racism is also a pandemic

Whitesplaining, Racialism, Anti Racism

There are wrong ways to fight racism

racism is also a pandemic

Racism is a scourge, a blight on humanity. All bigotry is harmful because it misrecognizes, stereotypes, and denigrates people. Bigotry based on the perception of race is particularly pernicious, harming lives and whole societies. And yet, racism exists all over the world.

I don’t pretend to have the definitive cure for the pandemic of racism. But there are some clearly ineffective ways to combat racism.

Whitesplaining

The most perverse form of oppression and subjection is located in the very act of explaining.

– Yves Citton

 

“Whitesplaining” is my term for when white people try to explain racism. Not necessarily explaining away racism — they are usually acknowledging its existence and are condemning it — but they are acting as though they understand racism. Yes, it’s like mansplaining.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I won’t mention any names to protect the innocent, but I was participating in a meeting discussing a paper written by a Black philosopher. The Black philosopher’s topic was race relations and the symposium participants were all white university philosophers, mostly professors with a few PhD students.

The discussion had reached a point in the paper where the Black philosopher was discussing what critical race theory can contribute to broader philosophy, specifically the branch known as “critical theory.” As philosophers often do, the conversation turned to the question of what the author meant by a certain concept in his critique of philosophy. I tend to be a shrinking violet in these symposiums, listening far more than speaking, but after at least ten minutes of round and round about what the author could have possibly meant, I spoke up.

I shared that I had taken a doctoral seminar course from this particular Black philosopher. In multiple sessions that I attended, he spoke specifically about his thoughts on this concept because it was very important to him. I shared with the philosophers in the room what the philosopher had told us about the specific passage that they were struggling with. I pointed out another passage earlier in the paper under discussion that explained why the author took this interpretation. I tried to be as basic as possible: this is what the author said and what his explanation was for his position.

What followed was total silence. Not a word among any of the all-white participants for about 15 to 20 seconds. Finally, one of the senior faculty members in the room changed the subject to a different passage.

That creepy silence spoke to race relations, and it spoke to how one-sided the social contract is. If the people in that room doubted my credibility, that’s fine. But if they had, they would have questioned me about the specifics of what I was relating. Their silence showed that their real difficulty was the thought that the Black philosopher’s own words could supersede their discussion of what the Black philosopher meant. Injected into the bell jar of their all-white discussion of what a Black philosopher had written was that Black man’s own voice. Even secondhand, even related by a white person, the presence of the Black voice made them uncomfortable.

Now, time out. I want to stress that the people in that room are, in my opinion, well-meaning. They are my colleagues, and some of them I consider friends. They were reading this paper written by a Black philosopher because they were, in their own albeit fumbling way, trying to understand issues of racial justice. I don’t doubt that. But there is an unbearable whiteness in the social contract, and that is especially true in academia. The white world does not fully include Black people in it. White voices explain what racism means, and they don’t listen to Black voices. Whitesplaining. It doesn’t fight racism.

Racialism

Few people have heard of the word “racialism.” It is not the same as racism, though probably all racism derives from beliefs in racialism.

racialism definition

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racialism

The idea that race is a biological determinant of a person’s character and capacities was the foundation for beliefs in scientific racism. The pseudoscience was informed by social prejudices and distorted scientific evidence to justify white supremacy. The pseudoscientific subfields of phrenology, polygenism, and eugenics arose in the 1800s, fed by the desire to justify the enslavement of people of African heritage. These psuedosciences designated nonwhites as being of different races, or even different species than whites, and declared that nonwhites are inherently biologically different, or even inferior, to whites. Despite the fact that the idea of biological race has been scientifically discredited, racialism persists.

How much mainstream science is still infected with racialist attitudes is a matter of debate. Regardless, a person can have racialist beliefs without need of scientific backing. Beliefs that racial differences are real and that race determines a person’s traits and capacities are racialism regardless of how the beliefs are justified.


