For many years, I have been very hesitant to speak about race. I’m white (a stupid social construction in itself), male and middle class. Every time I make a comment, in come the critics, attacking me on everything from my own group identity (which, by the way, I do not adopt; being on the spectrum, I never saw people as anything but either nice to me or nasty to me. I’m not colour blind, of course, but usually I was fascinated by my aboriginal, Japanese, and subcontinental schoolfriends, not prejudiced, despite my context and upbringing) to my intentions and personality flaws (there are lots).
I was taken to task recently for defending New Zealand, which is not my own country, as being generally less racist than other countries (especially my own, which puts foreigners in indefinite and inhumane detention for being refugees, and then refuses them medical and psychological treatment, or, if it does, takes away their right to any kind of support). I was accused of privilege (which I do have) and told that saying some place or society is less racist is itself racist. I’m not going to defend myself here, but it raised a few questions in my mind.
One was why it is wrong, on the purity account, to suggest a society is comparatively less racist than others. So long as there is some racism, that society is racist, I agree. But if we cannot compare outcomes, every society is equivalent to a genocidal racist nation. And that seems to me to defeat the purpose of opposing racism. If no progress is ever worth noting, it seems to me most members of a culture or class or nation will end up too weary to fight, since they will be told not that they have worked for equality and justice, but that they haven’t, and never will, worked hard enough. Why never? Simply because no matter how one organises one’s institutions, new forms of discrimination will always arise. Human beings are born difference makers. The point of anti-discriminatory institutions – laws, regulations, conventions, and practices – is to work against these as they rise up, and to defeat the old ways of enforcing inequality.
Racism, like all forms of class discrimination (by which I mean discrimination in virtue of the classification people fall into), is absolutely wrong in my opinion. But a totally egalitarian society, like a totally religion-free society, is, if not impossible, practically impossible to achieve. The ideal of egalitarian society is admirable, and indeed it is necessary. Ideals set a target, a ne plus ultra, that we measure the state of society against, in order to identify shortcomings that need to be addressed. But I cannot accept the view, often touted by progressives, that if all is not achieved, nothing counts. This is absurd purity; never to be attained.
As Robert Browning said, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” and the irony of that comment is that today “man” would be seen as anti egalitarian itself. But I hope nobody would say that the state of women’s rights is as bad as it was in Browning’s day, even if (and nobody can deny it) things are not egalitarian. Once women could not own property. Now they can. If that is not a comparative improvement, what could be?
We must be able to measure improvements, even if subjectively. Yes, New Zealand has racists; and yes they are thick on the ground in many places. Even so, New Zealand’s adoption and implementation of the Treaty of Waitangi, or Canada’s granting of statehood to Inuits in what is now the Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut, and Inuvik Regions is an improvement on what went before. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t necessarily even the best of achievable outcomes. But it’s better than before. And it is something that countries like Australia should attend to, not as an absolute ideal, but rather as a relative improvement, for its own indigenous populations and regions.
Second, it seems to me that a white bourgeois male in an industrialised nation can say these things, despite his privilege. Often, being told “check your privilege” effectively says to WBMs, “Say nothing” [here’s a good discussion of what it actually implies]. Yes, most WBMs are racist, sexist, heteronormative, etc. And yes, having been raised in a white-only society in the 1960s, I have not understood always what my privilege meant. But why check my privilege if I am not allowed to even talk about this? Why should it be a conversation stopper?
In part, the problem here isn’t the underlying concepts, but black and white thinking (I’m sorry, that’s what it has actually been called for years; I would refer to it as inappropriate dichotomisation, but that isn’t as descriptive or accessible). It is our tendency to put things into two or a few relatively all-encompassing buckets. It is the cause (well, the mediate cause; as a proto-Marxist I would suggest class-based thinking of this kind is due to socioeconomic forces) of tribalism, racism itself, and gender-exclusion.
Full and final equality for all exceeds our grasp. In no way does that indicate we should not fight towards those heavenly states. They form asymptotes, limits that may be approached but never reached. And once you realise that, you can recognise when men get less sexist (or for that matter, more sexist,) societies get less institutionally racist (even though there remain racist attitudes for a long time past the institutional reforms), and less discriminatory of minorities like heterotransgressive people. And it means you recognise too that you must never stop fighting against our tendencies to demonise those who are “not us”.
Okay, now have at it (but keep it polite) in the comments…