Man giving a speech

I’ve noticed that professionals increasingly feel the need to declare their opposition to racism and other oppressions. But instead of pushing back against racism, these declarations may in fact help to sustain it.

Racism is getting more difficult to ignore. Corporate “diversity and inclusion” schemes might be good PR but they don’t change the underlying reality. There’s overwhelming evidence that the last 50 years of attempts at “reform” haven’t changed the underlying power structures of society, which continue to perpetuate a deeply unequal status quo. The far right is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. And this week’s incoming Prime Minister’s popularity with his party’s members appears to be boosted by his racist remarks.

It’s easy to understand why those of us who benefit from multiple privileges would want to distance ourselves from racism. We’ve been socialised to see racism as an individual vice, a prejudice that afflicts bad people. We want to position ourselves as the good ones, rise above this vice, and deny the multiple ways in which we benefit from the racist systems that govern society.

But by saying we’re against racism, what exactly do we achieve? Do we really want to do something about racism, or is this claim of solidarity the only action we’re willing to take? Our attempt to place ourselves in the class of “not-racist white people”—a class also claimed by white supremacists like Donald Trump—obscures a denial of our white privilege.

The reality is that all beneficiaries of privilege—white people, cisgender men, middle class people, straight people, able-bodied people, the list goes on—are complicit in the oppression that we claim to oppose. Performative declarations of opposition to racism function as a substitute for resistance to the oppressive systems that we participate in.

I saw this recently when I announced my retreat about racism. It’s a simple idea—spend three days on the remote Welsh coast to deconstruct the denials that sustain racism and other oppressions. Many people told me that they loved the idea, that they supported what I was doing, even that they sensed that great things would come from it. All of this was a very nice way to say that the retreat obviously didn’t apply to them, and that they weren’t coming. (Why would they? In their eyes, they’re the good ones!)

I took a couple of these people to task on what they meant by, “looks great, good luck!” Were they really claiming not to be complicit in racism? The responses were illuminating. They understood the invitation to be directed at other people, not themselves. They said things like, “I do good work in industry X, we try to make a positive difference to society”. Or, “to be honest, I didn’t think it applied to me”. In other words, racism does exist, but it’s perpetrated by other people, the racist white people. Luckily I’m a “not racist” white person so I don’t need to come to this, but I want to position myself as supportive of it to make sure you know I’m one of the good ones. In short, it’s a polite way of denying their white privilege.

The way I see it, people with privilege might be the best placed to do something about racism. Are we willing to go beyond empty gestures of solidarity like “checking our privilege” and use our power to resist the structures that maintain oppression?