You could be forgiven for thinking that we have a momentous decision before us as a society. More and more passion and energy are building around the question: are we going to see race or ignore it? Will we embrace a new ideology that acknowledges and highlights people’s skin colour and ethnic identity—or should we reassert the old colourblind ideology? In fact, we do not need to choose one over the other. The heavily polarised culture war obscures the truths of both positions. When examined closely, it is clear that the two can and should exist side by side.
Over the last few years, one prominent feature of the culture wars has been an argument over how—or whether—to see race. People are increasingly becoming aware of this argument—in the UK it was covered during a brief but intense argument on the political panel show Question Time. Academic Rachel Boyle commented that the UK press was racist towards Meghan Markle. In response, actor Lawrence Fox asserted that the UK is not a racist country. Boyle replied by implying that, because he is white, Fox does not have authority to speak on the matter.
This is a manifestation of a political ideology highly concerned with race and race relations and what is often called a race-conscious position: that race is relevant to social and political life, and should be acknowledged and talked about. The most controversial part of this position is Boyle’s implication that the legitimacy of somebody’s opinion can be questioned because of his or her skin colour.
A better known aspect of the race-conscious position is the insistence on the visibility and positive promotion of minority ethnic identities. One example is Channel 4’s 2015 commitment that Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) people should make up 20% of their staff by 2020. As the linked article makes clear, a low percentage of BAME people in a company is probably “not a conscious decision by the people in charge”—but the effort to increase this percentage is conscious of its aim, and conscious of the race of individuals as it achieves that aim.
Akala and Afua Hirsch‘s recent books promoting race-consciousness by asserting the reality of ethnic identity (especially black identity) and its meaning within British society are both Sunday Times bestsellers.
The counterargument to this is the Martin Luther King or colourblind position: the idea that we should overcome skin colour in our social relations and judgements. We can trace the lineage of this position through Christian or Islamic thought on the equality of each believer before God, through the Enlightenment idea “that all men are created equal” and hold certain political rights, to Martin Luther King himself, who was also a Christian: “As I stand here and look out upon the thousands of negro faces, and the thousands of white faces, intermingled like the waters of a river, I see only one face—the face of the future.”
This is the ideal promoted by many who are opposed to the race conscious position. This is becoming an area of cultural conflict—and the Question Time incident is significant in that both sides were aware of the conflict. Lawrence Fox has promoted his opposition to race conscious ideas on several mainstream TV programmes. His position has been interpreted most clearly by the sympathetic Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, who mentions the “perfectly sensible progressive belief” that “you shouldn’t judge people according to the colour of their skin,” in opposition to the new imposition that “you have to accept that you should go through life viewing everything through a racial lens.”
The colourblind position is also supported by a number of increasingly prominent African-American commentators. Here, Chloé Valdary responds to Amy Siskind, who is fully embracing a conscious politicisation of race:
You see, the problem with this is someone will come along and say this about people of color (my community) and you will have no moral basis on which to claim that what they are doing is bad because you have just done it yourself. https://t.co/TlElkY7KiA
— Chloé S. Valdary 📚 (@cvaldary) December 20, 2018
Meanwhile, the increasingly influential young writer and commentator Coleman Hughes has described the race conscious position as insanity, noting that, “King’s dream of a colorblind America—where the content of our character matters more than the color of our skin—is hampered by progressives’ focus on checking white privilege and stoking black grievance.”
A true analysis of these contrasting positions would require a full-length book. Both can claim great power over people’s minds—the colourblind belief seemed totally hegemonic in the 1990s to me and several of my classmates, in our Muslim-majority high school. In our unstated morality, racism was not to be tolerated, and the basic value behind this anti-racism was that skin colour did not matter. Meanwhile the race conscious belief is being pushed as the new hegemonic view and has many believers in more powerful parts of society.
We have, then, a conflict between two diametrically opposed positions. Any resolution to this conflict must overcome a barrier—after all, don’t we, in the tenacious, brave, underdog world of freethinkers, already know which view is correct? Isn’t the race conscious view simply insanity, as Coleman Hughes asserts?
It is certainly easy to make the short leap, as Chloé Valdary and many others have done, from the exclusion of white people to the exclusion of black people, or from the glorifying of black people to the glorifying of white people—that is, a short leap back to more racist, universally condemned eras of recent history. This leap is made very attractive by an embarrassing lack of attention to these issues from the proponents of race consciousness, at least in popular discourse.
