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Thoughts on racism

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…


  1. Richard Carter Richard Carter

    Agree wholeheartedly on the (recent, as far as I can tell) tactic of telling people they should not express opinions on certain topics because they have ‘privilege’ (a noun with an implied capital P). I see this as a not particularly subtle variant of the argument from authority fallacy.

  2. 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.

    Yes, this is a huge problem.

    I grew up in Australia, but I’m American now. And I regularly see this.

    There are lots of racism problems in the USA. We badly need a period of open discussion, a “let it all hang out, no holds barred” kind of discussion. But the instinct to attack anyone who says something you disagree with, acts to inhibit the kind of public discussion that we need.

  3. I don’t know why people objected to your New Zealand comments, but not being party to the discussion I have to consider the possibility that I’m missing something. That country does seem less encumbered with politicians egging on the worst of human cultural relations, and without for a moment diminishing the myriad of problems I know nothing about (but would, in principle, listen to and seek to refine my views on the grounds thereof), I don’t see how such specific comparisons might perpetuate further institutional racism. (I also hypothesise that New Zealand’s small size facilitates an attitude that national issues are everyone’s business, in contrast to Australia.)

    Certainly people who view themselves (/ourselves) as progressive can sometimes be quick to judge, and it’s a valid question to ask if that’s a systemic issue in progressive culture or merely a corollory of “progressives are human”. I tend to the latter but if we stop asking we stop being vigilent about self-improvement. I agree that cynicism (manifest as the presumptive attribution of unseemly motives) is absolutely toxic.

    I do not detect a tendency among self-identifying progressives to assume that “if all is not achieved, nothing counts”, and surely if being a progressive means anything at all, it means valuing progress, which is the antithesis of that attitude. Folk who refuse to vote on the grounds that all parties are flawed are not progressives and I’ve not seen them identified as such.

    Privilege, properly understood, is a fine thing to be aware of, and over the course of our lives most of us will find ourselves in situations where we are the most privileged party and situations where we are the least. People who dismiss the need to acknowledge their own may end up shooting themselves in the foot.

    Some things in your introductory paragraph might be flagged as potentially problematic, including the thin line between finding people fascinating and exoticising them, but such issues can be raised without taking an accusatory tone.

  4. Dawkins wrote someplace that races are illusory but racism or at least the predisposition to racism is bred in the bone. He suggests that our species has an in-built tendency to perceive others of our kind as falling into significant groups on the basis of superficial heritable differences. When a cop asks you to describe someone, the first two characteristics he asks about are gender and race because everybody notices these features even if they remember nothing else about a passing stranger. I don’t know if Dawkins is right about a universal human tendency to racism or whether this sort of thing is just prevalent in our part of the species; but I definitely disagree with him on the other part of his idea, an assumption which has become an obligatory commonplace among right-thinking and for that matter many wrong-thinking people. It seems to me that the implication that races are somehow unreal because racial divisions are cultural conventions is profoundly wrong. They are indeed cultural conventions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t deadly real.

    Let me propose an analogy. No blood test will determine if you’re recently divorced, but explaining to the judge that you feel that you were never really a married won’t get you out of alimony. A person is free to reject a given group identity, but that doesn’t get them out of the group since the decision is not (ordinarily) up to them. Similarly, the reality of race is, at any given time, a destiny for the affected individuals, which in a country like mine means everybody, the black people who are defined as black, but also the white people who are defined as not black and even the Asians and other groups who are defined as not black if in different ways.

    I object to the notion that what defines us is the body or even just the genome and that culture is just graffiti scribbled on outer walls. As far as I’m concerned that’s a metaphysical prejudice, a vulgar form of dualism. We’re all nomos and all physis all the time. Traditional racists want to insist that negritude is genetic, though that seems rather dubious as a matter of fact, especially if you factor in the American one-drop-of-blood rule. The anti-racists want to claim that obvious differences between cultural defined groups are irrelevant, presumably because like Mercator’s North poles and equators racial demarcations are merely conventional signs. The bleeding fact is that racial identity is not simply a matter of ascriptions, and ascriptions aren’t just matters of individual consciousness. It isn’t just psychology. American society not only implicitly defines black people as inferior. It works ceaselessly to make them inferior. The degree to which it has succeeded is the overwhelming tragedy and injustice of my nation’s history.

    Because racism is not merely a matter of attitudes, the tendency to subject people to a puristic moral standard about their feelings towards other races is more than the irritating habit of certain carping ideologues, It’s almost a category mistake. It’s reminiscent of the agonies that preachers put themselves and their parishioners through wondering if they were really saved. It’s self indulgent. The state of my soul may be deplorable, but washing it in the blood of the lamb again or, in this case, engaging in one more bout of confession about white guilt is simply irrelevant. Meanwhile, in America at least, race is more salient than ever, not as psychodrama but as sociology and politics. I don’t give a damn whether Trump voters hate black people and Latinos. I care that their boy and his minions are working furiously to suppress minority voters, increase the de facto resegregation of public schools, decrease the real progressivity of the tax system, make health care unavailable to millions, and continue the mass incarceration of despised races.

    I’m very skeptical about the virtues of consciousness raising, though I will admit I sometimes wish a few more Americans had some knowledge about their own history. I suspect many enemies of the project of an egalitarian nation are perfectly well aware of the most basic facts of the situation. Actively racist policies are needed to keep the brown people down because the hierarchical system of the races has to be recreated in every generation. The answer to why black people have remained behind other immigrant groups is not mysterious to them. They don’t have to read Howard Zinn to find out about that—it’s part of the political arcana of the white race. They’re still down because we’ve never let up on keeping them down.

    The racial normal in the United States is a huge benefit to white people, especially white people who don’t have a lot else going for ‘em. Why should they not want it just because it isn’t moral? Everybody harbors an inner psychopath, and that psychopath doesn’t truck with principles or compassion. You have to be taught to hate or so its says the lyrics to an old show tune. Thing is, it’s a it easier to teach if hating pays so well.*

    A lot of what’s going on in contemporary America is just the routine exploitation of xenophobia and racial animus by a plutocratic party. Back before the election, I was hoping that the outbreak would be the Pickett’s Charge of a white Christian America doomed by demographic and technological change. That was pretty optimistic. I don’t think I have enough credit (or blame) to the appeal of the alt-right vanguard of the eruption. I think of their line as vulgar Nietzscheanism, a kind of racism and sexism that is proscriptive rather than descriptive. You can’t counter an ideology like that by promoting a perpetual guilt trip or by writing another careful demolition of the Bell Curve. its votaries think they are beyond good and evil even if, on the evidence, they are mostly just beyond good and bad. In their version of the three metamorphoses of the spirit there may be a few lions, but there are an awful lot of camels and absolutely no babies

    *Something similar underlies the parallel struggle about women’s rights. It might be the rational and decent (air quotes) thing to do to accede to gender equality; it might even be best from the point of view of economic efficiency; but if, as a matter of fact, we can put the women back in their place, why not do it?

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