Racism is distinct from racialism just as there is a difference between bigotry and racism, as I have argued elsewhere. Racialism is a belief that the races are different, and racism is a social structure that institutionalizes racial difference through discrimination and oppression. Systemic racism — racial inequalities embedded in social and political systems — are based on racialist attitudes that the races are different and should be treated differently or even separated.

It is difficult to imagine how systemic racism can have arisen or continue to exist without it being sustained by racialist beliefs. Discrimination on the basis of race is dependent on the false ideas that there are races and that race determines people’s traits and capacities. It would seem that the way to fight systemic racism is to counter the myths of racialism.

Yet, disturbingly, some people, including some people who say they are countering racism, maintain the false ideas that there are races. Part of this is the confusion between social and biological effects. Society labels some people as “white” and others as “nonwhite,” and the myth of race institutionalized in social and political systems produces different social and cultural effects on people. But these differences result from arbitrary social practices, not biology.

We must consider the substantial differences of acculturation on people divided by race, but when the consideration turns to racialism, it is self-defeating. The distinction is whether one accepts that if systemic racism were somehow eradicated then the differences between the so-called races would disappear. Unfortunately, some people who say they are anti racism are acting and speaking while believing that biological race determines human traits and capacities. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the racialism behind the statements, and probably some people are deliberately disguising their racialist beliefs under anti racist rhetoric. I will not drive traffic to Web sites that disperse such statements.

The bottom line is that we can’t fight racism by perpetuating the myth of race. This is no fight-fire-with-fire solution to racism. White-dominated society is racist, but blaming that on biological determinism is the same nonsense that created the racism.

Another term for “racialism” is “racial essentialism.” (Source: Adrian Piper, reproduced under fair use) Dr. Piper’s paper can be downloaded here.

Anti Racism?

Sounds self-evident, yes? To counter racism one must be anti racist and to be anti racist is to counter racism, yes? Would that it could be so simple.

To be an “anti racism writer” has been trendy for awhile now, including here on Medium. To prepare for this article, I read more than 80 articles on Medium tagged as being anti racism. I won’t mention names because I am not trying to antagonize or target anyone. There is, fortunately, very little racist writing on Medium, but the anti racism writing leaves something to be desired.

Roughly speaking, there are various kinds of  self-identified anti racism writers. They have levels of effectiveness, but all fall short of countering systemic racism.

The lowest level of anti racism is simply complaining about racism. Definitely, instances of racism, persistent and episodic, need to be called out and dragged into the light of day. Personal stories of witnessing racism can be effective in the struggles for justice. However, impersonal general complaints that racism exists don’t move the needle.

Much of this level of anti racism writing comes from white people who are whitesplaining racism. They offer lessons in history, long but vague discussions of (usually) American racial history, mentioning slavery and segregation, and name dropping W.E.B. Du Bois (though usually without spelling the name correctly), and then they end with an unarticulated but still fairly obvious, “see? I may be white but I’m anti racism.” They may be well-meaning people, or they may just be trying to make themselves feel better. Everyone has their own journey, and maybe it’s cathartic for them to write these platitudes, but it does little to counter racism.

The next level is made up of writers trying to antagonize racists. The modus operandi of these writers is to bash out a screed declaring their racialist beliefs that all white people are racists and then sit back to see the reaction. These writers then harvest the predictable backlash as proof that yessiree, all white people are racists. One Medium article bragged about and quoted the 19 racist responses to their TikTok post demanding reparations. Dude, it’s TikTok, you can post “puppies are cute” and get 19 BS responses. Maybe poking the bears is a fun game to play, but it is more self-serving than anything else. It certainly doesn’t actually counter racism.

Then there are the Racism 101 pieces. They are also history lessons, but they differ from the whitesplaining stories in being more accurate on the specifics and, most importantly, sincerely trying to grapple with the issue of systemic racism. Raising awareness is a good thing, especially in understanding the basics of racial history, and there probably is still a need for introductory explanations of the existence of racism. Still, this level of anti racism writing can come off as mere cheerleading.