The Strengths of the Race Conscious Position
The faults of these activists—the proponents of the race conscious position—have lead many of us to dismiss their position as insane. What their conduct obscures is the better, more powerful elements of this position. These begin with the central point made by writers like Akala and Hirsch. Stripped down drastically, this can be summed up as follows:
Any individual’s experience of the world is influenced by certain factors related to their identity. One of the most important of these will be, in most cases, the individual’s race or ethnicity. Given how important our experience of the world is, these influences must be acknowledged and talked about.
Racism is a secondary factor that gives such an experience more power. It is not necessary for a person to experience discrimination for this to be true. Our black brothers and sisters are calling out for our attention not just because of racism, but because they do not experience the world as the colourblind society they have been told that they should believe in.
If race-conscious black writers have been confronted by the clear relevance of identity, so, increasingly, has the west in general. Political movements within ethnic majority populations, such as support for Trump or Brexit, are directly related to questions of national or ethnic identity. Immigration is an emotive issue across the west, for many of the same people who oppose themselves to the race conscious movement. These supposedly right wing manifestations are paralleled by the recent identity-based political strategy of the US Democratic party. This strategy has enraged opponents of race-consciousness, but a very good case could be made that the Democrats were simply responding to long-running themes of race and ethnicity in US politics as a whole.
These political trends are often treated as shocking—but they shouldn’t be. Political science has long been convinced of the importance of racial and ethnic identity. Studies have shown that ethnicity is politically salient in terms of rhetoric as well as voting behaviour and party organisation. It is an important element of political life. Before the disruptions of 2016–2020, this fact could be swept under the rug. Now, this is impossible.
However, this is a sword that cuts two ways. These disruptions have demonstrated the importance of race and identity across manifold social groups, amplifying and compounding the voices of activists. But they have also shown that language, power and politics in this area are unpredictable, and cannot be easily controlled.
The Dangers of Race-Consciousness
Accepting a degree of race-consciousness does not simply mean buying into the terminology and arguments of the radical left. It means working through issues, and having conversations, that have been repressed across the political spectrum. These conversations, done properly, would be entirely different from what we have seen so far from both the best and the worst of the woke movement. Indeed, they could terrify that movement. It is here that the two most vocal parties in the culture war find some agreement—they are both totally opposed to a spectre that haunts this entire issue.
This spectre is what left activists are trying to control, and what the sensible centre and centre-right commentators are afraid of. This is the spectre of white racial consciousness. Where does this ‘terrifying’ spectre fit into this puzzle? If you allow racial consciousness (by endorsing and publicising it in the media), it is inevitable that it will manifest in its pre-existing racial or ethnic categories. In other words, as white is a prominent racial identity in the west, white racial consciousness will be automatically strengthened or made salient in a race conscious society.
The race-conscious left seems to believe that their ideology can control or negate this problem. On the one hand, their activists believe they can deconstruct whiteness—because “whiteness was invented at a certain point in history.” They seem to believe that it can be ridiculed or analysed in such a way that it is fragmented into nothing. Alternatively, they act like Boyle did on Question Time—they highlight and prioritise white racial identity in terms of the privilege that it bestows. This prompts people to think about white identity in particular, approved ways.
These two approaches are contradictory—but, more importantly, neither deals with the problem. A political or social scientist might agree that whiteness is a construct. However, beyond a minority scholarly faction known as primordialists, it is agreed that ethnic and racial identities are always constructed—they are contingent on the people that use them. These ethnic constructs nevertheless have power. This is meant to be the point of the race-conscious left position.
Thus even if whiteness was deconstructed, it would be replaced by other ethnic or racial identities—either by smaller ones, which have been constantly relevant in the British Isles (English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Roma, Irish Traveller and religio-ethnic identities in Ireland)—or perhaps by a bigger one, which has yet to be created.
The second approach is the negative highlighting of white identity, and the invocation of privilege. This has very limited power. While it has been temporarily successful at getting people to think about white identity in a particular way, this has only impacted a small minority—those who have been specifically educated in the ideology. The ideology makes little to no sense, but, even if it did, it is far too complex to extend its control to the mass of the population. There is no way to tell how people who will not or cannot believe in this ideology will relate to the racial identity that they have been encouraged to be conscious of, except that this identity will be primed or reinforced.
Confusion Between the Positions
In these two strategies used to deal with the problem of white identity, race conscious and colourblind concepts become confused and muddled together. When using the first strategy, activists from the race conscious position often refer to white identity as a phantasmal construction that can be destroyed—thus implicitly dismissing the significance of race.
