Saturday, July 23, 2011

“All the Whites are Racist. All the Men are Sexist”, Part 4: bell hooks and the political ambiguity of being a Black Man or a White Woman in the US


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photograph of bell hooks is from here
From the book Killing Rage, by bell hooks (1995). The opening of the chapter, “Feminism: It's a Black Thing”:

More black men than ever before acknowledge that sexism is a problem in black life. Yet rarely is that acknowledgment linked with progressive political struggle to end sexism, to critique and challenge patriarchy. While these black men can acknowledge that sexism is an issue, they tend to see it as a “natural” response, one that need not be altered. In more recent years some black men link sexist thinking and action to their sense of exploitation by racist exploitation and oppression. Extreme expressions of sexism, misogyny, made visible by overt sexual exploitation of women by men, become in their minds a dysfunctional response to racism rather than a perspective that exists both apart from and in conjunction with racism.

Such thinking enables black males to assume no direct accountability for a politics of sexism that in reality does not have its origin racist aggression. To see sexism as an outcome of racist victimization, is to construct a worldview wherein black males can easily deflect attention away from the power and privileges accorded them by maleness within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, however relative, even as they simultaneously undermine the seriousness sexist exploitation by insisting that the problem is ultimately, and always, only racism. This overlapping of the two systems of domination, in ways that deflect attention away from black male accountability for sexist exploitation of black females, was evoked in a recent interview with black male journalist Nathan McCall, highlighting the publication of his autobiographical work Makes Me Wanna Holler. McCall. McCall comments: “If you hate what's black it doesn't matter if its a man or a woman. And if it's a woman it's even more convenient because women are subjugated. It's understood that the only folks in this world who are at the mercy of black males are black women.” While there are culprits in racist aggression against black males, there are no culprits who subjugate black women in McCall's rhetoric. Female subjugation is presented as “natural,” already in place, not something black men create, only something they exploit.
Lets us consider this passage again, but this time with white women in the place of Black men. What we are looking for are the places of political commonality and structural familiarity.

More white women than ever before acknowledge that racism is a problem in women's lives. Yet rarely is that acknowledgment linked with progressive political struggle to end racism, to critique and challenge white supremacist society. While these white women can acknowledge that racism is an issue, they tend to see it as a “natural” response, one that need not be altered. In more recent years some white women link racist thinking and action to their sense of exploitation by sexist exploitation and oppression. Extreme expressions of racism, anti-Black hate, made visible by overt racial exploitation of Black people by whites, become in their minds a dysfunctional response to sexism rather than a perspective that exists both apart from and in conjunction with sexism.

Such thinking enables white females to assume no direct accountability for a politics of racism that in reality does not have its origin sexist aggression. To see racism as an outcome of sexist victimization, is to construct a worldview wherein white females can easily deflect attention away from the power and privileges accorded them by whiteness within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, however relative, even as they simultaneously undermine the seriousness racist exploitation by insisting that the problem is ultimately, and always, only sexism. This overlapping of the two systems of domination, in ways that deflect attention away from white women's accountability for racist exploitation of black females, [is evoked in this interview with a fictional white female journalist. She comments:] “If you hate what's female it doesn't matter if its a white or black person. And if it's a black person it's even more convenient because black people are subjugated. It's understood that the only folks in this world who are at the mercy of white females are black women.” While there are culprits in sexist aggression against white females, there are no culprits who subjugate black women in the white journalist's rhetoric. Black subjugation is presented as “natural,” already in place, not something white women create, only something they exploit.

bell hooks continues on the subject of black men's refusal to see sexism as a political, not natural, reality:
These assumptions, presented as fact, are dangerous. They belie the reality that white men, and individual men from diverse groups who have access to all the traditional avenues of power and privilege, willingly perpetuate sexism and sexist exploitation of women. … When black men like Nathan McCall acknowledge a structure of sexist exploitation and/or oppression in black life that promotes the systematic abuse of black females, without in any way offering a critique or challenge to that structure, they reinscribe the assumption that sexist brutality cannot be changed or eradicated. This tacit acceptance of a system they acknowledge to be wrong is a form of complicity.

