Then came The Enlightenment to save us from ourselves. It assuaged existential dread by declaring that the purpose of life was self-discovery: becoming the Best You that you could be, thus Living your Best Life, through self-improvement. If we were permanently marooned on the Island of ourselves, at least we could explore it, whatever the difficulties presented to us. Through striving and aspiration, each person could achieve all their goals, could achieve a glorious mastery and dominance over their environment.
But this creed is dangerously self-centred. It surrenders to the difficulty of connecting with other people, rather than struggling to overcome it. We respect and value the individuality of others but see them as resolutely alien from ourselves. We see them as equal to us, in some essential way, but sadly acknowledge that we must, inevitably, be the centre of our own universes, while they remain our inscrutable satellites, their experience of life essentially unknowable to us, as ours is to them.
The concept of “White Privilege” relies on this idea: white people can have no idea of the experience of people of colour because they are white. No concession is made to human communication or empathy, to the possibility of human solidarity, based on the myriad characteristics and human experiences we share. No one accepts the idea that a white person might be able to remember how they felt when excluded or discriminated against (on some other grounds than race) and could extrapolate from that a little of what a person of colour might experience. We are unreachably sundered.
That is the hypocritical contradiction at the heart of that creed: millions of people (most of the population, in the UK, in fact) are condemned as racially prejudiced and ignorant. The entire basis of this dismissal is prejudiced assumptions made about their race. People of colour are encouraged to see all white people as one-dimensional racist clones. Their humanity is degraded.
This is wrong-headed. You can’t condemn a refusal to acknowledge individual worth by refusing to acknowledge individual worth. We dismantle the racist patriarchy by breaking down hierarchies and refusing to use racialised generalisations, not by simply changing which groups are privileged and swapping our terms of abuse. Social justice activists are simply mirroring, and thus replicating and endorsing, the whole mindset of racism.
It galls me to say this about a British Conservative MP, but Kemi Badenoch, “Minister of State for Equalities” (whatever that means) is correct when she implied, in The Spectator, that Reni Eddoh-Lodge has promoted racial segregation. I’ve read ms Eddoh-Lodge’s book more than once. (Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race, 2018, London: Bloomsbury). It’s all there in the title and it doesn’t get better than that.
We should resist the biased and unjust generalisation that our society encourages us to make. We should do this by valuing and accepting individuals as the complicated creatures they are, more than just a type. Failure to do this is the definition of prejudice.