Yanking open the doors of perception

Posted: March 27, 2010 in anti-racism, books

bell hooks blew my mind recently.

She’s good at that.

I’ve been reading Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem off and on for the past couple months.* It’s been educational, though perhaps a little frustrating in a way her work usually isn’t for me, in that the heavy focus on self-esteem sometimes gives it the flavor of a self-help book. But that’s a small complaint. Most of the book centers on the struggle of the black community to achieve stability and emotional well-being in a society plagued by racism and patriarchy, which I find a compelling theme.

The whole book’s been challenging in the best way, but one particular bit really struck me: the discussion of how racial integration was, in many ways, harmful for American blacks, and far from a clear improvement over segregation at the time.

The reason for this was quite simple: integration removed them from an all-black community focused heavily on nurturing their growth and achievement, and forced them instead into the very precarious position of everyday interaction with their white oppressors. hooks writes: “Within traditional segregated southern black folk culture we found refuge from the intensity of white racism. Racial integration brought us face-to-face with the possibility of racist assault or an actual confrontation.”

She goes on to describe the traumatizing effect of this displacement on black children in integrated schools. Black boys, in particular, often suffered by being funneled into less-challenging courses because their presence was thought to be a threat to white girls. And all black students were suddenly faced with real threats to their physical safety from their white classmates. Integration, meanwhile, was assumed to be a natural improvement for blacks, because, as hooks writes, “[T]he logic of white supremacist thinking had made it seem that black people were longing to be close to white folks.” She isn’t advocating for a return to segregation, mind; she’s simply pointing out the ways in which this transition was psychologically damaging to the black community.

My initial reaction to which can pretty much be summed up as:

Well, shit.

Integration, harmful? The hell you say! Not that I doubted it for a second, of course; the argument is both objectively persuasive and rooted in hooks’s own personal experiences. But it went against everything I’d been taught from a young age: that segregation was wrong, horrible, terrible, because of course black people suffered by not being allowed full access to white (i.e. “real”) society. Integration, by contrast, was intrinsically good. It was supported by the nice white people and opposed by the bad white people. Now that society is only composed of nice white people (the racists all died in 1987, I think), we can all agree that integration was a Good Thing. Complexity is antithetical to self-congratulation, apparently.

Obviously, no one thought to ask black people how they felt about the shift, or made any attempt to include their perspectives in the discussion or in the historical analysis of integration. Ridiculous thought. Do you ask your hamster how it feels about running on the wheel you so kindly provided it?

I’m going to be a bit self-indulgent here (it is my blog, I suppose) and highlight how this lesson about white hegemony illustrated to me how incredibly narrow my own perspective is. I think of myself as self-aware, as willing to challenge racism (both my own and that of others), as educated about oppression and social justice theory. But, hell, I was still raised in a largely white community, taught by white teachers who were reading from textbooks written by white people. There’s so much I don’t know, and I don’t even know that I don’t know it; this is true on this subject and on so many others. It’s a bit scary, yes. But it’s also awe-inspiring.

Because there’s so much for me to learn, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I believe that my main goal, at this point in my life, should be to unlearn the things I’ve been taught. To question my assumptions. I think this is part of the normal process of radicalizing: developing a different intellectual framework for analyzing and making sense of history and the present. I’m a product of white-supremacist, neoliberal education like most other Americans, and my mind is full of dangerous assumptions and blatant lies. Rooting them out takes time and diligence, but I’m fortunate enough to have both, and also fortunate enough to have access to the work of writers and activists who have spent their lives thinking and talking about these subjects.

Sometimes I feel envious of them, of people who seem to have been born into radicalism. How can I ever catch up? But mostly I feel gratitude. Gratitude that, for reasons having to do with the person I currently am and the people who have affected my life, I’m now open to this process, to this shift in my perceptions. I wasn’t always.

I have a secret wish that I might, at some point, affect someone else’s life in a similar way: broaden their perspective, or cause them to question a long-held assumption, or even just help them ask the right question at the right time. I’m no bell hooks and I never will be, but then, most people aren’t. And it’s not even about a desire for self-glorification; the opposite, in fact, in that I want to be a part of something much bigger than me. I want to think that I’m part of the process of change, that I’m helping to spread it like a virus.

Truth is contagious. I want to be a carrier.

*Interesting tidbit about my experience with this book: because of its title, I feel uncomfortable reading it in public. I tend to get paranoid and imagine that strangers assume me to be reading some ridiculous conservative screed about why the intrinsic nature of black people means they’ll always be on welfare or in prison. I worry that racists think I’m one of them. Silly, maybe, but there it is.

  1. Yael says:

    Patricia Hill Collins talks about this too– I can’t remember if she wrote about it or talked about it on a visit to Emory. I remember being shocked and appalled when I learned that integration meant closing black schools, firing black teachers and principals, etc. Undergirding this kind of integration is the incredibly racist proposition that white schools, white anything, is always and automatically better than black schools. And yeah– I totally agree with you about what we were taught about integration– unquestioned good! triumph over racism! Now liberal whites can feel good about themselves!

  2. Stephanie says:

    Jesse said the same thing (about black teachers being fired, etc.) when we talked about this. That was a dynamic I wasn’t aware of– hooks hasn’t discussed it, at least not in the sections I’ve read so far.

    And, yeah. Disturbing that “integration” really just refers to assimilation into the dominant culture, and that we can sit around and pat ourselves on the back for it because at least we didn’t outright exterminate the black community the way we did with the indigenous population, I guess? Progress!

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