LOVE IN ACTION: LEARNING FROM BELL HOOKS

(ethics.org.au)

Love and Politics

Understanding the relation between love and politics has long been important to me. I have felt that my becoming more awake and self-aware should lead to concrete actions to improve the conditions of those less fortunate. The philosophy of nonviolence is the main direction this interest has taken me, and I have studied Gandhi and King as well as the engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh. What I found in hooks that opened up some new understanding was her connecting the practice of love with political awareness and action. There was a different emphasis in her work than what I found in King; she focused less on strategic action and examined interracial communication more strongly. She widened my understanding of how to put love in action.

There is an important similarity between bell hooks’s orientation and that of Cornel West: the idea that a love ethic is at the very center of politics. They both emphasize that spirituality and politics go together, and that we need to politicize love and spiritualize politics. But their approaches to the relation between the personal and the political have been quite different. Unlike hooks who has carefully examined her own upbringing and psychology, West has chosen not to shine the critical light on himself. This difference helps account for the somewhat different directions that hooks and West have taken in recent years.

While West was making outspoken criticisms of American establishment politics and engaging in public demonstrations and protests against such policies, hooks was turning inward. Maintaining her radical political stance, she wrote and spoke about how honest self-knowledge together with the transformative value of love are the basis for a culture and politics of liberation. This led her to focus on the connections between oppressive structures and the lives of marginalized peoples. Her main efforts toward amelioration centered on the practice of love.

This personal dimension in hooks’s writing and speaking has increased my appreciation of her as a person and thinker. She helps me integrate the two realms often considered as separate and distinct: the private domain and the public realm, and her accomplishment is to do justice to both the structural and personal aspects of white supremacy. Her work inspires me me to look at myself and ask if I am living up to my ideals, acting with integrity and freeing myself from white supremacist thinking. Am I becoming more self-aware and acting more consciously in my interracial communication? Am I building healthy self-esteem so that I will not need to take refuge in feelings of superiority. Am I moving toward greater effectiveness in promoting racial justice?

(frugalbookstore.net)

In All About Love (2000), hooks shows that the choice to love is the most political of actions. In fact, it is only love that makes the overthrow of domination possible. She points out that Martin Luther King identified love as the force that all the great religions have viewed as “the supreme unifying principle of life “ and the path to God and spirit. And she takes up Thomas Merton’s insight that self-transcendence occurs through communion with others and that we reach our full humanity only through love of others. She also connects this great spiritual teaching about love with the political necessities of our time. Love is political because “loving practice is not aimed at simply giving an individual greater life satisfaction; it is extolled as the primary way we end domination and oppression. This important politicization of love is often absent from today’s writing.” Her critique of much spiritual writing on love is that it focuses mostly on individual happiness and largely ignores the importance of practicing love within a community.

Hooks’s distinction between white supremacy and racism also gave me greater insight into the present state of interracial communication. The need for this distinction arose out of her experience with white liberals who opposed racial discrimination and yet whose attitudes and behavior reflected white supremacist ideology. For example, white feminists who desired the participation of black women in the movement nevertheless tried to exercise power and control over these black women. And, although white professors wanted a black person in their department, it was only on the condition that the black person thinks and acts like them.

In hooks’s experience, there were also black people who thought and acted on the basis of white supremacy. They lived according to white standards of conduct and criticized those black people who did not follow such standards. Therefore, she distinguished between white skin with its attendant privileges and the white supremacist forms of thought and action that people of all skin colors partake. “Thinking about white supremacy as the foundation of race and racism is crucial because it allows us to see beyond skin color. It allows us to look at all the myriad ways our daily actions can be imbued by white supremacist thinking no matter our race.”

In trying to understand white supremacy, I ask myself whether racial matters are more important than class or gender in understanding the origin and development of inequality in the United States. For hooks, the various forms of domination are interlocked. Viewed globally, she labels this system of domination “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Therefore, one type of domination is not more fundamental or important than other forms. Together, they all make up the culture of domination, and the relations between the different parts of the system must be exposed and critiqued.

Hooks was also saying that race does not count for everything; therefore, a society will not truly change unless the ways of domination are unlearned in the areas of race, class, gender, and nation. In her view, a fatal flaw of black nationalist thinking is that it accepts patriarchy and advocates a form of social organization in which men and women are separate. In this model, males occupy the leadership roles and protect women and children. Domination is carried out through coercion and control rather than brute force, but it is still domination.

