A. Sivanandan, 1985
Note: This 1985 article by A. Sivanandan—who was a long-time director of the Institute of Race Relations and regarded as one of the leading political thinkers in the UK—explains the phenomenon of Racism Awareness Training or RAT, an approach which started in the US in the 70s and came to Britain shortly after. RAT is a precursor to today’s popular “unconscious bias” training industry. Here is an extract from the article which is available in full online.
The elements of the Racism Awareness Training (RAT) credo were already set by the time Judy Katz came to write her D. Ed thesis: Systematic handbook of exercises for the re-education of white people with respect to attitudes and behaviourisms (1976) – except that by now she could also draw on the Women’s Movement for an even more personal interpretation of oppression and the need for consciousness-raising. That perspective would, in addition, also allow her (and her followers) to distort the language, style and analysis of the black movement and further remove racism from its exploitative context and render it class-less.
Racism, states Katz, is indeed a white problem, and white people had better take conscience of it — for the sake of their own mental health. As far back as 1965, she points out, the Commission on Mental Health described racism as the number one mental health problem in the United States. ‘Its destructive effects severely cripple the growth and development of millions of our citizens, young and old alike.’ Even before that, the Myrdal ‘report’ on ‘The American Dilemma’ (1944) had drawn attention to the hiatus, the schism, the rupture in the (white) American psyche: between American ideals of equality, freedom, God-given dignity of the individual, inalienable rights’ and ‘the practices of discrimination, humiliation, insult, denial of opportunity to Negroes and others in a racist society’. New research had sprung up to show that racism was a ‘psychological problem … deeply imbedded in white people from a very early age both on a conscious and an unconscious level’. And even black commentators, according to Katz, confirmed the diagnosis, pointed to a cure – like Whitney Young, for instance, head of the National Urban League: ‘… most people are not conscious of what racism really is. Racism is not a desire to wake up every morning and lynch a black man from a tall tree. It is not engaging in vulgar epithets … It is the day to day indignities, the subtle humiliations that are so devastating … The Kerner Commission has said that if you have been an observer; if you have stood by idly, you are racist.’ Katz even rallies radical blacks like Du Bois to her cause: “Am I, in my blackness, the sole sufferer? I suffer. And yet, somehow, above the suffering, above the shackled anger that beats the bars, above the hurt that crazes, there surges in me a vast pity – pity for a people imprisoned and enthralled, hampered and made miserable for such a cause.’ And more recent black militants, like Stokely Carmichael, taken out of the context of struggle: ‘if the white man wants to help, he can go home and free his own people’, or Malcolm X: ‘whites who are sincere should organize themselves and figure out some strategies to break down race prejudice that exists in white communities’.
Racism, for Katz, is an ‘essence’ that history has deposited in the white psyche, like sexism is an ‘essence’ deposited in the male: oppressors oppress themselves. It is a part of the psycho-social history of white America, part of its collective unconscious. It is in American customs, institutions, language, mores – it is both conscious and unconscious at the same time, both overt and covert. There is no escaping it. And because the system is loaded in their favour, all that whites can be, even when they fight racism, is anti-racist racists: if they don’t, they are just plain, common or garden racists.
Hence, any training programme that intends to bring individual whites to a consciousness of themselves should also take conscience of American culture and institutions. And it should be done at two levels at once – the cognitive or informative and the affective or emotional — at the level of thinking and at the level of feeling. The techniques that had hitherto been used in human relations training erred on one side or the other; or, like multicultural or ethnic studies, they were too other oriented, not self-aware enough, or they were, like inter-racial encounters, too exploitative, once again, of Third World peoples. Only white on white techniques promised any success, and it was on that basis that Ms Katz had devised a systematic training programme which was influenced as much by the shift in psychotherapy towards a teaching role as the shift in education towards a counselling role. The point, after all, was not to change attitudes, but to change behaviour — to change the world.
Taking a leaf out of the Black Power book, Ms Katz defines racism as a ‘white problem’. But whereas the white problem in Black Power ideology referred to the white capitalist power structure, in Ms Katz it is reduced to a personal one, a problem of individuals who, because they are white, have power – over non-whites. Having so established white guilt as irreversible, almost inborn, Ms Katz takes infinite pains to warn whites that they should not feel guilty, for guilt is ‘a self indulgent way to use up energy’. On the other hand, whites suffer from racism as much as men suffer from sexism. And we have learnt from the Feminist Movement that men as well as women are adversely affected by oppressive sex roles’. Her programme of anti-racist sensitivity training, therefore, promises through a ‘process of self examination, change and action that we will someday liberate ourselves and our society’.
