By Sara Salem
I don’t usually find myself getting very emotional when I watch interviews or debates, especially between academics. But this talk with bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry somehow managed to make me feel a lot of things I hadn’t before. There is no doubt that bell hooks is one of the most formative feminists out there, whose work has made postcolonial feminism and intersectionality what it is today. But there’s something else about her, the ease with which she speaks about her own personal life and struggles, and weaves them together with her theoretical understandings of global gendered structures, that makes her truly unique. There isn’t a distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘real life’ because they are co-constitutive, and yet we see time and again the inability of academics to show clearly how they use everyday experiences in their own theoretical work, or how their theoretical work can be useful for non-academics. bell hooks doesn’t have this problem. Reading or listening to her, it becomes painfully clear how the experiences we go through are constituted through complex power relations. I guess the best way to put it is that she is so relatable. She speaks and people, especially women of colour, simply relate. So it made me want to write down a few of the things she said that really resonated with what I’ve been feeling these past few months.
At the beginning of the interview she spoke about how Melissa had recently taken down an economist on her show, and how immediately people condemned her for being too harsh, too ‘out of control.’ She was characterised as ‘the angry black woman’ even though, as bell said, she hadn’t been rude, or condescending. She had simply demolished the other person’s argument. Now the ‘angry black woman’ trope should be familiar to anyone who has been in a power relation like that before. The classic example is the woman-man situation, where no matter what the woman says or does, she is often labelled as overly-emotional, overly-sensitive or just angry. (“Are you pmsing?” – the question all women love to hear.) Not only do these types of questions create a dynamic of powerlessness and function as a way of silencing women (especially women of colour in relation to both men and white women), they also construct emotion and anger as negative and as not belonging in a ‘rational discussion.’ This has never made sense to me. Women are angry, women should be angry. Why are we still stuck on the myth of rational and objective exchanges? Why does anger, or the expression of anger, delegitimise? Clearly it’s linked to age-old notions of people of colour and women as inferior because of their irrationality, whereas men (especially white men) are constructed as rational, calm, objective and in control. I love the way Melissa put it: “I’m mad, but I’m mad about something. I’m not mad as an inherent part of being a black woman.”
bell hooks talks about how white feminists saw her first book as such as angry book and she had no idea what they meant because to her it didn’t feel that way. It seems to me that accusations of ‘you sound angry’ or ‘you’re not being rational’ often emerge in spaces where one group (in this case, white women) feel threatened and feel that there might be a possible shift in power dynamics, and therefore immediately go on the defensive and attack the Other (bell) as being too emotional, too angry, and too aggressive, thus not focusing on the content of the book itself. “People are constantly using anger and ‘being difficult’.” And that’s exactly what it is – a tool to silence. It reminds me Sara Ahmed referring to herself as a feminist killjoy. That’s exactly how it’s perceived – you’re ‘killing the mood’ or being a ‘buzzkill’ – in other words, you’re challenging power (the status quo) and making people feel uncomfortable. A good example is this piece by a good friend of mine, Usayd, where he talks about the everyday sexism of men. I wonder how many men call out their friends when they say sexist or homophobic things? Who wants to be a killjoy in the end? Being told you’re angry or difficult is exactly a way of maintaining the impenetrability of power structures.
When bell talked about how little power we have over how our representations are received, it made me think of a quote from Lila Abu Lughod’s recent book, ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’ She wrote, “It’s hard to hear through the noise of familiar stories.” And it seems like a lot of this talk is about that. About how difficult it is to create new representations and new ways of thinking about black women. And how does one do this without being reactionary? One example is when Muslim women are portrayed as liberated by Islam, a clearly reactionary narrative that is simply responding to Western assumptions about Islam, women and oppression. Such reactionary narratives often end up creating a new type of representation that is equally problematic and serves to further embed the power dynamics the representation was trying to undo.