Going Beyond Race

James Baldwin (theatlantic.com)

I have recently read some of bell hooks’s newer works and watched her talks on YouTube in order to understand how her thinking has evolved. Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice (2013), a collection of essays, revealed how far she has come in her attempts to integrate the personal and the political, theory and practice, love and critical thinking. In many ways, it seems that she has arrived at a position similar to that of James Baldwin. She pointed out that many people indulge in blaming their political opponents rather than holding themselves accountable for their own actions. Likewise, many people write and talk about the need to cross boundaries to realize the ideals of freedom and justice but few people practice what they preach. She also points out a very serious omission in the critical theorizing on race and racism: little or no focus on love. Yet, without love, domination will continue.

For me, hooks’s interrogation of the personal and inner dimension is highly relevant. Many writers on spiritual and psychological subjects appear to believe that communication between members of dominant and subordinate groups requires no special attention or awareness. They believe that as long as we treat the other person with love and respect, everything is fine. However, in these types of situations, there is a history of unequal relations, suffering, and misunderstandings. In addition, identities and self-concepts are at stake, and differences in power and position are significant. Consequently, effective and sensitive communication is far from simple and straightforward under such conditions, and much effort, understanding, and will are required to overcome racial, gender, and class barriers that have existed for centuries. Reading hooks is a sobering experience because I am reminded how far I myself have to go in order to cooperate and make friends across group differences, especially those of class, race, and gender.

Hooks asks people to examine their fear of conflict in communicating across boundaries. Since we don’t expect to have conflict free-communication with partners and family members, isn’t it unreasonable to use the threat of conflict as an excuse for avoiding intergroup communication? I definitely have this fear of conflict when communicating across racial and class boundaries, and reading hooks has made me look more closely at its source.

There is a long history of unequal relations between the privileged and the disadvantaged and white people often abused their power. As a result, I feel that members of disadvantaged races have every right to feel suspicious of my attitude and intentions as a white person. And I sometimes lack the faith and confidence that I have the goodwill, understanding,and communication skills to help create a favorable climate for such interracial relations. But if I don’t really believe that I am capable of such action, then how can I successfully move in that direction?

Another reason for hanging back is that the level of uncertainty appears greater in such communication and this leads me to feel anxious. So I may try to avoid this type of communication. There is also the absence of a pressing need to communicate across racial and class boundaries. I tend to live pretty much in a bubble so there is little personal cost if I am unable to establish good relations across group differences. And I may not feel highly motivated to actively engage in communication that seems more risky and difficult.

But I also have even better reasons for not taking the easy way out. By developing the awareness and skills to sensitively engage in intergroup communication, I become the kind of person I want to be. I believe in the value of effective interracial communication and want to contribute to peace and justice. Equally important, I am convinced that my own growth requires that I face risky, uncertain, and difficult situations. And if I judge members of other groups according to images and stereotypes that are not accurate, I am shutting myself off from deep and rich experiences with people different from myself. Intergroup communication is so much more fruitful when I give people a chance rather than relating to them on the basis of old assumptions. As hooks emphasizes, active listening, curiosity, and radical openness toward the Other are crucial.

Hooks is aware of the large gap between the stated ideals of white liberals and their actual record in the area of diversity. Yet, she does not by any means believe the situation is hopeless. She did have the experience of working together with some white feminists who engaged in the true politics of solidarity and were willing to let go of white supremacist attitudes and behavior. They did this through discussions with women of color, reading, and self-inquiry in which they examined their own behavior dispassionately.

In one particular case, a white woman, after engaging in a particularly angry and public argument with hooks, later came to realize how her actions were unconsciously white supremacist. She also began to trust that her black female colleagues were knowledgeable and competent. For hooks herself, it took time to get free from emotions driven by ego so that she could forgive and reconcile. She became mindfully aware that she had the choice to be compassionate and bond across differences or indulge her anger, blame the other person, and end the relationship.

From hooks’s comments about her own feelings toward white people, I realize that even black activists upholding a radical politics are willing to bridge differences and to forgive. But I have to do my part and not be inhibited from engaging with black people with her views. I can’t let the stereotypical image of the angry black person get in the way, and I won’t allow conventional racial imagery to override real-life experiences. It is also important for me to recognize that, as hooks points out, although conflicts do occur, they can be managed. I am working on my fear of confrontations which has influenced my tendency to feel inhibited about communicating with black Americans.