It is the sort of psychospiritual mumbo-jumbo which, because it has the resonances of the political movements of its time – capitalists have changed the world, our business is to interpret it – and, by reducing social problems to individual solutions, passes off personal satisfaction for political liberation, and then wraps it all up in a Madison Avenue sales package promising instant cure for hereditary disease, claimed the attention not just of Middle America but of a grateful state. For what better way could the state find to smooth out its social discordances while it carried on, untrammelled, with its capitalist works?
The confusion and fallacies of RAT thinking, as well as its metaphysics, have come through in the presentation. Thus racism is not, as RAT believes, a white problem, but a problem of an exploitative white power structure; power is not something white people are born into, but that which they derive from their position in a complex race/sex/class hierarchy; oppression does not equal exploitation; ideas do not equal ideology; the personal is not the political, but the political is personal; and personal liberation is not political liberation.
Some of the confusion arises from the wrong use of terms. Racism, strictly speaking, should be used to refer to structures and institutions with power to discriminate. What individuals display is racialism – prejudiced attitudes, which give them no intrinsic power over non whites. That power is derived from racist laws, constitutional conventions, judicial precedents, institutional practices – all of which have the imprimatur of the state. In a capitalist state, that power is associated with the power of the capitalist class – and racial oppression cannot be disassociated from class exploitation. And it is that symbiosis between race and class that marks the difference between the racial oppressions of the capitalist and pre-capitalist periods.
The fight against racism is, therefore, a fight against the state which sanctions and authorises it — even if by default – in the institutions and structures of society and in the behaviour of its public officials. My business is not to train the police officer out of his ‘racism’, but to have him punished for it – if, that is, he is meant to be accountable to the community he serves. Nor does changing the attitude of an immigration officer stop him from carrying out virginity tests – but changing immigration law (or merely the instructions from the Home Office) would. Nor can (middle-class) housing officers who have undergone RAT change housing conditions for the black working class, as long as the housing stock is limited. Nor, finally, does disabusing the minds of the owners and editors of the yellow press of their ‘racism’ prevent them from propagating their poisonous ideology of racism (when it sells papers); only a concerted continuing, public and political campaign can do that.
RAT, however, professes to change attitudes and behaviour, and thereby power relations – not in reality, but by sleight of definition: by defining personal relations as power relations. That is not to say that RAT does not act as a catharsis for guilt stricken whites – or as a catalyst, opening them out to their own possibilities and those of others, leading even to a change in their individual treatment of blacks. (The unit of oppression for RAT is the abstract individual.) It might even, for a rare few, open up a path to political activism, but such people will have already had such a potential, anyway and all that RAT could have done was to catalyse it. But its pretentiousness to do more is at once a delusion of grandeur and a betrayal of political black struggle against racism and, therefore, the state.
More importantly, in terms of strategy, the distinction between racialism and racism – the distinction between power relationships between individuals (however derived) and the power relationships between classes (however mediated) helps to distinguish between the lesser fight (because attitudes must be fought too) and the greater, and allows of different tactics for different fights, while clarifying at the same time the different strands of the same fight – so that the state does not play one against the other.
But then, the use of the term ‘racism’ to mean both (personal) racialism and (structural) racism – influenced partly by the use of the term sexism, which itself arose from the tendency in the Women’s Movement to personalise politics by personalising power (there is no ‘sexualism’ in the Women’s Movement) … has passed into common usage, itself a sign of the decline of black struggle. And it would be pedantic not to accept it as such – till, that is, struggle again changes the terminology.
In the meantime, RAT has to be hoist with its own petard – it invites that sort of metaphor to explain itself, mixed and confused. Racism, for RAT, is a combination of mental illness, original sin and biological determinism (which, perhaps, explains its middle-class appeal). It is ‘the number one health problem in America’, according to Katz – and if her disciples in Britain have not proclaimed it as clearly for this country (they have had no Mental Health Commission to back up such a view), they have, in their therapy, certainly treated racism on that basis.
