bell hooks: Teaching to Transgress – Education as the Practice of Freedom

Some key quotations from bell hooks’ ‘Teaching to Transgress’. 1994 / Routledge.


“Critical reflection on my experience as a student in unexciting classrooms enabled me not only to imagine that the classroom could be exciting but that this excitement could co-exist with and even stimulate serious intellectual and/or academic engagement.” [7]

But excitement about ideas was not sufficient to create an exciting learning process. As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” [8]
“There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes. These contributions are resources. Used constructively they enhance the capacity of any class to create an open learning community. Often before this process can begin there has to be some deconstruction of the traditional notion that only the professor is responsible for classroom dynamics.” [8]
“Seeing the classroom always as a communal place enhances the likelihood of collective effort in creating and sustaining a learning community.” [8]

“I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions – a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.” [12]

Engaged Pedagogy

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn.” [13]

“many professors have intensely hostile responses to the vision of liberatory education that connects the will to know with the will to become.” [18-19]

“Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks.” [21]

Chandra Mohanty: “resistance lies in self-conscious engagement with dominant, normative discourses and representation and in the active creation of oppostitional analytic and cultural spaces.” [22]

A Revolution of Values: The Promise of Multicultural Change

“In the book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the citizens of this nation, with prophetic insight, that we would be unable to go forward if we did not experience a ‘true revolution of values.’ He assured us that
‘the stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing'”-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets or racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered…'”

“The public figures who speak the most to us about a return to old-fashioned values embody the evils King describes. They are most committed to maintaining systems of domination – racism, sexism, class exploitation, and imperialism. They promote a perverse vision of freedom that makes it synonymous with materialism. They teach us to believe that domination is ‘natural’, that it is right for the strong to rule over the weak, the powerful over the powerless. What amazes me is that so many people claim not to embrace these values and yet our collective rejection of them cannot be complete since they prevail in our daily lives. “[27-8]

Embracing Change: Teaching in a Multicultural World

“We found again and again that almost everyone [in the faculty attending the transformative pedagogy seminars at Oberlin] , especially the old guard, were more disturbed by the overt recognition of the role our political perspectives play in shaping pedagogy than by their passive acceptance of ways of teaching and learning that reflect biases, particularly a white supremacist standpoint.” [37]

“… it is difficult for individuals to shift paradigms and … there must be a setting for folks to voice fears, to talk about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why. One of our most useful meetings was one in which we asked professors from different disciplines [including math and science] to talk informally about how their teaching had been changed by a desire to be more inclusive. Hearing individuals describe concrete strategies was an approach that helped dispel fears. It was crucial that more traditional or conservative professors who had been willing to make changes talk about motivations and strategies.” [38]

“Accepting the decentering of the West globally, embracing multiculturalism, compels educators for focus attention on the issue of voice. Who speaks? Who listens? And why?” [40]

“Often, professors and students have to learn to accept different ways of knowing, new epistemologies, in the multicultural setting.” [41]

Shifting paradigms can be uncomfortable. “White students learning to think more critically about questions of race and racism may go home for the holidays and suddenly see their parents in a different light. They may recognize nonprogressive thinking, racism, and so on, and it may hurt them that new ways of knowing may create estrangement where there was none…”[43]
difficult experiences are common, so we need “practice at integrating theory and practice: ways of knowing with habits of being.” [43]

Paulo Freire

Freire: “We cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become subjects.” [46]

Theory as Liberatory Practice

Theory helps us “understand both the nature of our contemporary predicament and the means by which we might collectively engage in resistance that would transform our current reality.” [67]

“By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups [excessively theoretical, anti-intellectuals] deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness, thereby perpetuation conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.” [69]

“I continue to be amazed that there is so much feminist writing produced and yet so little feminist theory that strives to speak to women, men and children about ways we might transform our lives via a conversion to feminist practice. Where can we find a body of feminist theory that is directed toward helping individuals integrate feminist thinking and practice into daily life? What feminist theory, for example, is directed toward assisting women who live in sexist households in their efforts to bring about feminist change?” [70]

“I am often critical of a life-style-based feminism, because I fear that any feminist transformational process that seeks to change society is easily co-opted if it is not rooted in a political commitment to mass-based feminist movement. Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, we have already witnessed the commodification of feminist thinking [just as we experience the commodification of blackness] in ways that make it seem as though one can partake of the ‘good’ that these movements produce without any commitment to transformative politics and practice. In this capitalist culture, feminism and feminist theory are fast becoming a commodity that only the privileged can afford.” [70-71]

Essentialism and Experience

“Often it is forgotten that the hope was not simply that feminist scholars and activists would focus on race and gender but that they would do so in a manner that would not reinscribe conventional oppressive hierarchies. Particularly, it was seen as crucial to building mass-based feminist movement that theory would not be written in a manner that would further erase and exclude black women and women of color, or, worse yet, include us in subordinate positions. Unfortunately, much feminist scholarship dashes these hopes, largely because critics fail to interrogate the location from which they speak, often assuming, as it is now fashionable to do, that there is no need to question whether the perspective from which they write is informed by racist and sexist thinking, specifically as feminists perceive black women and women of color.” [77-78]

