ENC1145: Writing About Nature

What exactly is “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?” by rdow
January 28, 2010, 1:17 pm
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We did not get to finish our discussion of this term today, but I think it is important to be clear on the meaning of this term, and more specifically hooks’ intended meaning of this term. To that end, I would like to add to the previous blog post that defined these terms by looking more closely at these definitions and adding hooks’ own definitions of these terms.

What “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” isn’t:

First, lets keep in mind that imperialist, white supremacist, and capitalist are all adjectives modifying the noun patriarchy. As we will soon see, patriarchy is a concept; as a noun, it is a “thing,” not a “person” or “place.” Thus, the term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” describes a  concept, more specifically a worldview or set of values. In her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, hooks explains her use of the term: “I often use the phrase ‘imperialist white-supremacist capi­talist patriarchy’ to describe the interlocking political sys­tems that are the foundation of our nation’s politics” (17).

Thus, hooks identifies these terms as systems, not individual people or groups. Because the term is conceptual, it cannot refer to a specific person or group of people. In other words, a person cannot be “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy;” however,  a person can support, uphold, or perpetuate “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Such a person could be of any race, sex, nationality, class, religion, or sexuality–it is a question of values rather than personal identity. So yes, a white male can be a supporter of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (as someone brought up in our class discussion yesterday),  but so can a working-class African American woman or a middle-class Hispanic gay man. This also means that a white man (or any person) could also be a critic and resister of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”–again, it is a question of the personal and political values to which one adheres; it is not dependent upon race, sex, or other identity markers. What connects all of these terms is that they are all focused on power-over models of domination.

hooks’ definition of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy:”

After writing the above, I found this video of hooks discussing her use of the term. Start the video at 4:33 to get to the part on “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (this was taped before hooks added “imperialist” to this phrase).

hooks’ Definition of Feminism

hooks’ focus on concepts/systems rather than individuals is also clear in her definition of feminism. In her book Feminism is for Everybody, hooks writes (bold emphasis is mine):

“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than ten years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism” (1).

For hooks (and I would say most feminists), sexism, like “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” can be practiced and supported (as well as challenged and resisted) by anyone.  This is the perspective and set of values she is adopting when she gives a feminist analysis.


As already stated in a previous blog, Merriam-Webster defines imperialism as “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly : the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence.”

Imperialism is best thought of as a dominant empire that conquers various lands and imposes their government, values, politics, and economy, and way of life upon that civilization. The British Empire is a good example of this, and one you are likely familiar with from your history courses. But how can the U.S. be considered imperialist today? It is the most dominant country economically, culturally, and militarily. It is argued that this dominance is used as power over others–for example, when an American corporation like Walmart sets up factories in rural China with very low pay and dangerous working conditions, this can be seen as oppressive Imperialist power. This example also highlights the interconnection between imperialism and capitalism. For more discussion of the U.S. as an empire with multiple points of view on this issue, see this New York Times article. For more on the connections between imperialism and capitalism, click here.

White Supremacy

hooks intends “white supremacy” as one concept, not two separate ones. The encyclopedia Brittannica defines “white supremacy” as follows:

beliefs and ideas asserting the natural superiority of the lighter-skinned, or “white,” human races over other racial groups. In contemporary usage, the term white supremacist has been used to describe some groups espousing ultranationalist, racist, or fascist doctrines. White supremacist groups often have relied on violence to achieve their goals. From the 19th to the mid-20th century the doctrine of white supremacy was largely taken for granted by political leaders and social scientists in Europe and the United States.

Despite protestations that racism no longer exists, there is plenty of evidence that white supremacy continues to exist today. The first and most obvious support is the continued existence and activity of white supremacist hate groups–click here to see a map of active hate groups in the U.S. as of 2008. You can not only see how many active hate groups are located in each state, but can see the list and location of these groups within any given state.

Hate groups are known to enact violence, and yes they are in the minority. bell hooks acknowledges that most people do not commit violent racist acts when she states “those who allow [racial] prejudice to lead them to hostile acts are in the minority no matter the class standing of the neighborhood” (Belonging 56). However, a person can still be racially prejudiced without ever enacting racial violence or joining a white supremacist group. Racial prejudice could be a conscious adherence to racial stereotypes (believing that a particular racial group is lazy, stupid, violent, more primitive or animalistic, for example). However, it could also be a more unconscious preference for whiteness (for example, questioning the credentials and competence of a Hispanic doctor or African-American teacher  much more than you would have if that person had been white). What is inherent in all of these views is a privileging of whiteness.

Don’t believe that such unconscious values exist? Well, Harvard had been studying this for quite some time in what they are calling Project Implicit. These researchers have developed  the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures one’s unconscious preferences and beliefs about various topics. According to their background page,

The IAT was originally developed as a device for exploring the unconscious roots of thinking and feeling. This web site has been constructed for a different purpose — to offer the IAT to interested individuals as a tool to gain greater awareness about their own unconscious preferences and beliefs.

Many years ago, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

These lines from Dostoyevsky capture two concepts that the IAT helps us examine. First, we might not always be willing to share our private attitudes with others. Second, we may not be aware of some of our own attitudes. Your results on the IAT may include both components of control and awareness.

If you are interested–and you are by no means required to take this test, but (like me) you may find this interesting/informative–you can take a variety of their demo tests (including preferences/beliefs based on skin color, sexuality, gender/career, age, weight, and more) by clicking here. If you want to actually take part in the study (unlike the demo, your results will be used for research purposes), you can click here.

Before moving on, it is important to note that anyone can uphold white supremacy, regardless of race. hooks makes this clear in her writing. In Belonging, for example, she writes, “The disdain with which some black folks regarded poor white folk was definitely an inherited legacy of white supremacist hierarchies” (53). She also makes this clear when she discusses her grandmother’s abuse of her dark-skinned sister in the video posted above. So again, white supremacy is a concept, a value or belief, that anyone can uphold and perpetuate.


Merriam-Webster defines “capitalism” as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”

We will be talking about capitalism more in two weeks when we watch Food, Inc. and then read John Bellamy Foster’s The Ecological Revolution the following week, so I would like to hold off any further discussion of capitalism until that time. However, I do want to harken back to our Walmart example from last week as an example of power-over structures within capitalism, which then links it to these other categories hooks is discussing. If you really want more info, I do recommend the Wikipedia entry on capitalism as a good basic intro.


The definition of patriarchy offered by Merriam-Webster is

1: social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly : control by men of a disproportionately large share of power
2 : a society or institution organized according to the principles or practices of patriarchy

In The Will to Change, hooks offers this definition of patriarchy: “Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence” (18). Not only an issue of violent action, gender bias is also consciously/unconsciously present in everyday assumptions, beliefs, and values. Examples include gender stereotypes, gender-based discriminatory practices, the socialization of gender roles, etc.  Again, the IAT tests on gender issues are an interesting way to gauge your own personal feelings about this if you are interested.

This does not mean that every man is “patriarchal;” once again, this is a conceptual view that anyone can perpetuate. Far from blaming men or seeing men as solely responsible for patriarchy, hooks writes, “we need to highlight the role women play in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchal culture so that we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally, even if men receive more rewards from that system. Dismantling and changing patriarchal culture is work that men and women must do together” (The Will to Change 24, emphasis mine).

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