I have already made some progress in one area, that of admitting my own racism. As hooks notes, many white people greatly fear being called a racist by black people. This fear is especially strong if the white person’s self-image is antiracist. But the antidote is to recognize that all Americans regardless of color have been influenced by white supremacist notions, because they have grown up in this society. Instead of trying to deny this reality, I need to be responsible and accountable for my actions now. Am I examining the ways in which my early socialization has led me to think and act in white supremacist ways? Am I choosing to witness my racist attitudes and to not act upon them? Am I willing to speak out when racist comments are made?

A catalyzing experience was watching the documentary The Color of Fear in which one of the white participants, Gordon, in a retreat dealing with race acknowledged that he was a racist, had spent years unlearning racism and was still feeling much pain about the subject. By taking this attitude to heart, I was able to let go of my impulse to deny that I am racist little by little. A positive result is that I am less defensive about the subject and less prone to feel guilty when I slip up. I recognize that I have a choice whether to maintain racist attitudes and behaviors or to unlearn them and give them up. Being raised in a racist society cannot absolve me from taking responsibility for my present-day actions.

There are other indispensable qualities for bonding across boundaries that hooks mentions. Laughter and humor and especially compassion can help us get through conflicts where we tend to be so serious and judgmental. We need to laugh at our mistakes and be compassionate toward ourselves. No matter how hard we try, we sometimes think and say and act inappropriately and fall back into the racist or sexist patterns that we have spent much of our lives trying to let go of. If we are compassionate and forgiving toward ourselves in these instances, we can also be compassionate and forgiving toward others when they fall short of their ideals.

My encounter with Writing Beyond Race has also reinforced my understanding of issues connected with race. Many white people have denied that race matters in American society. Although these whites rightly point out that only a relatively small percentage of Americans are blatantly racist, they fail to recognize the existence of structural racism and white supremacy as well as unconscious racism. So their claims that America is a colorblind society ring hollow to me. White Americans must take responsibility for white supremacy and racism rather than blame people of color for having the wrong values. For this reason, white people should become more concerned about race than they are.

Hooks is also telling me that there is another dimension to racial issues. In her personal life, white supremacy and the need to be constantly dealing with race take a large toll. Home is the only place where she is free from race, the only place where she is not reduced to her physical body. The day-to-day reality of coping with race and racism creates unhealthy stress for black folks. But such stress doesn’t come only from dealing with everyday racism, it also comes from the colonization of the mind and imagination in a culture of white supremacy.

As examples of daily encounters with racism, hooks notes that many unenlightened white people, even the most well-meaning ones, will express white supremacist thinking. They have not been educated to think critically about white supremacy and their consumption of mass media leads them to embrace stereotypical and unreflective views of black people. The result is that their behavior causes stress for black people. But hooks also points out that people who are less influenced by mainstream media, and television in particular, do not tend to think according to negative stereotypes.

Hooks protects her emotional well-being by choosing media with great care and vigilance. She also moves beyond race by being very selective about the social space she enters. Since she lives in a community where most people are white, she often isolates herself rather than interacting with people who may not affirm her value as a human being. When she tells white folks about such concerns, they express surprise. But this doesn’t mean that she is claiming the role of victim. Her description of her overall strategy to combat the stress of racism is illuminating. “By creating an environment where systems of domination, in this case white supremacy, do not significantly diminish quality of life or emotional longevity there is no chance that I or other non-white folks who make similar choices will overracialize our existence and fall prey to seeing black folks as always and only victims. Indeed, the primary goal of our critical vigilance is the refusal to be a victim.”

Hooks’s approach to the victim mentality impressed me because she focuses on the way black people give meaning to their experiences rather than only on what is done to black people. At the same time, she doesn’t blame the victim by saying that black people are imagining the slights, insults, insensitivity, and ignorance that they encounter. Her starting point is the ability of our mind to undo the damage to self-esteem caused by white supremacy. She quotes the Dalai Lama about how people may increase their pain and suffering by being too sensitive, by overreacting to minor issues, and by taking things too personally.

In her view, many young black people have low self-esteem and self-destructive habits because they believe that white people are all-powerful and their constant enemy. As a result, they lose their ability to lead a full life. By indulging in the politics of blame and seeing themselves as victims, they give up control over their lives and give themselves over to a racial regime at whose hands they will continue to suffer. She goes on to say that this attitude in which race is viewed as determining one’s life is itself inculcated by the culture of white supremacy. After all, white supremacy is an ideology based on the idea that race makes the person. So when black people think of themselves as being totally limited by their race, they have internalized the message of white supremacy.

