Coming to Class Consciousness

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In chapter 2 of Class Matters the author discusses the issue of various desires. Whenever she would desire something she couldn’t have, her mother would never admit it was a lack of money. Instead it became something only someone stupid who didn’t care about themselves would want. She learned to squelch desires and fantasies to gain more inner peace. She “learned the art of sublimation and repression.”

Her first year of school was “fully paid” at a nearby women’s college. But her parents knew that wasn’t true – there were always a lot of hidden costs, such as transportation and clothes.  Money, always money.

Of course, there are the vignettes about her first roommate with terror on her face at being housed with a black student. Hooks quickly got a tiny single room to herself. A “perk” freshmen were never granted.

My fellow students kept their distance from me. I ate in the cafeteria and did not have to worry about who would pay for pizza and drinks in the world outside. I kept my desires to myself, my lacks and my loneliness; I made do.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 25). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Hooks lived in the world of books, surrounded by privileged white girls obsessed to marry. Her one friend that year was a working-class white woman.

When she talked about the other girls who flaunted their wealth and family background there was a hard edge of contempt, anger, and envy in her voice. Envy was always something I pushed away from my psyche. Kept too close for comfort envy could lead to infatuation and on to desire. I desired nothing that they had. She desired everything, speaking her desires openly without shame. Growing up in the kind of community where there was constant competition to see who could buy the bigger better whatever, in a world of organized labor, of unions and strikes, she understood a world of bosses and workers, of haves and have-nots.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 26). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

In high school Bell had known white friends.  They “wore their class privilege modestly.” Church tradition favored the poor, taught people to be modest and to share. It was hard for the rich to enter heaven. At college, the working-class girls knew each other because of their difference, their separation.

Most girls from poor backgrounds tried to blend in, or fought back by triumphing over wealth with beauty or style or some combination of the above. Being black made me an automatic outsider. Holding their world in contempt pushed me further to the edge.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 27). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Hooks refused to join their world. She failed their expectations that all black girls want to be white girls. She refused to reveal anything about herself to them.

One of her professors said she should go to Stanford University. But her parents said that was impossible. No money, too far away from her home in Kentucky. But her parents couldn’t discuss it as a money problem. No, California was sinful, dangerous for a girl alone. Her mama told her her father had refused permission for her to go.

Mama and daddy were awesome authority figures— family fascists of a very high order. As children we knew that it was better not to doubt their word or their knowledge. We blindly trusted them. A crucial aspect of our family fascism was that we were not allowed much contact with other families. We were rarely allowed to go to someone’s house. We knew better than to speak about our family in other people’s homes. While we caught glimpses of different habits of being, different ways of doing things in other families, we knew that to speak of those ways at our home, to try to use them to influence or change our parents, was to risk further confinement.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 29). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

I read the above description of the fascist family and  realized the author had a filter on perceptual lens – a very gray and politically biased one. Fascism is a political and economic philosophy. To apply it to a nuclear family is hyperbole and guilt by association. It is turning a well-defined term into meaning “anything I don’t like”. She didn’t stop there either.

They were a family that didn’t explore, didn’t go on vacations. Stayed to home. So getting to go to Stanford wasn’t likely to be in the cards. Even if there were other black students there.  Which meant she didn’t know what to expect when, after all that resistance, she did get to Stanford.

Since we do not talk about class in this society and since information is never shared or talked about freely in a fascist family, I had no idea what was ahead of me. In small ways, I was ignorant. I had never been on an escalator, a city bus, an airplane, or a subway.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 32). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Fascism kept her from riding a plane or an elevator. Really, Ah ha.

But Stanford, there was a place that was a good study in class – yes, every episode of her live gives good evidence of her theme.

Stanford University was a place where one could learn about class from the ground up. Built by a man who believed in hard work, it was to have been a place where students of all classes would come, women and men, to work together and learn. It was to be a place of equality and communalism. His vision was seen by many as almost communist. The fact that he was rich made it all less threatening. Perhaps no one really believed the vision could be realized. The university was named after his son who had died young, a son who had carried his name but who had no future money could buy. No amount of money can keep death away. But it could keep memory alive.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 33). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Class was always behind the scenes at Stanford. The college board was always cultivating rich people to leave money to the school. Rich classmates thought it hip to have a black friend, and invited her on expensive vacations she couldn’t afford. They volunteered to pay. She never went. (Once again, she complains, but purposefully shuts herself off from those who offer to include her.) True, her experience was so far beyond theirs that they likely could not understand, but she never even let them try. She found their values alien to each other and struggled with the contradictions.

Unaccustomed to being around strangers, especially strangers who did not share or understand my values, I found the experience of living in the dorms difficult. Indeed, almost everyone around me believed working-class folks had no values. At the university where the founder, Leland Stanford, had imagined different classes meeting on common ground, I learned how deeply individuals with class privilege feared and hated the working classes. Hearing classmates express contempt and hatred toward people who did not come from the right backgrounds shocked me. Naively, I believed them to be so young to hold those views, so devoid of life experiences that would serve to uphold or make sense of these thoughts. I had always worked. Working-class people had always encouraged and supported me.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 35). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

It was while she was at Stanford that she learned of a black bourgeois that held similar contempts of working class blacks – no racial solidarity. She didn’t know how to handle elitists who had contempt for people who did not share their way of life. And yet, as I read, I felt that parts of those comments reflected her own attitude toward people who did not share her way of life. The Bible itself mentions the same thing, the rich and poor can both be envious, can both have contempt of the other.

The school, from her perspective, encouraged the working class students to have amnesia, to forget where they came from. They needed to assimilate into the educated meritocracy. She never shared any sense of belonging at school. As she mentions in the conclusion to the chapter:

At no time in my years as a student did I march in a graduation ceremony. I was not proud to hold degrees from institutions where I had been constantly scorned and shamed. I wanted to forget these experiences, to erase them from my consciousness. Like a prisoner set free I did not want to remember my years on the inside. When I finished my doctorate I felt too much uncertainty about who I had become. Uncertain about whether I had managed to make it through without giving up the best of myself, the best of the values I had been raised to believe in— hard work, honesty, and respect for everyone no matter their class— I finished my education with my allegiance to the working class intact. Even so, I had planted my feet on the path leading in the direction of class privilege. There would always be contradictions to face. There would always be confrontations around the issue of class. I would always have to reexamine where I stand.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 37). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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