This week, Ms. Magazine celebrated the life of feminist theorist bell hooks. All week-long on their website, writers reflected on the imprint hooks’ legacy left on their lives. I discovered the fab fierce icon in college as a cultural anthropology major. Her groundbreaking discourse on the intersectionality of race, class and gender has impacted numerous women.
A professor of English, culture, feminist politics and race, Dr. bell hooks has taught at colleges and universities including Yale University, Oberlin College, the University of Southern California and the City University of New York. Currently, she’s Distinguished Professor in Residence, Appalachian Studies, Berea College in Kentucky. A post-modern social critic and author of over 30 books, she chose her pseudonym “bell hooks,” an amalgam of her mother’s and grandmother’s names. She kept her moniker lower-cased, wanting the focus of her work to be on the “substance of books, not who I am.”
Her book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics provides an introduction to feminism. She wrote that “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Rather than exploring what a feminist is or isn’t, hooks preferred to focus on combating oppression. She intended to be as inclusive as possible, not wanting to alienate men. As I often write, so many young women don’t consider themselves feminists, cringing at the term, despite their feminist ideals and advocating for issues like reproductive rights or equal pay. In a recent interview with Essence magazine, when asked about the women’s movement, hooks said,
“I think the Women’s movement has had a major impact on everybody’s lives in our nation and in the world as a whole. When people ask where is the movement today, it is in everybody’s life, happening in ways that people may not see as the movement. Whenever women struggle with breast cancer and face better care than ever, that’s feminism. I see the movement every day in all of our lives and in so many things that people take for granted.”
hooks is right; our sisters and mothers before us struggled for our gains. While feminism has become embedded in our daily lives, we still have far to go. In her iconic book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, hooks analyzed the lives of black women in society. She reveals how the women’s movement was an upper-class white movement and left out the needs of poor women and women of color. Reading Ms. Magazine’s articles on hooks made me ponder my own thoughts on gender and race.
When not blogging my little heart out, I work full-time at a women’s research center at a university. My co-worker (an African-American woman) and I (a white woman) often discuss race relations. My co-worker code-switches at work, using “proper” English which deviates from her vernacular outside of work. It’s sort of akin to me not dropping F-bombs and uttering “Jesus fucking Christ” at work (thank you working class Catholic upbringing!). She shared with me that she continually watches what she says so as not to invoke the ubiquitous “angry black woman” stereotype from others. I told her how when I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a black woman. I spent my childhood idolizing Tina Turner and watching a PBS show every Sunday morning which featured black women discussing political and social issues. I admired the strength and intelligence I saw in those women, oblivious to the racism they inevitably faced. My co-worker divulged her own experiences with racism: being followed in clothing stores, friends whose trunks have been illegally searched by police, having white people automatically jump to the conclusion that a loved one in the hospital must have been a victim of gang violence. Through our conversations, I’ve come to view race in a different way. I had always thought about it from the standpoint of equality, that we needed laws that protected equal opportunity. But of course racism, just like sexism, runs much deeper, entrenched in mass media and our cultural institutions.
As a white woman, I don’t have to think about race on a personal basis, only experiencing it through books I’ve read and films I’ve watched. I will never know what it feels like to walk into a store and be followed due to my race or to not get a job because of my ethnic-sounding name. Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, wrote an eye-opening article on race called Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. It’s a must-read in understanding “white privilege” and the daily prejudices people of color can face. As a woman, I certainly have experienced sexism. For black women, Latinas, Arab-Americans and other women of color, they must continually contend with overlapping layers of gender and racial discrimination.
In Essence magazine’s interview, hooks discusses the importance of pride and confidence for black women, calling for a “revolution…of self-esteem.” In Ain’t I a Woman, she wrote,
“No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women… When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.”
In our politically-correct culture, our prejudices may have become less overt. Yet they remain potent. We need to engage in dialogue, bringing our biases to the surface and exposing them. Hopefully, we can then move forward to help alleviate racism. bell hooks teaches us that we must think critically about the world around us. The beauty of her words is that she voices what so many of us, white women and women of color, yearn for…the transformative power to accept and love ourselves.