At school, I would sometimes be approached in the playground by children I didn’t know. I must have been about seven or eight. Appearing in front of me, they would call me racist names. Then they wandered away. I don’t remember being distressed by these incidents. Sometimes, though, children came over to tell me that they weren’t racist. They knew that racism existed; they even told me about the racist things that other people said. But they wanted me to know that they didn’t agree with those other people – they were on my side. This type of encounter was more upsetting than the first. Instead of being insulted, I was let into the knowledge that I was an object of debate. There were stakes involved, positions taken, lines drawn. I would rather not have known.
Robin DiAngelo opens her book Nice Racism with an anecdote that reminded me of these playground encounters. She describes going for dinner with a Black couple while at university. Desperate to show that she wasn’t racist – ‘At this point in my life, I had no Black friends and had rarely spent time with Black people’ – DiAngelo, who is White, shared ‘every racist joke, story and comment’ that her family had ever made.Later she realised with horror that she had ‘subjected this couple to racism all night long’. When White people are ‘nice’, DiAngelo suggests, they are often doing what she was doing: reproducing racism while disassociating themselves from it. The people she is thinking of are middle-class White progressives, who do not see themselves as racist and who are anxious not to be seen as racist. This, DiAngelo argues, makes them all the more likely to unconsciously reproduce racism.
Nice Racism is one of a number of anti-racist books to have been published in the last few years whose authors target White readers while lamenting the difficulty of getting them to change their behaviour. The prototype is Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, published in 2017 but based on a viral blogpost from three years earlier, in which she complained that ‘the vast majority’ of White people are unable to listen when racism is pointed out to them: ‘Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Eddo-Lodge’s blog and book have become ferociously popular with the audience she was chastising. ‘I now spend most of my time talking to white people about race,’ she admits.
More recent anti-racist books are explicitly aimed at this audience. They commend White people willing to ‘do the work’ on racism, but condemn them for the bad faith in which they approach anti-racist labour. White people don’t want to talk about race; but when they do, they want to be lauded, they want to dominate the conversation and they bristle at the idea that they might themselves be implicated in racism. ‘You are doing this because it’s the right thing to do,’ Layla Saad writes in Me and White Supremacy. ‘You will not be congratulated for it. You won’t get any ally cookies for it. You won’t be celebrated for it.’ Rachel Ricketts, the author of Do Better, writes: ‘This is a good time to point out to the white folx reading that you’re not going to like a lot of what I have to say. Not one bit. Your ego and white privilege will seethe. You’ll be inclined to label me angry – classic! – and wonder who the fuck I think I am to speak to you this way.’
Blending anti-racism and self-help, these books promise to transform their readers from unwitting accomplices into allies in the anti-racist struggle. DiAngelo, Saad and Ricketts all combine personal anecdotes and snippets of memoir with didactic instruction in the history and theory of racism. They tell their readers how best to change their worldviews, reduce their microaggressions, admit their privilege and otherwise diminish their individual racist footprints: a process of self-assessment and auto-transformation presented as a path to social change. ‘If we want to burn the systems of white supremacy to the ground,’ Ricketts writes, ‘we first have to examine ourselves.’ This retreat into the self has transformative, almost transcendent, potential. ‘Everything you need to do better already exists within you.’
The language of self-help sits curiously within an anti-racist discourse. Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), the first of its kind, presented a catalogue of men who had, through the application of tremendous energies, achieved what Smiles referred to as ‘a solid and enduring reputation’. Women and non-Europeans were, at best, assistants in this enterprise; at worst, they were obstacles. Smiles was no anti-colonialist. In Self-Help he repeatedly praises the crushing of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a victory that revealed the British national character to be of a ‘heroism almost approaching the sublime’. Although the book was read (and sometimes admired) in Asia and Africa, it was impossible to square its emphatic voluntarism with the idea that global power structures trapped colonised peoples in relations of dependency. Smiles was impatient with structures. ‘It may be of comparatively little consequence how a man is governed from without,’ he wrote, because ‘everything depends upon how he governs himself from within.’ The nation, for example, was ‘only an aggregate of individual conditions’. And ‘no laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident or the drunken sober.’