The part where bell talks about white female complicity in the patriarchal-capitalist system was reminiscent of how influential she’s been in theorising that reality. There are many days (most) when I question the term ‘feminist’ itself because it seems impossible to move away from its foundations, from the reality that as a term and as a movement it was defined by white women, women who – undoubtedly – at the time were implicit in imperialism and capitalism. Women who saw non-white or non-affluent women as Others, as victims to be saved, as objects, as indicators of their own progressiveness. And this isn’t even a thing of the past. Until today, I have rarely met white women, even those who call themselves feminists, who are not implicitly imperial in their approach to non-white women. There is always something, whether it’s a comment, a justification, a defensiveness when you critique white feminism. And so today we have postcolonial feminism, which has managed to create alternative notions of what feminism is, but it also seems to be a bubble. When people hear ‘feminism’ they think ‘white feminism’ and this seems almost inescapable at this point. We have feminists like Nancy Fraser writing in the Guardian about how neoliberalism has co-opted feminism – yes, true, but why is this a revelation in 2013 when feminists of colour (including bell) have been talking about it for decades? And why are you surprised that it was so easy for neoliberalism to co-opt a feminism that was inherently liberal in and of itself? What are the major differences, anyway? And why did Fraser frame this ‘discovery’ as something that deserved praise, as an example of white feminists being self-reflexive and critical? All it was, to me, was proof that white feminists continue to ignore feminists of colour, as simple as that. Because engaging with feminists of colour would have meant that Fraser would have reached this ‘discovery’ some time ago.
Another thing that struck me was when bell talked about the cognitive dissonance black and brown people experience, where on the one hand they know that white capitalist supremacy is a real, actual thing (or at least most seem to know) but on the other hand, seem to believe that democracy, justice, equality, etc. are also real things. She speaks of this as the ‘innocence about whiteness’ and it struck me how many people I know who have this. Who think that yes, there is racism and bad things happen, but it’s just kind of there, not because white people or a white system enable it. They seem to have bought the ‘good intentions’ argument where if a white person says they didn’t mean something or aren’t perpetuating something, then it’s fine, all’s forgiven. I was at a conference 2 weeks ago, at a panel on the EU and migration, and Germany was being criticised for how it treats migrants. This German guy there puts up his hand and says “You mean the German state, right? Because I’m German and I have nothing to do with it.” And it was just shocking to me, that someone could so easily brush off his own involvement and – by extension – his own guilt. Because that’s just it: it is about him, too. We are all tied to oppressive structures and implicated in them. The way out of that is not to deny it and transplant the blame onto someone else. The way out – or through it – is to be be self-reflexive and self-critical. But I guess it’s easier to go on and on about how we’re ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-imperialism’ and how it’s all a conspiracy.
Melissa, during the q & a, answered a question from a lady who talked about how she gets criticised by other black women more than by white women. She had four children by three different men, and talked about how other black women constantly told her that it was hermistake and that she should have made different choices. Melissa made the excellent point that this individualizing of misery – where when something goes wrong it’s about the wrong choices you as an individual – made and not about structural violence or structural inequality – is the problem. And this is a direct legacy of the neoliberal world we live in, as well as of the Enlightenment era (the two of course being linked) where it is all about rational individuals and “choice.” If someone is poor, they chose to be poor, or they’re lazy, or they didn’t try hard enough. If a single mother is struggling to raise her children, it’s about the bad choices she made. It’s never about structures. I never quite realised how strong this narrative is until I lived in the Netherlands and saw how the liberal illusion of choice is simply untouchable. At a deep level, it is so dangerous – as Melissa points out – because it prevents people of colour from collective organising that would bring about structural change. bell also mentioned how traumatic shame is, and how useful it is to control groups of people. This reminded me of how prevalent shame is postcolonial contexts and how it continues to shape narratives and identities in relation to imperialism.
Finally, the most striking moment was when bell quotes Paulo Freire, who said: “We cannot enter the struggle as objects, to later become subjects.” And I think that one line sums up, for me, the problems with feminism and non-white women; the problems in general with trying to ‘reform from the inside’ structures that are seen as exclusionary to you. Because the reality is, you are probably not seen as a subject, as even deserving of being in the struggle. Worse, the struggle has already been defined. Ramón Grosfoguel, borrowing from Fanon, uses the concept of the zone of being and the zone of non-being. The argument is that racism is a structure of power and domination along the line of the human being. People in the zone of non-being are not recognised as full humans. While there are people who are oppressed within the zone of being (women, queers, etc), it is important to realise that they have racial privilege that the people in the zone of non-being do not have. The way the system regulates conflicts in the different zones is important. In the zone of being, conflicts are regulated, and are peaceful with exceptional moments of violence. In the zone of non-being, the system manages conflicts through violence, appropriation and dispossession. Thus the norm is violence with exceptional moments of peace. People in this zone are oppressed along class, gender, sexuality, AND race. So then how can feminism be defined as including people that have historically been in the zone of non-being? Or more importantly, has feminism (I mean mainstream, hegemonic feminism) even recognised that these two zones exist?
Read more by Sara Salem at Neo-colonialism and its Discontents