“I am always amazed by the complete absence of references to work by black women in contemporary critical works claiming to address in an inclusive way issues of gender, race, feminism, postcolonialism, and so on. Confronting colleagues about such absences, I, along with other black women critics, am often told that they were simply unaware that such material exists, that they were often working from their knowledge of available sources.” MDL – I need to broaden my network / inflow of information to broaden my understanding [80]

“…the very discursive practices that allow for the assertion of the ‘authority of experience’ have already been determined by a politics of race, sex, and class domination. Fuss does not aggressively suggest that dominant groups – men, white people, heterosexuals – perpetuate essentialism. In her narrative it is always a marginal ‘other’ who is essentialist. Yet the politics of essentialist exclusion as a means of asserting presence, identity, is a cultural practice that does not emerge solely from marginalized groups.” [81]

“a critique of essentialism that challenges only marginalized groups to interrogate their use of identity politics or an essentialist standpoint as a means of exerting coercive power leaves unquestioned the critical practices of other groups who employ the same strategies in different ways and whose exclusionary behavior may be firmly buttressed by institutionalized structures of domination that do not critique or check it.”[82-3]

Holding My Sister’s Hand

“Although they have written poignant memoirs which describe affectional bonds between themselves and black female servants, white women often failed to acknowledge that intimacy and care can coexist with domination. It has been difficult for white women who perceive black women servants to be ‘like one of the family’ to understand that the servant might have a completely different understanding of their relationship. The servant may be ever mindful that no degree of affection or care altered differences in status – or the reality that white women exercised power, whether benevolently or tyrannically.” [98]

“Until white women can confront their fear and hatred of black women [and vice versa], until we can acknowledge the negative history which shapes and informs our contemporary interaction, there can be no honest, meaningful dialogue between the two groups. The contemporary feminist call for sisterhood, the radical white woman’s appeal to black women and all women of color to join the feminist movement, is seen by many black women as yet another expression of white female denial of the reality of racist domination, of their complicity in the exploitation and oppression of black women and black people.” [102]

“what factors distinguish these relationships we have with white feminists which we do not see as exploitative or oppressive. A common response was that these relationships had two important factors: honest confrontation, and a dialogue about race, and reciprocal interaction.” [106]

Feminist Scholarship

“black gender relations were constructed to maintain black male authority even if they did not mirror white paradigms, … white female identity and status was different from that of a black woman.” [120]
“In search of scholarly material to document the evidence of my lived experience, I was stunned by either the complete lack of any focus on gender difference in black life or the tacit assumption that because many black females worked outside the home, gender roles were inverted. Scholars usually talked about black experience when they were really speaking solely about black male experience.” [120]

“the vast majority of white feminists did not welcome our questioning or feminist paradigms that they were seeking to institutionalize; so too, many black people simply saw our involvement with feminist politics as a gesture of betrayal, and dismissed our work.” [122]

Recommendation for Michele Wallace’s “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman” [125]

Building a Teaching Community

“The person who is most powerful has the privilege of denying their body. I remember as an undergraduate I had white male professors who wore the same tweed jacket and rumpled shirt or something, but we all knew that we had to pretend… The point was we should all respect that he’s there to be a mind and not a body… The traditional notion of being in the classroom is a teacher behind a desk or standing at the front, immobilized. In a weird way that recalls the firm, immobilized body of knowledge as part of the immutability of truth itself. So what if one’s clothing is soiled, if one’s pants are not adjusted properly, or your shirt’s sloppy. As long as the mind is still working elegantly and eloquently, that’s what is supposed to be appreciated.” [137]

“The erasure of the body encourages us to think that we are listening to neutral, objective facts, facts that are not particular to who is sharing the information. We are invited to teach information as though it does not emerge from bodies.” [139]

“the ways erasure of the body connects to the erasure of class differences, and more importantly, the erasure of the role of university settings as sites for the reproduction of a privileged class of values, of elitism.” [140]

“professors may attempt to deconstruct traditional biases while sharing that information through body posture, tone, word choice, and so on that perpetuate those very hierarchies and biases they are critiquing.” [141]

“many teachers who do not have difficulty releasing old ideas, embracing new ways of thinking, may still be as resolutely attached to old ways of practicing teaching as their more conservative colleagues.” [142]

“To educate for freedom, then, we have to challenge and change the way everyone thinks about pedagogical process. This is especially true for students. Before we try to engage them in a dialectical discussion of ideas that is mutual, we have to teach about process. I teach many white students and they hold diverse political stances. Yet they come into a class on African American women’s literature expecting to hear no discussion of the politics of race, class, and gender. Often these students will complain, ‘Well I thought this was a literature class.’ What they’re really saying to me is, ‘I thought this class was going to be taught like any other literature class I would take, only we would now substitute black female writers for white male writers.’ They accept the shift in the locus of representation but resist shifting ways they think about ideas.” [144]

