Many black writers are no longer speaking to white people about race – they have had enough of explaining the issues over and over again. And, as we have seen in recent days, there are many black protestors who have had enough of playing the anti-racist long game of waiting for gradual improvements. Nearly 200 years since the abolition of slavery, who can blame them? The long game might turn out to be eternity.
At the same time, many white people – I have heard this opinion expressed many times in recent days – feel awkward at speaking out, for fear of being presumptuous or of somehow occupying the space that someone Black should be taking up in the public sphere or in the private one of a discussion. The fear of being perceived as speaking for the victims of racism or looking as though one is sharing the pain of those who have experienced racism directly, is clearly a real one.
Yet, not moving beyond this position of respectful silence is to say and to do nothing and thus to remain complicit in the racist structures that one claims to want to change. It is ultimately an act of complacency, falling back on white privilege, a shrug of the shoulders. It is to leave the anti-racist fight only to Blacks and other minority groups who deal with racism every day.
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Fortunately, there have been many white people on the protests that have taken place in the last few days. As Reverend Al Sharpton remarked at George Floyd’s funeral, the presence of so many whites suggested a real change, a sense that to defeat racism everybody needs to be involved. He may have been optimistic, but after standing in silence for an excruciating eight and half minutes, it was an important message for him to deliver.
How to get around this supposed problem of ‘interference’ on the part of white people? One way is to think about the history of anti-racism and its tie with the humanities. ‘Race science’ emerged in the eighteenth century and provided a new, supposedly objective way of classifying human types. It thus moulded into an apparently timeless truth prejudices that were already deeply rooted in western culture. The social sciences and humanities, philosophers, historians and anthropologists especially, were often tightly bound up with these arguments. At the same time, the social sciences and humanities provided the tools for debunking racism, alongside the scientific discoveries of the twentieth century – human genetics, DNA – which proved that there are no ‘races’, just human beings.
Skin colour differences clearly exist, but that difference is genetically insignificant. Human beings differ in terms of their cultural identities, but again, how those are operationalised is not determined by some essential, unseen biological characteristic. Cultures can be open or closed, welcoming or forbidding, and sometimes both at the same time, depending on who they are dealing with. They are constantly changing, not immutable.
One good example is the famous case of anthropologist Franz Boaz. In the early twentieth century, Boaz showed that the head sizes of Italian immigrants to New York City were larger than their parents’, thus debunking the claim that different population groups had measurably different skull sizes, a claim which was supposed to provide a link between head size and intelligence. His study simply pointed out that environmental factors – better food in this case – made all the difference to physical ones.
To defeat racism, white people need, at the very least, to speak out and say that they agree with the aim of the black protestors to achieve equality for all
So too with racism: race as a biological category might not exist but ‘race’ as a category for ordering society certainly does, and the results of that ‘social fact’ are visible every day. But when people act in solidarity, they break down the invisible barriers and we discover that, as Jo Cox, we have more in common than divides us.
Imagine the history of antisemitism if it were written only by Jews. Even worse, imagine the struggle against antisemitism if it were only undertaken by Jews, or the fight against Holocaust denial. It is only because non-Jews also care to eradicate such hatred from society that the campaign against antisemitism, to the extent it has succeeded, has had any effect. That is not to deny the important work undertaken by Jewish writers, campaigners, politicians and artists; but without broader support, their struggle, as a small minority, would have been far harder.
In the South African struggle against Apartheid, the fact that a small number of white activists, including many Jews, fought alongside Blacks was a signal that not everyone who is not a direct victim of racism remains indifferent.
At a very basic level, if it were not possible to understand other people’s experiences, the work of historians, anthropologists and writers of creative fiction would be impossible. It is not cultural expropriation to express solidarity with Black protestors, nor is it insensitive to voice anti-racist views. To the contrary, it is a sine qua non of the anti-racist movement.
Hannah Arendt liked to quote the words of Georges Clemenceau: ‘the affair of one person is the affair of all’. If we want to live in a society where our slogans of equality are meaningful, then, without claiming that white people know what it is like to be the daily victims of racism, we need to speak out against the racism that blights our world. This is not to say that Black organising cannot achieve things. But victories achieved by just one group which are supposed to bring about equality for all groups will be hollow ones, unless all groups join in and accept the basic premise.
‘Racism’, wrote the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in 1933, ‘is not just opposed to such and such a particular point in Christian and liberal culture. It is not a particular dogma concerning democracy, parliamentary government, dictatorial regime, or religious politics that is in question. It is the very humanity of man.’ To defeat racism, white people need, at the very least, to speak out and say that they agree with the aim of the black protestors to achieve equality for all.