Finally, there are those who subtly or blatantly paint themselves as anti racism experts. They don’t give their qualifications, though there are no degrees or certifications in being anti racism. Nor should there be. Lived experience and humanitarian compassion are the qualifications, not tests or dissertations.

Sharing lived experience is where these self-styled experts miss the mark. These anti racism writers are headline chasers, banging out a generic reply whenever an event happens that smacks of racism. To be sure, that’s a writing prompt that never stops giving. Strong, insightful, informed responses to events would be valuable. Instead, the self-styled experts give their pontifications on events. With condescension and continual self-referencing, they clinically explain that they know how whites think, how Blacks feel, and how everything about racism is explained by the writer’s other writings. That’s where the reader is supposed to click on the link to the writer’s Substack subscription page.

These writers do occasionally offer some insightful information about racism, but to find those nuggets, we have to sift through a mass of Racism 101 and austere sermons. It’s the impersonal air of their memos that’s the worst problem. When all they have to say is “oh, look, told you everything is racist,” their articles end up perpetuating racism rather than combating it.

Anti Racism

Lived experience. Dialogue. LISTENING. Those are the ingredients of anti racism efforts. The problem is that from both whites and nonwhites we get “sit down and let me explain it to you.” And functionally, the anti racism and racism explanations are the same perpetuations of racist and racialist narratives.

Listening to people’s lived experiences of racism must lead to dialogue about what to do about racism. It can’t stay stuck in repetitive recitations of “yes, racism exists.” Of course it exists, but what are we going to DO about it? If we aren’t talking about solutions to racism, nothing will change. Only a small number of people are moving beyond the hand-wringing or pontificating stage into trying to find solutions.

It’s become a trite meme, but it remains true that we have to BE the change to enact the change. What we have, on Medium and everywhere, is more of the same and not enough change. Whitesplaining, racialism, and anti racism writing have in common a zeitgeist in which everyone stays in their lanes, continuing down the road of normalizing systemic racism. Who is BEING the change?

I’d love to be able to tell you, “here is the answer, we just need to do this and we defeat racism.” I can’t, and anyone who says they can is full of dren or selling a Substack subscription.

What I can say is that we need to listen to Black and Brown voices. Not lectures from keyboard warrior experts but stories from people sharing how systemic racism and acts of bigotry have affected them. We need stories that lead to dialogue and sharing of worlds. That’s rare everywhere, and it is especially rare in the area of racism.

 

2 comments

  1. Re: Racism

    Humans tend to generalize, and racial features are pretty obvious, so generalizing about races is very natural. If people live with a variety of people from other races, they tend not to generalize and not be racist. But if they don’t, and mostly encounter a race impersonally, like driving through a poor part of town, or through generalizations in the news, they’ll tend to generalize.

    Plus, if we hear generalizations about races, we’ll tend to interpret the actions of those people through the generalizations that we know and will tend to confirm our thoughts. If there are exceptions, instead of questioning what we know, we’ll tend to think they’re exceptions.

    Anti-racism is important because it displaces other strategies that didn’t work out well, like educating whites, assimilating, becoming excellent, and trying to live separately. I don’t think I’d use the term “complaining” to describe pointing anti-racist behavior. Perhaps correcting or objecting would be better terms.

    Also, I think if we refer to racism as a cognitive mistake, rather than a shameful activity to be punished, it’d be easier to get people to see the errors of their racism. If we punish, cancel, or shame people, they’ll push back and others will treat them as martyrs. When most people commit racist infractions, my guess is that they feel that they are good people doing the right thing, so they feel punishment is unjust and try to justify their behavior. If we take away the punishment, they’ll be more open to accepting the correction.

    (Of course, this won’t work as well with people who are already justifying their racist behavior, already feeling that “cancel culture” is wrong…)

    1. Yes, racism is generalizations about people who are different from you, they are stereotypes. Definitely, yes, racism is a mistake of thinking more than of ethics, but the erroneous thinking leads to unethical behavior.

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