September 13, 2021

There is a logical fallacy called the Kafka Trap. It describes the condition of always being wrong. If you are accused of something, and you deny it, that denial is taken as an admission of guilt; only a guilty party would go out of their way to deny an allegation of wrongdoing. Alternatively, if you say nothing in the face of the allegation, that’s also an admission of guilt: your silence means you have accepted the allegation.

Many describe Franz Kafka’s disenchanted fables as tragic. And this is certainly true. But they are also farcical. To watch someone being relentlessly wrong can be grimly enjoyable — as long as you’re not the person in question.

The term white feminism, as it is commonly used today, is a classic example of the Kafka Trap. If you show too much interest in the lives of people of colour, you risk being accused of white saviourism — which is another way of saying you have a suspiciously condescending attitude to people of colour. But if you don’t show enough interest, you are insufficiently intersectional. You only care about the white, middle-class cisgendered women in your social circle.

White feminism is a classic example of the Kafka Trap because whatever you do is either too much or not enough. You are never right.

Joanne Harris, a bestselling novelist, recently wrote a blog post entitled “White feminists, I’m looking at you”. Harris describes white feminists as “women who ‘don’t see’ race, and who think that counts as a virtue” and are “quite happy to see women abused, as long as those women are different from their own privileged circle of friends”.

She argues that white women are too defensive when they get accused of racism: “I get it. It’s easier to focus on the words and what they mean, rather than the reason they were used in the first place. So stop thinking about the words, and think about what you did, instead. Consider whether you said or did something that was harmful.”

But whether something is harmful in the first place surely depends on the meaning of words and the content of what was said? Otherwise, what justification would there be for saying the thing was harmful?

Harris’s blog insists that her white female readers should be thoughtless. Instead of reflecting on the situation at hand, they should simply listen to their critics. In short, she wants them to acquiesce to any charge of racism levelled against them: “This isn’t about you”, she states. “No-one cares why you caused harm. All that matters is that you did.”

But is it true that no one cares why someone caused harm? If someone who is, in general, an intelligent and lovely person caused me harm, I would be especially curious to know why they did. And conversely, if I caused someone harm, I would want to know how. But then again, I’m not a white woman; passivity is not for me.

Apart from being an exercise in incoherent pontificating, and a text that instructs a group of women to fulfil archaic gender roles, Harris’s blog is also narcissistic. If no one should care why a white feminist caused harm to a group of people, why should anyone care what a white feminist like herself has to say about any of this?

In principle, Harris is encouraging greater tolerance. She says that white women are not perfect, and that she includes herself in this: “White feminists, I’m looking at you. White feminists, I’m looking at me.” But this ostentatious meekness presupposes that everyone apart from white feminists will be acting in good faith: if white feminists are not perfect, why should we assume everyone else is? In truth, no one is perfect.

But if you only insist on the imperfections of one group of people, that provides the perfect backdrop for the Kafka Trap. Whatever they do will always be judged by a harsher set of standards.

In her blog, Harris is perhaps referring to Kate Clanchy, a writer and teacher who was recently denounced on Goodreads and Twitter for the way she described some of her students in her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Three writers in particular — Chimene Suleyman, Monisha Rajesh and Sunny Singh — condemned the book for its use of racist language and the hurt this has caused people of colour. Clanchy described one student as having “chocolate-coloured skin” and another as possessing “almond-shaped eyes”. Clanchygate, as these things often do, descended into chaos. Those three critics of Clanchy unpardonably received racist abuse and trolling on Twitter.

Before this summer, I only knew Clanchy as a teacher on Twitter who shared viral poems of her students. When I first heard about the incident, I was gently bemused by it. The first real shock came when Picador, Clanchy’s publisher, announced she would be rewriting sections of the book. Something was not right here — the book was only published two years ago, not fifty or even twenty, and it would have been read by countless people at the publishing firm.

I don’t think the publishing industry is staffed by people who are indifferent to racial prejudice. So what could have gone wrong? The novelist Amanda Craig, a defender of Clanchy, suggested on Twitter that the book would have benefitted from sensitivity readers — people of colour who are paid by publishing companies to ensure any description of ethnic minority people is not offensive.

But the problem with sensitivity readers is that people of colour are not the same: what is offensive to one black or Asian person is perfectly fine to another. It assumes that there is a correct line on such matters, and only a select elite of people of colour can establish it. But I don’t want a clerisy of ethnic minority people to shape what I read; I want editors to do their job and ensure the book is as good as it could be.

An example of a person of colour who was not offended by the descriptions in Clanchy’s book is one of her former students: Shukria Rezaei. Writing in the Times, Rezaei pointed out that “in the book, she describes one of her pupils as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’. Critics labelled this description patronising, insulting, offensive, colonialist and racist. This upset me. I am that girl with the almond eyes. I did not find it offensive”.

She added that “almond eyes” is “a term that I have often used in my own poems. My almond-shaped eyes are at the core of my Hazara identity”. In other words: context matters. And in reading both the testimony of her former students and the book for myself, I came to the conclusion that the imputation of racism made by Clanchy’s online detractors was unjustified.

Clanchy entered Rezaei — and many of her other students —into poetry competitions; Rezaei had just immigrated from Pakistan (but her family is originally from Afghanistan) and didn’t speak good English. Clanchy found Rezaei funding to stay in school for an extra year because her immigration status was unsettled. And Clanchy found Rezaei scholarships and helped with her university applications.

Rezaei is not the only young person of colour Clanchy has helped. In her Times article, she quotes Asima Qayyum, another former student of Clanchy’s, who says:

“Kate gave us platforms we never expected. She fought for us to be in rooms and places we had never been welcomed in before and made sure people heard what we had to say. I know first-hand how cruel and completely unacceptable racism is in any form, and from my experiences it’s not something I’ve ever associated with Kate. I just want people to know and hear from a student who has worked with Kate for almost ten years that my experience with her has impacted my life in so many positive ways it’s unimaginable.”

In a recently published open letter to The Bookseller, a group of Clanchy’s former students characterised by what they call “multicultural diversity”, describe their personal experiences of Clanchy as one of “unequivocal care and support, always, for us as poets and as people”. On the topic of whether Clanchy is exploiting them, they say: “Kate’s promotion of our poems does not take away our agency: we do not speak through Kate, and she does not presume to speak for us”.

If the claim of “listen to people of colour” is meaningful then it needs to include voices such as Clancy’s former students in any estimation of her. Yet all too often “listen to people of colour” means listen to a select group of people of colour, take their word for writ, and suspend your critical faculties: what else can help explain how a publishing company that hitherto passionately supported an Orwell-prize winning book can acquiesce after an online backlash?

Some may argue that Clanchy is guilty of a type of white saviourism: the privileged English teacher condescending to refugee students. This would be a cynical distortion of what is evidently a generous woman trying to do her best to encourage marginalised young people to thrive. Some of the descriptions of her students in the book did make me cringe a bit, but reading the entire book did not leave me with the impression of a racist. Quite the opposite. Clanchy is genuinely enthused by living in a multiracial England.

Yet the Kafka Trap enables an English teacher who has gone out of her way to help refugee students thrive to become paralysed by the accusation of racism. Any further response from her would be used as evidence against her.

Joanne Harris addressed her piece to white women, but the Kafka Trap has severe implications for anyone who believes there is an important distinction to be made between clumsy writing and racial prejudice. Between imperfect women (and remember, no person can be perfect) and people complicit with racism. And between those of us who believe in tolerance and those whose minds have been degraded by a politics that speaks the language of compassion but is in practice vindictive.