I came across a bell hooks essay about writing with passion, as a “space of transgression,” which I like very much. And then PEL (The Partially Examined Life – a panel of four guys who talk about different philosophy texts each week, with special guest Myisha Cherry) had a couple podcasts about her views on racism and sexism, which fit well with some thoughts I’ve been dwelling on in my Indigenous Studies class. But the shaky bridge to get my students actually reading her, might just be her piece on Beyoncé in which she says, right out loud,
“I think it’s fantasy that we can recoup the violating image and use it. I used to get so tired of people quoting Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, but that was exactly what she meant, that you are not going to destroy this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it. Even if it serves you to make lots and lots of money. [Her body stands for] desire fulfilled, that is, wealth, fame, celebrity, all the things that so many people in our culture are lusting for. . . . all of those things that are at the heart of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. . . . I say to my students: Decolonize. But there’s also that price for decolonization. You’re not gonna have the wealth. . . . part of what has to happen for us to be free is that we have to create our own standards of how to live.”
They might not agree, but they might listen just enough to be able to defend their idol. (Listen to the whole discussion here – that bit starts about 30 minutes in.)
There’s a cost to liberation, so it’s a struggle to get people to actively let go of that path completely. We keep one foot in it, trying to get the best of both worlds, but it doesn’t work. People just “flip the hate channel to the voyeur channel, but nothing is really changing.”
We are more messed up than we realize. Our problems are deeper. We don’t see our own racism and sexism. Images and representation in media are vital to changing how we see ourselves. The PEL podcasts talked about the study on children who, whether black or white, thought a black doll was ugly and wouldn’t play with it. That conversation reminded me of the movie Smoke Signals when characters struggled to figure out what it looks like to be Indigenous, to be who they are, and how not to disparage their own people.
Other things I heard in the PEL podcast (partially quoted or paraphrased but filtered through my own thoughts on the topics as they relate to my class):
On Taking Care of Oppressors:
It’s a strategy of some groups to point out that we’re all victimized by the structure of oppression. White males are also harmed. To a point, it can be a way to get the dominant class involved in the struggle or at least convince them to stop opposing it. John Ralston Saul does this somewhat in his books about Indigenous Canadians. He’s got a we’re all in this together stance that does affect me on a different level. It’s no longer an Indigenous issue; it’s a Canadian issue. And I’m not just the bad guy as someone who comes from a long line of colonists. I’m a fellow Canadian also affected by the discrimination taking place on our collective land.
But bell hooks is wary of this. It’s not right to change out of self interest. According to hooks, this deflects the problem in a way that we end up pitying the oppressor for their unfortunate plight. But their situation is nowhere near as horrible as anyone who’s lived through slavery or residential schools. It can be a problem if concern over the dominant class makes us forget how horribly the oppressed are treated. It’s a problem if it makes us ignore the profoundly victimized when we have to concern ourselves with the mildly victimized as well. The oppressor is also a victim, but people are victimized in different ways, and some also benefit. Those who have something to gain from the process have little incentive to overthrow it regardless the guilt and shame they might suffer. Louis gets it…
On the Decolonization Process:
hooks explains that recovering after the colonialist experience isn’t just a matter of going back to what was. It’s too late for that. It’s not a surgical removal of an event. That’s not possible. After any trauma, we can’t go back to the way things were. We have to accept and then get beyond that part that is in us now, part of us. That’s true of the oppressed and the oppressor.
This is a difficult point for me to get my head around – not that it is, but how to sit with it. After my class watched Smoke Signals, we talked about the betwixt and between stage of many indigenous who have lost the skills of a traditional life, but reject further assimilation to modern life as well. It’s curious to me what gets rejected and what’s kept. They can no longer sustain themselves from the land, getting their own food and building their own homes, but can’t afford the outrageous prices for food or lumber either. As an outsider, I see the solution to their plight in tools of the dominant class: formal education, indoor plumbing, stocked grocery stores. But if we reject assimilation models, then what makes these acceptable? Or are ties to tradition purely symbols and rituals at this point?
