Article Access: bell hooks’ Theory as Liberatory Practice

By Deniz Saygi

bell hooks has written many articles to break the belief that feminism is anti-male [1] and questions the existing feminist discourse. hooks’ texts are easily accessible, written with the motivation to push the limits of academia’s language. According to hooks, the power that kept the feminist movement alive was sharing feminist thought and practice; quoting ‘’feminist knowledge is for everyone.’’

bell hooks: author, feminist, academic

In her 1991 article “Theory as Liberatory Practice”, hooks challenges the perceived dichotomy between theory and practice, underlining that the unnecessary apathy of women towards the feminist movement and feminist theory occurs in this dichotomy (between theory and practice). According to hooks, feminist theory separated real-life experiences and concerns beyond the class. In this regard, it “assaults the fragile psyches of women struggling to throw off patriarchy’s oppressive yoke” (p.5). This approach to theory undermines emancipatory movements while regulating academic departments to benefit the privileged.

‘’Within feminist circles, many women have responded to hegemonic feminist theory that does not speak clearly to us by trashing theory, and, as a consequence, further promoting the false dichotomy between theory and practice. Hence, they collude with those whom they would oppose. By internalising the false assumption that theory is not a social practice, they promote the formation within feminist circles of a potentially oppressive hierarchy where all concrete action is viewed as more important than any theory written or spoken.’’ (p. 5)

Regarding her meetings with Black female intellectuals, hooks states that most Black women are disappointed with the dominant feminist theory. Accordingly, she underlines that at the centre of this disappointment is that the dominant feminist theory does not contain authentic elements of the Black community and is not inclusive. Therefore, referring to the relationship between knowledge creation and elite claims, hooks states that her exit from the dominant and elite view can have devastating effects on her:

‘’…I dared to speak, saying in response to the suggestion that we were just wasting our time talking, that I saw our words as an action, that our collective struggle to discuss issues of gender and blackness without censorship was as subversive a practice… Just as some elite academics who construct theories of ‘blackness’ in ways that make it a critical terrain which only the chosen few can enter, using theoretical work on race to assert their authority over black experience, denying democratic access to the process of theory making, threaten collective black liberation struggle, so do those among us who react to this by promoting anti-intellectualism by declaring all theory as worthless. By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.’’ (p. 6 & 8)

hooks states that the collective struggle for creating an uncensored and objective environment regarding the feminist and the Black movement is also devastating. The superiority of the privileged brings an elite and white supremacist structure to academia, instead of an inclusive approach. Hence, the academy, branded by the dominant white privileged ideology, is blocking the intellectual development of the collective Black movement. As a result, the power of democratic and emancipatory education for critical consciousness is denied, creating a division between theory and practice — leading to a dichotomy. For this reason, the suppression and collective exploitation of the privileged and non-elite continue to grow increasingly in the capitalist system.

‘’We know that many individuals in the United States have used feminist thinking to educate themselves in ways that allow them to transform their lives. 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.’’ (p. 9)

hooks highlights the commodification of feminist theory, just as in the commodification of the Black movement, within the patriarchy in the white supremacist capitalist system. Accordingly, within this capitalist culture, the feminist movement and feminist theory quickly become a luxury for the privileged. At this point, inclusivity is lost.

As hooks states in her article, writing-theoretical talk-to, inviting people to think critically and participate in the practice of feminism is the most meaningful option. According to hooks, “theory as a liberatory practice” arises from the concrete instead of the abstract; from the efforts to make sense of their experiences and views on daily life, and from the attempts to intervene critically in life and other people’s lives. Therefore, it is this structure that makes feminist transformation possible. At this point, “personal testimony, personal experience, is such fertile ground for the production of laboratory feminist theory because usually, it forms the base of our theory-making” (p. 8). We always encounter problems in areas such as efforts to increase the literacy rate, ending the violence that women and children are exposed to, women’s health, reproductive rights and sexual freedom. As a result of these, we are involved in a critical theorising process that shows its existence in all areas of life. For this reason, this process does not belong only to the academy. On the contrary, it spreads in life and is fed by the elements in life.

hooks shows that even though they come from different cultures and colours, all academicians are always considered as singular creators in putting forward all theories, especially feminist theory. The theory and approaches to creating it are presented in patterns suitable for the elite and privileged. However, these patterns don’t relate to real-life experiences. The theory developed by hooks for liberatory practice brings with it a series of applications that break the cycle of hegemonic and oppressive approaches. It should be remembered that hooks’ notion of democratic access to this ever-emergent praxis is a collective feminist approach that creates discussion and invites people to this environment.

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Hooks, B. (1991). “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism: Vol. 4, Iss. 1, Article 2.

[1] Biana, H. (2020). Extending bell hooks’ Feminist Theory. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 21(1), 13–29. Available at:

Deniz Saygi is a current PhD student at Middle East Technical University in Science and Technology Policy Studies. Deniz also holds degrees from Ankara University (MA Latin American Studies) and TOBB University of Economics and Technology (BA International Relations and Affairs). Deniz writes contributions for the Earth Refuge, Human Rights Pulse and Sustainability for Students. She currently is selected as the Max Thabiso Edkins Climate Ambassador for the Global Climate Youth Network, hosted by the World Bank.

Originally published at on March 18, 2022.



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