PRINT May 1989


Cultural Interrogations

WITHIN BLACK STREET CULTURE, “fresh” is a word used to express esthetic evaluation of the unnamed forces behind a style, a concept, that adds something new to our way of seeing—enhancing the visual experience of the look, the gaze. In Radiance from the Waters, art historian Sylvia Boone writes about the place of nėku, “freshness,” as one of the core concepts within the esthetic culture of the Mende peoples of Sierra Leone and Liberia. A critical cultural tension emerges between this African sense of “freshness” and the African-American esthetic. Different cultural locations evoke links, sensibilities, and longings contained within diverse structures of representation and meaning. These connections raise issues regarding race and culture similar to those James Clifford writes about in his recent book, The Predicament of Culture. Appearing at a time when race is the “hot” topic, the “in” subject, these works offer new insight and direction. They subvert and disrupt, challenging us to think critically about race and culture, about esthetics.

But anyone witnessing the current cultural and academic focus on race has to note the new way race is being talked about, as though it were in no way linked to cultural practices that reinforce and perpetuate racism, creating a gap between attitudes and actions. There is even a new terminology to signal a shift in direction: the buzz words are “difference,” “the Other,” “hegemony,” “ethnography.” It’s not that these words were not always around, but that now they are in style. Words like “Other” and “difference” are taking the place of commonly known words deemed uncool or too simplistic, words like “oppression,” “exploitation,” and “domination.” “Black” and “white” in some circles are becoming definite no-nos, perpetuating what some folks see as stale and meaningless binary oppositions. Separated from a political and historical context, “ethnicity” is being reconstituted as the new frontier, accessible to all, no passes or permits necessary, where attention can now be focused on the production of a privileged, commodifiable discourse in which race becomes synonymous with culture. But there would be no need for any unruly radical black folks to raise critical objections to the phenomenon, if all this passionate focus on race were not so neatly divorced from a recognition of racism, of the continuing domination of blacks by whites, and (to use some of those out-of-date, uncool terms) of the continued suffering and pain in black life.

Powerful expressions of these contradictions are found in popular culture, ranging from the seemingly innocuous to aggressively racist. Just recently, for instance, in Vogue magazine, there was an article wherein the writer referred to Tracy Chapman’s “buckwheat hairdo.” In terms of today’s ethnic cool, I imagine he thought he sounded cute, like he was in-the-know. Excuse me! Buckwheat has never been recovered by black people as a positive representation of our reality.

But let’s not stop there. Opening the February issue of Interview, I read, “Yoko: Life After Lennon.” Ono is talking about Japan’s economy when suddenly interviewer Kevin Sessums asks: “What is it about Japanese women, Oriental women, that Caucasian men find so fascinating?” Nothing in the text suggests that Ono responds critically to this line of questioning. Her answer begins, “Maybe the Western man is intriguing to the Oriental woman. . . .” His response: “Maybe Oriental women are just better in bed. They know more positions.” Is the insertion that tells the readers Ono “laughs” intended to mediate this racist remark, to make it appear nouveau ethnic cool? Well, the point is that neither of these two comments reflect a critical consciousness about race. And come on, Yoko Ono, you know better! For on the very next page, she cuts to the heart of the matter:

I did about five interviews yesterday because the documentary Imagine is opening in Europe. . . . Anyway, I woke up this morning with this kind of pain that I had never realized before. I said to myself, How dare they! Every time I have an interview I am asked this question: “The world hated you. You’ve been called a Dragon Lady for the past twenty years. How do you feel about it? Why do you think that happened?” You know what that is like? It’s like somebody battering a woman and then saying, “All of us battered you, but why do you think we did it?” I’m the one responsible for telling them why I was battered? Well let them tell me . They’re the ones who did it. The other side of it was Asian-bashing—it was as simple as that.


Later that same day, I walked to the local bookstore (and I live in a small town) and picked up a new book on film and television, Boxed In, in which the white male author, Mark Crispin Miller, talks about images of blacks in a way presented as enlightened critique, as though he had some special understanding of the way we, “black Others,” see ourselves. I didn’t stop there. I went on to the drama section and actually sat down and read Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy—white playwright, integrated play. I had been told that it was about a sexual relationship between the two main characters. Well, it is not. No! The play just hints at the possibility that white Miss Daisy and her black chauffeur are sweet on one another. Reading the play, it was easy to see the way it relies on those old stereotypes about Southern black men lusting after white ladies to titillate, without interrogating these images.

Whether blatantly racist or condescending to represent the “Other,” these examples (and there are many more) give an idea of the attitudes underlying popular culture. And in many ways, a certain unconsciousness about these attitudes has also characterized—even informed—intellectual inquiry into race and racism. To begin, what does it mean when primarily white men and women are producing the discourse around “Otherness”?

