After the killing of George Floyd and the resulting unrest, the time is now to engage with the topics of race and racism. Yet, many find themselves becoming increasingly alienated from the anti-racist movement and “woke culture” itself. Since Floyd’s murder, the declaration “It is not enough to say you aren’t racist, you have to be anti-racist” is often brandished. What does “anti-racist” really mean? Is there a place for more colourblind views within today’s “woke identitarians“, as oft-controversial Spiked Magazine coins it?
A recent speech by writer Coleman Hughes, Anti-Racism and Humanism: Two Competing Visions, has received a lot of notoriety. Hughes distinguishes two focal schools of thought within the topic of racism: “Humanism” (what Hughes refers to as “colourblind humanism”, a particularly likeable term for him) and “anti-racism”. Each school of thought defines racism differently and promotes different ideological worldviews.
Colourblind humanism has been subject to various mischaracterisations in the past. Monica Williams in her article for Psychology Today argues that colourblindness denies negative racial experiences, rejects cultural heritage, and invalidates unique perspectives. This claim rests on the premise that one’s particular racial or ethnic culture, instead of one’s humanity, is the decisive factor in one’s identity. Yet, such reductive approaches essentially negate a ‘me’ from the perspective. Individual identity becomes inextricably linked to—or blurred by—group identity. As abolition leader Frederick Douglass maintained, “there is no moral or intellectual quality in the color of a man’s cuticle”. Additionally, no quality in any cultural identity can be derived from group identity As Douglass said: “[there is] no such basis for the claims of justice.”
Colourblind humanism asks people to unite around common ideals, values or a nation. For Hughes, making a value judgement about a person based on the colour of their skin is an intellectual error. A white person discriminating against a black person begets more misery for everyone. Moreover, it judges individuals on their merits. As Martin Luther King Jr wished: one day his “four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.
Colourblind humanism defines racism as individuals or groups having feelings of hatred towards another race. This can manifest itself in discrimination or systems of oppression. It recognises that, historically in a country like the UK, this hatred, discrimination/oppression has mostly emerged as white-on-black or white-on-South Asian racism. However, anyone can be racist or experience racism. For instance, colourblind humanism focuses on giving everyone equal rights and attempts to uplift disadvantaged communities, rather than put anyone else down.
Anti-racism is a vision of the world that roots racism in Western history. The legacy of the historical injustices means that racism is, as Hughes terms it, “asymmetric”. People see racism as something that historically oppressed groups experience. For example, those subject to British colonialism, or subject to slavery followed by Jim Crow laws, in the US. In this sense, only white people are perpetuating racism. Modern-day anti-racism, combined with woke politics, defines all “people of colour” (a problematic term) as systematically oppressed or as victims. This is true whatever their socioeconomic status, living situation, or their individual opinions about themselves.
Anti-racism frames lived experience through a lens of historical and societal oppression. This means that different moral standards and expectations apply to people of different races. What’s more, anti-racism advocates that racism can only be overcome by correcting the past. Examples include paying reparations to descendants of the Atlantic slave trade and removing stereotypical mascots from food packaging.
The anti-racist, according to Hughes, is seeing a person’s skin colour as “charged with meaning”. Put differently, it carries the weight of history. What starts out as anti-racist activism can sometimes give way to a new racial heirarchy, which turns on its head the white racist assumption that darker skin is inferior. It does this by advocating darker skin as inherently virtuous, and people with it have a worthiness others lack.
What is missing at this point is the disparate ways these competing visions are playing out in our contemporary culture.
Anti-Racism vs Colourblind Humanism
The current anti-racist movement makes a concerted effort to undermine colourblind humanism. It is misrepresenting the theory as a form of covert white supremacy. The reasons given here are that anti-racists believe that ethnic minorities living in white-majority countries deserve additional rights. Additionally, they deserve exemptions from certain responsibilities. Therefore, they see the colourblind humanist view that everyone deserves the same rights and responsibilities as a means to minimize what they claim is owed.
What is most perplexing is that many anti-racists believe that white people should collectively atone for past sins. If white people can proclaim that they are equal to everyone else, they essentially get off scot-free for ancestral sins.
Many institutions are chiming in with this assault on colour blindness. The University of California, Santa Cruz, for example, recognises colour blindness as a form of racism. They include statements such as, “There is one race, the human race”, in their list of racial microaggressions. In response to this, it’s important for colourblind humanists to speak out and educate others. They must tell others what they actually believe in and what their vision has already achieved. Failure to do this may result in colourblind humanism becoming taboo.
The crux of the criticism easily directable to anti-racist culture is that it portrays itself as a movement that is simply against racism at surface-level. Yet, below the surface, it is actually a political ideology with strict requirements that adherents must follow. Many universities in the US and UK have adopted an anti-racist stance that fosters an authoritarian culture, where diversity of ideas is not typically welcome.
How often do we see students and staff members smeared for speaking out? By lifting their head above the parapet and criticising an anti-racist ideology, wokeness, or anti-racism practices on campus, they appear to “out” themselves as racist, if they are white. If not white, people characterise them as a sort of race traitor or “native informant”.
One now-infamous example is the case of Bret Weinstein, a former biology professor at Evergreen State University, near Seattle. Weinstein fell foul of his campus culture in 2017 when refusing to take part in a “day of absence”. The day saw white people asked to stay away from campus for a day, as a protest against racism. It’s not the protection against racism to which he objects, but the singling out of white people. Weinstein experiencing the receiving end of violent threats concluded the episode. Additionally, he was bullied out of his job.
Worryingly, woke culture goes beyond college campuses and is affecting workplaces and the corporate world. The Seattle City Council recently emailed their white employees to attend training on “internalised racial superiority”. In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development announced that they will provide “education on white privilege” for HR professionals to implement in the workplace.
White privilege is, again, another political and social theory which many people subscribe to. Moreover, this field must be qualified by nuance and critical discussion. In this new workplace culture, employees questioning their employer’s anti-racism efforts fail the ideological purity test. This can result in disciplinary action or termination of the employee. In other terms, their non-conformism may have a detrimental effect on their career.
Undoubtedly, there is only one way colourblind humanism can get a foothold in being the central movement for opposing racism. It must advocate for ideas and policies that promote equality and fight racial injustice. We must not racialise society or undermine individual worth to achieve this. The problem of police brutality in the US, for example, which disproportionately affects Black Americans is very real. The writer Josephine Mathias suggests policies that could make a positive impact in this area. Examples include ending the war on drugs, police reform, prison reform and improving access to quality education in deprived areas. Of course, none of her suggestions involves making a value judgement about anyone’s race.
To the statement “It is not enough to say you aren’t racist, you have to be anti-racist” let’s instead propose this: “It is not enough to say you aren’t racist, you have to be actively against racism“. It’s a minor word change, but it makes a major difference.