Thursday, January 29, 2009
Attending a recent conference on cultural studies, I was reminded of the way in which the discourse of race is increasingly divorced from any recognition of the politics of racism.
I was there because I was confident that I would be in the company of like-minded, progressive, "aware" intellectuals; instead, I was disturbed when the usual arrangements of white supremacist hierarchy were mirrored in terms of who was speaking, of how bodies were arranged on stage, of who was in the audience, of what voices were deemed worthy to speak and be heard. As the conference progressed I began to feel afraid.
If progressive people, most of whom were white, could so blindly reproduce a version of the status quo and not "see" it, the thought of how racial politics would be played "outside" this arena was horrifying. That feeling of terror that I had known so intimately in my childhood surfaced.
Without ever considering whether the audience was able to shift from the prevailing standpoint and hear another perspective, I talked openly about that sense of terror. Later, I heard stories of white women joking about how ludicrous it was for me (in their eyes I suppose I represent the "bad" tough black woman) to say I felt terrorized. Their inability to conceive that my terror is a response to the legacy of white domination and the contemporary expression of white supremacy is an indication of how little this culture really understands the profound psychological impact of white racist domination.
At this same conference I bonded with a progressive black woman and white man who, like me, were troubled by the extent to which folks chose to ignore the way white supremacy was informing the structure of the conference. Talking with the black woman, I asked her: "What do you do, when you are tired of confronting white racism, tired of the actual day-to-day incidental acts of racial terrorism? I mean, how do you deal with coming home to a white person?"
Laughing, she said, "Oh, you mean when I am suffering from White People Fatigue syndrome. He gets that more than I do."
After we finished our laughter, we talked about the way white people who shift locations, as her companion had done, begin to see the world differently. Understanding how racism works, he can see the way in which whiteness acts to terrorize without seeing himself as bad, or all white people as bad, and black people as good. Repudiating "us and them" dichotomies does not mean that we should never speak of the ways observing the world from the standpoint of "whiteness" may indeed distort perception, and impede understanding of the way racism works both in the larger world as well as the world of intimate relations.
Calling for a shift in locations . . . Gayatri Spivak clarifies the radical possibilities that surface when positionality is problematized, explaining that "what we are asking for is that the hegemonic discourses, the holders of hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their positions and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other."
Generally, the process of repositioning has the power to deconstruct practices of racism and make possible the disassociation of whiteness with terror in the black imagination. A critical intervention, it allows for the recognition that progressive white people who are antiracist might be able to understand the way in which their cultural practices reinscribes white supremacy without promoting paralyzing guilt or denial.
--bell hooks, "Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination"
bell hooks, a widely published cultural critic, educational theorist and professor of English, is renowned for her work on the interlocking, hierarchical dynamics of race, class, gender, and culture. She has taught at the University of Southern California, Oberlin College, Yale University and as Distinguished Professor of English at The City College of New York. hooks has said that her pseudonym is in lower case because "it is the substance of my books, not who is writing them, that is important." bell hooks has published over thirty books, including Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994), Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies (1996), Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000) and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003), and Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem (2004).