bell hooks is a prolific writer who has managed to push her writing outside of the highbrow and into how people talk about politics. She is best known for troubling the waters of feminism by adding to that school of thought musings on class, race, and gender. What’s important about bell hooks’ work is that she believes in the interconnectedness of the systems that oppress, what she often calls the “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.”
Born Gloria Watkins in 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, hooks takes her pen name to honor her grandmother. Raised in a working class family and spending her early education in segregated schools, hooks received her BA in 1973 from Stanford, her MA in 1976 from the University of Wisconsin, and her PhD in 1983 from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
hooks’ first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), established several of her intellectual goals, including her interest in racism within feminism, black women’s role in feminism, the devaluation of black womanhood, and the impact of sexism on black women during slavery. Essentially, every discussion you’ve ever had in the feminist blogosphere about how feminism is sometimes racist is firmly rooted in hooks’ work.
Despite her criticism of feminism, hooks identifies as a feminist. One of the reasons that she supports feminism is that she sees no hierarchy of oppression and would like feminism to work together with other movements (and vice versa). hooks find much of the fault in feminism with its definition as seeking equal status with men. Why, hooks wonders, would all women want this when they recognize that some men are also oppressed by the systems that bind us. This is why she defines feminism thusly: ”Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform meaningfully all our lives.” In other words, we must look at the system more broadly if we are to overcome oppression in all of its nasty forms, including the oppression brought upon men and women by sexist and racist systems.
Thinking about education is central to hooks’ thinking, and she laid out many of her perspectives in Teaching to Transgress (1994). As the title suggests, hooks encourages students to disobey, and not in the sense that they talk back, but in the sense that they challenge how they are defined within the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Her teaching philosophy is very much about educating students to discover themselves in education.
Connected to her interest in education is her criticism of mass media. She is particularly critical of television, arguing in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope that, “No one, no matter how intelligent and skilful at critical thinking, is protected against the subliminal suggestions that imprint themselves on our unconscious brain if we are watching hours and hours of television.” She encourages individuals to puruse alternative ways of thinking than what the mass media represents, and find education and literacy to be a key component of this path.
hooks is a badass because she has managed to get people talking about feminism in unique ways that have an impact on the movement and on pop culture. What’s more, she has impacted how we think about education. Have you read your bell hooks today?