You’re a middle class professional who’s horrified by what you see around you. The racist undertones of the Brexit project. The police murder of George Floyd. The disproportionate death toll of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities and poor people… and the utter lack of accountability for official mismanagement of these crises and others.
You want to have nothing to do with these injustices, but for some reason you feel guilty, as if you’re complicit in the systems that produce them. You realise that you benefit from privilege in some ways, but strangely, you also feel powerless. What can you actually do?
You may have noticed a recent change in tone from organisations and liberal politicians talking about social issues. In the aftermath of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprisings and the drowning of the Bristolian slave trader’s statue, a new discourse has emerged. Corporations and NGOs are suddenly talking about police brutality and systemic racism in their press releases, as they declare their heartfelt belief that Things Must Change. Liberal politicians are “taking the knee” in social media performances of solidarity while celebrities post black squares to their profiles and earnestly “check” their privileges.
Do you buy it? Is this a harbinger that, in the immortal words of Sam Cooke, a change is gonna come? Or do you smell a rat?
Look a little closer, and the solidarity of the liberal establishment is skin deep. Consider the core demands of the BLM movement. Do you hear the marchers chanting, “diversity and inclusion programmes now?” Do their spokespeople insist that managers and politicians undergo unconscious bias training as a way to undo systemic racism?
Not quite. The central demand of BLM is “defund the police”, part of a wider abolitionist programme that seeks to replace carceral responses to social problems with properly funded social services like healthcare, education and housing, alongside demands for reparations and economic justice.
Can you imagine Sir Keir Starmer chanting, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”?
In reality the organisations issuing press releases in apparent support of BLM—and the politicians seeking a PR boost by taking the knee—vehemently reject the core demands of that movement (as Sir Keir made abundantly clear on live TV when he dismissed them as “nonsense”.) They want to present themselves as allies but they are more like opponents—or as Martin Luther King Jr. put it in his 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not… the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice… who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”
The “change” that these organisations promise in their press releases follows the neoliberal paradigm of diversity and inclusion, which in recent years has failed to achieve its own modest objectives—proportionate representation of minorities in professional and government positions—and has little to say about the institutional practices, legal frameworks and social structures that perpetuate institutional racism.
These organisations—and their leaders—don’t want to face up to their own roles within systems of white supremacy and racial capitalism, let alone take action to dismantle them.
But where does this leave you, dear reader? Again, what can you actually do?
Well, am I right in guessing that you’re not entirely sure what to think about these issues? That while you’re against discrimination in all its forms, you’re not sure you agree with me about the futility of diversity and inclusion and unconscious bias programmes? Surely diversity makes us stronger? And don’t we all have biases, many of them unconscious?
Alright. Remember I asked earlier if you could smell a rat? As it happens, I wasn’t talking about rodents. RAT is an abbreviation for Racism Awareness Training, a precursor to unconscious bias training that was popular in workplaces in the 70s and 80s in the US and UK. While some of the terms have changed (and the business model too—unconscious bias training is now often delivered online) the underlying ethos is the same: racism, in these frameworks, is a problem of the white psyche that can be remedied through therapeutic intervention.
Back in 1984, the political thinker A. Sivanandan wrote a comprehensive critique of RAT, calling it
…the sort of psychospiritual mumbo-jumbo which… by reducing social problems to individual solutions, passes off personal satisfaction for political liberation, and then wraps it all up in a Madison Avenue sales package promising instant cure for hereditary disease…
Here’s how he summarises RAT’s confused explanation of racism:
Racism, for RAT, is a combination of mental illness, original sin and biological determinism (which, perhaps, explains its middle-class appeal)
Concepts like unconscious bias (or diversity and inclusion) are not analytical models of the world that help people to understand their place in systems like white supremacy. They are, instead, thought-terminating clichés that allow privileged people to feel as if they’re addressing an important issue without actually thinking about it.
They also allow institutions to make dramatic gestures that appear to address systemic inequalities without changing their operations, processes or policies.
I’ve noticed that when faced with critiques of these frameworks, people who previously cited them rarely push back or attempt to argue in favour of them. Perhaps that’s because the utility of these frameworks is in helping you to stop thinking things through.
Is this you? Have I outlined the way you tend to engage with these issues?
If so, I have an answer for you. Here’s what you can do! You can stop using thought-terminating clichés to avoid thinking through the issues that you claim you’re committed to acting on. Discard them!
In their place you can learn to apply critical analysis to the systems of white supremacy, racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, ableism, etc that you’re entangled in. Critical analysis helps us deconstruct neoliberal faux-solutions like diversity and inclusion. And it helps us find concrete ways to act in support of the movements that seek to dismantle these systems.
Will you give it a try?