Bell Hooks & White Accountability
Born Gloria Jean Watkins in rural Kentucky, writer, professor and activist bell hooks is one of the most successful and prolific academics of the late twentieth century. A distinguished professor at the City College of New York who uses lowercase lettering to reflect her wariness about ego and fame, hooks knows best when it comes to dissecting and analyzing all things race, class and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media and feminism.
My love for hooks’ writing blossomed when I picked up a copy of Where We Stand: Class Matters one winter night in the Middlebury College library. I was drawn to hooks’ simple, yet powerful descriptions of life in Middle America. Her critical analysis of American culture through a personal lens humanized a lot of academic conversations from which I felt estranged as a student who struggled coming to terms with their gay identity on a campus teeming with toxic men—straight or otherwise.
Some of hooks’ most poignant anecdotes capture moments of confession, denial, and conviction that paint a larger picture of the American justice system and its protection of the wealthy elite who control it. We were reminded of moments like these when the nation’s largest-ever college admissions scandal made headlines as American Crime star Felicity Huffman entered a guilty plea that could bring her four months in jail. Last month, Huffman had pled guilty for paying a Harvard graduate $15,000 to correct her daughter’s SAT. Twenty days later, two more involved in the scandal agreed to plead guilty—including former USC women's soccer assistant coach, Laura Janke. According to CNN, the 17 other parents charged in connection to the scandal have demanded to see prosecution's evidence; including Full House star Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli.
After scrolling through one attention-grabbing headline after the next, I looked to Mother for guidance and YouTube-searched “bell hooks white privilege”—knowing, at the very least, I could gain the vocabulary to help put some of my thoughts on the Huffman trial into words. After a couple minutes of scouring the search results page, I came across a 1995 interview in which hooks touches on the foundations of white supremacy and their impact on events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the trial of O.J. Simpson, which “...drew out the tension that has been in our culture [of white supremacy] for such a long time.” At around the two-minute mark, she explains to her viewers her understanding of white supremacy: “white supremacy isn’t a white thing…it’s part of how all of us have been taught to think of difference: who’s better, who’s inferior, who’s superior.”
This sense of difference is not only grounded in race, but class as well—amongst other cultural identifiers that define who we are as individuals and communities. When wealthy white folks like Huffman and her husband, William Macy, work to get their children into college, they don’t stop at getting them the right tutor or college coach. Their exceptional sense of entitlement takes them as far as to buy their admission letters from their child’s dream schools—unaware of the impact their selfish decisions could have not only on the future of their family, but their conscience as well. And in a world where we can’t afford to ignore the immoral behavior that plagues our politics across the globe, conscience is no longer a nice-to-have: it’s a necessity.
Research from Opportunity Insights shows 38 colleges and universities in the US have more students from the top one-percent than the bottom sixty. Of these 38 institutions, Middlebury College ranks ninth, which makes sense. After all, where else could students have their family names on plaques outside the study rooms they unofficially reserve with econ textbooks, empty coffee cups, and MacBook Pro’s? Middlebury’s elite excel at excluding outsiders from their social activities. But what no one on the College’s 30,000-acre campus knows is just how scared these elite kids and their families are of the future they have to face. In a world where money can’t cover up every con job done by every rich person—Hollywood celebrities included—money can still talk, but it can’t move hearts and minds like today’s voices of new social and political change.
This isn’t to say the federal prosecutors pursuing the national admissions case are voices of new social and political change. For all we know, their motives may be faulty. But what’s become clear are the values privileged white college students across the United States must learn and embrace:
Take responsibility your actions and/or behavior. Know when you’re wrong, and remember: not everyone is born “woke.” Unlearn and relearn by unwinding and rewinding.
Make time for conversations with friends who need your attention. Sit down with them. Make eye contact. Think of ways to help that would do more good than harm and, most importantly, vice versa.
Donate money to folks facing hardship—any amount helps. Order a friend an Uber to make sure they get home safe. Talk to family about where they’re investing their money.
Have any thoughts to share on white supremacy, campus life in the States, the college admissions scandal, or bell hooks?
Let’s talk. I’m here.