On (re)reading bell hooks

March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been trying, lately, to fill the terrible holes in my knowledge that were left by my degree. I studied political science and international relations at a pretty conservative department. This has given me a strong grounding in stuff like, ‘classical liberal thinkers who happen to be mostly white men (and Mary Wollestonecraft for ‘diversity’) who I find deeply unsatisfying’, and a very poor grounding in more radical theories.

I’ve been reading bell hooks, and Sandra Harding, and anarchafeminist authors, and trying to find theories and frameworks that both mesh with my experiences of the world and challenge me to think more deeply about structures of oppression, and possibilities for liberation.

The problem is, I’m still reading within the framework I’ve been trained in. I was reading bell hooks’ Where we stand: class matters, and taking notes for a paper I’m working on. Then I realised there was a pattern to my note-taking. I was marking, for example, passages like this:

From the onset, there has been a struggle within feminist movement between the reformist model of liberation, which basically demands equal rights for women within the existing class struggle, and more radical and/or revolutionary models, which call for fundamental change in the existing structure so that models of mutuality and equality can replace old paradigms. (101)

Passages that are abstract and theoretical, that I can take and apply neatly to the writing I’m currently doing, bolstering the argument I want to make about the need for something beyond liberal feminism.

At the same time, I caught myself skimming over hooks’ descriptions of her own experiences as a Black woman within the feminist movement. I skipped over her descriptions of having white women talk over her in women’s studies classes or feminist spaces, being patronised, and being shouted over during discussions. I took the parts of her argument that felt like they fit (the need to talk about class, the need to mention race at least in passing, the need to call for more revolutionary forms of feminism) and discarded the parts that didn’t seem relevant (most importantly, hooks’ centering of her experiences as a Black woman as a grounding for her theory).

This is just what I was taught to do at university: to discard the personal in favour of abstract theory, and in particular to marginalise the perspectives of women and people of colour. Of course, this was never done overtly: we would take about race and class, but then get back to reading the works of white men who wrote ‘objectively’, as if their own experiences were irrelevant (and, at the same time, universal).

At times, this tendency towards taking parts of a theory while discarding others has been a form of resistance. In a space where most of the theoretical frameworks I was provided with felt terribly broken, I learned to cobble together the bits and pieces that seemed least broken to try to make something I could live with and use. That strategy has been important to me in the past, and will continue to be when I’m dealing with theory built on the experiences of privileged people. But it’s a form of erasure when it means sidelining racism and other forms of oppression I don’t experience.

It will take work to undo this. It will take work to find theorists who shift me in new directions. It will take work to notice, and undo, habits of reading and writing and research that reinforce the status quo. I’m noticing, more, how often white feminist academic and activist writing seems to mention intersectionality without acknowleding the foundational work by KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, bell hooks, the Combahee River Collective. I’m noting how often white feminists talk about ‘intersectionality’ while continuing to centre the experiences of white, middle-class (or elite) women, sometimes not even mentioning race at all. I am noticing more the ways in which I do this myself.

I am, of course, not the only person noticing these issues. Bell hooks’ writing makes it very clear that she has been seeing this process of erasure for decades; Sirma Bilge has published on the depoliticization of intersectionality; Black, Afroindigenous and women of colour have challenged the ways their theorising and organising are attacked online; and frankly I am probably missing a whole bunch of excellent writing on this topic because I am still working to find it.

This process of realisation I’m going through has happened in large part because of social media. I’m learning from the frequently-unwaged labour referred to in #thistweetcalledmyback, work by women of colour who engage in debates that are often incredibly wearing and destructive for them. And, in writing about this here, I’m hoping to make a small contribution to other people’s (particularly white, university-educated people’s) process of learning also: to notice our research processes, to do better, to try to centre experiences beyond our own.

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