Summer Reading: bell hooks

I picked up hooks’ Feminist Theory from Margin to Center a few weeks ago and found it to be wildly different than what I expected. Instead of dense philosophizing and academic jargon, I found crystal clear prose, sentences pleasurable in their simplicity and effect. hooks writes beautifully, but her style is in service of her argument. The medicine goes down smooth.

The medicine being, mainstream feminism 1) has been defined by rich white women who fail to represent all women and 2) traffics in the same shoddy values of a capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist society. That first critique I knew good and well; the second was revelatory.

For hooks, feminism is not about socially equalizing men and women. That idea rests on a flawed premise that all men are equal and all women are equal. Instead, hooks wants feminism to end sexist oppression, which requires the end of all group oppression. This means a few things. First, feminism must actively fight racism, class-domination, heteronormativity, ableism, and so on. And second, feminism must establish a set of values that no longer affirms a “politic of domination.” Female separatism and men-hating — like misogyny— only further the skewed values of individualism, competition, and domination that abound in our society. The point is not for women to start dominating men, or for people of color to start dominating white people. The point is to create an entirely new set of values in which domination no longer exists, replaced by collectivism, compassion, love, and non-violence.

I never unpacked my views of anti-racist or anti-sexist movement building enough to see the distinct line between establishing new values and trading in the same politic of domination of old. The point is not for women and people of color to climb the corporate ladder, to earn a greater share of the market, to take the reins of an imperialist government. The point is to ensure that these hierarchies no longer exist, and that only happens with a radical rethinking of political values. The competition of the market will always dictate a winner and a loser; we need a new system entirely, one that does not relegate a group of people to position of loser at all.

Reading hooks dispelled some of the ambivalence I felt towards certain group-think movements. I’ve always had a soft spot for cultural nationalism, which plays a huge role in Tamil politics. But affirming my Tamil identity in a white supremacist country should not lead to beliefs in my own supremacy (melanin though). It’s often tempting to go down this road, but doing so would miss the point of revolutionary thinking. We need to rid ourselves of the idea of competition, the idea of “I’m better than you,” and establish values that affirm the equality of all identities. That is truly revolutionary.

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