Thursday, January 29, 2009

white quotation of the week (bell hooks)

(click for larger image)

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).


  1. Hi there, completely off topic but just wanted to say hello :-)

  2. Does anyone ever feel black people fatigue? I mean would it necessarily be racist to feel that? I work with mainly black people but I'm white and sometimes notice that the way many of my coworkers talk and interact are different from what I'm used to. Everyone's friendly but like I say its different and sometimes I get sick of it and just want to get away and back to what's familiar. But this post makes me think maybe that's allright, I mean if black people can feel white people fatigue and have it be allright then I suppose it's fine for me to talk about having black people fatigue?

    Hi Macon and thanx for your blog, I read it all the time but have never commented before.

  3. hello, i have something to say to anonymous
    i am doing an essay on the series "roots" and as i was searching for information, i saw this, i read parts of it and when i saw "black people fatigue", i flipped out. I'm sorry but you can ofcourse not say that without sounding or being racist. i think that if you would have to deal with the jokes offending you and your family the whole damn day, you would also call your hatred towards them "the white people fatigue", however at the same time, i believe saying that is also quite racist.
    but i dont think you (anonymous) had in mind all those years black people served white people as slaves, when you have a family who has wiped the shoes of the black people, been raped by their "owners", then you can say that you maybe dont sound racist when you say that you feel that you have the "black people fatigue". Im sorry, but that comment just really pissed me off...
    great blog btw..
    bye :)

  4. As a white person born in the early sixties, I grew up watching shows like "All in the Family", "The Jeffersons", "Sampson and Son", etc. where white people were depicted as ignorant, racist, stupid. The white characters that were intelligent were the ones that scolded the other white characters for their racism. (Although in "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times", the white people were pretty much always presented as stupid racists.) As a little girl, I felt like I had to be extra nice to black people to show them that I wasn't racist. I didn't like that they were treated so unfairly. Although I do believe there was a time and a place for these shows, as well as Affirmative action, I am sick of being blamed for all the problems of the black community.I'm tired of hearing racism against whites as well as descrimination in the work place through affirmative action. I as a white person have seen and heard what I considered prejudice against me, but it seems like it's acceptable as long as it is not against a black person. As a nurse, I took care of people of all colors as if they were my own family. My point is, please don't have a double standard. This is 2009. We have a half black/half white president. Enough with using racism as some sort of crutch or weapon against white people, I don't think affirmative action is fair anymore, either. I think it had its day, but no more. We are equals and we should start acting that way. I can tell you "stuff black people do": Call each other the 'N' word. I've seen it on the street and even in the mall while trying to shop w/ my children. I tell my children the "N' word is unacceptable and then they hear black kids calling it to each other. I hope I've shed a little light from a white person's perspective. What about the New Black Panthers bullying white people at the voting polls? How come that wasn't a hot topic? Because it was against white people, not black people. Personally, I'm getting black person fatigue, and it saddens me.

  5. Decaffer28,

    Get off your imagined high horse. "Black People Fatigue"? Really? Are you constantly surrounded by Blacks, their "mainstream normative views", and everything else that's catered to them? Really?

    If you don't think Affirmative Action is fair, stop benefitting from it. Sorry to burst your ignorant bubble, but the group that's most beneficial from it is white women. So, of course, you don't want to give up on something that's made your life easier AS A WOMAN in the workforce!

    Generally, Racism is not a crutch used by people of color. It's a reality that needs discussion, not avoidance to suit your insecurities. Wake up and smell the coffee. Having a black president does not erase the damage caused by racial inequalities in the same manner as having a female Secretary of State won't erase sexism overnight.

    You are old enough to have seen the sixties.

    Grow up!

  6. I just found this blog bc I've been on a bell hooks roll. I didn't even know there was a name for what I've been suffering. WPF, so simple, so accurate. The beauty of privilege is not having to notice it. (Most) white people can not see how white culture and aesthetics "say" things that are not explicitly verbalized. From the selection of speakers to the continental breakfast spread, everything works together to create an overall environment. I know what you mean about feeling terrorized.

  7. I am a student studying in England who feels privileged to have grown up in a community that is of mixed culture and has far less racism than that of the US.
    I am a mixed race female and have rarely come across any racism myself.
    When looking at the comments on here, I find the angry comments sad. I find myself in agreement with decaffer28 who comes across to me as being a nice person and not at all racist but still gets it wrong?
    It is hard to form a united nation when groups continue to segregate themselves and hold on to past events between people who are no longer living, by doing this no-one can truly ‘move on’.

  8. I just had a "discussion" with a white man last night (my husband and I are also white but realize how much we have benefitted from living in a culture that does not punish us for our skin color). As a jew, he was expressing his outrage at how he perceives the African Americans use their history of oppression to "not achieve" when his culture has experienced oppression but has always overcome slavery, annihilation, and general prejudice and achieved despite antisemitism. My husband and I pointed out the very long history of slavery, the hundreds of years of humiliation and family separation that was endured by African Americans, as well as the very obvious handicap of having physical characteristics that make it impossible for a person with dark skin to "pass" as white. He remained unconvinced and cited Asian peoples as having overcome discrimination (I know it's a joke), etc.

    Anyway, is there anyone out there who can lend me some kind of story or ironclad point of view to convince this educated (PhD) man to drop his misguided anger at African Americans??? I know it's a strange request, but this man is convinceable, and I have personally exhausted all of my stories and arguments with him.


  9. willing,

    The best source of that sort that I've encountered is Karen Brodkin's book How Jews Became White Folks. It's an anthropological approach to white Jewish success in the U.S., but it's very accessible, and full of her own personal history, and if I remember right, she addresses exactly the kind of white Jewish complaint about black Americans that you're talking about. (I excerpted the book in this post: reap the benefits of affirmative action for whites.)

  10. How about this post by abagond? And here's the academic version of the same/similar argument.

  11. Re the linked abagond post: the commenter there named "no slappz" could well be the guy that "willing" was talking to!


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