“Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”
This statement, along with a number of similar postings, was tweeted in 2014, by Sarah Jeong, who has recently been hired to the New York Times editorial board. Her appointment has been greeted by a predictable firestorm of protest, but she’s also received a surprising amount of support, mostly from commentators on the social justice left, that branch of the left which is heavily influenced by identity politics, standpoint epistemology, critical race theory, and intersectionality. As a staunch believer in free speech, I will defend both Jeong’s right to tweet whatever she wishes and the Times’ freedom to hire whomever they please, though I also fear this decision will damage the publication’s credibility. But I’m not going to focus primarily on Jeong as an individual here—I am more interested in the wider implications of the double standards that allow so many to condemn racism against people of color and defend it, when directed at white people.
I’ll examine two of the most common arguments presented by those who maintain that Jeong’s tweets were not racist. First, that racism towards white people is justified because of the historical and structural inequalities which have benefited white people in America and allowed them to oppress people of color. And, secondly, that this kind of speech cannot be considered racism, because its intent is simply to signal allegiance to the cause of social justice, and that “jokes” about white people are just an intrinsic part of the rhetoric of those who want to help bring about racial equality.
Structures and Individuals
When we are trying to improve society as a whole, it’s important to look at trends and averages. Sociologists can provide statistics which demonstrate which groups are experiencing disproportionate hardship and ill treatment. This helps us devise policies designed to ensure equal opportunities and fair treatment for everyone and to make society more equitable. We can then monitor how different groups are faring, to see whether our policies are working or having unintended adverse consequences. Historians can explain why some groups are more disadvantaged than others and can trace the root causes of inequality and discrimination. We can also chart structural racism—i.e. uncover the ways in which our societies are, accidentally or purposefully, designed to make things more difficult for specific groups. We can look at how attitudes towards different groups have been formed and try to challenge the assumptions made about them. Tackling structural racism is important work.
But we should not forget that society is also a collection of individuals. The reason why many of us want to challenge structural racism and trace the historical bases of racist attitudes is because we care about human beings as individuals. Our aim is to achieve a society in which every person is accorded equal rights and treated with equal dignity and respect. Many on the social justice left have lost sight of that aim. They can’t see the trees for the forest.
Instead, they speak and act as if this were a zero-sum game, a power struggle between groups, in which one group’s gain will be another’s loss. In this vision, the formerly dispossessed groups are fighting to overthrow the oppressor group. It’s people of color against whites. In her many tweets on white people, Jeong never qualifies her words, never specifies that she means racist white people. This slippage is sinister. And it reflects a much more widespread phenomenon. The problem, we are often told, is “white privilege,” “white fragility,” “white tears,” or even just “white people” full stop. The common element here is not racism, but whiteness.
We are told to question and challenge the views of “white people.” But this makes little sense. White people are not a monolith. They have a wide range of opinions. And many of them are themselves on the social justice left and completely committed to the cause of anti-racism. In fact, I often encounter white people telling the world—at some length—not to listen to what white people have to say.
The Dangers of Tribalism
This rhetoric also plays right into the hands of the far right. They do believe that this is about a historical struggle between races, a fight between white people and people of color, in which there can be only one victor. And they have chosen the other team. I’m not blaming the excesses of the social justice left for the rise of the far right. Those who are committed to far-right ideologies have usually been influenced by the crude us-and-them thinking and racial determinism of fascism. They have based their ideology on a historically illiterate and scientifically shallow view of themselves as the superior “race.” But an ideology alone will rarely inspire people to join an extremist movement. We humans generally respond more strongly to emotional appeals. The far right runs on fear—irrational, exaggerated but very real fear—of being taken over, outnumbered, attacked. Every time someone publicly states that they hate white people, and are applauded by many on the left, it fuels that fear. Extremism on one side increases extremism on the other.
It’s telling that, in India, where the far right currently poses an imminent threat, racist and bigoted rhetoric is much less common as a leftist political strategy. Perhaps this is also because of the fundamental lesson recent Indian history teaches us: if you want to find reasons to hate a group of people of a specific color, caste, or creed, you can. Every group has been guilty of terrible acts. During Partition, both Hindus and Muslims committed the most terrifying atrocities: children were burned alive, women were gang raped, villages were torched, entire trainfulls of passengers were chopped into a bloody pulp. It was always possible to look at the other side and say “they are evil; look at what they did; they deserve to die.” This created a cycle of violence, during which over a million Indians killed each other: a horrifying demonstration of our human tendency towards blind allegiance to tribalism.
When you paint a group as a dominant oppressor people, you stoke hatred and justify vengeance. This rhetoric is used to excuse much of the current violence against Muslims in India. The Hindu far right describe Muslims as the descendants of invaders, the inheritors of the Mughal conquerors, who—in Hindutva’s incomplete and biased version of history—exploited, ravaged and victimized a peaceful Hindu population. Similarly, the white far right describe Muslims as a wave of militant extremists who threaten to swamp Europe, outbreed the natives and—once they have the upper hand—impose their retrograde religion on them through threats of jihadist terror. Neither group see them as human.
