Thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life
- bell hooks.
American cultural theorist bell hooks’ distinguished contribution to sociology has been to unearth the intersecting issues of cultural difference, race and knowledge within feminism. Starting out as a literature professor, hooks would go on to challenge cultural studies in the early 1980s with books such as Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. Her work shows how women of colour have been marginalised by power structures in society as well as by white feminists who purport to speak about the universal struggle of all women. hooks argued that mainstream feminism silences experiences of race, ethnicity and class.
For the past three decades, hooks has explored the representation of race in popular culture, and how this affects social relations and public education. In the Cultural Transformation video series, bell hooks explains the importance of critical thinking not just for women, but for American society in general. Her work has been adopted and adapted by non-white feminists and cultural theorists around the world.
hooks talks about popular culture as a site for pedagogy - this term describes a reiterative relationship of learning from student to teacher and vice versa. She discusses how students she taught in white, privileged schools feel a sense of entitlement about their future in a way that non-white, urban students do not imagine for themselves. hooks’ students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have jobs, children and other responsibilities that shape their expectation of the future. It is not that hooks’ students from Harlem were any less brilliant, the issue is that they exist in a reality where the education system only deemed to provide them with the basic “tools” to get a job, rather than to enhance their lives in a more profound way.
hooks notes that critical thinking can enhance not just these students whose choices are constrained. Critical thinking is just as important for them as it is for middle and upper class people who are materially privileged, but who are experiencing a personal crisis. Critical thinking is about having the language and frames of reference to examine one’s life as well as the world around them and ask questions about the things we take for granted. Why is it okay to watch movies and expect women to be raped and killed as part of the narrative arc? Why do sexually desirable women in Hollywood so often get cast in the role of prostitute who gets beaten up? Why are women characters denied a complex personal journey? Women often have limited dialogue in the full scheme of the story. Men get to be heroes with interesting tales, even when their characters are despicable drunks. Why does Hollywood tell stories the way they do? Why cast a Black kid in the role of a thief? Why is it James Earl Jones who voices the the villain in Star Wars? Who decides that a deep Black male voice represents evil? Why is Spike Lee seen as a “failure” in Hollywood? Does an increased consumption of “Black culture” by white, privileged youth help eliminate social inequality, or is “Blackness” simply a commodity?
These questions may seem familiar to students of sociology, but they are not straightforward. hooks argues that it is possible to enjoy big release movies and yet ask questions and problematise what we see on screen. Why was this story told this way? Whose voice is being heard? Who is being silenced?
hooks discusses examples from the 1990s (the series is from 1997), such as Larry Clark’s controversial film Kids; the spectacle of race, gender and crime in the way news is reported (the O.J. Simpson trial); and Madonna’s exploitation of Black men and her sexuality in the pursuit of “greed.” hooks’ comments on rap have vital resonance. hooks explores whether rap culture can be thought as “authentic”, when mainstream rap producers are “pushing a product” - that is, the pursuit of wealth, via images and language that make abuse seem erotic. Rap music also perpetuates a “colour caste system” within Black culture, by elevating the status of lighter-skinned, straight-haired Black women over those with darker skin.
Finally, hooks argues that despite an increasing focus on visual forms of communication. reading and writing are incredibly important to critical thinking. hooks says that the books she has read have been at the heart of “major radical interventions” in her personal life. The written word complements visual representations, as hooks reminds us:
We cannot over-value enough the importance of literacy to a culture that is deeply visual. I mean rather than seeing literacy and the visual and our pleasure in the visual as oppositional to one another, I think we have to see them as compatible with one another. I don’t think we will get much further in terms of decolonising our minds. So that we can both resist certain kinds of conservatising representation and at the same time create new and exciting representations.
Speaking of major radical interventions - bell hook’s Margin to Centre had an incalculable impact on my ability to think critically. It’s a must read. I draw inspiration from it to this day, as well from hooks’ other works. I’m especially partial to Black Looks: Race and Representation.
Watch the Cultural Transformation series: start with part 1 here and part 2 will lead you to the subsequent four videos. I also encourage you to read the PDF transcript to help you digest the wealth of ideas.