bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End P, 1992.

Summary of Work
In her work, bell hooks discusses how image plays a large role in determining how a group of people are represented, and that because of that fact, images and representations are inherently ideological. She discusses how loving blackness is an important and underrepresented part of bringing about social equality, and how loving blackness becomes a dangerous position when put in opposition with white supremacist social structures. She also posits that reverse racism doesn’t exist because while racial prejudice certainly does exist, minorities are not in positions of power to use that prejudice to oppress other ethnic groups. She discusses how this rears its head when white people decide to become friends with black people, and yet they still refuse to let go of their learned racist habits. She also analyzes Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing” in this context, suggesting that it is because Clare Kendry decided to love blackness that she was murdered: both her white husband and her black friend could not accept the fact that it was possible to love blackness, that there wasn’t something inherently wrong with a darker skin color.

hooks also examines how blackness has been commodified, making it a selling point of pop culture: white men want to sleep with as many darker skinned women as they can; movies and stories offer blackness as a primitivism that can appease disgruntled whites in a post-imperialist society; cultural appropriation makes up for a perceived or real lack in white dominate culture. Fashion magazines and other advertising industries utilize blackness as a backdrop to sell their products. She discusses this commoditization within the context of a couple of films including Heart Condition, a film about a black man and a white man in love with the same woman; the black man wins the love of the white woman, but he is dying, and when he donates his heart to the dying white man, the white man is then able to win the love of the white woman. Thus, there is a physical transfer or appropriation that labels blackness as erotic, able to provide sexual pleasure and presence that whiteness cannot. The taking is problematic for not only the images it creates, but for the lack of credit it gives to people of color when the things taken are art forms or non-stereotypical representations.

Using Audre Lorde’s article about black womanhood as a structure, hooks talks about how black women are set in a stereotype of violence—on themselves and their children—that they play out. She believes that the narrative can be changed, but that it is hard and it first requires black women to accept that they can buck the trend. She discusses the ways that black women can change their narrative by discussing black literature and showing that simply journeying to find oneself or to escape one type of violence does not guarantee that they actually become self-agents and break the trend. She says that this is the case for characters like Celie in “The Color Purple,” where she gets away from an abusive situation but goes right back to being a dependent housewife by the end of the novel. Other women in books, like Sula, become pariahs because of their radical behaviors, and hooks does not see that as the ideal option either. What these fiction writers are doing, however, regardless of the end result of their characters, is breaking “new ground in that it clearly names the ways structures of domination, racism, sexism, and class exploitation, oppress and make it practically impossible for black women to survive if they do not engage in meaningful resistance on some level” (50). She identifies Angela Davis as a real world example of a black woman who resisted through political action and education to become a full agent and to resist the violent cycle; she also identifies Shirley Chisholm as an example of breaking the trend and resisting the cycle. However, many women are afraid to have their daughters and themselves follow in Davis’ example because of her prison sentence for political resistance, making her lack a community that is necessary to pass her knowledge and experience on to break the trend of violence. People of color, especially women of color, need to engage in feminism and in the “decolonizing of our minds” in order to center “social change that will address the diversity of our experiences and our needs” (60).

She continues the discussion of black womanhood by stating that black women in film and other mediums are objectified and seen only as objects, not as people, causing problems in white-black relations, but particularly causes problems in the way black women view themselves: they either vehemently oppose the pop culture representations or quietly absorb the stereotypes and objectification. Citing Tina Turner as an example, she states that objectification creates easy avenues for abuse and violence against black women, who must be seen as lust-driven and sexually free-spirited in order to be successful in entertainment. The conversation about black womanhood is continued as hooks discusses the racist and sexist actions of Madonna, a woman who belittles her coworkers and employees, especially if they are people of color, by saying she is a “mother figure” to them, much as white colonialists looked at themselves as saviors and parents to supposedly lesser races. In hooks’ eyes, Madonna is not only racist, but one of the worst appropriators of black culture. She also discusses this objectification and the problems it causes by focusing on the Clarence Thomas case, when a Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. Her passive manner in which she engaged the committee, and the images of black womanhood dominating the white committee’s minds, served as a reminder that the images of black womanhood strongly influence people’s decisions about how they look at and handle harassment and assault of black women.

hooks builds a discussion of black masculinity within this discussion about gender, stating that black men are supposed to, under cultural understanding and stereotypes, be unemotional and strong and financially successful, whereas women are taught to be quiet and obey but are allowed to have a full range of emotions. She points out that much of the discourse around black male sexuality is the discussion of how black men really want to be white men, and their inability to be so makes the violent. To hold such misogynistic and phallocentric views of black masculinity is to deny men the full range of emotional and physical development that would allow them to become good fathers, loving husbands, and successful men.

