What follows is an interview with feminist theorist bell hooks, published in the feminist magazine On the Issues in 1996 (interview also available on the kersplebedeb website).
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On The Issues
Night-Vision: illuminating war and class on the neo-colonial terrain
“The transformation to a neo-colonial world has only begun, but it promises to be as dramatic, as disorienting a change as was the original European colonial conquest of the human race. Capitalism is again ripping apart and reconstructing the world, and nothing will be the same. Not race, not gender, and certainly not whatever culture you used to have.”
-from the preface of Night-Vision
Once in a while, a book is published that creates a stir below the surface of mainstream discourse. Night-Vision: illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain, by Butch Lee and Red Rover, was published more than two years ago by Vagabond Press. Night-Vision discusses the radical politics born in the '60s when colonialism was dying (the old reality) and suggests that we must develop new theories to cope with the new neo-colonial world in which we now live (the new reality). It has received some remarkable reviews from underground, anarchist and revolutionary newspapers but has been ignored by mainstream feminism. bell hooks read Night-Vision last year and was impressed with much it had to say. She felt that it was an important book which needed to reach a wider audience and agreed to talk with Sally Owen, Book Review Editor of On the Issues, about Night-Vision; neo-colonialism; and class, race, and gender in America today.
OTI: What is it about Night-Vision that impresses you?
bell hooks: Night-Vision was so compelling to me because it has a spirit of militancy which reformist feminism tries to kill because militant feminism is seen as a threat to the liberal bourgeois feminism that just wants to be equal with men. It has that raw, unmediated truth-telling which I think we are going to need in order to deal with the fascism that’s upon us. Anyone who reads this book understands that, globally, women and children are the new proletariat and that white women in the so-called developed countries support the enslavement of lower-class and poor women around the world. That’s an indictment that is hard to hear. But if we really want to talk about the liberation of women, then we’ve got to talk about the investment that bourgeois women of all races have in the social structure.
OTI: It’s interesting that you begin by talking about militancy because I believe the authors feel that it is the militancy in Night-Vision that might most concern you.
I was drawn to the fire in Night-Vision which I hope is also present in my own work. What I am most criticized about is the use of the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. It’s seen as too strident, too exaggerated, too militant. But what that criticism says is that we’re not even allowed to name the enemy. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says we have to call things by their real name, and if we’re not allowed to do that, how can w have a revolution? How do we move forward? I’m not particularly attached to those terms but they seem to me to much more accurately state what we’re up against than a term like “sexism.” And I prefer the term “white supremacy” to “racism.” Part of what is magical to me about Night-Vision is that it situates the discourse within a discussion of colonialism and neo-colonialism, because as much as people resist “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” as an identifier of anything we’re about as a nation, they also don’t want to talk about imperialism and colonialism in relation ship to this nation. And you know, Night-Vision is a real call for white women to be disloyal to patriarchy! It is willing to call white women out on their white supremacy which is often represented as simply a victim response to patriarchy. Night-Vision says that white women have a stake in white supremacy – that it is the hottest, the fastest ticket for white women to get inside the patriarchy and play the game. We can’t act like “daddy made me do it” anymore. It’s all about what white women have to gain. Look how many feminist thinkers have simply abandoned any discussion of fucking male power because it makes men uncomfortable and because we don’t want to act as though men actually do wield power in ways that are detrimental. All the radical, subversive, subjugated knowledge that this book brings to light needs to be heard although I know there are many people who may be really afraid of what it is saying because of what it means for our lives to have to hear it.
OTI: So, when you call people resisting the term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” you’re talking about middle class people, white people?
bell hooks: Oh, absolutely. When you speak to the disenfranchised and the dispossessed – the people who Night-Vision invokes – they don’t have any trouble hearing you say “white supremacy.” They may tell you that they don’t know what you mean when you say “patriarchy,” but when you put it all together and show how these things are so deeply interdependent, they don’t have any trouble getting it at all. Night-Vision brings together class, race and gender in a way that academic feminist theory gives lip service to but doesn’t manage to convey. To see class, race and gender as not separate is to explode to understanding, but Americans do now want to deal with class and alack Americans no more than anybody else. The fact that we all, as black people, suffer racism is not a levelling factor. We can’t talk about black liberation if we can’t confront gender and sexism. But people continue to say that race, not gender, is the issue and they don’t see how deeply the crisis in Black life in America, so graphically symbolized by O.J. Simpson, is a crisis of race and gender and that we are not going to solve the crisis of race without solving issues around gender.
