An essay by facilitator Jonathan Kahn.
According to the dominant ideology of identity politics, I have no business facilitating conversations about inequality because my identity—a white, straight, cisgender, middle-class man—gives me social privileges that incentivise me to uphold the status quo, but also because my identity prevents me from understanding the lived experiences of those with marginalised identities. As the political thinker A. Sivanandan pointed out, under this framework racism is theorised as a disorder of the white psyche (as sexism is theorised as a problem of the male psyche), reducing a problem caused by a white capitalist power structure to “a personal one, a problem of individuals who, because they are white, have power – over non-whites”. Which means that, “in the final analysis, whites can never be anything more than ‘anti-racist racists’”.
Under this logic the only topic I would have a legitimate claim to understand would be anti-semitism (and perhaps Israel-Palestine). I am Jewish: in the fifties my maternal grandparents fled pogroms in their native Iraq for Israel taking only the clothes they wore, while in 1938 my paternal grandfather was able to escape his birthplace of Nuremberg for London, due to his father’s connections. But even on this topic I suspect that only certain positions would be permissible—in liberal circles, a defence of the Palestinian freedom struggle or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement tends to elicit claims of “self-hating Jew” or even the charge of anti-semitism.
But if we accept this framework then my role as a white person who opposes racism—and yours too if you happen to be white—is limited to calling out other white people’s racist acts and engaging in “deep listening” to the testimonies of people of colour. This conception of allyship is passive and denies white people’s political agency, allowing us to outsource our decision-making to community leaders who happen to agree with our politics:
This approach to dismantling racism structurally reinforces the hierarchical power that we’re fighting against by asking a small group to represent the views of many people with a variety of different lived experiences. When building an understanding of how to appropriately take leadership from those more affected by oppression, people frequently seek out such a community leader not simply because it’s the easiest approach but also because—whether they admit it or not—they are not just looking to fulfil the need for guidance; they are seeking out legitimacy, too.
This form of allyship is also based on a flawed conception of who is affected by state-sanctioned racism, as explained in the US context by scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor:
I’m not interested in allies. “Allies” makes it seem like “while over here in our America everything’s great, we just need to improve your America.” But no, have you looked at what is happening in their America?… The life expectancy of ordinary white men and women has gone into reverse. This does not happen in the developed world, and it is driven by alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide.… That is not white privilege, that is white pathos. We all need to be figuring out what the hell to do to change this clusterfuck of a country. Because I will tell you that racism is Black people’s burden, but it’s all of our problem. And you can look at what is happening now with COVID-19.
Because the Democratic Party and the Republicans were so adept at using racism to undermine and ultimately destroy our social welfare system, it means now, some years later during a pandemic, it is completely broken. That means that we get $1,200 checks (if we’re lucky), and that’s it. That’s what social welfare produces in the United States. And why is it like that? Because they used racism to undermine the whole system of social welfare by convincing white people that Black people were freeloaders trying to get something from nothing.
Racism is all of our problem. The 1 percent don’t care, convincing white people that they’re making a dime and Black people are making a nickel… We have to fight to change the political dynamics to end suffering, period. And you don’t do that with liberal discourse about allyship.
I understand Taylor to be making an argument here for solidarity between white people and people of colour in the fight to dismantle social systems that cause suffering for millions of people. But how can I be sure I do understand the meaning of Black thinkers’ work, whether they’re contemporary scholars like Taylor or classics of the Black radical tradition like the Combahee River Collective statement? Am I appropriating ideas that aren’t rightfully mine, exploiting the experiences of oppressed people for my own advantage?
The thinkers we cover theorise racism and white supremacy as inherently tied up with capitalism: for them, resistance to racism requires both an analysis of class relations and the building of cross-racial coalitions grounded in solidarity instead of allyship. Which means that they are not addressing an exclusively Black audience, but a potential mass movement that might eventually build enough power to dismantle global capitalism. In short, I don’t accept the assertion that the ideas we cover in the course are only accessible to people with lived experience of all the forms of oppression or exploitation theorised by them.
I created the course because I’m a professional technologist and facilitator and I thought other professionals might benefit from a form of political education that uses group discussion to develop critical thinking skills. I think this is worth doing because while many professionals oppose inequality in theory, in practice millions of us support, through our work, the very structures that we claim to oppose. Perhaps if some of us develop critical thinking skills, something in the machinery of power might start to change. If you believe this is worth trying you’ll support what I’m doing—and the people who’ve participated in the course so far tend to agree. However, if you disagree with my focus, choices, positions or strategy you won’t see value in me running this course.
Finally, the question of money. I ask for a fee to cover time spent planning, administering and delivering the course. For those who object to me asking for money, I suspect that you do not object in principle to paying people fairly for the work they do, and so your underlying argument must be either that I am asking for an unreasonable amount of money, or that my running this course is illegitimate in the first place, however funded. While I will make mistakes (and am keen to learn from them), I’m also willing to try things that some people disagree with—particularly when those disagreements are political in nature—in case they end up proving effective.