Explain It To Me Like I'm Five

One of the side-effects of writing about race, is a disturbingly clear view of how it dominates people’s view of the world. It’s not just that people judge each other by the colour of their skin, many people judge ideas, particularly ideas about race, on the colour of the people who hold them.

In my article, “The White People In The Comments”, I pointed out the problem with this way of thinking.

If we’re ever going to live in a world where we stop judging each other by the colour of our skin, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO STOP JUDGING EACH OTHER BY THE COLOUR OF OUR SKIN.

Some truly terrible ideas dominate our racial discourse today, simply because they were proposed by somebody with black skin. And today’s conversation focuses on one of the worst; the concept of “whiteness”:


Andrew:

Thank you for further expanding the space of free conversation. The problem that comes up for me is that I'm getting the message from many quarters, and it makes a lot of sense to me, that white people need to own up to whiteness and how it has conditioned us. One trap of that is that we are all unique individuals, conditioned in our own ways, there's no monolithic white perspective just as there's no Black one. We need to balance knowledge of group dynamics (like white privilege), but give everyone the freedom to be individuals -- right?


“White people need to own up to whiteness…”

If you’ve spent any time talking about race over the past few years you’ve heard this phrase. Given that I spend most of my time talking about race, I hear it more than I care to. Yet I’ve never heard a good explanation of what it means.

How exactly does one “own up” to whiteness? What are the steps? What does it achieve? Who does it help?

The people throwing around these phrases never seem to have the answers to these questions. So I decided to ask Andrew for more information.


Steve QJ:

white people need to own up to whiteness and how it has conditioned us.

First, I'd ask you exactly what that sentence means. Explain it to me like I'm 5.


Andrew:

Steve, I think that's a great idea to explain things in plain language that a kid could understand. But, I'm in grad school so that's a tall order;)


Call me a cynic, but could this answer be any more of a cop out? Or maybe it’s just the saddest indictment of an education system that one could ever hope to see.


Steve QJ:

You know what they say; If you can't explain something simply enough that a child could understand, then you don't understand it. If you don't understand your own attitude to anti-racism, then you don't have one.


Andrew:

I would put it less absolutely: I have a lot of thoughts and experiences that I think can contribute to the conversation even if I don’t understand it completely. I live with some very woke people (and I don’t mean that pejoratively), and I bounce between trying to get with their program, and then reading stuff like yours. I feel like Ibram Xendi shows me a radical but doable way forward.


Steve QJ:

All I'm saying is that while you're bouncing around, you don't have a perspective yet. You're repeating the words others have told you to say and presenting them as your own. I realised this as soon as I read your response, which is why I asked you to explain it, and why I'm not surprised that you can't.

Please understand, this isn't an attack or meant to be accusatory. The fact that you're trying to understand at all is important and if you aren't directly affected by an issue, the only way you can learn is to expose yourself to a variety of ideas. This is all good and sincerely commendable.

But before you can be genuinely helpful, you need to integrate those varying ideas into a framework that is your own. You need to be able to defend your own ideas in your own words. Otherwise, how can you have any confidence that you're helping?

I see too many people mindlessly repeating Kendi's or Di'Angelo's words right down to the syntax. I happen to disagree with both of them in very significant ways. I think that a lot of what they're peddling is actively harmful to the aim of ending racism. Many black scholars agree. They set up their arguments in a way that if you disagree, the only option available is that you're racist. This is, to put it as politely as I can, bullshit.

Maybe I'm wrong, maybe they are, I'm just encouraging you to ensure that you think for yourself. That's the best any of us can do.


Andrew:

Thanks for engaging with me on this. Yes, I comment but don’t publish pieces because my thoughts are not clear enough to be very helpful yet. You go too far when you say that I’m simply parroting others’ ideas — I’m attempting to take the parts I like, comparing it to my experience, and throwing out perspectives and new questions. I think you’re right to suspect anyone that borrows a lot of syntax.

