Changing Definitions of Race

Below is the speech given by DDU Director Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert at Ideas Matter’s online event ‘The Academy Online II: Race and Racism‘ on 28 November 2020. The speech was the basis for one of the first of the Academy of Ideas Letters on Liberty pamphlets, which can be purchased here.

The speech lays out the main ideas that have been influential in the development of Don’t Divide Us, although the campaign has the support of individuals of various political affiliations (or none).

I would like to thank the boi charity for inviting me to speak. The main argument I want to make is that in today’s discourse race, and by extension, anti-racism, are being re-conceptualized. Furthermore, the terms are being redefined in ways that make solidarity – personal, social or political – very difficult, if not impossible.

It is a very peculiar thing that at a time when Britain’s population, probably in no small part due to postwar immigration, has never been more ethnically diverse, and relations are relatively civil, along comes a theory – now widely recognised as CRT – that tells us that actually, reality is the opposite of what we think it is. That underneath the generally peaceable character of most people’s lives, there is a seething bed of aggressive racism, of unbridled ‘white privilege and power’ bordering on the psychotic, that if unchecked, can lead to the literal and metaphorical erasure of black lives.  It’s no wonder many are perplexed, and, as a psychologist I know recently noted,  most people generally act in good faith, and do not see themselves as, or want to be seen as, racists,  and so concepts such as ‘unconscious bias’ come to be half-heartedly accepted. If you think to yourself ‘I can’t remember having been consciously racist, then well, maybe I am unconsciously biased in a racist way.’

For me, the utter degradation of the new anti-racism was recently exemplified in the Channel 4 programme ‘The School That Tried to End Racism’. Diversity experts were brought in to teach black pupils that black is white and white is black. Children who played together as equals were told they are not equal at all. The more black children admitted their disadvantages and feelings of upset, the more they were applauded by the teachers and ‘diversity’ experts. The more white pupils accepted descriptions of themselves as privileged, the closer they were to becoming ‘a good ally’ and winning some measure of patronizing sympathy.

Even given the fact that it was a TV programme, and therefore has to meet several, possibly conflicting goals, it was grotesque and painful to watch. How is this even possible?

Before addressing this question, I want to provide a sketch of what this new anti-racism means and some reasons for its influence. At this point, I will flashback to what anti-racism meant in the fairly recent past, when it was configured around working-class solidarity. I’m not doing this to hark back to the past but to draw out the contrasts with what it has come to mean today.

Today’s Anti-Racism

The concepts of white privilege, unconscious bias, black oppression, microaggressions and whiteness reveal the  psychological provenance of the new anti-racism. If  only Kehinde Andrews’s ‘The Psychosis of Whiteness: The Celluloid Hallucinations of Amazing Grace and Belle’ , published in 2016, had remained within the confines of post-humanist, critical social, race, film and everything else theory – a delectation to be discussed with himself and his students, then things might have been better for us, although not great for academic scholarship perhaps.

Let’s look at some of these concepts –

Whiteness –  is no longer a colour but a psychosis rooted in a fundamental inequality based on skin colour. White people, who have historically occupied most high-status positions in political and public life, and other positions of power, cannot possibly know the experience of a black person.

White privilege –  a trickier one because there are these darned statistics that show it is in fact often white males who are at the bottom of the pile. So, some creative thinking is called for. Although white people can suffer from poverty and other disadvantages, they cannot have experienced life as a black person and therefore, can have no idea of what it feels like to be in a minority.  Black people in Britain are a numerical minority and from this it is assumed that their experiences of life, even if socially and economically successful, will always be marked by this experience, and the psychological depredations that it entails.

Being a good ally – This presupposes that white people cannot be neutral or bystanders in a context where black people are being subjected to such egregious, day-in-day-out racial harassment. The harassment may be subtle, it is no longer the explicit racialised slurs, humiliating treatment at the hands of immigration police or being frostily told that the room for rent has been taken. Today’s racism has such wily and subtle forms that actually most of us can’t really see it. This only proves how ill-educated and unaware the majority of us are. And to address this, we need to…

Educate ourselves – But today’s anti-racists don’t mean go and meet and talk with people of different skin colours, or read widely, or think deeply and maybe write your thoughts freely in a way that is true to yourself.  No. The new meaning of ‘educate yourself’ means to uncritically read, or say you’ve read and love, a small number of books that share the same message:

1) Black people need to examine and re-examine their feelings and memories – sifting for all those moments of self-doubt caused by words or acts that have remained un-called out; deeds that have been excused by giving the benefit of doubt ; or maybe just ignored.

2) White people need to educate themselves by reading books that reveal their privilege to them and suggest they embrace an amount of monitoring, and positive discrimination. Most importantly, they need to understand that to question the testimony of a black person is not an acceptable part of an attempt to ascertain truth, or establish common understanding  – it  is an actual threat to black subjectivity. Reni Eddo Lodge, author of the best-seller  ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ – responds to being questioned by white people:

“Their intent is often not to listen and learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo.”