And again, I offer a parallel:
These assumptions, presented as fact, are dangerous. They belie the reality that white men, and individual whites women who have access to all the traditional avenues of power and privilege, willingly perpetuate racism and racist exploitation of women. … When white women like the journalist acknowledge a structure of racist exploitation and/or oppression in women's lives that promotes the systematic abuse of black females, without in any way offering a critique or challenge to that structure, they reinscribe the assumption that racist brutality cannot be changed or eradicated. This tacit acceptance of a system they acknowledge to be wrong is a form of complicity.

As with Black men, the racist-sexist structure is not just reinscribed, but reinforced. For it is not only ideology which is strengthened and maintained, it is abusive and oppressive power acted out against Black women. Black men and white women collaborate against Black women—and all women of color—to try and retain or gain the power and privilege of white men. White women see Black men do this and call it out; they refuse to see white women do it, and don't call it out. And when Black men call out white women's collusion and collaboration with white men, this critique is largely ignored or considered misogynistic.

In her book Killing Rage, in the very next chapter, titled “Revolutionary Feminism”, hooks writes:
Throughout the more than twenty years that I have spent writing feminist theory, I have consistently worked to make a clear distinction between revolutionary feminist politics and the more widely accepted version of feminism that has as its primary agenda achieving for white women of privileged classes social and economic equality with men of their class. In my first book, Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, I suggested the movement of masses of white women, particularly those from privileged-class backgrounds, into the workforce was not sanctioned simply by feminist thinking but by the very white supremacist capitalist patriarchal economic system that movement claimed to want to dismantle.
Indeed. White radical feminists' insistence that patriarchy is woman's only or primary structural political problem conveniently ignores how white middle and upper class women benefit greatly from the White Man's economic system which she, along with men of color, overtly support and tacitly condone. Catchphrases like “It's the patriarchy, stupid” must exist because male supremacy and patriarchal atrocity are never, ever named as such by men as a group. (Never. Ever. You'd think the occasional dude-group would accidentally notice and name it. But no.) So too, white supremacy and white racist atrocity are never, ever named by whites—men or women. In a white-centric/white-dominant political view that ignores whiteness as a form and system of power, white women wish to only be seen as women, equal to all women of color in political power, not stationed, located, positioned above and against women of color, structurally, institutionally, and interpersonally. Rad Fem Hub and most other white feminist groups across four decades in the West, not only resist knowing, but refuse to notice how their unacknowledged whiteness is oppressive power; they resist knowing and refuse to notice how, exactly, that power harms women of color concretely, not at all abstractly or theoretically.

Moving beyond only Black men and Black women, men of color generally won't call their harm to women of color “Racist misogyny”. White women won't call their harm to women of color “Misogynist racism”. Built into the effectively liberal worldviews each allegedly radical group most supports, there can be only one key form of oppression at work: for race-oppressed men it is racism/white supremacy; for , gender-oppressed whites it is misogyny/male supremacy). What we are left with is political vision and practice that only sees the following: all the sufferers of racism are men; and all the sufferers of sexism are white.

Within such a narrow view, radical women of color are either seen by their men as traitors, or by white women as betrayers—or women of color are seen and mistreated, are silenced and marginalised, as both.

Those of us who are committed to the flourishing radical and revolutionary political theory and practice must contend with this ugly truth: until such time that men of color and white women acknowledge the powers they have, structurally, to harm women of color, their belief that their politics are “Radical” is fictitious as it applies to women of color; single-site oppression theory is a flagrant denial of the harm done to women of color on all fronts at once.

