In a recent essay published in this magazine, I wrote about a phenomenon I call “angry activism.” I explained how the desire to be right and “win” against “the other side” has resulted in the tendency to perceive everyone with divergent views as an enemy. How anger can be an appealing tool to foster unity and commitment around a cause, but that it is less fruitful in delivering social change, because it impedes empathy and effective communication. I suggested that listening with the goal of mutual understanding is a more productive method.
I’m returning to this concept of angry activism to address one related matter in particular: white people. Specifically, the current position of “whiteness” in left-leaning spaces. Angry activism in left-wing spaces has been the root cause of an increasingly common attitude toward white people (cis straight men in particular) that is condemnatory and dismissive. This position is both hypocritical and impractical. It uses the same flawed racialist identity politics that are negatively attributed to whiteness and discourages potential help and resources that might otherwise be part of the solution. Activists on all sides would do better to reject identity politics and embrace a more empathetic approach to pursuing change.
In the past few decades, the position of whiteness has been shifting. Historically, it often carried a distinct advantage. This advantage encouraged individuals across society to define themselves along racial lines. Over the years, efforts to change this dynamic have gained support in many circles, resulting in advancements in social equality and human rights. Particularly in left-leaning spaces, where these effects have been most pronounced, this shift has been marked by an intentional centring of non-white voices. Among other things, this trend has meant that white people are often expected to sit quietly in the background, with the general attitude being that it’s now time for non-white people to have their turn.
I understand the appeal of this approach. After so many years spent feeling a compulsory deference to a white majority, it makes sense that some people in racial minority groups would seek out spaces where their voices are given precedence. It also makes sense that silencing whiteness would seem the most direct approach to correcting inequality because it seems to balance the scales, as it were.
The problem is, this approach demonises white people much in the same way that people of colour have been previously. In both cases, the same racial essentialism is at play, and the characteristic in question is seen as something negative that individuals are encouraged to distance themselves from. Those who cannot are shamed and made to apologize, not for anything they’ve done, but for who they are. They are treated as representatives of their entire race, and lectured on how to engage in the never-ending atonement for the sins of their ancestors.
The hypocrisy in this attitude is obvious. Discrimination cannot be ended with more discrimination. Creating an environment in which some people are allowed to express their opinions while others are not, based solely on skin colour (or any other such attribute) is not “social justice.” As long as the practice of applying race-based judgments to justify preferential treatment is allowed to continue, the outcome will result in the exact same kind of illiberal inequalities that have plagued the world for centuries.
The reason these attitudes flourish in so many left-leaning activist spaces is, in large part, because of the embrace of angry activism. Repeated experiences of racial discrimination can, not surprisingly, fuel anger and resentment, which is frequently directed back at the perceived culprit—in this case: whiteness. The desire this can generate to “level the playing field” or even to watch the “enemy” suffer a little bit under the same conditions they are credited with creating is understandable; but not very productive. It often serves to increase hostilities and decrease opportunities for dialogue and consensus, which makes the desired progress toward change more difficult.
The leftist hostility toward whiteness is also highly impractical. If the goal is to persuade more white people to join the so-called “side” of social equality, then endlessly disparaging them as a category is probably not the best way to go about it. Treating with animosity those white individuals who believe in the cause and are willing to venture into leftist spaces is equally illogical, as they are generally not “the enemy” that such efforts are fighting against. White people make up a notable portion of the world population and have the potential to be a great asset in the pursuit of equality. Intentionally banishing them to the outskirts of the conversation is not the best way to effect change.
So, what are white and non-white folks actually supposed to do?
First, we should all strive to get away from identity politics. The tendency to lump people together on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, religion, etc. is prevalent, but flawed. While many individuals in a given group will probably find things they have in common, not everyone will. The trouble with identity politics is that through this lens people will often feel pressured to conform to the stated commonalities of the group anyway, which overlooks their individuality and restricts their freedom.
The second solution to all of this is, as I have argued before, to let go of angry activism. Rather than approaching every encounter as an opportunity for confrontation, start with compassionate listening, avoid judgment, and try not to take things personally. In conversation, truly listen to what others have to say. Recognize that people may need to voice their frustration, just as you occasionally need to voice your own. It can be challenging to resist feeling angry and defensive, but try to remember that most of the time people just want to feel seen, heard and better understood.
If we do this, we will be able to talk more openly about racial issues and social inequalities. Normalising conversations on these topics is an important step in this process, especially among people with diverging viewpoints. It is my hope that through these efforts we will find more common ground and mutual understanding. To achieve this goal, activism must move beyond anger and resentment. The left can do their part by abandoning the idea that white people are the enemy.