Focusing on paths of resistance that black people can and have taken against racism, hooks talks about how the black gaze upon white people can be a powerful tool of survival and resistance. Black people were often looked at as objects owned or controlled by white people, and white people never took a second thought about the idea that black people could look at them and observe and resist; similarly, black women could look and gaze upon misogynist structures and recognize them, creating a form of resistance as they identify other parts of narratives that represented them in the public eye. The resistant gaze is a way for black people to “imagine new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (130).

hooks also believes that a discussion of black views on whiteness are important. Mentioning that black people have come a long way from viewing white people as a group of dangerous ghosts, many black people have integrated white beliefs about hating black people. They are also still terrified, even if they cannot explicitly say so, by the dangers of being labeled a “reverse racist” for discussing whiteness and their experiences with whiteness. But black people observing whiteness has also created stereotypes, and when they express those stereotypes to white people, many white people are outraged, upset that they are being stereotyped under the name of observation and data; yet white people see no correlation between what they do to black people and what is happening to them. Whiteness functions as a power source and a place of privilege, in hooks mind, only as long as white people are regularly able to insist that their race is mysterious and undefinable, that it is the neutral that everyone should accept as the base for cultural exchange.

hooks ends her work with a discussion of black-native relations, honing in on the need for interracial minority engagement to promote equality and reparations. She states that Native Americans are the only race of people that are forced to watch their genocide played out as entertainment to this very day through Westerns, games of cowboys and Indians, and other media formats. She points out the strong historical ties between black people and Native Americans, both through blood relation by intermarriage and cultural heritage: when Africans came to the New World before white people, the two cultures were able to harmoniously exist and exchange gifts and ideas. White people find that history dangerous, because their belief system functions on the idea that all people come to new worlds to conquer, and a symbiotic relationship between cultures destroys that image, and therefore white superiority and justification. Since the deterioration of black-native relations, Native Americans have had to resort to techniques of forgetting and forsaking their culture in order to live in a world that has swept their genocide under the rug other than to play it for entertainment: dealing with the history and having to try and convince both white and black people that it is unjust would destroy them. In order for all people of color to reach social equality, the two cultures need to work to “affirm the times of the past, the bonds of the present . . . relearn our history, nurture the shared sensibility that has been retained in the present” (194). Only then can domination be eradicated and society transformed.

Discussion of Work
While I agree with much of what bell hooks has to say, I wonder about the evolution of these arguments in this decade. While we still have a long way to go for proper representation of black people, and particularly black women, as agents and individuals outside of cinematic stereotypes, there are being strides made, as can be seen with films such as Hidden Figures and Black Panther. Films such as these focus on black achievement rather than black failures or trauma: women in Hidden Figures not only assert themselves as experts in rocket science in a white world, but they assert themselves as valuable members of their community who eschew violence and demand respect from their husbands; they also demand that their husbands take on multiple roles that require them to take on more feminine traits, making the men more whole and self-agents as well. Since Hidden Figures is based on a true story, it makes me wonder if there are actually many instances where this is the case, but they have simply been obscured from the mainstream discussions of history, making hooks’ arguments about image and womanhood and masculinity important, but part of a more complex historical and communal discussion. Black Panther, completely fictional, creates another space where nearly the entire cast is black, and the focus is black achievement and innovation rather than tragedy and violence. The people of Wakanda represent a society where blackness has evolved as a culture largely free (although not completely) of white supremacy and oppression. Their culture holds on to old African traditions, but also has evolved into an elite technological society. I do wonder if one concern might be that the technological ideal looks somewhat like white cultural ideals: however, the overly enthusiastic and warm reception of the film in black communities speaks to the fact that black people are actively looking for positive images and representations of them which are free from the stereotypical cliches that exist throughout our media. While there has been progress, there is still work to be done, and hooks’ work is still important in deciding upon ways to progress. However, based on film evidence (to follow hooks’ structuring of culture discussion) in Black Panther, it is fair to say that the idea of loving blackness is no longer a fringe idea, but very much centered in the public—black and white—imagination.

The discussion of Native American and black relations hit close to home, as hooks described something very painful regarding my own heritage. And yet, it opens up our eyes to a blind spot in our critical discussion: the struggle for social equality extends past racial boundaries, and must include all POC in order to make for a successful resistance and push for change. To ignore the representation of other minority groups in media is to neglect those groups of people and their needs.

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