If to talk and to question is accepted as an exertion of unwarranted power, then there can be no basis for any level of communication, never mind solidarity. The new anti-racism says race is a construct, but it’s a construct race experts/activists/academics need in order to justify their existence as anti-racist experts, who are obviously needed to help us ‘educate ourselves’.

Moreover, race is essentialised – it is given the authority of a fact of nature – and in a banal sense, it is true to say that a white person cannot experience life as a black person experiences it. But this is true of all and any individual. We don’t have full or direct access to another’s interiority – that’s why, over the course of human history, we have created a symbolic culture, the most important part of which is language itself. So, if we accept language as the tool of oppression as Eddo Lodge and others claim it is – then we can contribute nothing but our atonement. And this is what ‘educate yourself’ ultimately means: mea culpa, recant or suffer the consequences.

My objection – or one of them,  to this narrative is the reduction of human experience and subjectivity to being wholly determined by a single factor or variable.

In reality we have multiple affiliations and criss-cross between groups we are put into by external agencies, and those we choose for ourselves.  We can be both a minority and majority simultaneously depending on what variable we give precedence to.

For example, a black student at a campus is a minority if the chosen variable is skin colour, but the same student will be part of the majority if the variable is age.

As I said at the start,  if limited to academia all this would be bad enough. But even worse is the spread of these ideas – across the boundary of sacred and profane knowledge – into our social world.

Here’s an example from the 2019  EHRC report on Racial Harassment at Universities, which is cited in this week’s Universities UK report, which proposes training for academics in ‘white privilege’ and ‘unconscious bias’.

Racism is defined as:

·         unwanted behaviour, related to a protected characteristic, that violates a person’s dignity

·         or behaviour that creates a hostile environment.

The criteria are completely subjective – there is no objective guide as to what might constitute violating personal dignity or a make an environment hostile. This is left for the implied victim to interpret their feeling and nothing more is required. The same approach is often applied to scholarship and research where the normal obligations and standards can be ignored.

It is deeply worrying that a major public educational institution should propose far reaching changes on the basis of a call for student responses which elicited 581 responses – the total student cohort for 2018/19 was 2.38 million (HESA). This was not the only material used, but this is typical of the quality of the rest of the evidence given.

By any established criteria or standards of empirical research, this is ludicrous.

Today’s anti-racists, then, are not bearers of new enlightened knowledge.

Their ideas are more like beliefs or opinions, which try and garner some intellectual status even though their knowledge claims fail to meet established standards of reliable knowledge. Instead they rely on poetic rhetorical devices and highly selective examples from history or statistics, in order to explain contemporary social reality. Here’s a sample from Reni Eddo Lodge:

To talk with defiant white people is a frankly dangerous task for me.”  She cannot, she claims, continue to exhaust herself through her efforts.

“Generation after generation of white wealth amassed from the profits of slavery, compounded, seeping into the fabric of British society.”

Like mud or blood or both. Poetic maybe – but a self-evident truth? Definitely not. Her prose is good, showing her academic background in literature – her use of history highly selective – and her aim, well, whatever it is, it includes a heavy dose of claiming epistemological authority and ethical status by presenting herself as in imminent existential danger.

One important consequence of the epistemological weaknesses of the new anti-racism is that its proponents end up having to protect their beliefs through tactics of moral delegitimization whereby any challenge is called out as an attack on black people. If you don’t agree, you must be a racist.  In short, no matter how well-intentioned, there’s only one way this can go – that is to be more authoritarian. And consequences are being felt by more and more people outside of academia itself.

HR departments in private companies, libraries, community centres and charities are accepting these highly contentious beliefs from dodgy academic discourse and plonking them wholesale into what they see as improved professional practice. New codes of speech and behaviour abound, layers of new personnel and ‘diversity’ experts are flourishing. In some cases, the policies may be purely performative, but there are many instances where people’s livelihoods and reputations have been threatened for falling foul of such codes– not just by Twitter mobs, but by employers, administration teams and, most worryingly of all, their own colleagues.

People are not being disciplined for deliberate provocation, or telling a risqué joke even, but simply for questioning – for asking whether there may not be an alternative reading list? Could there not be an alternative way to understand a person’s words or actions? Simply for questioning. Little wonder that its critics have compared the new anti-racism to a virulent form of religious fundamentalism – heavy on original sin and light on redemption.

How have a set of divisive, intellectually weak and ethically dubious beliefs come to have such influence?

There is a longer answer to do with political disenchantment, a longstanding philosophical/epistemological question, and more recent developments within education – but save that for later maybe.  The short answer is that they have the backing of sections of our political class and institutional guardians.