Self-help first met anti-racism in the late 1960s. ‘Racism awareness training’ proposed healing American society through workshops that would root out racial prejudice from the deepest recesses of the White mind. In 1978, Judy Katz published White Awareness, a handbook for anti-racism trainers, in which she argued that the most urgent task wasn’t to address overt forms of racism – since most people no longer admitted to holding racist views – but to uncover forms of implicit racial prejudice:
Subtle racism is often rooted in the pervasiveness of white culture, which for so many of us is so automatic and taken for granted that we do not see it. We tend to think of our way as the way rather than as one cultural perspective. White privilege, white power and white ownership reside in this assumption. They are what we have to uncover to raise our awareness – our white awareness – of racism and how it functions in our communities, our institutions, and ourselves. Only then can we become agents of change with and allies to people of colour.
Designing the training meant, for Katz, undergoing a thorough self-examination, which involved ‘introspection, confrontation, anger, frustration, confusion, shame and guilt’. ‘Owning my whiteness has been a long process.’ But it also gave her ‘the joy of discovering and owning my identity and finding a new sense of personal freedom’, and this is what she offered to her White readers and students: auto-critique, but also self-discovery. Katz’s model remains the basis of anti-racist writing and training today, and the industry is boosted with each new public outcry. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, viral Instagram posts implored White people to demonstrate allyship by reading books on anti-racism. ‘Anti-racism trainers were ready for this moment,’ the Washington Post announced. ‘Is everyone else?’
Not everyone is on board. Racial sensitivity training was subject to a presidential prohibition under Donald Trump for its ‘anti-American’ content. A conservative activist blamed ‘Robin DiAngelo book clubs’ for the fall of Kabul. But enmity has also come from other quarters. Ambalavaner Sivanandan, the director of the Institute of Race Relations in London, argued several decades ago that Katz-style racial awareness training wasn’t founded on Black political struggles but on attempts to tame those struggles. He mocked such training for its ‘psychospiritual mumbo-jumbo’ and for the quasi-religious practices – ritual, ceremony, confession – that it had adopted. Angela Davis criticised ‘the relegation of race to matters of the heart’. For radical critics, the new anti-racism is suspiciously neoliberal, conforming to Anne McClintock’s description of liberalism as ‘the promise of social resolution through individual agency alone’. DiAngelo is aware of this criticism. The response she gives in Nice Racism could have come straight from Self-Help. ‘Institutions,’ she writes, are ‘made of individuals’.
I am sympathetic to these critiques. But I am also aware that rejecting the individualism of the new anti-racism can veer into a wholesale rejection of the subjective aspect of racism. This is a corrective that goes too far, minimising racism’s psychic dimensions. There is more than one way to think about racism. Frantz Fanon was preoccupied with the physical and psychological experiences of people living under colonial domination. He used his own experiences as a basis for his work, notably – in Black Skin, White Masks – elaborating a phenomenological account of race out of an incident where a White child had pointed at him and said: ‘Look! A Negro.’ But any psychological approach to racism ‘entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities’, he argued, because ‘the black man’s alienation is not an individual question.’ The new anti-racism has diverged from this in promulgating the notion that racism begins in the mind, and is therefore undone in the mind. All that is required is diligent mental labour.
‘Perhaps when white people see how we have historically oppressed others,’ DiAngelo writes, ‘we want to disassociate ourselves from our whiteness.’ She sees this as denialism – just another instance of White people being dangerous while trying to be nice. One of her examples concerns a man who attended her workshop: although he appeared White, when asked to give his racial identity he ‘explained that he had recently returned from a few months living with [a Native American] tribe, and they accepted him as a member of their community and consider him a member of their family’. DiAngelo finds this disturbing and suggests the man was trying to evade responsibility. Whiteness can’t be escaped and must instead be accepted and acknowledged. This idea – shared by other contemporary anti-racism writers – represents a departure from an earlier tradition. ‘As long as you think you’re white,’ James Baldwin once said, ‘there’s no hope for you.’
