The previous post may do something to help explain why I am alarmed by a view now current among the new movement. That is the view that we human beings should racialize ourselves more than we currently have done.
It has now become ubiquitous style to capitalize “Black” in a racial sense, putting a stronger emphasis on racial identity than the lowercase did. Several activists, like the respected historian Nell Irvin Painter in the Washington Post, go still further, to advocate that we capitalize “White” as well. Painter’s reasoning on this point is striking enough that it’s worth quoting at length:
However much you might see yourself as an individual, if you’re black, you also have to contend with other people’s views. W.E.B. Du Bois summed this up as “twoness,” as seeing yourself as yourself but also knowing that other people see you as a black person. You don’t have to be a black nationalist to see yourself as black.
In contrast, until quite recently white Americans rarely saw themselves as raced — as white. Most of them, anyway. The people who have embraced “white” as a racial identity have been white nationalists, Ku Klux Klansmen and their ilk. Thanks to President Trump, white nationalists are more visible than ever in our public spaces.
But that group does not determine how most white people see themselves. Instead, in terms of racial identity, white Americans have had the choice of being something vague, something unraced and separate from race. A capitalized “White” challenges that freedom, by unmasking “Whiteness” as an American racial identity as historically important as “Blackness” — which it certainly is.
No longer should white people be allowed the comfort of this racial invisibility; they should have to see themselves as raced. Being racialized makes white people squirm, so let’s racialize them with that capital W.
Notice something extraordinary about Painter’s claims here. Painter is explicitly claiming that, on the matter of white identity, the Ku Klux Klansmen have got it right. She wants mainstream white Americans to think more like white nationalists. Why would anyone want that? Because white nationalists “see themselves as raced”, just as (Painter claims) black people have to do. Painter thinks that this is a good thing and wants other white people to follow the Klan’s example in this regard. Indeed, she wants to force other white people to think more like the Klan; she thinks they should have to see themselves as raced. She, explictly agreeing with the likes of Dylann Roof, wants white people to be more racialized. Apparently because it’s good to make white people “squirm”.
Now contrast my own experience, as I described last time. I know what it’s like to not be racialized – even when one is not white. I know that because I’ve lived it. I know what a wonderful thing it is to not be defined by one’s skin colour – to have that “privilege” that many white people also have. I cherish that freedom, the freedom that Painter intentionally “challenges” with her capitalization. I suspect that that freedom is more precious to me than it is to white people – because in those moments of racism that I have been a victim of, I’ve also seen what it’s like to have that freedom taken away. In my lived experience as a brown person, that is what racism is and means: for me the experience of racism is the experience of being racialized, of being treated as a member of my race rather than as an individual human being. So what Painter’s passage says to me is: “black people are victims of racism, so everyone else should be victims of racism too.”
I draw a hard line against such an expansion of racialization. I will never accept any attempts to take the freedom of non-racialization away, whether those attempts come from self-styled progressives like Painter, or from the white supremacists with whom Painter explicitly proclaims her agreement on the matter. I want everyone to be able to have the mostly non-racialized life that I have had. Painter, like the Klan, wants nobody to have it. I want to help black people have the same privileges I have had. Painter is trying to do the exact opposite: she wants to take those privileges away from everyone. Especially from white people, but as a result, implicitly, also from people like me. She wants white people to “have to see themselves as raced”, just as black people do – and just as I managed to avoid doing for most of my life. Hers is an attitude straight out of the worst caricatures of socialism: i.e. that rather than bringing everyone up to a high level, it brings everyone down to the low. Painter doesn’t even entertain the possibility of getting the freedom to be unraced for black people like herself; instead, she just aspires to take it away from everyone else. As Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a black man from the segregated South, says:
what bothers me and worries me is that the world that we’re creating and that’s enabled by the Twitter reality that takes hold is one in which we’re not actually trying to make everybody as secure as the straight white man who used to be super-secure. We’re actually trying to make everybody as insecure as my father used to be, but everybody can catch it now.
The capitalization of “Black” and “White” is not itself the core problem here. Rather, the problem is that Painter, in a way common within the new movement, wants us to make race a greater part of one’s identity than it otherwise would be. As another example, I’ve been alarmed that our ubiquitous online forums (Slack, Zoom, Discord) have moved away from thumbs-up or other hand symbols in a visibly artificial yellow skin colour, to ones that correspond more closely to actual skin colours – thus making us defined more by our races and not less. (Perhaps yellow isn’t itself the right universal colour given its association with racist stereotypes of East Asians, but if that’s the concern, I’d rather have a representation in light gray, or even blue or green or purple.)
As far as I’m concerned, the whole point of affirmative action, or of recognizing implicit bias, is to move us away from a world where race defines us – to get us to a point where we can be defined as individual human beings and not by a biological appearance we had no choice in. I am in favour of affirmative action because I think it helps us get to this point – it remedies the discrimination that continues to limit black people’s opportunities on the basis of their race. By contrast, as far as I can see, racializations like Painter’s encourage the exact opposite: they freeze us into racial categories indefinitely, trap us deeper in that prison. (Just as the Klan does – a comparison that Painter, again, embraces on this point.)
I cherish my post-racial life, where, despite my brown skin and Indian name, I have had the freedom of “being something vague, something unraced and separate from race” – the freedom all people should have. I seek a world where black people too have that freedom. I am the foe of anyone who seeks to take that freedom away from me. I have no more patience for those who seek to take it away from white people. Let us continue to seek freedom for all – but until we get it, freedom for some is better than freedom for none.
Two weeks from now I’ll be travelling on vacation, so I will take my first break from regular blogging in a long time. Love of All Wisdom will return on August 28.