The ideas of Lodge, Hirsh, Di Angelo and others, although logically incoherent and under-substantiated, are very well suited to the needs of today’s political and cultural elites. Why? Because our elites stand compromised after decades of technical managerialism – a new petit-bourgeois class –  who desperately need some legitimacy. All that monitoring and mind-numbing anti-intellectualism could never convincingly be justified by appeals to greater efficiency, or gaining a point on some league table. But perhaps our institutional desperados think they can borrow a bit of ethical gloss from being on the right side of history via today’s anti-racism – after all, technocrats and anti-racists both have a strong impulse to control people’s behaviour.

Another reason why elites (in Britain and America) are ready to endorse these beliefs, no matter how un-compelling they are, is because they target white people – the numerical majority. As has often been the case in history, the majority are seen as a potential problem from the point of view of the elites who are, like black activists, also a numerical a minority. So even if politicians and chief executives have to suck it up a bit on account of their white privilege, that’s cheap at the price for what they get in return – in addition to some measure of ethical kudos among themselves mainly, they have an ideology that ensures an ethnically diverse working class remains divided and the majority is put on the defensive before they can even speak. From an elite perspective, this is quite handy.

To me, this suggests that the new anti-racism is not something that can be dismissed as an annoying, but secondary issue. A diversion from real, class politics.  To borrow from Walter Benn Michaels and Adolphe Reed’s discussion of anti-racism in America – this is the new class politics: not in the way some of the old left understand it – where anti-racism was the agent for radical disruption of the status quo. In today’s context, it is anti-racism, not racism, that is the agent of the ethical restoration of the political status quo; not its radical subversion.

What’s the alternative? Historical anti-racism

Now for the flashback to give you an idea of what anti-racism was, and I hope important differences will become clear.

Historical anti-racism was based on a theoretical understanding of capitalism as a way of ordering society where the main differentiation lay in your relationship to the means of production – and re-production (to update it a bit, to give Bourdieu his due).  This central cleavage is expressed concretely in the existence of different classes. Inequalities are relational, but where you stand in such a social order can have important empirically observable effects – from wages, the right to own property, even to physical stature.

A capitalist social order could, under certain conditions, grant certain rights: formal rights such as equality before the law, the right to vote, freedom of movement and assembly. These were hard won gains but, capitalism was unable to grant these rights to all people, some were excluded, and for others the rights remained more rhetorical than substantive. Biological facts of skin colour were really contingent to the substance of anti-racism – and in the long ago past, the unlucky minorities in Britain have been Irish, Jewish and working-class people.

The problem for our historical anti-racist was how to ensure the formal rights afforded to some were extended to all. More radical anti-racists hoped that in this process, the limitations of formal rights per se would become evident and spur on the recognition that something more revolutionary was needed. But there was common ground with others, including liberal anti-racists, in that we shared a strategic goal: to extend formal rights where ever we found them to be missing.

One example of how this anti-racism was connected to solidarity is that of the Grunwick strike.  In 1976, Asian women at the Grunwick film-processing factory realised two things: their pay was not the same as other workers who were mainly men, and also, they didn’t like being treated in a derogatory way due to their ethnicity and skin colour. They started a strike. Jayeben Desai and her colleagues knew that to win better pay, and in the process greater respect, they would need to persuade and appeal across lines of colour. They used the political, intellectual and ethical resources they had to hand to do just this. They persuaded an initially reluctant trade union, and other groups, to support them in what turned out to be a two-year strike. The development of this solidarity was expressed through continuous support on picket lines and a mass demonstration of 20,000 people. It’s not just the numbers that are important here, but what they believed they were there to do and how they went about it.

They didn’t win, but their efforts improved conditions for women who stayed on, and likely contributed to the 1983 amendment of  equal-pay legislation for women that has improved the lives of the majority of women in Britain since.

That was anti-racist solidarity then – and I’m not saying it was perfect (the women did lose after all), or that we can or should want to return to the past. But I do think we could well to re-visit some core principles and values.

It’s true that we can be differentiated by all sorts of things, including ethnicity – and these may well influence the way we experience the same social reality. But we need to remember:

Firstly, we do have a social reality in common – not one for black and one for white.

Secondly, we have symbolism – language, informal and formal knowledge, art, popular culture and many more things where aspects of our experience can be shared. Most importantly we have politics – the space where individuals meet as equal citizens to articulate, argue, sometimes ridicule – with the aim of persuading – and in the very act of doing this we establish the common ground that makes solidarity possible.

We cannot do this if communication is ruled out of court, or morally delegitimised, from the start – in fact, if we allow this to be the norm, very little that is progressive in the sense of making life better in general, will possible at all.

Lastly, my third and final point – we can decide that as a black person or as a white person, the noun ‘person’ is more important than the adjectives ‘black’ or ‘white’. In a more philosophical tenor, it’s called universalism – and it is needed for solidarity and democratic politics. That is why the new anti-racism has to be challenged and exposed for the reactionary, divisive, anti-human, and elitist ideology that it is.