Image by Unitarian Universalist Association
I don’t believe what you believe, and I don’t have to. I defend your right to hold, express and live by your own belief system, but you have no right to impose any of it on me.
This statement is the essence of secularism and it is absolutely central to liberal democracy. In a secular, liberal democracy, we mandate tolerance of a plurality of worldviews and we encourage a positive attitude to diversity of thought as productive of greater understanding and broader knowledge. Restrictions on what others may believe, say and do are reserved for behaviours that directly harm other people or prevent them from believing, saying and doing what they believe to be right. But what happens when an ideology that holds that beliefs other than its own are directly harmful to or oppressive of others and society fails to recognize that ideology as a belief system in itself, to which the statement cited above should apply? Then we get what we are seeing right now.
What Is the Problem?
Since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the knee of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer with a record of using excessive force, and the subsequent protests, many businesses have put out statements on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and assured us all that their companies will vigorously defend the values of that movement. For those of us who have been addressing concerns about the dogmatic and authoritarian nature of much of Critical Social Justice scholarship and activism, this has resulted in an enormous number of emails from anxious employees. Here are some abbreviated examples with some key details changed:
I work for a tech company. My boss just announced that he is white, male & privileged and that we all need to do more to show we are addressing this kind of privilege. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do, but I really want to keep my job.
I am a university librarian and I have been required to take part in a seminar about white supremacy and decolonising the library. I’ve been asked to talk about how I have experienced racism as a woman of color, but I don’t think I have experienced any.
I am being expected to teach middle schoolers about white privilege and I want to do this in an evidence-based and non-ideological way, but I don’t know if I’ll still have a job if I try.
I am a marketing executive & we have all been required to join a Slack channel to talk about racism and any white person not contributing to say they are racist and trying to do better is called out for their white silence.
My partner’s engineering firm is requiring everyone to read White Fragility. He plans to take early retirement so he can speak freely about this. Isn’t it a problem that the only people who can [do this] are the independently wealthy?
As you will notice, not one of these people express any doubt that black lives do, indeed, matter. In fact, most of these emails begin by assuring me that the writer abhors racism and is committed to treating everyone as an individual, regardless of his or her identity. But the people contacting me, and many others in this space, are all worried about being expected to affirm a very specific conception of anti-racism, which includes a specific conception of the world and specific methods for diagnosing and addressing racism. This conception of anti-racism is known as Critical Race Theory and it is part of the larger phenomenon of Critical Social Justice scholarship and activism. My correspondents fear that they will be compelled to take this approach and that not doing this or not doing it correctly or enthusiastically enough could result in the loss of their jobs.
It is at this point that a Critical Social Justice activist is likely to respond with “Why is that a bad thing? What’s so awful about being asked to learn about systemic racism and white privilege and how to accept your implicit bias and help dismantle the oppressive system of whiteness? Black people have to live with these oppressive systems that impact every part of their lives and you’re complaining about having to learn about it? Aren’t you just being fragile?” This may seem like a good point. There are plenty of studies that show that there are serious earning gaps between white people and black people. Isn’t this clear evidence of racism occuring in the realm of employment? If so, wouldn’t employment be precisely the place where this should be addressed? Yes and no.
Firstly, it is not entirely clear what explains racial disparities in the workplace, but it doesn’t seem to be tied straightforwardly to white privilege. Evidence that recent African immigrants to the US, as well as other previously oppressed and marginalised groups, including Jews and East Asians, are doing particularly well suggests that the picture is more complicated than that. Nevertheless, upward mobility is generally hard and African Americans were prevented from even trying to become more prosperous until a couple of generations ago, so the impact of that will still be felt. Also, racism continues to exist and anyone who claims that it does not or that it will have zero effect on black people’s access to profitable and rewarding opportunities is living in a post-racial utopia of their own creation.
Second, while there is an overwhelming consensus that racism is bad and that racists should be prevented from harming or disadvantaging others with their racism, there is no consensus on the ethical framework behind this. People can oppose racism from within a number of ethical, political and religious frameworks, including Critical Social Justice beliefs about invisible systems of whiteness; universal liberal and libertarian beliefs, in which all people should be treated as individuals regardless of their identities; Marxist beliefs, in which the meaningful divides between people are ones of class; and conservative religious beliefs in which all humans are children of God. Therefore any codes of conduct or training around racism need to accommodate a wide range of ethical, religious, political and philosophical beliefs, which people must be permitted to hold under laws and social expectations of freedom of belief.
It is perfectly reasonable for employers to require employees to commit to not discriminating against anybody on the basis of race, and to not expressing racist beliefs. Because this is an important issue and employers will want to be very clear about it, a talk or meeting could be necessary and employees might be required to confirm that they understand and commit to following the rules. However, it is also important that the focus is on expected attitudes and behaviours at work and does not require anyone to affirm their commitment to any particular belief system that they may not believe in and should not be coerced into.