“one of the responsibilities of the teacher is to help create an environment where students learn that, in addition to speaking, it is important to listen respectfully to others. This doesn’t mean we listen uncritically or that classrooms can be open so that anything someone else says is taken as true, but it means really taken seriously what someone says.” [Ron Scapp] [150]


“One line of this poem that moved and disturbed something within me: ‘This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.'” [167]

“…these words… make me think of standard English, of learning to speak against black vernacular, against the ruptured and broken speech of a dispossessed and displaced people. Standard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination…” [168]

“It is not the English language that hurts me, but what the oppressors do with it, how they shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize.”[168]

“How to describe what it must have been like for Africans whose deepest bonds were historically forged in the place of shared speech to be transported abruptly to a world where the very sound of one’s mother tongue had no meaning.” [168]

“I imagine, then, Africans first hearing English as ‘the oppressor’s language’ and then re-hearing it as a potential site of resistance. Learning English, learning to speak the alien tongue, was one way enslaved Africans began to reclaim their personal power within a context of domination. Possessing a shared language, black folks could find again a way to make community, and a means to create the political solidarity necessary to resist.” [170]

“Using English in a way that ruptured standard usage and meaning, so that white folks could often not understand black speech, made English into more than the oppressor’s language.” [170]

“The power of this speech is not simply that it enables resistance to white supremacy, but that it also forges a space for alternative cultural production and alternative epistemologies – different ways of thinking and knowing that were crucial to creating a counter-hegemonic worldview. It is absolutely essential that the revolutionary power of black vernacular speech not be lost in contemporary culture. that power resides in the capacity of black vernacular to intervene on the boundaries and limitations of standard English.” [171]

“That the students in the course on black women writers were repressing all longing to speak in tongues other than standard English without seeing this repression as political was an indication of the way we act unconsciously, in complicity with a culture of domination.” [173]

“To recognise that we touch one another in language seems particularly difficult in a society that would have us believe that there is no dignity in the experience of passion, that to feel deeply is to be inferior, for within the dualism of Western metaphysical thought, ideas are always more important than language. To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English, we create the ruptured,
broken, unruly speech of the vernacular. When I need to say words that do more than simply mirror or address the dominant reality, I speak black vernacular. There, in that location, we make English do what we want it to do. We take the oppressor’s language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language.” [174-5]

Confronting Class in the Classroom

“During my college years it was tacitly assumed that we all agreed that class should not be talked about, that there would be no critique of the bourgeois class biases shaping and informing pedagogical process [as well as social etiquette] in the classroom. Although no one ever directly stated the rules that would govern our conduct, it was taught by example and reinforced by a system of rewards. As silence and obedience to authority were most rewarded, students learned that this was the appropriate demeanor in the classroom. Loudness, anger, emotional outbursts,
and even something as seemingly innocent as unrestrained laughter were deemed unacceptable, vulgar disruptions of classroom social order. these traits were also associated with being a member of the lower classes. If one was not from a privileged class group, adopting a demeanor similar to that of the group could help one to advance. It is still necessary for students to assimilate bourgeois values in order to be deemed acceptable.” [178]

“Silencing enforced by bourgeois values is sanctioned in the classroom by everyone.” [180]

“Even those professors who embrace the tenets of critical pedagogy [many of whom are white and male] still conduct their classrooms in a manner that only reinforces bourgeois models of decorum.” [180]

“Sharing experiences and confessional narratives in the classroom helps establish communal commitment to learning. These narrative moments usually are the space where the assumption that we share a common class background and perspective is disrupted. While students may be open to the idea that they do not all come from a common class background, they may still expect that the values of materially privileges groups will be the class’s norm.” [186]

“I have found that students from upper- and middle-class backgrounds are disturbed if heated exchange takes place in the classroom. Many of them equate loud talk or interruptions with rude and threatening behavior. Yet those of us from working-class backgrounds may feel that discussion is deeper and richer if it arouses intense responses. In class, students are often disturbed if anyone is interrupted while speaking, even though outside class most of them are not threatened. Few of us are taught to facilitate heated discussions that may include useful interruptions and digressions, but it is often the professor who is most invested in maintaining order in the classroom. Professors cannot empower students to embrace diversities of experience, standpoint, behavior, or style if our training has disempowered us socialized us to cope effectively only with a single mode of interaction based on middle-class values.” [187]

Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process

“Suggesting that this culture lacks a ‘vision or science of hygeology’ [health and wellbeing] Keen asks ‘What forms of passion might make us whole? To what passions may we surrender with the assurance that we will expand rather than diminish the promise of our lives?’ The quest for knowledge that enables us to unite theory and practice is one such passion. To the extent that professors bring this passion, which has to be fundamentally rooted in a love for ideas we are able to inspire, the classroom becomes a dynamic place where transformations in social relations are concretely actualized and the false dichotomy between the world outside and the inside world of the academy disappears. In many ways this is frightening. Nothing about the way I was trained as a teacher really prepared me to witness my students transforming themselves.” [195]