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How not to be a white anti-racist Instead of wallowing in guilt or trying to identify with minorities — try offering practical help

He certainly likes dressing up. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

October 25, 2019   4 mins

Nothing demonstrates the speed at which right-on political mores change these days than debates around “cultural appropriation”. Barely a few years ago, at least before high street accessories stores began selling then, if you saw a white teenager or twenty-something with a Yasser Arafat-style keffiyeh you could make a pretty good guess of his or her opinions on race relations, climate change and Israel. Nowadays, of course, that person would be guilty of cultural appropriation, and so the sartorial fashions have changed along with the political fashions.

There is indeed a fine line between support for a cause or respect for a particular culture on the one hand, and fetishisation of a disadvantaged group on the other. And you don’t need to dress up or put on make-up to be guilty of the latter, although the just re-elected Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has certainly taken it to a new level.

Reflecting on the recent “blackfacing” controversy, the Arab-Canadian academic Moustafa Bayoumi speculated that “Trudeau seems to want to play out some deep-level desire to leave his whiteness behind” but nonetheless doubted that “Trudeau wants to be an Arab man or a black man or an Indian man, though he has dressed up as all three”.

Unlike Bayoumi, I’m not so sure. I suspect that a part of Trudeau would like to be a member of another ethnic group, and he certainly believes that certain groups — such as people of colour, women, and LGBT people — are especially and inherently “cool” and worthy of praise; he would dearly like to be one of them, or at least to have some of their cache rub off on him. Hence he has, in the words of one Asian Canadian, so much fun “playing dress-up”. 

Trudeau has never missed the opportunity to be photographed at gurdwara in a turban, or eating iftar in shalwar kameez. This is despite the criticism it has drawn from the communities he was supposedly paying tribute to; on a visit to India, he wore “traditional” dress while many of the Indians he met wore suits, prompting a wave of eyerolls on Indian social media. When it comes to gender politics, he famously hectored a woman about feminism, correcting her for using the word “mankind” instead of “humankind”. 

While there is nothing wrong with paying tribute to peoples and cultures one admires and respects, still less helping to combat discrimination and prejudice, this can easily fall into essentialising, stereotyping and fetishising people. Alongside this “neo-Orientalism”, many on the Left exhibit an element of self-loathing, believing that white men — or, to give them their full title, middle-class, cis-gender, straight white men — are inherently morally compromised.

This tendency is at its most offensive and absurd in the cases of Rachel Dolezal and Anthony Lennon, who despite their white parents both claim to be black, due to their politics and their love of and respect for black people and culture. Yet you do not have to go to the extreme lengths of Dolezal; for plenty of white leftists, constantly criticising your own demographic group and actively seeking to distance yourself from it is a way of escaping the prison of whiteness, almost itself a form of blackfacing.

In a recent episode of the hit Netflix television programme Queer Eye, one of the stars, Antoni Porowski, responded to being told by a Mexican-American abuela that her secret chilli recipe was “not for white people” by protesting that this shouldn’t apply to him, as he was “Polish-Canadian”.

This was more than a throwaway joke: Porowski and Trudeau do not literally think they are not white, but they think that they are politically not white: their cultural values and political views preclude them from whiteness. For them, whiteness is inextricably bound up with reactionary values, and even Left-wing whites are still compromised. Hence the claim by journalist Laurie Penny following Trump’s election that she was “truly horrified and ashamed to be white”,  or the actress Rosanna Arquette tweeting her “disgust” at the fact she was “born white”.

This performative wokeness is not merely ridiculous — it does precisely nothing to help victims of systemic and every-day racism. And this behaviour is not restricted to ethnicity: there is a growing trend on the Left that sees structural disadvantage and discrimination — due to, say, ethnicity, class, or gender-identity – as almost a desirable status to be envied.

Laurie Penny has also boasted that she is “about as close as you can get to the trans rights movement without being trans yourself. I’ve been associated with trans activism for years, and while I don’t know what it’s like to be harassed, threatened or abandoned for being transsexual, most of my close friends do”. Substitute “black” or “working-class” for “trans”, and that sentence becomes even more toe-curling and absurd; it indicates less of a concern for ally-ship and solidarity than a desire to emulate and associate oneself with a disadvantaged-but-fashionable group.

Nor is this trend confined to white people. The journalist Afua Hirsch is of mixed Jewish-Ghanaian heritage, and grew up in a pleasant middle-class neighbourhood in Wimbledon. Her husband’s parents, in contrast, were both Ghanaian, and lived on a rough estate in Tottenham. A theme of her book is how while “he thinks in terms of generating wealth and opportunity, I think in terms of identity and belonging”.

Hirsch’s response to the material deprivation her husband experienced growing up was one of envy: “when it comes to identity, I tell him, he was born with the equivalent of a silver spoon”. Her parents “often joked that I would rather have grown up on a council estate, and this contained a grain of truth”.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, in her best-selling book Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race, explicitly criticises this “wallowing in guilt”. For Eddo-Lodge, support for disadvantaged groups,

looks like financial or administrative assistance to the groups doing vital work. Or intervening when you are needed in bystander situations… Don’t be anti-racist for the sake of an audience. Being white and anti-racist in your private or professional life, where there’s very little praise to be found, is much more difficult.

This is advice Justin Trudeau, Laurie Penny and others should take on board: try to help, not appropriate.

David Swift’s A Left For Itself: Left-wing Hobbyists and Performative Radicalism is published by Zero Books

David Swift is a historian and author. His next book, Scouse Republic, will be published in 2025.


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