Or is it in their philosophy, which, from scant readings to this point, I can best understand through my prior knowledge of Taoism. It’s a difficult philosophy to maintain surrounded by a consumerist culture, which helps clarify the important of staying put in more isolated communities. But then the costs of food and lumber, not to mention the many social services we take for granted in the city, will never be on par for such tiny communities. When many bands have fewer than 500 people and remote locations, to what extent can we offer functioning hospitals and universities? It’s a conundrum.
hooks says decolonization may take place at the individual level at first, but to be fully decolonized, the entire system must be overthrown. It requires a revolutionary action, not just an internal psychological stance. We can’t just self-emancipate without emancipation of all others. For this to happen collectively, we need narratives of individuals who have ‘self-actualized’. [In the PEL panel, they waver between terms like ‘self-actualize’ and ‘authenticity’ but admit that none of those terms are actually used by bell.] We need narratives for people to see how it’s done: role models, opportunities.
When you’re oppressed, you start to see yourself as the other. Many philosophers were mentioned throughout this discussion, but de Beauvoir never came up even though she wrote about this concept extensively. The whole role of domination (patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism…) is refusal. Their mode of action was one group oppressing another for their own advantage while convincing the others it’s for their own good. According to hooks, to be radical and revolutionary, we have to counter competition with love.
In order for any of us to be radical, we need a support group, people who will love us no matter how radical we get. We need role models of survival, and we need to accept a great diversity of true expressions. We should avoid the trope of the struggling black woman rising up by accepting that some didn’t have it that hard, AND that the expression of a different path doesn’t negate the experiences of those who struggled because it suggests we can only bond if we all tell the same story of victimization. Any group naturally tries to develop norms as a means of solidifying the group, of anchoring their identity, but those norms can then get imposed on others in the group until real experiences are shut down. We must be careful of this because it’s no longer a support group at this point. She’s critical of the way political ends force a dismissal of different kinds of experiences within a group – it dulls the edges of activism. We can only facilitate healing if we’re strong enough to acknowledge and listen to different voices, to let others be what they are, and to listen with respect.
We still need some common narrative about the oppression, a counter-narrative to the dominant myths perpetrated, but we also need room to become individual people. Choice is a luxury of the empowered. To be able to become fully ‘actualized,’ we each need the opportunity to explore, to have the world opened up to us. If we’re not working collectively to overthrown colonization paradigms, then we’re not creating the space necessary for people to evolve.
There’s a problem with the colonized and oppressed mistaking their own dominator acts as a radical departure from domination. Some people working to break free from the model end up copying it because we’re all so immersed in it, but not everything we do is a free and authentic act. We need spiritual leaders (assuming we can figure out who they are) who are ahead of us on the path to help distinguish whether or not our acts are informed by colonization. For instance, genital mutilation is an act of oppression even if women choose to have it done. It clarifies the extent to which we’re internalized oppressor norms anytime we willingly act like a slave or servant. We can only decipher what’s authentic through sustained engagement with ourselves. It’s complicated.
Her books came out before the term existed, but she talks about the problem with talking about racism and sexism as different. Focusing on one can exclude attention to the other. We won’t be fully covered if we have two movements; we need to be liberated from both to make concrete political changes.
We need to be aware of and informed by the intersection of multiple identities that affect how we’re treated. We need to recognize different types of oppression in the work we do. For instance, Black Lives Matter was started by two lesbian women, but the focus ended up on police brutality of black men. Women were erased in those narratives even though they are also oppressed by the police. Cherry spoke about the a man speaking at a rally. He was the brother of a woman who had been killed by police, and he was encouraged to just talk about Trayvon Martin, not his own sister. It was as if discussing black women would distract from the movement.
In class we discussed the many protests taken on by indigenous peoples over land rights and environmental destruction. My students noticed parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement, except they hadn’t previously heard of the many indigenous protests currently happening in their own country. We need to open spaces for indigenous discrimination to be part of the intersectionality we’ve just begun to honour.
The thing we’re all pushing for should allow for multiple narratives, but we live in a soundbite world. Chomsky has been on about this for decades. We can’t give the whole story when we’re only allowed to speak in simple, easily accepted terms within a consistent narrative. We have work to do to stop ourselves from perpetuating a dominator ideology, and to continue to look at our assumptions about people based on sex, race, sexuality, ability… It’s not just an act of cognition but a political challenge, a call to action.
I’m still not sure what the path looks like yet, but just that we have to start heading in that direction.