I am encouraged by Kendi. I take from him that ideas and policies are racist, not people. This is a relief. To borrow your word, maybe it’s bullshit to try to purge your soul of racism, but to see how an idea or policy you’re supporting furthers prejudice or injustice — that’s got to be good.


Steve QJ:

You go too far when you say that I’m simply parroting others’ ideas

Again, this wasn't meant to be an attack. If you can't explain your beliefs in simple terms, they're not your beliefs.. I didn't ask you to write those words, you wrote them of your own accord, but they're not really yours.

Words like "relief" or the parts that you "like" shouldn't come into this. Self examination is often deeply uncomfortable and forces one to admit things about themselves they don't like at all.

I'm not saying that's a necessary part of the journey. Maybe you aren't racist at all. But using words and ideas that bring you comfort as a guide, especially words that you haven't deeply interrogated, is not a path to meaningful progress.


Andrew:

I get you’re not attacking me — thanks for that. I didn’t mean I was offended that you say my words are not my own. You are right to a point but I think you are stating things too absolutely. Everyone borrows ideas from everyone — is there really a point where your words are totally your own? I believe I’m partway there, I’m using my own life to test the ideas I hear.

I don’t think I agree with you about excluding emotion from my path. I’ve experienced my share of white guilt, and I have tried to throw off the part that is unproductive, self-absorbed. For me, Kendi helped with that.


Steve QJ:

I don’t think I agree with you about excluding emotion from my path

I didn't say that, I said comfort and relief aren't useful guides in self-examination. It's no coincidence to me that those who most wholeheartedly embrace Kendi and Di'Angelo's views are those most eager to free themselves from their guilt.

Again, I think their views are corrosive and regressive. Neither of them has ever had the courage to debate their views with any of their nmerous, esteemed, black critics because they know how paper thin they are. It deeply saddens me that many well meaning liberals are unthinkingly repeating their words.


Andrew:

I think we are getting snagged on certain words the other uses and running with it, away from the intended meaning. I generalized too much when I said you were advising me to exclude emotion. As to guilt and relief: I am whole-heartedly NOT for white people letting themselves off the hook, as you imply.

When I say “guilt”, I’m talking about useless self-punishment. I thought there was a near consensus that “white guilt” has not helped much. Depending on how you define it. Remorse for things I’ve done harm to a black person or ignore their suffering or defend racism, that’s all necessary. I say “relief” because white guilt as I understand it, as I used to feel it, is fixated on lofty, impossible goals like purging racism from your soul and making up for slavery. Instead of getting shit done to stop police killings, increase diversity, etc.

And white guilt leads to white defensiveness and resentment, because some white people think they are being asked to do impossible things in the perfect way, and they give up and check out. And sure, there is “comfort” in giving up or assuring myself I’ve done all I can, but I’m not talking about that kind of comfort. Racism is not baked into me, it consists of actions I take or avoid. This makes me MORE able to admit that I’ve done something racist and try to address it.


Uncharacteristically, I didn’t respond to Andrew’s message. Maybe his reply got lost in the mix, or maybe (probably?) I got tired of going in circles.

After all, if “stopping police killings” or “increasing diversity” seems like a more realistic goal than dealing with your own racism, we’re probably not going to make much progress.

This is why labels like “whiteness” exist. They allow people to focus on society’s flaws instead of their own. They absolve people of personal responsibility for their attitudes. They allow people to think of their failings as an inevitable result of the colour of their skin instead of a failure to think for themselves.

But, while none of us can change our skin, we can all change ourselves. We can own up to our own selfishness, and our own laziness, and our own prejudice. We can think carefully about the ideas we encounter instead of buying into whatever makes us feel virtuous. We can recognise that these aren’t “white” failings or “black” failings but human failings.

Maybe this wouldn’t give Andrew the comfort he’s looking for. After all, none of it offers the same “relief” as “owning up to whiteness”. It’s certainly not as easy as parroting gibberish that you don’t understand on the internet. But for all its challenges, it does have the advantage of being simple enough for a five-year-old to understand. I think that’s a good place to start.