Lessons from bell hooks and A Will to Change

Learning is often relearning and unlearning. bell hooks’s feminist writing keeps drawing me back to these lessons. As I was finishing writing my book Unmasking, earlier this year, her book A Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love was good company for me. For more on hooks you can read My bell hooks Story.

In A Will to Change, hooks turns her critical intersectional feminist analysis on men, masculinity, and love. She explores how men harm others and how men are being harmed and illuminates the roots of both in patriarchy. She argues not just for a balancing of the scales but a reordering and recentering all of our humanity.

I kick off Chapter 1 (Examining Men) of Unmasking with this poignant quote from A Will to Change.

Men do oppress women. People are hurt by rigid sexist role patterns. These two realities coexist. Male oppression of women cannot be excused by the recognition that there are ways men are hurt by rigid sexist roles. Feminist activists should acknowledge that hurt, and work to change it—it exists. It does not erase or lessen male responsibility for supporting and perpetuating their power under patriarchy to exploit and oppress women in a manner far more grievous than the serious psychological stress and emotional pain caused by male conformity to rigid sexist role patterns.

—bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Chapter 3 (Why Wear a Mask?) of Unmasking leads with this:

Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.

—bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

I also included two powerful learnings for me from hooks that are not from her writings in A Will to Change. In Chapter 10 (Engaging Men) of Unmasking, I share this:

In a video recording of a talk at the University of Oregon, bell hooks reminded us that blaming will not dismantle dominator thinking because it is dominator thinking (hooks 2008).

Even among liberal and progressive people, we want to divide the world up into this binary of good and bad guys, so that when we do that we actually keep dominator culture in place… Casting blame is a crucial component of dominator thinking. It helps promote a culture of victimization. When we are more energized by the practice of blaming than we are by efforts to create transformation, we not only cannot find relief from suffering, we are creating the conditions that help keep us stuck in the status quo. Our attachment to blaming, to identifying the oppressor, stems from the fear that if we cannot unequivocally and absolutely state who the enemy is, then how can we know how to organize resistance struggle?

Notably, hooks also named how tempting blame is, how many folks like the blaming version of her better (she used more colorful language), and why we need to push past this self-righteousness—because it isn’t effective. As hooks said in a conversation with Maya Angelou, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked. How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” (hooks 1998).

Unmasking, pp. 205-206
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