One effective way, in hooks’s view, to go beyond an unhealthy focus on race is through spirituality. The freed black slaves had a theology of liberation that taught them to stop identifying solely with their bodies and to stop feeling controlled by circumstances. There is a divine spirit which is stronger than the human will. Through attuning to the divine presence, black people could overcome feelings of hopelessness, but in recent times, their belief in a reality higher than the material plane has weakened, leaving them prey to greater hopelessness and despair. Faith is not an escape from reality but a powerful means of coping with reality. Mindful awareness brings optimism about our own lives as we take control of them. Living the antiracist life for hooks means to set up our lives so that we minimize the damage that racism does to us on the outside and that white supremacy does to us on the inside. A spiritual foundation makes it easier for oppressed peoples to design and take control of their lives.

Returning Home

(youtube.com)

In a 2009 collection of essays, Belonging: A Culture of Place, hooks supplied some of the other pieces that round out her vision of the good life. Since she seemed preeminently a city person, it was an unexpected delight to find out that she celebrates rural communities and nature. In fact, she had decided to move back to the area in the Kentucky hills where she had grown up. In tracing her own journey as a young woman to the urban areas of the West and North, she comments that this uprooting from her origins led to mind-body separation, culture shock, depression, and the loss of soul. She considers the nihilism that Cornel West has identified as the black cultural malaise to be the product of urban life. In her experience, there is a connection between a spiritual outlook and reverence for nature. Some of her ancestors knew that the earth is a guide to the divine spirit and that when we love the earth, then we can love ourselves with greater fullness. In addition, when the earth is sacred to us, we experience our bodies as sacred.

Hooks’s evocation of black community life in the hills taught me much.. As she makes abundantly clear, the reason why she and other black people have hesitated to go back to their native places is the fear of old-style racism. Yet, they are attracted to the rich subcultures in which they grew up and, especially, to the cultures of belonging and community that make up agrarian life. These cultures are based on living in harmony with nature, and it is nature that teaches humans to acknowledge mystery and to recognize limits to their power. Instead of equating self-realization with separation from and power over nature and other humans, people close to the land see themselves as part of nature and community. If nature and the community are not flourishing, the individual cannot flourish. Today, it is clear that the industrial way of life centered in cities is destroying nature and threatening human existence. Paradoxically, then, to have a future requires us to go back to the way of life identified with the “past.”

Hooks’s critiques of capitalism and white supremacy come together as she equates the rural life of the hills with anarchistic freedom and life in the cities with materialism, consumerism, and hierarchy. And yet, city people are always putting down country people as backward and conservative. What the Kentucky hill people want to preserve is the way of life that hooks herself experienced as a child. She describes the strong black men who cared for her as “men who would never think of hurting any little living thing. These black men were gentle and full of hope. They were men who planted, who hunted, who harvested. They shared their bounty.” Hooks goes on to explain how this way of life had nourished black men. “Working the land, nurturing life, caring for crops and animals, had given black men of the past a place to dream and hope beyond race and racism, beyond oppressive and cruel white power.” Such black farmers worked hard but they enjoyed the fruits of their labor. They were self-determining, and hooks compares their proud and unbowed state of mind with the defeated and despairing black men that she has encountered in the industrialized urban areas where money and status are everything.

It is revealing that hooks calls the demoralization that has happened to so many black men “psychic genocide.” By giving precedence to the spiritual plane rather than the material one, she steps outside the capitalist and socialist frameworks of modern life that exalt control over nature and achieving material abundance. In her view, the modern world has not ushered in greater equality and democracy; instead, regimented people have learned to yearn for things rather than beauty. Where there was once an emphasis on love and dignity, now there is a striving for power which produces a culture of domination in which whites are viewed as superior to blacks, men superior to women, and rich superior to poor. The older generations in her family did not have many things but her maternal grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, practiced the art of making quilts. In addition to creating beauty, this work renewed her spirit. “To her, quiltmaking was a spiritual process where one learned surrender. It was a form of meditation where the self was let go.”

One of the first things I want to know is how well women were treated in these rural black communities. Hooks makes the provocative statement that her family’s isolated life in the Kentucky hills was one “where demarcations of race, class, and gender did not matter.” That sounds like utopia indeed. Concretely, she describes her maternal grandmother as unable to read or write and having a deep recognition of beauty. As a woman, she had to attend to the needs of her husband and children, but she used quiltmaking as a way of getting back to herself and finding stillness and patience. Hooks briefly summarizes what her grandmother and other black women of that time and place were like. “These rural black women knew nothing of female passivity. Constantly active, they were workers — black women with sharp tongues, strong arms, heavy hands, with too much labor and too little time.” I was grateful to hooks for bringing to light this hidden history of black rural people and of black women, in particular, which deepened my awareness of this country’s past and of black history.