Far more often than not, “Radical Ant-Racist” Black men, and “Radical Feminist” white women collaborate with the most powerful and dangerous group on Earth, white men, to systematically and systemically harm and hurt women of color with no radical analytic tools or theory and no radical plan or practice to end racist-misogyny and misogynist racism—or, even, to liberally attempt to do so.

If white women only see the problem as men, not whiteness, and men of color only see the problem as racism, not sexism, we are left with three significant populations of differently empowered people committed to degrading and destroying the lives of women of color: white women, men of color, and white men.

I welcome constructive feedback, questions, and solutions to this glaring problem that white men, men of color, and white women, thus far, will not collectively name or directly address. As you read what follows, please bring to mind the power of white authority and dominance, and the effect of listing primarily, if not only, white women's materials as “important”, at Rad Fem Hub and all white men's, white women's, and men of color's spaces that proclaim to care about radical justice and liberation for all.]

To illuminate the political psychology of all three groups as hooks, with the work of the wonderful white feminist Mab Segrest, understands and describes it, I'll close this post with the last section of “Revolutionary Feminism” in Killing Rage:
[R]evolutionary interdependency is usefully outlined in Mab Segrest's book Memoir of a Race Traitor. She daringly critiques the way an ethic of competition can lead white women to seek the upper hand in all their relations, including those across race. Segrest contends:
As a child of Europeans, a woman whose families have spent many generations on these shores, some of them in relative material privilege, my culture raised me to compete for grades, for jobs, for money, for self-esteem. As my lungs breathed in competition, they breathed out the stale air of individualism, delivering the toxic message: You are on your own. Being “queer” only amplified the problem. Traveling across race and class and cultural boundaries, my ear eventually became attuned to different vibrations so that I began to hear, first as a murmur, then as clearly articulated sound: We … are … in ... this ... together. My lungs relaxed some, my chest gasped the clearer air.
Women and men of all races who are committed to revolutionary feminist movement, who want to end sexism and sexist exploitation and oppression, recognize that we create and sustain the conditions for solidarity and coalition building by vigilantly challenging the ethic of competition, replacing it with a communal ethic of collective benefit. Those white women who write about race in ways that mask the dept to black women and women-of-color thinkers often do so because they are working within structures that affirm competition, that encourage folks to make it appear that their ideas always come from some space of original thought. The ethic of competition does not place value on collaboration or dialectical exchange. It does not create an atmosphere where individuals who have white privilege and authority in relation to the discourse of race and racism can link their work to anti-racist struggle by repudiating the need to erase, render invisible, and/or devalue the work of non-white peers.

Honoring the engagement with black peers that enhanced her capacity to break with white supremacist thinking and fully commit to the anti-racist struggle Segrest shares:
Lenny taught me that fascism was about isolation, about political movements deliberately breaking down the human bonds between people so that they give blind allegiance to a leader or an ideology. Reverend Lee showed me how to go after the lost, to defy the isolation imposed by denial, terror and ideologies of hate. But I was lost myself, and found myself, at least in part, in the acts of searching out others. It made me a different person—but not a better person—than either of my parents. To differentiate myself, I have had to accept the gifts they gave me, which paradoxically, I could not do until I was sure I am my own person. “When people have to choose, they go with their own race,” my mother had said, but she was wrong. It is not a matter of choosing one race or family and betraying one another. The choice is for justice! community! humanity! the glimpse that we are all one organism. …
It is this understanding of revolutionary interdependency that must be shared if we are to reclaim a vision of feminist sisterhood that profoundly acknowledges feminist commitment to anti-racist struggle. Advocates of revolutionary feminist movement are among that group of women and men who do not despair about the capacity of white folks to divest of white supremacy because we have engaged in resistance and seen the reality of solidarity emerge in the context of mutual commitment and struggle. These stories must be told to counter the mounting despair, to counter the claims of white-power feminism. There will be no feminist revolution without an end to racism and white supremacy. When all women and men engaged in feminist struggle understand the interlocking nature of systems of domination, of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, feminist movement will regain its revolutionary progressive momentum.

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