The following are some notes on “Talking Race and Racism” in bell hooks’s “Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope” (2003). Please note that in what follows “racism” means American white supremacism and “black” in most cases means any person of colour in America.
Some of bell hooks’s observations on the nature of racism based on her 30 years of teaching in America:
- Most Americans think of the Klan and Nazi skinheads when they think of racism. But most American racism is nothing like that. Rather:
- Most Americans, whatever their race, are brainwashed to think and act in ways that support the racist set-up of society. Like the black woman who straightens her hair and then fails to see why her daughter wants to be white.
- A part of racism is the belief that it is natural and hard to change.
- “Learned helplessness”: Deep down most whites know that America is still racist but act as if it is not and put up this front that they are beyond race.
- Most whites know that America is still racist. That is easily shown by asking them if they could be reborn, which race and sex would they choose and why? It is also shown by their discomfort in talking about race. If racism is so dead why are they so uncomfortable?
- Racism lives on not due to a lack of knowledge – at an academic level racism is very well understood – but because Americans are so used to lying to themselves that action does not always follow thought. They have such a hard time telling apart fact from wishful thinking that because they want racism to end they think that in fact it has.
- American society is so separated by race that few whites are forced to listen to a black person for more than 30 minutes.
- The blacks they do come across – maids, Oprah, fellow students, people in countries that they visit – are “reconfigured to the greater good of whiteness”. They are seen as being there to help white people! Like when Jack Kerouac said, “the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me.” If such black people do speak their minds they are:
- “Playing the race card”: This is the main way whites have of dismissing black accounts of racism. It amounts to a racist ad hominem. It is why a white person can say the very same things about racism and be listened to seriously. When it comes to racism whites have a right to their point of view, blacks do not..
- Whites think they are so much better than blacks that they even think they understand racism better.
- Whites who think racism is the most dead are the ones in whom it is the most alive.
- White people can change. If they want to. She has seen it. To do so they must, like anyone else, learn about racism and then root it out of their own thought and action.