Who Are You Calling a Racist?

I’m sure sociologists and social theorists are lovely empathetic people in their private lives. However, they are not our therapists and it’s not their job to make us feel good about ourselves. Why should it be? They are professionally concerned with identifying the impersonal forces that influence groups and societies. They deal with socialisation and social conditioning; abstract ideals, trends and tendencies. 

In their discourses, a single signifier can be made to represent whole groups, without concern for individual difference, in a search for general truths. Critical Race theorists deal with the absolutes of group power dynamics, supported by standardised statistics with all the anomalies removed. 

That’s fine in the lecture hall and university library where they attempt to give structure and sense to the multitudinous chaos of societies with millions of independent and wayward inhabitants. It’s wholly inadequate when confronting the tangled knots of privilege and under-privilege, empathy, experience and ignorant innocence, exclusion and need that make up every individual. The personal and the theoretical are different disciplines and should be kept apart. How, for example, could you address white (or gender) privilege in an Anglo-Saxon boy with severe learning difficulties from an acutely impoverished family? What about the autistic son of educated white parents? Both of these examples are real children I have worked with, and who have fallen foul of the new racial tensions and fractures between young people.

Critical Race theorists are absolutely right to abstract and identify sociological forces such as racial prejudice and consider their influence on individuals and on groups of people in society. However, it is unjust and inaccurate to insist that individuals conform slavishly to these generalisations.  It is the personalisation of such concepts as white privilege that leaves many activists open to charges of hypocrisy because they are defining and condemning individual people by race for defining and condemning individual people by race. 

Critical Race theorists and old fashioned racists are in no way morally equivalent. The former work hard to make the world a better place; the latter cause misery and hatred to gain or maintain power. However, they have a lot in common. Both believe that society can be divided up into incompatible racial groups and that these groups can be characterised by vast homogenised generalisations, and thus denied individuality or individual volition. Both sides may claim that this is a regrettable truth. It’s just that the white supremacists think it is caused by biology and the Critical Race theorists think it is the consequence of social construction. (And is thus the white supremacists’ fault, even though their own theory ought to deny individual culpability.)

Perhaps, then, the fundamental opposition in this debate isn’t between the Social Justice Activists and The White Supremacists, it’s between the racial theory fundamentalists, of all ethnicities (the racists) and the moderate humanists. Perhaps the most profound difference is between those who believe, inflexibly, in eternal conflict and incompatibility, in total victory or total defeat, and those who try to be flexible and to compromise, who believe in our individuality, yet essential similarity and equality. 

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