Everyone Needs a Mentor: bell hooks and Paulo Freire
Sunday, December 27, 2020
bell hooks had a problem. As a student, she realized that, because of her skin color, gender, and economic status, she didn't fit in. Professors, she felt, taught an alien phallocentric paradigm of liberation. They spoke a language of oppression that alienated her. Her courses’ embedded this oppression. She reflected on her social reality, about her status as an object, not as a subject. Without a language to describe her status, though, she could do nothing to change it. She felt frustrated.
Enter Paulo Freire. His writings - and later, his character - inspired her. He introduced her to conscientization. A critical and liberatory awareness of one’s social reality. Construct a resistance identity based on your political circumstance. With it, one can understand one’s place in the world. She had studied how race and class shape female identity. Freire gave her a language to frame these critiques. He showed her how to place American racism in the context of global colonialism. As she learned, countering oppression and domination first requires a sense of self.
Transformation, she learned, is a two-step process. Critical consciousness is not an end in itself. Otherwise progressive movements fail for a simple reason. They provide no practical applications to their theoretical insights. Before Freire, she admits that she was a revolutionary in the abstract but not in (her) daily (life). Now she had a framework with which to critique prevailing racist paradigms. This resistance identity gave her tactics. Tactics to transform her students from uncomplicated objects to complex subjects. Tactics to make them free.
Freire inspired her to understand education as the practice of freedom. Freedom from domination based on stereotypes and ignorance. More to the point, she realized that it’s not enough to understand the practice of freedom. It’s crucial to live it, day by day, in and out of the classroom.
I now understand my prior frustrations with critical theory. I didn't have an innate bias toward abstractions. No, I tried to find answers to questions about art that I didn't know how to frame for lack of a critical language. What I needed - and didn't know to seek - was a mentor; an intellectual godfather; a sympathetic ear. It makes sense to me, now.
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