Racism, according to RAT, has its roots in white culture, and white culture, unaffected by material conditions or history, goes back to the beginning of time. Hence, racism is part of the collective unconscious, the pre-natal scream, original sin. That is why, in the final analysis, whites can never be anything more than ‘anti-racist racists’. They are racist racists to begin with, born as they are to white privilege and power; but if they do nothing about it, ‘collude’ (consciously or unconsciously) in the institutional and cultural practices that perpetuate racism, then they are beyond redemption and remain racist racists. If, on the other hand, they take up arms’ – or, in this case, RAT, against such privileges and opposing, end them, in their own lives, at least, they could become ‘anti-racist racists’. Racists, however, they remain in perpetuity. It is a circular argument bordering on the genetic, on biological determinism; racism, in sum, is culture and culture is white and white is racist. And the only way that RAT can break out of that circle is to acknowledge the material conditions that breed racism. But then, it would not be RAT.
For that same reason, RAT eschews the most violent, virulent form of racism, the seedbed of fascism, that of the white working class which, contrary to RAT belief, is racist precisely because it is powerless, economically and politically, and violent because the only power it has is personal power. Quite clearly, it would be hopeless to try and change the attitudes and behaviour of the poorest and most deprived section of the white population without first changing the material conditions of their existence. But, at that point of recognition, RAT averts its face and, pretending that such racism is extreme and exceptional, teaches teachers to avert their faces too. And that, in inner city schools, where racism affords the white child the only sport and release from its hopeless reality, is to educate it for fascism. David Ruddell, Antoinette Satow and even blacks like Basil Manning and Ashok Ohri specifically deny the importance of the battles against the National Front on the basis that such an extreme form of racism is not necessarily the common experience of most blacks and, in any case, lets off the whites with fighting overt racism out there and not covert racism in themselves, in their daily lives and in their institutions (meaning, really, places of work, leisure, etc.). But that is because they, like the activists of the Anti-Nazi League, but for different reasons, do not see the organic connection between racism and fascism. Martin Webster, the National Activities Organiser of the NF, saw it, though, when he declared that ‘the social base of the NF is made up of the desperate and the dispossessed among the white working class’.
Nor does RAT, because it ignores all but the middle class, make a distinction between the different racisms of the different classes — the naked racism of the working class, the genteel racism of the middle class and the exploitative racism of the ruling class — if only to forge different strategies and alliances to combat the different racisms.
But then, to ask RAT to do anything so political is, as a Tamil saying has it, like trying to pluck hairs from an egg. RAT plays at politics, it is a fake, a phoney — a con trick that makes people think that by moving pebbles they would start an avalanche, when all it does is to move pebbles, if that, so that the avalanche never comes.
And because, in Britain, black people have been involved in this con trick in introducing it, practising it, reproducing it, RAT has been able to mis-appropriate black politics and black history – and degrade black struggle. For if black struggle in Britain has meant anything, it has meant the return of politics to a working-class struggle that had lost its way into economism, the return of community to class, the forging of black as a common colour of colonial and racist exploitation, and the opening out of anti-racist struggles to anti-fascism and anti imperialism both at once.
Equally, if black and Third World feminism has meant anything, it has meant, on the one hand, a corrective to the personalisation of politics and the individualisation of power in the white Women’s Movement and, on the other, an attempt to forge a unity of struggle between race, gender and class. RAT (which in Britain boasts black women in its ranks, some of them one-time activists) not only works in the opposite direction on both counts, but, in dividing the women on race lines reflects and reinforces the opposing feminist tendency to divide the ‘race’ on sex lines, and further disaggregates the struggle. Such fragmentation of struggle, while helping perhaps to overcome the personal paranoia that capital visits on different groups differentially, sends them off in search of their sectional identities, leaving capital itself unscathed.
Which is why even if there is no longer a classic working class to carry on a classic class struggle, the struggles of the new social forces must, for that very reason, focus on the destruction of the ruling class – for that there is, under whatever guise or name it appears before the respective movements: patriarchy, white racism, nuclearism, or is conjured up by the ‘new marxists’: power blocs, hegemonies, dominant factions. And particularly now, when the technological revolution has given capital a new lease of life and allowed the ruling class to disperse and dissimulate its presence in so many avatars – while centralising and concentrating its power over the rest of us.