I have previously noted that I learn a lot from the people who comment on this blog. (Even those with whom I strongly disagree provide me with valuable insights about the world-views of people I have trouble understanding.)
Because I continue to be impressed with the breadth of knowledge of so many who comment here, I’m asking for your help with a project I am currently pursuing in collaboration with a (much better informed) colleague.
The project grew out of our joint concern over what I’ll call “the woke wars–” the efforts to label accurate history instruction as the vilified “CRT,” the accusations of “cancelling” and commissions of “micro-aggressions”–the use and misuse of a whole vocabulary of culture war. We wanted to write a small book (or long article) aimed at the substantial number of Americans who are unfamiliar with that vocabulary–people who aren’t bigots, who believe in racial reconciliation–but who are unaware of the ways in which some behaviors, words and phrases are experienced as stereotypical and/or hurtful. We wanted to communicate with the numerous Americans who fall somewhere between the nationalists and nativists clinging to their hatreds and the”woke” purists who decry the racism that they detect virtually everywhere.
We define purists as those who elevate the perfect (as they define it) over the good, who tend to view the world as binary– us vs. them, good versus evil—and to view any recognition of nuance, shades of gray and/or context as evidence of insufficient “wokeness.”
Our working title is: How To Be Anti-Racist Without Being a Jerk.
Below is the current draft of our introduction, explaining why we are writing this and for whom. We follow it in the book with a “glossary” explaining terminology. A third section has examples and accompanying tips on how to distinguish between ignorance (lack of awareness) and negative intent, while a fourth section offers what we think are appropriate responses to various common situations. The fifth and final section is a summary re-emphasizing that we consider the proper goal of anti-racist behavior to be a world in which individuals are treated as individuals, not as representatives of any particular “tribe” –a world where each person is treated with dignity and respect until and unless they demonstrate behaviors that divest them of the right to demand such respect.
We have talked mainly to each other, and shared the whole draft with a very limited number of diverse friends; accordingly, we would really appreciate other suggestions as we go forward. What points are important to include? What messages are likely to resonate with our target market (which is neither White Supremicists nor the armies of the rabidly “woke.”)
In case you feel you need to read the entire draft in order to comment, I’ll post it in the comments section.
We decided to offer this small book because we think we have a somewhat different approach to the subject-matter, one that we hope will allow people of good will to navigate the increasingly choppy waters of tribal discord.
We live in a time of social change, much of it positive. We especially recognize and celebrate the practical and symbolic progress toward equality. Many people point to the 2008 election of President Obama, the 2015 Obergfell v. Hodges Supreme Court recognition of gay marriage, and the very public rejection of racist behaviors and institutions that animate protest movements and viral messaging on social media as signs of progress.
That said, America is finally coming to terms with the reality that a far-too-substantial portion of our population is composed of White Christian Nationalists—a belief system that goes well beyond prejudice against people of color. It includes anti-Semitism and bigotries against Islam and various other religions, as well as a healthy dose of misogyny. When this book talks about being “anti-racist,” it’s shorthand for combatting that expansive distaste for the “other” to which we’re referring.
What, exactly, is racism, as we are using that term? It is the belief that identity trumps individuality and behavior—the belief that people who share a skin color or religion share essential characteristics that distinguish “them” from “us.” (We use the term identity in its political sense: the tendency of people of a particular gender, religion, race, social background, social class or other identifying factors to develop political agendas that are based upon these identities.) It is a worldview that fails to see people as people—individuals who deserve to be approached and evaluated as individuals. There are certainly cultural and regional differences among Americans, but humans of every color and faith and gender can and do vary from delightful to annoying to truly damaged and/or deplorable. Racism is denial of that reality, accompanied by a belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own “tribe.” Such a worldview is racist whether people harboring such beliefs are members of the majority or part of a marginalized group, whether they act on those beliefs or not, and whether or not they are fully conscious of the fact that they harbor such beliefs.
Recognition of the persistence and outsized influence of White Supremacist ideology, and the emergence of efforts to combat it, are welcome. It’s a truism that you cannot solve a problem of which you are unaware, and many, if not most Americans were unaware of the extent and persistence of these attitudes until the election of an African-American President brought them to the surface. The rise of anti-racism efforts is very welcome. We also recognize, however, that all culture clashes prompt excesses and oversimplifications. Well-meaning—and not so well-meaning—people too often engage in “virtue signaling”—performances meant to signal moral superiority– in situations in which thoughtful, civil discussions would be more productive.
Speaking of productivity–this is intended to be a book about getting the job done, moving the needle, being effective. If you are an activist who is determined to make the perfect the enemy of the good, if your goal is to garner attention, to feel morally superior, to curry favor with this or that constituency—if you believe that your particular experiences or insights entitle you to set the agenda irrespective of the setbacks your behavior might trigger or the harm that could be caused by hasty or unfair accusations– this isn’t a book for you.
It isn’t only physicians who must abide by the admonition: do no harm. Our goal in this little book is to help Americans move toward a fair and equitable society while doing no harm—or at least as little harm as possible. We are firmly convinced that progress toward a more fair and equitable society will be retarded, rather than advanced, by shaming, “cancelling” or self-righteous denunciations, and that social justice is more likely to result from educational interventions communicated with kindness and civility.
Rather obviously, this isn’t a book for those who have bought into the myths of White Christian Supremacy. We are aware that we aren’t going to change the minds or hearts of those who are convinced of their own innate superiority. This is also not a book for people who see racism and bigotry in every offhand remark. It is meant to be a helpful guide for people who recognize the pervasiveness and immorality of both personal prejudice and structural racism, people who don’t see themselves as culture warriors, but who do want to be effective allies in the effort to right systemic wrongs—and who are uncertain of the (often-shifting) terms upon which today’s battles are being fought. This book is for the majority of people who find themselves in the broad, uncharted territory between the more extreme anti-racist activists and America’s increasingly vocal White Supremacists.
Americans are currently awash in advice about how to be an ally—how to combat racism, how to see stereotypical assumptions that underlie seemingly neutral acts and comments, how to investigate one’s own biases and beliefs. Much of that advice is important and useful. There are fewer admonitions—okay, we haven’t seen any—about summoning the courage required to support people who are the target of overblown, unfair and/or unsupported accusations of bigotry. (Those situations aren’t as rare as we’d all like to believe.) Paradoxically, the orgies of condemnation that all too often become part of efforts to combat racism and “cancel” the racists can end up actually impeding progress– creating circular firing squads that silence or antagonize would-be allies. Insisting on fair play helps avoid the angry reactions to unjustified accusations that can end up disrupting organizations and movements and retarding efforts to move us toward a fairer, more equitable society. We need to understand and remember that there are meaningful differences between ignorance, “micro”-aggressions, and bad behaviors—and that even bad behavior does not automatically equal “bad person.”
In short, in this little book, we hope to provide readers with tools to: (1) understand the sometimes-bewildering vocabulary of the anti-racist movement; (2) identify and avoid pernicious stereotypes; (3) distinguish between inadvertent offenses and more harmful and deeply-rooted attitudes; and (4) recognize the most effective ways to deal with both the inadvertent offenses and more intentional displays of prejudice.
In other words, how to be anti-racist without being a jerk.