Why I’m No Longer Listening to White Academics on Race | Joseph Prebble
As of today, we’re set to be forbidden from socialising in sevens or more. With any luck the nation will soon be housebound and taking to Twitter to argue about everything again. Incidentally, it might be a good idea to monitor the mental health of two locked-down trial groups: one with access to Twitter, and one without, but that’s a study for another day. At moment of writing, Twitter is telling us what a meanie renegade actor Laurence Fox is for getting into a row with fellow thespian and former friend Rebecca Front. Predictably, it’s about Black Lives Matter, and a sort of snapshot of the summer.
Before going on, we need to be clear about what is meant by Black Lives Matter – except you can’t, really. It can vary from a statement of fact to the eponymous organisation, complete with merchandise and quasi-manifesto. There isn’t anything to solemnly define it as anything in between: rallying cry, movement, loose collection of principles, or not-quite-officially-an-organisation of individuals. The slogan, at least, should be universally agreeable for all sensibly minded people. Nonetheless, many, without disagreeing, quibble about the choice of wording. Why not all lives matter?
Actually this is where Laurence Fox and his allies are naïve. In an ideal world, with a brief clarification that there’s an implicit ‘too’, that the focus is on those lives that are likelier to die at the hands of the police or elsewhere, people would get on board without too much discomfort. But we don’t live in that world, and people are rigid, which is why political campaigns spend zillions on consultants and focus groups to furnish a slogan that summarises and sells a message without any to-and-fro. Now one that requires a twelve-panel meme or an analogy about a burning house to explain may not be very effective in this task, but we are where we are. The slogan should serve the cause, and people (usually white people, if we’re going to play this game) tearing each other’s e-throats out over which slogan is ‘correct’ does zilch to help people of colour facing systemic discrimination. Some are charitably patient in explaining the importance of BLM as a slogan. Others have flooded mentions of ‘All Lives Matter’ with fancams of kpop idols’ intricate choreographies, with celebrities such as the oaf James Corden cheering them on. In the frequent occurrence that the argument gets nowhere, the ALM candidate is usually invited (or ordered) to ‘educate yourself’.
For we are in the age of educating ourselves. So I did. I ordered copies of the two books that have surfaced as conventional required reading: campaigner Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, and anti-racist seminar leader Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. This is not a comprehensive review of either. There are enough reviews of the former, whether praising its refreshing candidness or deconstructing various claims within, that can be read online for this article to repeat points made well by others. And the latter is less a book than a test of your capacity to be willingly credulous. But if you’re dying to read another white guy’s thoughts on them, let me offer one or two reflections.
A bit like the slogan BLM, some on the right have got no further than Eddo-Lodge’s choice of title. She tells a story of a man who attended a book signing to harangue her about how racist it was and chased her afterwards to continue his soliloquy. It is meant to grab your attention. If it does, buy it, dive in, and engage with the nuance. Indeed it is taken from an earlier blog post in which she explains that of course she doesn’t mean all white people – just the very many whose ears fill with treacle when she speaks about race. Still, there are some so desperate to prove themselves as good that they hail it as necessary reading, as something infallible. Insofar as systemic racism exists, but will be invisible or less visible to those who won’t have experienced it, it is right to hear out someone who has with an open mind. Even so, there is no such thing as holy writ on racism. Otherwise, there is nothing then to stop a teenage conservative consuming the collected works of Candace Owens and claiming they’ve done their reading. So education, self- or otherwise, is not a lecture; rather, it requires questioning, probing, and stress-testing what you’re reading even as you read it.
But take the book seriously and you might learn something, beginning with intersectionality. This is the idea that if any two things exist (race and gender, say), their intersection also exists, and in turn its intersection with any number of any other categories exists. You can slice and dice your way into ever more precisely refined categories. It may sound very theoretical, and the right loves to laugh at it, but there is something to it. Eddo-Lodge describes a TED talk given by campaigner Kimberlé Crenshaw. You should watch it. She gives a real example of a black woman for whom gender- and race-based employment protections existed, but on account of her black womanhood fell through the net. There is about zero chance this was an isolated case.
Eddo-Lodge gives a variety of examples of the facile conservative response mocking the whole principle of intersectionality. Many have noted how the culture war has never been so much won by progressives as surrendered by default by conservatives who never put up a fight – how the left has strolled rather than marched through the institutions, so to speak, and been able to redraw cultural boundaries at will. It’s no wonder when the left will make at least an initial attempt to acknowledge obscure discrimination while the right will roll around laughing. The left has been able to assemble a masse of academic theory on the basis of genuine injustices while the right hasn’t even got its suit trousers on.