Years ago, when I first left my segregated neighborhood for college, it seemed that the vast majority of liberal whites there were confused: on the one hand, eager to make connections with black people, and on the other, uncertain about the nature of the contact. They were, however, confident that they were not racists. Wasn’t their desire for contact proof that they had transcended racism? As the black liberation struggle waned, feminism emerged as a new terrain of radical politics. By the early ’80s, women of color, particularly black women, were challenging the assumption of shared oppression based on gender. After a period of resistance, individual white women began to discuss the issues of racism, developing “unlearning racism” workshops, and feminist scholars called attention to the work of black novelists and poets.

Black male literary critics joined the discussion, at times appropriating the subject in ways that made it appear as though they—and not black women—had been at the forefront demanding consideration of these topics. And as male scholars from various backgrounds and disciplines focused more on culture, particularly popular culture, postcolonial discourse and the work of third world scholars and critics like Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty began to receive sustained and serious attention.

The upshot of all this has been the unprecedented support among scholars and intellectuals for the inclusion of the “Other”—in theory. Yes! Everyone seems to be clamoring for “difference,” only too few seem to want any difference that is about changing policy, that supports active engagement and struggle (another no-no word; recently a member of the new radical chic announced to me her sense that “struggle” is a tired term, and she’s just not into it). Too often, it seems, the point is to promote the appearance of difference within intellectual discourse, a “celebration” that fails to ask who’s sponsoring the party and who is extending the invitations. For who is controlling this new discourse? Who is getting hired to teach it and where? Who is getting paid to write about it?

One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness. It would just be so interesting for all those white folks who are giving us their take on blackness to let us know what’s going on with whiteness. In far too much contemporary writing—though there are some outstanding exceptions—race is always an issue of Otherness that is not white; it is black, brown, yellow, red, purple even. Yet only a persistent, rigorous, and informed critique of whiteness could really determine what forces of denial, fear, and competition are responsible for creating fundamental gaps between professed political commitment to eradicating racism and the participation in the construction of a discourse on race that perpetuates racial domination. Many scholars, critics, and writers preface work by stating that they are white, as though mere acknowledgment of this fact were sufficient, as though it conveyed all we need to know of standpoint, motivation, direction. I think back to my graduate years, when many of the feminist professors fiercely resisted the insistence that it was important to examine race and racism. Now many of these very same women are producing scholarship focusing on race and gender. What process enabled their perspectives to shift? Understanding that process is important for the development of solidarity; it can enhance awareness of the epistemological shifts that enable all of us to move in new and oppositional directions. Yet none of these women write articles reflecting on their critical process, showing how their attitudes changed.

Let’s take a look at a recent front-page spread in the New York Times Book Review (1/8/89) featuring historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s new work, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Talking about her work, Fox-Genovese “conceded that it felt a bit odd at times to be a white woman writing about black women. ‘On the other hand,’ she said, ‘I am deeply committed to the idea that we all have to be able to study any subject provided we are honest.’ “ While valorizing the notion of intellectual freedom, the comment obscures the more crucial issues involved when a member of a privileged group “interprets” the reality of members of a less powerful, exploited, and oppressed group.

Given a framework of domination, let’s look at some concrete negative manifestations that occur when these issues are not addressed. First of all, let’s acknowledge that few nonwhite scholars are being awarded grants to investigate and study all aspects of white culture from a standpoint of “difference”; doesn’t this indicate just how tightly the colonizer-colonized paradigm continues to frame the discourse on race and the “Other”? At the same time, just as it has been necessary for black critical thinkers to challenge the idea that black people are inherently oppositional, are born with critical consciousness about domination and the will to resist, white thinkers must question their assumption that the decision to write about race and difference necessarily certifies antiracist behavior. And third, isn’t it time to look closely at how and why work by white scholars about nonwhite people receives more attention and acclaim than similar work produced by nonwhite scholars (while at the same time, the latter’s work is devalued—for being too “angry”—even as it’s appropriated)? Many people are into Clifford’s work who have never read Boone, for instance. Finally, the tendency to overvalue work by white scholars, coupled with the suggestion that such work constitutes the only relevant discourse, evades the issue of potential inaccessible locations, spaces white theorists cannot occupy. Without reinscribing an essentialist standpoint, it is crucial that we neither ignore or deny that such locations exist.

If much of the recent work on race grows out of a sincere commitment to cultural transformation, then there is serious need for immediate and persistent self-critique. Committed cultural critics — whether white or black, whether scholars, artists, or both—can produce work that opposes structures of domination, that presents possibilities for a transformed future by willingly interrogating their own work on esthetic and political grounds. This interrogation itself becomes an act of critical intervention, fundamentally fostering an attitude of vigilance rather than denial.

Bell Hooks is a writer and critic, and the author of Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. 1989.