Graeme Kemp argues that Layla F Saad’s book is wrong to promote ideas like ‘white privilege’ and ignore the value of ‘colour-blind’ approaches to dealing with racism. Indeed, Graeme argues, there is a cultish, pseudo-religious quality to the outlook and language of critical race theory supporters like Saad.
In her book, Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World, Layla F Saad aims to create a resource that challenges racism in the reader. This sounds good – we may still need to challenge discrimination and racism at times, despite the progress made in the UK. Clearly, reflecting on our own values and behaviour is valuable, too.
For Layla Saad, white supremacy includes ideas about white superiority, anti-blackness, racial stereotypes and cultural appropriation. This self-help textbook covers what she also lists as white fragility, white silence, white exceptionalism, the white gaze and white centring. Indeed, even colour-blindness must be opposed, as racist. That’s a lot of white vices – and it gives us a clue as to which specific audience the book is aimed at: people who are white – ‘or who pass for white’ (page 15) or are simply ‘white adjacent’ (page 16).
These phrases may set a few alarm bells ringing. The foreword by Robin DiAngelo helpfully explains:
Me and White Supremacy is an extraordinary new resource for white people willing to align what they profess to value (racial equality) with their actual practice (antiracist action) … Now, each time I am asked by a white person, ‘What do I do?’, my answer will include ‘Work through this book’. (Page XIII).
Now, Layla Saad sometimes defends the above project on quite reasonable grounds, with evidence. Racist stereotyping has often functioned in the past to put people who are black or Asian down or represent certain ethnic groups as mere caricatures. She highlights the crass stereotypes – both positive and negative – built up around different social groups. Layla is right to explain that all too often so-called anti-racism has a superficial, performative quality to it. She is correct – we usually need more than just a progressive hashtag.
So, what is this thing called ‘white supremacy’ that Layla sees operating today? Layla makes it clear that it is not just personal prejudice or actions. She adheres to the view that racism is prejudice plus power – an institutional system of keeping ethnic minorities excluded and in the margins of society. The author explains that when young, she encountered white supremacy every time she left the house, went to school, watched TV or simply interacted with anyone. Layla explains what all this means for the reader of her book:
White supremacy is an ideology, a paradigm, an institutional system, and a worldview that you have been born into by virtue of your white privilege. (page 13).
This privilege has been reflected in legislation, social conditioning and the creation of institutions that construct something called whiteness as both normal and superior. It is the responsibility of the white reader to use this book and its recommended techniques to dismantle the racist ideas that exist (even subconsciously) within the reader’s mind.
There is no real debate – having white skin means you have white privilege – something every white person needs to reflect critically on. It’s not the responsibility of ethnic minorities to do anything – coping with racism makes enough demands on them – but is firmly the responsibility of the white reader. She is clear: don’t deny the hostile beliefs that might lurk within you, as she explains near the end of the book, ‘your awareness has now expanded to become more conscious of how (and not if) racism is at play, you will see even more how white supremacy plays out within you and within society’. (Page 207)
So, there is no debate really – the sin of racism is undoubtedly within the soul of every white reader – and it’s time to confess and repent.
As the white reader may not think they have said or done racist things, Saad helpfully points out the subtle ways that white privilege and supremacy may occur.
And one of these racist problems is saying you believe in colour blindness. While sceptics may point out that trying to ignore race when dealing with others is a good thing, Layla is keen to point out the problem with this idea: it is built around the assumption that if we stop ‘seeing’ race, racism goes away. That’s arguably a rather simplistic account of colour-blindness – most people who advocate such an approach would still recognise the need to challenge racist speech or acts. Yet for Saad, colour-blindness is not only inadequate as a position – but is a way for those who enjoy white privilege to pretend that they don’t have it. This doesn’t, of course, explain why many black or Asian people sincerely believe it, as well. Have they really just internalised white supremacy?
Equally problematic is the author’s views on cultural appropriation. Essentially, the real issue, apparently, is the power imbalance between dominant and subordinate cultures, rather than just innocently using symbols, products or ideas from another culture. According to Saad, cultural appropriation is based on the idea that white people can take what they like from black or brown cultures without consequences or accountability. This can lead to the erasure of the less dominant, ethnic-minority culture – and whites just end up looking ‘cool’ or profiting from this cultural theft. Too often, she says, the ethnic group that originally created a cultural design or practice is not acknowledged or thanked.
An example of cultural appropriation she cites is yoga. I found it hard to take this seriously, but this is what she argues:
[C]ultural appropriation rewrites history with whiteness at the center. So for example, though yoga has its roots in India as a spiritual practice, it is now seen as a predominantly white-centred practice that is focused largely on physical health. When we think of a yoga teacher, we think of a white person. (Page 119).
Really? I must admit I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what yoga teachers look like, but this really is quite daft. And what is a white-centred practice, anyway? Is she really suggesting that only people of Indian origin take or teach yoga classes, just in case offence is caused by a white person getting involved? She does urge us to quickly intervene if we see other white people culturally appropriating something though!
The simple fact is that cultures have never been water-tight ethnic containers, so I don’t really know what she means by black or brown (or white) cultures. Even the ‘appropriative practices’ (page 118) of Halloween costumes are deemed wrong. Music can be filtered too through a ‘white lens’ (page 118) or way of seeing other ethnic groups. We just need to de-centre our whiteness, she says….
Saad frequently uses the acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), even after admitting that this term doesn’t fully recognise the diversity of people who are ethnic minority. Oddly, she writes as if white people were one monolithic cultural bloc, all enjoying their white privilege, no matter how poor they are.
The recent successes of people who are Indian or Chinese in the UK tends to be ignored in this book – despite financial and educational achievements of both groups. Indeed, variations in different areas of life between Black African and Black Caribbean people are simply not dealt with (eg, different rates of school exclusions). This is odd for a British citizen like Saad. Much of her thinking tends to reflect critical race theories imported from the USA unfortunately – but as Tomiwa Owolade has pointed out, the UK is not America. The experiences and history of black people is different in each country.
Me and White Supremacy is, ultimately, a pessimistic book that does not acknowledge the progress towards racial equality and freedom made in recent decades. The book is not helped by a rather cultish tone – readers are repeatedly asked to reflect on their own failings and to make sure they keep making progress, no matter how uncomfortable. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed almost a pseudo-religious aspect to this kind of thinking in critical race theorists, one that tolerates no heretical dissent.
Reading this book does reveal where a great number of developments in education, government and the media have originated from. What we need is a positive alternative to such critical race theory arguments.
Graeme Kemp is a former civil servant and teacher who has worked in different roles in education from the south-coast of England to Scotland. As well as Don’t Divide Us, he has contributed reviews to The Equiano Project. He is proud to currently live in the Midlands.
Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World by Layla F Saad (2022) is published by Quercus Editions Ltd (London).