality struggles in the United States. Notably, their race is one disadvantage encountered by black feminists, contributing to their exclusion from mainstream feminism discourse.[2] The main contributors to the feminist movement have been those of the white race. Similarly, the female gender of the black feminists is another drawback that has undermined their contribution to the feminist movement, whose discourses are controlled mainly by the males in contemporary society.[3] These two disadvantages deny black feminists to contribute to their ethnographic studies because they are believed not to be capable of generating knowledge that could contribute to the feminist movement.

Black feminism ethnography is the critical understanding of the cultural phenomenon of black women as a unique segment of American society. Ethnography should advance the knowledge about the lived experiences of black women from an observer’s perspective. In turn, such an observer should depict the cultural experiences of black women as authentically and accurately as possible. However, the argument is that an observer who is neutral or objective is a disservice to black feminist ethnography. In other words, for the true presentation and advancement of black feminist ethnography, the observer needs to be embedded and invested in the black feminism movement rather than detached. The objectification of and detachment from the ethnographic studies of black feminism undermine the representation of the back women experiences and instead presents them using the lenses colored by the white male perspectives of feminism. These arguments can be made from an ethnographic theoretical perspective.

The description of observations of phenomena cannot be neutral or objective. This assertion is particularly applicable in ethnography, in which a scholar explores the cultural phenomenon of black feminism. Observing the evolution of feminism among African Americans requires an in-depth and intimate understanding of and relating to the African American culture and history. Mainstream anthropology advocates methodologies that generate new knowledge related to culture and society. However, there are theoretical and methodological hurdles that a black feminist ethnographer needs to circumvent.

For instance, the traditional theory of property has customarily exalted whiteness through its objectification approach.  According to Harris, whiteness confers property rights that other tangible assets do not possess (Roediger, 2010).[4] In this regard, whiteness is an intangible property that privileges a section of society even when they lack other possessions. Consequently, the prevailing legal regime in the United States has used whiteness to formulate other property rights, regardless of their tangibility or intangibility. This theory can explain the challenges that ethnographic studies on oppressed minority groups encounter. Viewing the knowledge about such groups that is generated using ethnography from a traditional property theory perspective can be problematic and misleading.  It requires that racial identity be objectified, with the observer being detached from influencing the perceptions about property rights that embed and exalt whiteness as being acceptable and legitimate. Eventually, ethnographers cannot accurately engage in black feminism discourse when they cannot trace the racial foundations of blackness in a legal regime that promotes whiteness as property with its own property rights, including the right to exclude others that are not white. Unfortunately, such a perspective dehumanizes the experiences of African American women, who are perceived to lack the rights enjoyed by their white counterparts because of the color of their skin, ancestry, and race.

Similarly, black feminist ethnographers must overcome the temptation to employ positivism in ethnographic scholarship. A positivistic approach to black feminist ethnography requires the researcher to employ scientific descriptions while being detached from the phenomenon being observed. This requirement is critical for the findings of the study to be judged as objective and scientific. In turn, the knowledge generated by a detached or objective ethnographer lacks the contextualization that black feminism deserves. In turn, it is expected that since ethnographic studies are mostly qualitative, the researcher is expected to remain detached to minimize bias and enhance validity. However, this research approach is incompatible with ethnographic studies. In this regard, Collins argues that articulating the black women’s perspective is undermined by the positivist epistemological approach because it employs criteria that devalue the women’s emotional life, objectify them, and displaces their motivations for advancing feminism knowledge.[5] In turn, the researcher using a positivist approach is advised to avoid relating with the phenomenon to guarantee the validity of the findings.  

However, from a realistic standpoint, black feminist ethnography has benefited much from unorthodox knowledge creation approaches, which have challenged the positivist epistemological approach. For instance, knowledge about the oppression endured by black women is lacking in mainstream scholarly work and commonly found in alternative sources, such as everyday behavior and conversations, literature, and music, rather than validates scholarly work.[6] This is because the accepted avenues and approaches of knowledge validation are enshrined in the Eurocentric masculinist process, which advances black feminism through racial and gender lenses. However, the renowned and accomplished black feminist ethnographers have impacted the feminist discourse and knowledge being closely related to their study subjects rather than remaining neutral or detached. They have charted their own feminist discourse without relying on the politically-correct knowledge validation process that engages a community of feminism and ethnography scholarly experts. Consequently, much of the scholarly works about black feminism have been excluded from the mainstream peer-reviewed published literature and have been presented as personal narrations not deserving of being treated as validated knowledge. However, this collection of black feminism knowledge has emerged and become more accepted by the feminist movement because they incorporate authentic experiences of scholars deeply embedded into their subjects’ lived experiences about their oppression as black women.

Consequently, the sharing of the works of such suppressed scholars in higher educational institutions and research communities has evoked the sharing of experiences, generating new perspectives about black feminism. Such sharing and mutual experiences have overturned the longstanding pedagogical approaches in women oppression studies, which relied heavily on the unidirectional teacher-student relationship.[7] Besides, not all black feminist ethnographers have been oppressed. Nonetheless, the black feminists that have not endured extreme oppression also have a valid perspective about how racial and gender conceptualization influence the feminist perspective. For instance, Hurston did not experience oppression despite being conscious about her race and gender and living in a discriminatory environment.[8] Nonetheless, her insights on black feminism are neither neutral nor objective and constitute valuable scholarly work that should be shared in higher education institutions because they may resonate with some scholars that have also not experienced oppression despite their racial and gender identities.   

In conclusion, black feminist ethnography cannot be advanced sufficiently by neutral or objective observers. Such observers cannot generate black feminist knowledge without being immersed in the black women’s communities and lives, and sharing their lived experiences. For this reason, the most influential black ethnic ethnographers are not whites but rather women of color who have taken up the task of recording the lived experiences of black women and used their scholarly feminism knowledge to give meaning and advance black feminism. In turn, to be a neutral and objective observer in the ethnography studies is to counterpoint black feminist ethnography by denying the collection of feminist knowledge the insights from immersed researchers. 


Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 1990.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum Publishing Company, 1993.

Hurston, Zora Neale. How it feels to be colored me. Carlisle, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2015.

Johnson, Amanda Walker. “Resituating the crossroads: Theoretical innovations in black feminist ethnography.” Souls 19, no. 4 (2017): 401-415.

Roediger, David R. Black on white: Black writers on what it means to be white. Schocken, 2010.

[1] Amanda Walker Johnson. “Resituating the crossroads: Theoretical innovations in black feminist ethnography.” Souls 19, no. 4 (2017): 401-415.

[2] Patricia Hill Collins. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 1990.

[3] Patricia Hill Collins. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 1990.

[4] David R. Roediger. Black on white: Black writers on what it means to be white. Schocken, 2010.

[5] Patricia Hill Collins. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 1990.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum Publishing Company, 1993.

[8] Zora Neale Hurston. How it feels to be colored me. Carlisle, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2015.

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