Monday, May 21, 2012

The Killing Rage of Bell Hooks

My hasty review at Goodreads, where I gave it one star:
The opening essay of Bell Hooks' Killing Rage: Ending Racism is very much worth reading, though not for the reasons she offers. Think of her as a Nabokovian unreliable narrator, and it's both sad and hilarious. It's the story of a ticket mix-up on a plane. A white man has a ticket for a seat, and due to some error, a black woman believes the seat is hers, but her ticket says otherwise. To Hooks, all the whites who observe what happens are complicit in racism because they don't ignore the ticket and accept the black woman's word.

It never occurs to Hook that she might be mistaken. She defines herself as an anti-racist, and therefore she must find racism to oppose wherever she goes. Like many middle class black folks, she has an especially odd take on Malcolm X: she talks about his rage rather than his demand for getting and giving respect, and she prefers what he said when he served the Nation of Islam to what he said later.

She also has a double-standard on class that I find among many of her fans: she'll mention that class matters, but she expects full deference from those who wait on her. If working-class folks are trying to finish another task before getting to her or goof up when they're helping her, it's because of their racism. If people always served me instantly and perfectly, I might give her claims more weight.

This is not to say that hooks has never faced racism. An old joke applies: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The tragedy of racism is that folks who might be its victims have to wonder if they're its victims whenever a person of another race does anything that hurts or inconveniences them.

I didn't start this book expecting to agree with her, but I expected to find more substance for her beliefs. Her desire to "liberate subjectivity" explains why there's not.

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in anti-racism theory google Adolph Reed Jr.'s "The limits of anti-racism." He never mentions hooks by name, but his critique of the vagueness of the theory applies.
If you want to read that essay from her book, it's here.


  1. This is really a key point, I think.

    I run across this a lot, a person of color has a bad experience and claims that it was purely racism. Definitely racism. Of course it was about race. When something bad happens to white people, it's bad customer service, when it happens to a non-white person, it's racism.

    This has two problems: 1) it's obviously wrong, which really undercuts the position that racism remains a problem and 2) it understates the problem radically: in these "enlightened" times, almost all racism is hidden under a blanket of ambiguity. You cannot know if this traffic stop, or that ticket mixup, is racially motivated, because the racists conceal their actions in the general morass of behavior, bad and otherwise.

    We can, for the most part, only know about institutionalized racism on a statistical basis, and this must surely be maddening for its victims.

    1. And they don't like to factor class into their racial stats, because when you do, most apparent institutionalized racism becomes mist. More on this in a post that'll be along soon, I think.

      Because identitarians read read our full-color world through a black and white filter, I'll stress that I'm saying "most", not "all".