What troubles me is when these clever theories about racism and society are brought to bear on individuals.
Of course, generalising and theorising from our own personal experiences is what we do. That’s how we build knowledge and understanding of our world. By identifying patterns and structures, we can predict and manage our situations. Applying this faculty to society allows us to understand how our communities work and possibly how to change them for the better. A theory, well or persistently expressed, can also help to build a nationwide desire for change, without alienating or persecuting individuals. That’s what we want in a democracy, right? Because everybody is supposed to be equally valuable.
But, of course, generalising can also lead to wholly unjust assumptions about whole sections of our communities, and that is bigotry. So, ironically, the flipside of the coin we use to identify and explain prejudice is the currency of prejudice.
In the past, if you talked about Britain being a racist society, the unspoken qualifier was “Of course, I don’t mean YOU, dear friend, but the society we are both entangled in.” After all, you can only talk to people who are willing to listen, so there’s no point in alienating them. Britain was racist on aggregate. In general, across a whole population and culture.
That was how you attempted to get people on side, to persuade them to join your cause. Racism degrades us all, you’d say; a society that discriminates so arbitrarily against its own members cannot be one that nurtures the human spirit; “any man’s death diminishes me/ because I am involved with mankind” etc. etc. It was an approach that particularly suited a pre-internet/ Covid 19 world where people actually met. Face to face confrontation is very intense, and nobody enjoys a punch on the nose.
I suspect a lot of activists would say that this softly-softly approach just allowed people to rest complacently on their laurels thinking, “well, at least I’m not racist” and doing nothing, so that no progress was made in combatting social injustice. Hence the slogan, “If you’re not part of the solution, your part of the problem”, that we discussed a while back.
This could be a very astute criticism, except that progress has been made. To claim otherwise is to do a great disservice to the tireless work of previous generations of social justice campaigners who were, despite much necessary confrontation with the right wing, more consensus-builders than character assassins.