OTI: I know there are things about this book you don’t like. Would you discuss that?
bell hooks: One of the things about Night-Vision that bugs me is the complete absence of black women’s voices within the text itself. Maybe the authors are white women who have come to these insights by themselves, but I don’t think that any of us do that, and I don’t think it’s useful for us to cut ourselves off from the works of black women. Night-Vision presents itself as the counter-hegemonic vision that has not been stated rather than as a more militant statement of a counter-hegemonic vision that is already in the works of black women and women of colour. By not making that connection, Night-Vision risks another space where black women and white women compete for who has the transformative vision. Night-Vision does, however, make the point that rebellious women have always been central to any kind of major transformation of culture. I was very moved when it talked about Rosa Parks. I always knew that Rosa Parks was chosen by bourgeois, heterosexist black men to be the representative of radicalism. And that obscured the poor working-class black females who had always been part of this movement, who had put their lives on the line and who resisted on those buses. To know things that we don’t consistently document is problematic and there is so much pressure to bury the history of rebellious, revolutionary, and visionary women.
OTI: Night-Vision has received a tremendous reception from young black men in jail. They get it, and they can make the connection. But many women seem reluctant to read this book.
bell hooks: the bulk of letters I get around the militant aspect of my writing are also from young black men, in prison and out. What’s wrong with this picture? Why are black men able to enter this work and be changed in their thinking when so many black women are so guarded about it? Part of it is just the politics of heterosexism. And the tragedy is that women don’t think they have shit to learn from women, although we fall over ourselves to learn from some man whether we’re lesbian, straight, bisexual, or sex radical. Politics in America is seen as hardball terrain, a male thing, especially if we talk about the politics of race. White women have managed to acquire a voice in certain spheres of conservative politics, around health, around economics, but when the media is running around to get its spokesperson on race, that spokesperson will always be male because its seen as a discourse between men. So what is interesting here is that white supremacy has not managed to destroy in young black men heir feeling of having a right to politics. Part of that is that they have images like Malcolm X, a visible, radical, political tradition that can be drawn on, but young black women don’t feel that politics have much o do with them.
OTI: You observed recently that there has not been a powerful, black, female, organized left in this country in the last 20 years.
bell hooks: I felt tremendous regret after that interview because I felt I would be seen as trashing or criticizing Angela Davis. I said that I didn’t know of any occasion where Angela Davis has really tried to galvanize young black women to think about being on the left. There are individual African-American women icons, myself included, who get to occupy a space on the left, and it’s OK to occupy this honorary space, but we should really try to sway young people to move from their conservatism and liberal individualism to a more militant left politic.
OTI: Night-Vision talks about white icons too. I have asked what it is, exactly, that Gloria Steinem has done for women. But when I ask that question, I always feel as though I just pissed on the rug. To ask that question is to commit treason.
bell hooks: I think that it is completely compatible with me asking, with all the respect and love that I feel for Angela Davis, why she has not led a campaign to get black women to become part of the left, and in fact there was a historical moment where she had the power to do that. And to make that observation doesn’t have to be trashing or critiquing. It is to say that collectively, as black women, we have not been willing to assume the mantle of militant leadership and I think that is an interesting question to interrogate. When we make people into icons we don’t feel free to ask what this person is really doing, or what their book is really saying. People should feel free to engage in dissent. Celebrity status is dangerous because it can undermine the radicalism of our work. We all have to be careful where we position ourselves, because we like to think, given our greed, that we can have it all. How successful in relation to their radicalism? I don’t think you can have a radical, subversive, revolutionary critique of this culture and be a millionaire. We have to question how our messages are being transformed.
