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In theory, you’re a racist

Anti-racism demonstrators. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

Anti-racism demonstrators. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

September 7, 2018   3 mins

Are you feeling fragile? Perhaps it was that extra glass of red you had last night. Or maybe it’s just the colour of your skin.

In an illuminating piece for Quillette, Jonathan Church introduces us to the notion of ‘white fragility’:

“The brainchild of sociologist Dr. Robin DiAngelo, ‘white fragility’ has gained much currency in academic and progressive circles in recent years as a concept that goes a long way in ostensibly explaining why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism.”

The basic idea is that white people are so habituated to their privileged position in society that they unthinkingly accept it as the way things ought to be:

“As a result, they experience ‘race-based stress’ when faced with a challenge to their ‘racial worldview’ because they perceive it to be an affront to their ‘identities as good, moral people’… This makes it hard to talk to white people about how their attitudes and beliefs make them complicit in the perpetuation of ‘institutional racism.’”

But wouldn’t you know whether you’re racist or not? Either you accord lower/higher worth to certain people on the basis of their ethnicity or you don’t. In other words, racism has to be a conscious attitude of mind, doesn’t?

Not necessarily, say the theorists of white fragility:

“Racism, [it is] claim[ed], is not so much about explicit beliefs white people consciously hold about people of color, but about implicit—or unconscious—biases that sustain institutional inequities in the distribution of societal resources across different racial groups.”

The Kafkaesque implication is that to be anti-racist you have to admit to being a racist; and if you deny that you’re racist, well that’s proof of just how racist you are.

It’s a bit like when someone accuses you of being ‘defensive’ – there’s literally no defence against it.

Of course, on one level the theorists are absolutely right – racist beliefs can become both deeply and widely embedded across an entire society. Indeed, it would be impossible to sustain openly racist practices and institutions if that were not the case. And yet, even if the people of such a society didn’t view their prejudices as being wrong, they’d still be conscious of having them.

But can racist beliefs be held unconsciously? Indeed, could they be so insidious as to co-exist with a person’s consciously-held anti-racism? If they can (and the idea of white fragility depends on that possibility), then how are these hidden prejudices manifested?

That, surely, should be our main concern: exposing and stopping discrimination in the real world as it impacts on those it is directed against, rather than trying to identify a belief that not even the believer is aware that they have. Of course, it’s much easier to have unfalsifiable theories about unconscious prejudices than it is to gather evidence on, and campaign against, racism in practice.

White fragility is just one among many theories that feed into the growing blob of post-modern left-wing ideology. As with other post-modern orthodoxies – such as the idea that only white people can be racist in a Western society – it’s all about overturning established hierarchies of power (whether based on race, gender, sexuality or the intersections thereof).

Well, here’s an alternative theory of power – one that’s also a theory about theories. Any society which places the greatest value on practical knowledge and experience tends to decentralise power because such things can only be gained locally; however, a society that elevates theory over practice, tends to centralise power. Theory, especially unfalsifiable theory, allows theoreticians to assert their authority without limit or challenge.

To allow anyone, be it in politics or finance or academia, to become an untested arbiter of truth is a truly dangerous thing.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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