Attempts to dismantle racism have often subverted its vocabulary, turning epithets into appellations of pride. But anti-racist intellectuals have also been alert to the risk of nativism, of falling deeper into the clutches of race. In a debate with the philosopher Charles Mills in 2012, the political theorist Barnor Hesse asked: ‘How do we resist being imprisoned by our opponent’s account of race?’ Paul Gilroy and others have argued that the language of race should be abandoned altogether because using its vocabulary, even critically, reinforces its power. These ideas are absent from the new anti-racism, in which racial categories are often treated as intrinsic and immutable. This isn’t an accurate representation of the way that many (or even most) Black thinkers have historically denaturalised Whiteness, making it strange, obscene and material. ‘I don’t believe in white people,’ Baldwin said in an interview in 1970. ‘White is a metaphor for power,’ he wrote elsewhere, ‘and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.’ Fifty years earlier, W.E.B. Du Bois had pointed out that Whiteness was ‘a very modern thing’, invented to turn human beings into ‘supermen and world-mastering demi-gods’.
The academics who founded the discipline of Whiteness Studies in the 1980s and 1990s took up this interrogative stance. Noel Ignatiev, the author of How the Irish Became White, rebuked the approach that wanted to ‘admit the natural existence of “races” even while opposing social distinctions among them’. Race Traitor, the journal he co-edited (its slogan was ‘Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity’) saw the abolition of Whiteness as central to any serious anti-racist politics. Sociologists working in this tradition argued that race was radically flexible: it doesn’t simply define people but arranges them in relation to each other. (Hence the term ‘racialisation’: race as a process, not an essence.)
‘My fear ,’ Emma Dabiri writes in What White People Can Do Next, ‘is that much of the anti-racist literature is an iteration of the same process of maintaining and reaffirming whiteness.’ Masquerading as a self-help book, What White People Can Do Next is actually a critique of contemporary anti-racist writing, which Dabiri sees as an attempt to make ‘white people nicer, through a combination of begging, demanding, cajoling and imploring’. Dabiri, who grew up in Ireland, is one of the few recent writers to suggest that the renunciation of Whiteness might be a meaningful aim of a contemporary political project. Drawing almost exclusively on an older archive of anti-racist writing, she has produced a book that feels more contemporary than some of the work being done by authors who like to think they’ve moved on from that archive.
The shift from the once popular idea of ‘the global colour line’ to the now dominant word ‘racism’ points to the demise of an internationalist conception of race. A century ago, when most of the world’s population still lived under some form of European colonial rule, racism was clearly inseparable from imperialism. The anti-colonial view of the race problem was summarised by Marcus Garvey: ‘The white man has got his share and more than his share.’ Anti-colonialists didn’t envision a world in which racism could outlive colonialism: the abolition of one necessitated the demise of the other. By contrast, the postcolonial world is defined by what Barnor Hesse calls ‘raceocracy’: the hidden-in-plain-sight segregation and discrimination in societies whose gleaming post-racial edifices are built on colonial foundations. Raceocracy depends on narrowing the focus of anti-racism to that which occurs in Western society, and its authors, reflecting this contraction, often disregard the populations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
This limited scope is appropriate for a philosophy concentrated on ‘microaggressions’: the subtle but humiliating indignities that have replaced overt racism in some contexts. Since microaggressions are often enacted by DiAngelo’s ‘nice’ White people, they fit within the category of unintentionally harmful actions that can be unlearned through books and workshops. Ricketts is right to point out that the term minimises experiences that ‘should really just be labelled … aggressions’.
Yet if the term ‘microaggression’ downplays racism in Western societies, it accurately conveys the delimited spatiality of the new anti-racism. It is easy in this context to miss the border-crossing macroaggressions of racism in its old colonial style. The slights suffered by a middle-class woman of Haitian origin in the US eclipse the systematic impoverishment of the Haitian state over two centuries. Global wealth distribution – the correlation between where people live and the amount of food they have on the table – is far removed from this way of thinking about race, even as border zones from Mexico to the Mediterranean testify to the violence that enforces inequality. ‘Society is more abundant than ever before,’ Ricketts writes in her conclusion, ‘yet over half of the global population – 4.2 billion people – lives in poverty, most of whom are BI&PoC [Black, Indigenous and People of Colour].’
Ricketts is right to say that this system is ‘fundamentally fucked’. But what would it mean to take this as a starting point? To reorient anti-racism away from the subjectivity of the White progressive and think of it primarily as a project of material redistribution? To seriously argue that people in Haiti and Norway have an equal claim to the world’s resources? To fight for the abolition of the divide between Burkina Faso (GDP per capita: $786) and Belgium (GDP per capita: $46,420)? If these questions sound outlandish, that is perhaps because – as Robin DiAngelo writes elsewhere – ‘the forces of comfort are quite seductive.’