It was bell hooks’s maternal grandmother whose name she took and whose renegade and untamed spirit she imbibed. Her parents were enamored of the city ways and desired comfort and convenience, so hooks modeled herself after her maternal grandmother whose simple life was attuned to the seasons. When she had to live with her parents in the city, the experience was traumatic. In exchange for the freedom and adventure she had found in the world of nature, she was given the limited, restricted, and dangerous world of the city. “The fearlessness and awe I experienced as a child belonging in nature imbued me with a power and confidence I soon lost in the city where I felt invisible, powerless, and lost.” I can see that bell hooks’s life has been a struggle to recover the state of being that she once had and then lost as a child.

I am not implying that hooks no longer participates in the wider world of the city. But she is centered in the hill country. And although her more recent focus has been on love as resistance to white supremacy and as motivation for seeking justice, she still writes about contemporary media images and the role they play in maintaining white supremacy.

Her take-down of the movie Crash highlights her skill in demolishing exploitative works that pretend to be socially conscious. After quoting Baldwin on sentimentality as the showy display of false and overblown emotion, she strikes the dagger. “Many people see Crash as a film which invokes deep pathos and feelings. Actually, it is a sentimental and melodramatic film in the classic mode of Hollywood.” She has also deconstructs Beyoncé’s media image, claiming that Beyoncé reinforces white standards of beauty. But I would like to know more about the ways in which different black audiences have given meaning to such images. Are Beyoncé’s fans being brainwashed in the rather direct manner that hooks suggests?

Reading and listening to hooks has expanded my vision and helped to remove some of my racial blinders. I have long tried to bring together personal and political, individual and social orientations in a balanced way. The challenge is to understand what people need to do to become truly human and what they need to do together in groups to create a just and peaceful society. Understanding the relationship between individual development and social development is crucial as well. As a white American, there are obvious pitfalls I have had to be aware of. Don’t say that it’s all up to the individual and that regardless of social conditions, everyone is equally capable of realizing their potential or that African-Americans are too hung up on race rather than taking advantage of their opportunities. These are ways of saying that black people in America have caused their own problems and that white people have no role to play in healing racial wounds and in bringing about racial justice.

Having read hooks, I feel a little more comfortable as I try to navigate the racial mine fields. As a radical and uncompromising voice for black liberation who has not been troubled by what white liberals think, hooks is giving it to me straight. Racial injustice is being exposed wherever it lurks. She never tires of saying that white supremacy must go and the cultural politics that promotes white supremacy must go with it. But she doesn’t stop there. There is class and gender inequality as well. Since women and lower-class people are subjected to the same kind of abuses of power as racial minorities, these forms of domination must go. So alliances among racial minorities, lower-class people, and women are required.

What I greatly appreciate about hooks is that her focus has been on gender as much as race; in addition, she has also written a book on class. She has helped to bring intersectionality to the attention of white feminists, and has shown that it is too simple to privilege one form of oppression over other forms because race, sex, and class oppression are interrelated. Feminism cannot simply see all men as the enemy. Nor can it be defined as seeking equality with men. This latter definition reflects the interests of white middle-class women who seek parity with privileged men but it has much less meaning for poor women, often black, who recognize that men of their race and class also suffer domination. “By repudiating the popular notion that the focus of feminist movement should be social equality of the sexes and emphasizing eradicating the cultural basis of group oppression, our own analysis would require an exploration of all women’s political reality. This would mean that an analysis of race and class oppression would be recognized as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexism.”

Hooks also helps me to avoid a trap that I can easily fall into: white liberals know what is best for black people and black people are not capable of taking their destiny into their own hands. This is the trap of paternalism where whites who appear to exude goodwill are treating black people as dependent and powerless. She reminds me of how much black people are doing and can do for their own empowerment while engaged in social and political action: assert agency, don’t be a victim, create communities, take solace in nature, don’t buy into negative stereotypes spread by the dominant culture, and maintain integrity.

In hooks, I found a writer who speaks her mind without first checking to see whether powerful people and groups might be offended. Not hesitating to speak out on the issues of the time in a forthright and uncompromising manner, her stance is that of a revolutionary. But it is a revolution based on love of all people, not hatred, blame, and resentment, as she emphasizes the role of self-transformation that makes us capable of experiencing the love that ends domination. Love is at the root of all effective social action.

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Bill Kelly

Bill Kelly

Born 1945 New York City. Advanced degrees: philosophy and communication studies. Lived in Japan 19 years. Taught at UCLA and live north of Los Angeles.