The ethical problem with requiring ideological conformity is often understood better by people on the political left when it comes to a belief system like Christianity, which is a majority view and often combined with conservative politics. It is usually clear to leftists that, unless the role is a specifically religious one, an employer should not require their atheist, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or even Christian employees to affirm the Christian faith. It is less clear to a certain subset of them that they should not be required to affirm a belief in concepts of invisible systems of power and privilege such as whiteness. This is because Social Justice beliefs are not currently recognised as ones to which the concept of secularism should be applied. They should be.
If employers are holding meetings to go over the rules of non-discrimination and the expectation of non-racist attitudes at work and requiring employees to commit to this, they really need to make these requirements inclusive of diverse viewpoints. Employers must be able to demand certain behaviours from employees, but not specific beliefs. Of course, it is likely that many of them do still operate this way. The people who are not being compelled to affirm Critical Social Justice beliefs at work will not be writing to us to tell us so and ask us what they can do about it. However, the sheer volume of these emails is reason to think that there has been a sudden surge in Critical Social Justice anti-racist training since the death of Mr Floyd. That Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has sold out in that same period and become the bestseller in the US again suggests that the Critical Social Justice approach to anti-racism, focusing on whiteness as a pervasive but largely invisible system, has seen a rapid surge in popularity. The fact that the unlawful and brutal killing of a black man by a white police officer in the US has led to white computer technicians in Australia being asked to confront their complicity in whiteness and brown librarians in England being expected to testify to very theoretically specific experiences of racism makes it very clear that we are looking at a particular conception of systemic racism.
The Truth According to Critical Social Justice
When we hear people speak of systemic racism, we might associate this with institutional racism in a literal sense: an institution has been found to be discriminating against non-white people and this can be measured and, in principle, remedied. However, this is not really how systemic racism is understood in the work of theorists like DiAngelo. Instead, this systemic racism refers to everything said and done in a society by white people. DiAngelo writes:
The system of racism begins with ideology, which refers to the big ideas that are reinforced throughout society. From birth, we are conditioned into accepting and not questioning these ideas. Ideology is reinforced across society, for example, in schools and textbooks, political speeches, movies, advertising, holiday celebrations, and words and phrases. These ideas are also reinforced through social penalties when someone questions an ideology and through the limited availability of alternative ideas. Ideologies are the frameworks through which we are taught to represent, interpret, understand and make sense of social existence. Because these ideas are constantly reinforced, they are very hard to avoid believing and internalizing.
This is known as discourse theory and it owes a great deal to the thought of the French postmodernist, Michel Foucault. Foucault understood knowledge as a construct of power, which is perpetuated by common ways of speaking about things. That is, certain ways of speaking about things get legitimised as true by powerful forces in society and are then repeated as true by people on all levels of society, which works to maintain oppressive power imbalances. In this case, racism is maintained by the way white people speak about things, but white people usually don’t even realise this and they need people like DiAngelo to help them see it. The word woke makes much more sense when this conception of society is understood. Consequently, racism is defined not as prejudice on the grounds of race, which can consistently be recognised as wrong but as a power system that only works one way. DiAngelo says,
Racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level. When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.
So, this is systemic racism in the Critical Social Justice sense and that system of big ideas and discourses that are largely invisible to the non-woke is known as whiteness and it really does apply to everything. According to DiAngelo,
We might think of whiteness as all the aspects of being white—aspects that go beyond mere physical differences and are related to the meaning and resultant material advantage of being defined as white in society: what is granted and how it is granted based on that meaning.
Whiteness is structural:
To say that whiteness is a location of structural advantage is to recognize that to be white is to be in a privileged position within society and its institutions—to be seen as an insider and to be granted the benefits of belonging. This position automatically bestows unearned advantages.
Whiteness is a particularly privileged perspective:
To say that whiteness is a standpoint is to say that a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race—“just human.” This standpoint views white people and their interests as central to, and representative of, humanity. Whites also produce and reinforce the dominant narratives of society—such as individualism and meritocracy—and use these narratives to explain the positions of other racial groups.
Whiteness is culture:
To say that whiteness includes a set of cultural practices that are not recognized by white people is to understand racism as a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantage for whites and disadvantage for people of color. These norms and actions include basic rights and benefits of the doubt, purportedly granted to all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.