False Equivalences and Double Standards
Many people have argued that anti-white racism is a non-issue, so trivial in its consequences compared with other historical manifestations of racism that we shouldn’t be talking about it at all. There is some truth to that argument. No one I’ve encountered on the social justice left has been advocating violence against white people. White people are not an endangered minority in the West. Even if we assume that people who make statements like Sarah Jeong’s genuinely feel intense loathing towards whites—which is unproven—they are probably not in a position to act on that hatred in ways that would impact white people on a grand scale.
I agree that racism towards minorities is a far more threatening social phenomenon, by definition. When people in positions of real power voice or endorse—or even just fail to condemn—racism or bigotry against minority groups, the situation can become grave. I am genuinely concerned by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans, and others, and even more so by Modi’s endorsement of some vile anti-Muslim bigots within his own party. The majority have force of numbers on their side. If enough of them are racists, they can coalesce into mobs, they can physically intimidate and threaten minorities, they can even, if the situation becomes endemic, use the police, army, and courts to strip them of their rights, to brutalize, imprison, exile, kill. So why am I talking about racism against whites? For two reasons.
First, it is the one sticking point when I try to convince people that racism is wrong and that we must treat people as individuals and judge them, not by their skin color, but on a case-by-case basis. When I decry racism towards other groups, fellow leftists and liberals agree with me. If I tell them racism against whites is wrong, they demur. If there were a consensus that sentiments like Sarah Jeong’s are racist, I wouldn’t have written this article. I don’t consider the tweets, in themselves, of much importance. What worries me is how strongly people are defending this flavor of bigotry.
Secondly, the attempts to justify statements like Jeong’s as an exception to the general rule about racism, and to sneakily suggest that it’s OK in this case are damaging, for both strategic and moral reasons. If we want to combat racism, the only way to convince people to join us is to be clear, consistent, and honest. Blatant double standards will only alienate anyone who has a sense of fairness. But it’s OK when we do it simply won’t wash. And, more importantly, we will have abandoned one of our key principles: that every human being is of equal worth, no matter what the color of her skin. If the left’s slogan ever becomes We Hate White People, or It’s OK to be Racist Against Some People most white people will vote against the left or abstain from voting altogether. And so will I.
One excuse I frequently hear for anti-white racism is that it isn’t actually racism because racism means “power plus prejudice.” This is nonsense. Words acquire meanings through the mutual agreement of a large number of speakers of the language concerned. You cannot change the meaning of a word in common use by simply publishing an article in an academic journal, giving a talk, or otherwise announcing that the meaning has now been altered by fiat. Even if English lacked a precise term for hating or despising someone on the basis of their race it would still be a real phenomenon. Luckily, however, it does not. Most people who attempt to redefine the word racism do so because they want to be racist with impunity. We should resist this casuistry. The word has strong and ugly connotations—and rightly so. This habit of mind needs to be named and shamed, whenever we encounter it, not just in an institutional context. Attempting to stir up racist feeling is never harmless. Racism of every kind—including anti-white racism—can be tremendously hurtful and damaging in families and workplaces, and sours everyday interpersonal relationships.
Some are also arguing that Jeong and others don’t actually hate white people. By making statements like the one quoted at the beginning of this essay, they are simply signaling their membership of the social justice left. I can believe this, especially given that so many of those spouting anti-white rhetoric are themselves white. It’s become part of the in-group code. Some defend statements like “Cancel White People” as all just a joke, a bit of harmless fun. These arguments are very similar to those made by the alt/far right, who often claim that their SS costumes are just cosplay; their gas the Jews jokes and oven memes are just for amusement. They’re simply trolling; they’re not sincere.
I am unconvinced in both cases. A statement that someone sincerely racist would have been just as likely to make in exactly the same tone, manner and context is probably not a joke (jokes rely on comic hyperbole, irony, and incongruity). If you simply make repeated statements like “white people are scum,” you can reasonably expect people to take you at your word, just as you can if you assert that “Jews control the media.” Trying to wriggle out of responsibility afterwards by claiming you were actually joking is disingenuous and unpersuasive. This kind of trolling also muddies the issues, debases political discourse, and makes the left appear untrustworthy.
I often hear that people who object to this kind of rhetoric are just “triggered white people” who have had their “feelings hurt.” This is the left-wing mirror image of the right’s tendency to say outrageous things simply to “trigger the libs.” It’s facile attention seeking and it’s a bogus rebuke anyway. People’s feelings are often hurt if you tell them you hate all their kind. That’s normal. Making racist statements in order simply to hurt people’s feelings is not something to be proud of: it’s the act of a bully. This argument is also a gross oversimplification. Many of those spouting anti-white rhetoric are white people themselves and many of those annoyed, frustrated, or offended by it are people of color. Anyone with integrity opposes racism—no matter whom that racism is directed against.
For the record, I am mixed race. I don’t fit into a neat white versus non-white dichotomy. I won’t join in with performative racism of any kind. I won’t endorse trolling. I won’t provide cover for bullies or spout racist slogans about any group. I will continue to speak out, loud and clear, in favor of a universal liberal humanist approach, in which a person’s worth is not determined by their skin color. I know I’m not alone in this. Join us.