So now Critical Race Theorists have licence to own intersection theory and, rather than just recognising and rectifying injustice, will presuppose its existence and use it as its lens for seeing every conceivable interaction. As the internet tour guide will tell you that if there exists anything, there exists porn of it, so the Critical Race Theorist will tell you that if any intersection of identities exists, there exists oppression of it. Hence DiAngelo’s fascination with ‘habitus’, the idea that every person is socialised into their immediate environment, with all the dimensions of their identity at play. In our social discourse, societal racism is assumed to frame almost any public discussion.
It frames especially the issue of immigration, where Eddo-Lodge criticises The Labour Party’s 2015 coffee mugs promising ‘Controls on Immigration’. Yes, a British-born guy probably won’t experience the brunt of the immigration debate, and he should certainly be willing to listen to those who have, but it stretches credibility to accuse these mugs of playing into fears of black domination. Anyone who takes a glimpse into these easily heated issues will quickly learn about identity politics. Ideally, identity politics should be for all. That isn’t to say that all experiences are identical. Eddo-Lodge is quite right to say that she and a white person don’t enter a conversation as equals, insofar as one will (usually) have seen the modern insidiousness of racism substantially more than the other. Of course they are equals as people, and should listen to each other, in the same way that a Fields medal winner and first-year mathematics undergraduate should enter into a discussion with the same mutual respect and readiness to listen, but with markedly unequal contributions to make.
And if anything, that should be the basis for the whole meta-debate we’re now in. There is no such thing as a conversation where one person has nothing to offer. It might even be possible to acknowledge how identity simultaneously if unequally shapes people’s experiences. Even in 2015 a YouGov poll found that white men in the UK are the most derided group for alleged ‘drunkenness, sleeping around, work, and politeness’. If that may not be very convincing, consider the fury at a 2019 Esquire magazine profile of ‘An American Boy’, which explored ‘what it’s like to grow up white, middle class, and male’ in today’s culture. This won’t outweigh the various ways in which some careers and experiences are set at a disadvantage to black Americans – and it isn’t a competition anyway. But stifle attempts to tentatively explore how identify politics shapes the lives of white teenagers, or whoever else, and there will be plenty of sinister Twitter and 4chan dwellers who will take up the task, complete with their threads collating evidence supporting the theory that the media demonise ‘whiteness’.
Of course, actual discourse is boring. We are now all activists. Exciting! Black squares are posted like battle flags; infographics upon infographics are shared. And if you’re not fussed about putting your tuppence in, there is the insistence that ‘white silence is violence’. No, it isn’t, and a clever rhyme isn’t an excuse to equate inattention with physical harm. You do not have the right to every other citizen’s activism on your chosen issue, unless you want expectations of outspokenness on any injustice globally. Show me a white silence and I’ll raise you a non-Yemeni, or non-Uyghur Muslim, or born human silence.
The British angle on the debate has focused on statues, with depictions of slave traders and other nasties pulled down. Cheered on by some MPs, activists have bypassed or given up on legal routes and the public discussion that it would involve. Really, we should be asking very delicately whether and how a statue depicting a slave trader is tangibly offensive. There is very obviously no question as to the evil of the slave trade, or whether its legacy exists in various inherited ways today. But is it possible to bear the horror of actions done to others, as if you had experienced them yourself? Does a statue measurably contribute to systemic injustice? The answers may indeed be yes, and let’s listen respectfully to those who say so. But these are not obvious, and the case should be heard before we go about tearing things down. The kpop stans have got involved, and some have proposed the replacement of statues with ones of BTS’s Jeon Jungkook. Perhaps one day it will be the his likeness rather than Churchill’s in Parliament Square (personally, I favour statues of both in every town centre in the land).
Perhaps if we can stop wasting time discussing blocks of stone, we can begin to consider how to tackle real injustices. Perhaps reforming stop and search, which targets black men at nine times the rate of white men. Then properly improving education, encouraging strong families, funding youth centres, and encouraging fuller public scrutiny of the justice system to tackle the school-to-exclusion-to-prison pipeline, which contributes towards black people constituting 12% of the UK prison system. Americans in particular might consider writing to their representatives to encourage finally fixing the ancient redlining systems that keep black children in inferior schools.