OTI: One of the things I find so disappointing about the white feminist community is their silence around so many issues. Mumia Abu-Jamal, the death penalty. Individuals, yes, but as a community…
bell hooks: Night-Vision asserts that silence is demanded of us; that there is an inversion of the notion that Silence = Death. We’re being told that the only way we are going to be allowed to survive is to remain silent. You know, I was on the Charlie Rose Show recently with a white man and two black men and was told that white supremacy isn’t real; that it’s a cliché, and that I’m stupid. I want to take that scene and cut it in with the Oklahoma bombing that happened only a couple of months after that and say, “Wake up America! White supremacy is alive and well and willing to kill us.” When they thought they could pin that crime on non-white people, the media were going on and on about the killing of innocent children. Once they found that white patriarchal men had committed this crime, the attention was suddenly away from the slaughter of he innocents, and on facts and details because people wanted to turn a blind eye to fascism expressing itself yet again. It was fascism that bombed those black people in Philadelphia only a few years ago, and there was no uproar that innocent children died in whatever conflict the state was having with that group of people. That people see no link between Clinton’s dismissal of Jocelyn Elders and what happened in Oklahoma is frightening! The white feminist community, in keeping with exactly what Night-Vision says about it, was incapable of coming out in support of Jocelyn Elders. I have no doubt in my mind that if Clinton dismissed Ruth Ginsberg for some completely unclear reason, white women would see this as some assault on feminism and the power of women. But white women are afraid of losing those little tidbits that Clinton throws their way. Where was the call for all feminists to be out in the streets for an hour? I’m so tired of acting like we have to organize some mass thing where we all have to trot to Washington. Why can’t we say, well, at two o’clock on Monday, everyone who opposes Jocelyn Elders being compelled to resign should enter the street. That to me is a way we could demand of the nation’s women who are supposedly committed to feminism some response that doesn’t require putting your life on the line. If feminism could have done for Jocelyn Elders what it was quite capable of doing for Anita Hill who was not making any fucking radical intervention into anything! Who was not subverting anything! And who is still not subverting anything! It just shows you that feminism has chosen to ally itself with the existing social structure. Feminism cannot even mobilize itself as a movement to be one hundred percent against the death penalty. This is the tragedy of left politics for American women because it says we have no courage. There’s a prophetic element to Night-Vision in the way that it foresees what I call the South Africanization of the U.S. and that it will happen precisely because white women will be central to pushing forward an agenda about safety. If we think about those zoning laws around pornography; if we think about how much reformist feminist white women are playing key roles in the ushering in of forms of social apartheid. Those very zoning laws to keep undesirable people out of your neighbourhoods will be the same zoning laws that will lead to gates around City College. And won’t those gates be protecting the ninety percent white faculty in the midst of a student body that is ninety-nine percent not white? Is that not what apartheid has always been about? That level of policing? I think it’s rampant in the culture right now and people are turning their heads and saying it doesn’t’ exist. That’s why the voices that speak in Night-Vision are important voices because it cannot just be black people who call it out because it’s too easy for our voices to be suppressed. If there is not a chorus of voices calling it out, we will not have the space for dissent. I’m very frightened by the closure of independent bookstores, by the breakdown of alternative presses. Where will the dissenting voice speak as the fascism in this culture increasingly grips us? It was exciting to see the Village Voice, a very useless periodical in many ways, call out the white supremacy of publishing, because censorship happens on the level of choices and editing; what gets reviewed and how it gets reviewed. If you review a book like Night-Vision and you act like the authors are crazy, then, in fact, you are exercising a level of censorship that doesn’t have to come from eliminating the voice. Which is why I think censorship right now in the neo-colonial U.S. of A. is a much more dangerous phenomenon than people imagine because it is infinitely more complex and subtle than saying this can’t be published or this can’t be heard. It’s like having a bomb but you’re able to take out the mechanism that lets it explode. So you can still have the vision of free speech when, in fact, you have mediated that speech. And let me reiterate that celebrity status becomes one of the ways dissenting or militant speech is mediated.
OTI: There are middle-class lesbians who perpetuate the myth, in their discourse, in their writing, that we have managed to remove ourselves from the patriarchy; that we are separate, self-sufficient, radical, and in many ways superior to our straight sisters because we have removed men from our lives. This is so obviously untrue and I don’t see a lot of discussion about this.
bell hooks: Don’t you think the biggest lie of our contemporary liberation movements is that who you fuck radicalizes you?
OTI: It’s the biggest lie.