A similar confusion can be seen within the colourblind position. While white commentators like Brendan O’Neill appear to be able to ignore race fairly consistently, African-American supporters of the position have always combined it with at least a degree of race-consciousness. Martin Luther King was conscious of, and concerned with, problems of race.
The often brilliant Coleman Hughes also clearly establishes his race as central to the context of many of the recent conversations on his YouTube channel. When talking to John McWhorter (who does the same thing), Hughes begins by relating that “you were the first person I read that made me challenge many default assumptions about race, and being black in America.” Hughes was not only conscious of “being black in America,” he thinks about the subject deeply. The conversation quickly brings up the controversial subject of black culture, something they are also conscious of.
The inconsistency here is not necessarily in the work of MLK, Hughes and McWhorter, but in the disconnect between their habitual discourse and that of the white proponents of colourblindness, such as O’Neill. A race-conscious activist might point out to Hughes that O’Neill—and many other white commentators—never acknowledges his race as important to whatever context he is in. Such commentators have never thought deeply about being white in Britain or the US, etc. In the absence of an explanation of this difference from the colourblind camp, the same race-conscious activist can use this inconsistency to discredit the colourblind position.
These confusions suggest that the line between the two positions is not as sharp as we might have thought. But how do we resolve the conflict?
Escaping the Choice: What Is, and What Should Be
The coexistence of the two positions in the thought and practice of MLK and Hughes suggests two different ways of conceptualising race: one that looks forward to the future and considers what should be, and one that looks at the concrete situation and considers what is.
Early on in the conversation between Hughes and McWhorter, they criticise anti-racism as a new religion. Hughes, later in the conversation, complains of his failure to convince non-conservatives of his arguments. He contrasts his failure with Martin Luther King’s success, and identifies one reason why King spoke so powerfully—because his arguments were integrated into his religion, and thus his language was transcendent, making it a hundred times more effective.
Moral and religious language is the key here. This language can talk about how our world is, but more often talks about what it should be. Hughes and McWhorter’s identification of the religious nature of anti-racism hits the nail on the head—race-conscious discourse has inherited this tendency, and got things the wrong way round. Race consciousness is referred to in moral, even religious terms. When people use this language, they are speaking of what should be. This mode is what is disturbing about it—it is the same religious mode that the Nazis used to refer to race—race as an end, race as purpose, race as what should be.
Instead, race-consciousness should be referring to what is—a reality which, pleasant or unpleasant, we must deal with. This is the mode that black racial consciousness has tended to use—whether in radical political movements or in the words of moderate critical commentators. Many black writers, like many normal black people, have had to refer to race as what is—it has been an unavoidable element in their lives. This, of course, is how Hughes and McWhorter refer to it during their talk.
Meanwhile, the colourblind position must make clear to what extent, and why, it is referring to ideals that have not yet been achieved. Despite the beauty, importance and moral necessity of these ideals, its supporters must acknowledge people’s real experiences in our world or risk irrelevancy.
This conceptualisation of the two positions allows them to exist side by side. But does it help with the ‘problem’ of white identity? Referring to this identity as a future goal or project, i.e. as something that should be, is as wrong now as it always has been. When it is used in this way, condemnation is entirely justified.
However, it is essential to allow conversation on this topic as something that is. Unless an all-conquering colourblind ideology is resurrected, the conversation is inevitable. In the past, the power and hegemony of the majority populations of the west ensured that white identity could be minimised and pacified. It was bolstered and sustained by media, but below the level of general consciousness. The flipside of the technological, cultural and demographic changes that have decreased this power and hegemony is that the suppression of the overt topic is no longer possible. The pacifier of hegemonic white representation in media has been cast aside and no longer bolsters or sustains it.
This is the hard-to-swallow truth: maybe, given honest and open engagement with their identity, people of European descent will reject the category white—but maybe they will not. I don’t believe it is necessarily worse than any of the other identities we could choose instead.
When and if this change in what is allowed to be discussed occurs, it will eventually be for the good. Haven’t our black brothers and sisters noticed—at least unconsciously—that it is our ignorance of ourselves which drives all or most of the problems around racism? Haven’t self-conception and self-identity in Europe and the US been torn apart by a dozen different influences—the destruction of our communities through capitalism and individualism, the destruction of our belief systems through rationalism and nihilism, the destruction of the self through all this and more?
It is absolutely vital that we do resurrect our transcendent belief systems which assert that skin colour ultimately doesn’t matter. But to do this, we first need to know ourselves.