Then there is the more insidious racism whereby a person with a non-white-sounding name is frequently less likely to get a call back for an interview. Notwithstanding cases of intentional discrimination, this is where unconscious bias creeps in. Once again, for all the controversy around the term, there is something to it. Psychologists tell us that we are consciously aware of roughly 5% of information our brains process, so it’s hardly inconceivable that unintentional prejudices may influence our decision making. This isn’t even a political point. Taking a little time to examine our own minds, or indeed encouraging officers in some police departments and others with racially sensitive responsibilities to identify their own biases with the aid of trained psychologists, shouldn’t be too terrifying. Eddo-Lodge draws attention to an anonymous survey from as recently as the 1980s of police trainees who exhibited astonishingly racist prejudices.
Unconscious bias examination is a relatively benign inch of which DiAngelo and her admirers take a mile. Indeed it’s difficult to distinguish one chapter of White Fragility from another, each gift-wrapping the helplessness of our racist socialisation and need for repentance in a slightly different context. Behold, the system of ‘whiteness’, which becomes a whole religion. What a silly hyperbole, until you see footage of groups of white Americans taking a knee in unison before a group of black Americans, and public assemblies of white Americans raising their hands and renouncing their white privilege. No wonder. Read White Fragility credulously and you’ll have shame for your original sin of racism, ‘strive to be less white’, and find yourself trapped in a lifelong cycle of reflection, confession, penance, and further on-message reading. It’s all the penitential rigour of Catholicism with none of the benefits of eternal salvation.
DiAngelo likes to cite media such as a film (of which the reader, especially the non-American reader, may never have even heard) as examples of their inevitable socialisation. There are, of course, contemporary films that address racism with their own artistic licence, such as Get Out, complete with a creepy white couple, making a hilariously ham-fisted attempt to assuage the black protagonist’s apprehensions by boasting that they voted for Obama. Above all else, DiAngelo seems to insist, don’t think rationally. In a chapter largely dedicated to telling white women not to cry, she gives a series of commands for white men: don’t play the ‘devil’s advocate’ (i.e., speak outside the approved box of ideas), for that is ‘arrogant and disingenuous’; don’t propose any ‘answer to racism’ (i.e. make any attempt to solve it), for that is ‘simplistic and presumptuous’; don’t suggest class divisions (i.e. think in any higher dimensions), for that is ‘channel-switching’; and above all, don’t recommend books (only she can do that, and twenty-nine of them too, including articles and blogs, for your ‘entry point’), for that is ‘intellectualizing and distancing’. Et cetera.
This, in brief, is your mind on Critical Race Theory. It is inconceivable to DiAngelo that a white person and nonwhite person can just get along. Have a friend with a different skin colour? ‘Racism cannot be absent from your friendship’. In fact, if the two of you haven’t discussed racism at some point, there’s a lack of trust. It brings to mind that meme of the griller, with his black but otherwise identically drawn friend, merrily grilling together, with the caption ‘This is what the establishment fears’. The assumption that racism infects every single cross-racial relationship is what enables her to speak to organisations trying in earnest to rid themselves of racism for $15,000 a pop. Nice work if you can get it.
Of course we should never dismiss the possibility of racism when raised. When a person of colour, or anyone, speaks to you about racism, listen and prepare for discomfort if necessary. In a society where mindfulness and individual pride are gods, and judgement is an evil, is it any wonder that some people’s ears might be so quick to fill with treacle when they’re discomforted? Wouldn’t a little widespread humility, even appropriate humour, go some way to defusing this most taboo of subjects? Singer and influencer Tyler Joseph, asked by some followers to use his platform to endorse Black Lives Matter, made a light joke exhibiting his platforms (which hip kids tell me refer to his shoes). Within hours he apologised for the off-message quip and pledged allegiance to BLM. Meanwhile, football commentators tell us what a powerful show of unity is made by players and officials taking a knee, maintaining the pretence that these are twenty-five independent actors free of fear of social sanction. Thus there becomes the paradox whereby, depending on whom you ask, BLM is simultaneously a ubiquitous brand endorsed by every company of note and a necessary message that has barely broken through.
Both are correct. Nearly the entire cultural establishment supports Black Lives Matter, but that isn’t the same thing as complete unconscious racial neutrality filtering down to every recruitment centre, workplace, and police station. Nor is it clear how the former will achieve the latter. Hence the desperation to cleanse every cereal, pancake mix, packet of rice, and syrup of every problematic externality until police officers stop killing innocent Americans.
We need to take a breath. Conservatism isn’t the same thing as reflexive resistance to every which form of change, but it does mean reflection and deliberation in enacting it. That begins with listening to anyone with something earnest to say, but most especially those whose lives have been shaped by racism. In fact, we’re better off not listening at all to white academics. Not all white academics, of course. Just those who make a handsome buck by poisoning relations between everyone with pseudo-intellectual drivel.