So whiteness is to be understood as this all-pervasive but invisible system of racism that white people perpetuate without even knowing they are doing it. This is a radically different understanding of racism from the commonly accepted one, which holds that racism is prejudice on the grounds of race, usually accompanied by an acknowledgment that, in modern western history, it has overwhelmingly been perpetrated by white people against non-white people. Nevertheless, in the common understanding of racism, white individuals can choose whether to uphold or reject racist ideas, and moral progress, particularly over the last sixty years, has resulted in a consensus that it is morally wrong to hold racist ideas and morally good to reject them. This is a very positive development, which DiAngelo herself acknowledges when she says:
The final challenge we need to address is our definition of “racist.” In the post-civil rights era, we have been taught that racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral. Therefore, if I am saying that my readers are racist or, even worse, that all white people are racist, I am saying something deeply offensive; I am questioning my readers’ very moral character.
She goes on to argue for the Critical Social Justice concept of racism as a power system that results in white privilege, which she defines as “a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context,” but she is never very clear about what these advantages are. In particular, very little attention is paid to class or individual advantages and disadvantages.
Unsurprisingly, many white people are not delighted to be told that they are inherently racist and maintaining a racist system simply by existing and interacting with others. They may not respond well to the mind-reading approach taken by DiAngelo and her ilk, which insists that the whiteness scholars know the white mind better than the individual owners of those minds. Those who have been through particular hardship might become quite annoyed to be told that they are more privileged than someone who has never been through any such hardship, but has darker skin, and to be also told that they are actively oppressing that person. This leads many white people to disagree with or refuse to engage with DiAngelo. This led her to produce her theory of white fragility which explains away all the people who disagree with her:
Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, [white people] become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility.
So, the belief system around these concepts of whiteness, privilege and fragility includes the truth claims that:
- An invisible power system exists that perpetuates racism throughout every aspect of society.
- Racist systems require power, therefore only white people can be racist and all white people are racist. This invisible racist power system is called whiteness.
- Whiteness pervades everything and so is always present whenever white people do or say anything. It is impossible for white people not to behave in racist ways.
- White people are generally unable to see the invisible force of whiteness and need theorists like DiAngelo to explain it to them.
- Whiteness results in white people being privileged and it is always essential to focus on this privilege to the exclusion of all other factors that could help or hinder a person.
- White people cannot bear to be confronted by DiAngelo’s beliefs in their racism. This is because they are psychologically fragile and not because they know their own minds.
- Any attempt to disagree with this definition of racism, whiteness or privilege is simply a manifestation of this fragility. Being quiet or going away is also a sign of it.
- White people therefore have two choices: they can be racist and admit it or racist and deny it. Both are bad, but the latter is willfully ignorant and therefore really bad.
Critical Social Justice theories of whiteness represent a complex and internally consistent belief system, which is the result of at least fifty years of discourse theory. The similarities between this belief system and belief systems more instantly recognisable as religious, which also believe in original sin, powerful but insidious forces of evil, a priesthood, epiphany and atonement, are clear.
The Need for Secularism
It is important to note that a comparison of Critical Social Justice with religious belief systems for the purpose of applying rules of secularism to them is not the same thing as a claim that the scholars and activists (or the religious believers) are wrong. They could be 100% right and the same rules would still apply. A secular society does not deny belief systems power over others because they are factually wrong. It denies them power over others because it protects the individual’s right to her own private conscience, whether she is right or not. This is a remarkable and counterintuitive thing to humans, but it has served us well.
The principles of secularism hold that, no matter how strongly you believe your belief system to be true or how essential you think it is that all of society holds it to be true and lives according to its moral dictates, you do not have the right to impose it on anyone else. We currently live in societies that do a pretty good job of applying this rule to religion, but which have not yet recognised Critical Social Justice as the same kind of thing. Instead, Critical Social Justice is largely misunderstood as a continuation of the liberal civil rights movements, which worked to reform laws and to open up all opportunities to everyone, regardless of their identities, and whose principles can still, quite reasonably, be expected to be upheld by employers. This is a misunderstanding of Critical Social Justice. As shown above, Critical Social Justice is a very specific belief system, which revolves around several core truth claims, which have not been shown to be true. It requires an admission of inherent racism and regards all disagreement as evidence of the problem.
It is essential that employers recognise that the concepts of Social Justice, whiteness, white privilege and white fragility all depend upon a very specific belief system that they do not have the moral right to demand any of their employees believe. It seems very likely that many employers organising this kind of training do not recognise this and simply regard the phenomenon epitomised by the work of Robin DiAngelo as the latest and most reputable development in the field of anti-racism and feel that they should support it in this current climate. Therefore, it needs to be made clear to them what the truth claims of this theory actually are, how they work and what they require people to pretend to believe about themselves, the nature of racism and the structure and culture of the society in which they live. Employers must defend their employees’ freedom of belief and make their policies against racism accommodating of the full range of ideological and philosophical worldviews from which one can oppose racism. They must protect the right to say:
I don’t believe what you believe, and I don’t have to. I defend your right to hold, express and live by your own belief system, but you have no right to impose any of it on me.