Black American cultural theorist bell hooks’ distinguished contribution to sociology has been to unearth the intersecting issues of cultural difference, race and knowledge within feminism. Starting out as a literature professor, hooks would go on to challenge cultural studies in the early 1980s with books such as Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. Her work shows how women of colour have been marginalised by power structures in society as well as by White feminists who purport to speak about the universal struggle of all women. hooks argued that mainstream feminism silences experiences of race, ethnicity and class.
For the past three decades, hooks has explored the representation of race in popular culture, and how this affects social relations and public education. In the seminal Cultural Transformation video series, from 1997, bell hooks explains the importance of critical thinking for women in general, as well as for racial justice. Her work has been adopted by feminists and cultural theorists around the world. Let’s take a look back at this work and its prevailing resonance two decades later.
Critical thinking and pedagogy
hooks talks about popular culture as a site for pedagogy – this term describes an iterative relationship of learning from student to teacher and vice versa. She discusses how students she taught in White, privileged schools feel a sense of entitlement about their future in a way that people of colour students in poorly funded schools do not imagine for themselves. hooks’ students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have jobs, children and other responsibilities that shape their expectation of the future. It is not that hooks’ students from Harlem were any less brilliant, the issue is that they exist in a reality where the education system only deemed to provide them with the basic “tools” to get a job, rather than to enhance their lives in a more profound way.
hooks notes that critical thinking can enhance not just these students whose choices are constrained. Critical thinking is just as important for them as it is for middle and upper class people who are materially privileged, but who are experiencing a personal crisis. Critical thinking is about having the language and frames of reference to examine one’s life in-depth, as well as the world around us, so we can ask questions about the things we take for granted.
Critical thinking about sexism and racism
hooks’ work helps audiences to reconsider why stories are told from specific points of view that marginalise people of colour and White women, and she raises questions about how the logic of inequality becomes normalised in films and music. Why is it okay to watch movies and expect women to be raped and killed as part of the narrative arc? Why do sexually desirable women in Hollywood so often get cast in the role of sex worker who gets abused? Why are women characters denied a complex personal journey?
Women often have limited dialogue in the full scheme of the story. Men get to be heroes with interesting tales, even when their characters are despicable drunks. While hooks was speaking in the late 1990s, the picture hasn’t changed much since. Today, women make up only one-third of speaking roles in global movies.
Why does Hollywood tell stories the way they do, with racism and racist sexism at the core? Why cast a Black kid in the role of a thief? Why is it James Earl Jones who voices the villain in Star Wars—who decides that a deep Black male voice represents evil? Why was Spike Lee seen as a “failure” in Hollywood at the peak of his career? Does an increased consumption of “Black culture” by White, privileged youth help eliminate social inequality, or is “Blackness” simply a commodity?
These questions may seem familiar to students of sociology, but they are not straightforward. hooks argues that it is possible to enjoy big release movies and yet ask questions and problematise what we see on-screen.
- Why was this story told this way?
- Whose voice is being heard?
- Who is being silenced?
hooks discusses examples from the 1990s, such as the spectacle of race, gender and crime in the way news is reported. hooks uses the O.J. Simpson trial as an example, but in Australia we can see this in the lack of interest in Aboriginal women’s deaths, scaremongering over Sudanese-Australians and how migrant-Australian youth are alienated versus the media’s irreverant treatment of White Australians.
hooks also explores whether mainstream music can be thought of as evidence of sexual liberation when it remains sexist and racist (such as Madonna’s sexual exploitation of Black men), and whether rap culture can be thought as “authentic” when lucrative rap producers are “pushing a product.” That is, popular music pursues wealth via images and language that position abuse as erotic. hooks argues much of popular rap music perpetuates a “colour caste system” within Black culture, by elevating the status of lighter-skinned, straight-haired Black women over those with darker skin (for a more recent example, see Straight Outta Compton).
When Black women publicly question this racist and sexist logic, they are denied professional opportunities, even after an Oscar win. While women make up only 7% of the world’s directors, most of them are from majority ethnic and racial groups. When White women directors have an opportunity to tell stories, they often ignore, whitewash and romanticise the intersections of gender and racial inequality.
Critical thinking as radical intervention
Finally, hooks argues that despite an increasing focus on visual forms of communication, reading and writing are incredibly important to critical thinking. hooks says that the books she has read have been at the heart of “major radical interventions” in her personal life. The written word complements visual representations, as hooks reminds us:
We cannot over-value enough the importance of literacy to a culture that is deeply visual. I mean rather than seeing literacy and the visual and our pleasure in the visual as oppositional to one another, I think we have to see them as compatible with one another. I don’t think we will get much further in terms of decolonising our minds. So that we can both resist certain kinds of conservatising representation and at the same time create new and exciting representations.
I couldn’t agree more. bell hook’s Margin to Centre had a major impact on me as a junior scholar (and to this day) as well as her work on cultural appropriation.
Read the Cultural Transformation series the PDF transcript to help you digest the wealth of ideas.
Note: This post was first published on my Tumblr.