bell hooks: And it also ends up becoming a defense of heterosexism. It says people are incapable of choosing political allegiances, that our political allegiances always come through the body. It’s who we’re fucking or who we’re eating with and our political allegiance doesn’t have to be more complex than that. There’s no doubt in my mind that any person who attempts to live openly as a gay person in this culture encounters the fierce assault of homophobia. But what we should know from the situation of gay people of all colours and black people of all sexual preferences is that simply being a victim does not radicalize your consciousness. If that was the case, we would all be fighting the revolution right now together and he fact is we’re not because people want heir particular form of victimhood to end with caring about what the implications of that are for other people. I think that what’s really happening around the gay rights movement in this culture has become profoundly conservative. Pro-family values. We want to be just like you. We want to get married and have our nice homes. We have to move past the idea that our sexual preferences will radicalize our consciousness. Essentialized identity, whether it is race or sex, sexuality, etc. and the notion that just being the victim of something will enlighten you is also the big lie now. When I said to white women that I didn’t have any fucking sympathy for Anita Hill’s inability to stand up and defend herself, because she could have been taking feminist courses at Yale, I was told she wasn’t to blame. It’s not a question of blame. We can hold her responsible for not choosing to educate herself because it was not in her class interest to do so. She wanted to enter the mainstream ruling upper class in this culture and her silence was not the silence of someone who had not had access to knowledge. Her silence was the silence of complicity. Reformist gender equality brought us to a space where people are more mired in liberal individualism than they are in anything else. And you cannot have revolutionary struggle in that space. What saved radical Vietnam was not liberal individualism but people’s capacity to engage in collective struggle. The thing that most weakened radical political movements in this country was the investment in liberal individualism. That’s why racial integration was essential for the continued colonization of black people because racial integration was really a code word for the indoctrination of black people into the ideology of liberal individualism. Hey, as long as we keep them off the television screen, or only in tragically subordinate positions, they may continue to see that they have something to resist. But if we give them The Cosby Show, if we give them Denzel Washington in Philadelphia, if we give them a sprinkling of images, we can make them feel they have really arrived at the space of freedom. And there’s nothing to resist. Because it’s all about you as an individual. Have you worked hard enough? You too can be rich. You too can be Michael Jordan. You too can be any of the wealthy black people running around not doing shit.
OTI: Do you think there is anything important… let me rephrase that question. What of importance is coming out of the academy?
bell hooks: I don’t have any trouble with the question you ask which is, is anything radical and subversive coming out of the academy? What continues to be subversive about the academy is that the classroom remains a place for education for critical consciousness.
The primary site of genocide for black people right now in America is the public school system. It’s not poverty: Black people have always been poor. Masses of black people are richer today than we’ve ever been in our history in this country. So the question is not a genocide that is rooted simply and solely in poverty, it’s the condition of the poverty. I grew up in the midst of poverty but every black kid that I knew could read and write. We have to talk about the fact that we cannot educate for critical consciousness if we have a group of people who cannot access Fanon, Cabral, or Audre Lorde because they can’t read or write. How did Malcolm X radicalize his consciousness? He did it through books. If you deprive working-class and poor black people of access to reading and writing, you are making them that much farther removed from being a class that can engage in revolutionary resistance.
OTI: Do you see any conflict between women seeking positions of power and that power being firmly based in what you call white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?
bell hooks: Contradiction is the stuff of revolutionary struggle. The point is not to deny the reality of contradiction but to utilize the space of contradiction to come to a greater understanding. I have no trouble with any of us using the wealth we have accumulated within the existing social structure to undermine that structure. I’m much more interested in how you might want to undermine the structure with your resources than criticizing you for the fact that you have inherited resources, or that you have sold out your radical book to be re-made into some bullshit movie. I feel like forgiveness and reclamation and reconciliation are essential to revolution as well. And if nothing else, the tragedy of China and other places should show us the necessity of forgiveness and reclamation and reconciliation – which is to say hat I’m quite happy for us all to begin where we are. And if you have millions, I’m quite happy for you to begin radicalizing yourself around how you can use those millions in a way that will bring greater peace and justice to the world. I’m for that. How can I work within the structure? I just published my new book, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, with a mainstream published because I wanted to reach a mass audience. I really believe that white supremacy is going back to the rampant mass genocide of black people. It’s not just about the death penalty. What about the people who are being brutally assaulted so that they die without the death penalty in American prisons? What about the assault on black people on the street, the assault on the mentally ill, most of whom in New York City are people of colour? How can we not want to infiltrate the mainstream and be subversive if we want to attend to any of this? So the question for me is not the contradictions that involve wishing that I would get a strong, positive review in an uninteresting non-radical periodical like the New York Times. It’s so people will read my book. I’d like to see Night-Vision reviewed in all these mainstream newspapers and magazines because people might read it. And they might come to consciousness. So I think the point is not to think that the contradictions undermine us, but to work with the contradictions in the hope of creating the space of radical opposition; that marginal space within an existing structure where we can continue to fight for freedom.
Other reviews of Night-Vision, also available on the kersplebedeb website: