Writing critically about ‘race’ and racism from within the in-group – an evaluation tool-in-development

“Unfortunately, many confuse White allyship with White saviorship – engaging in performative acts of helping others for benefit, self-image, or recognition …  White saviors espouse more of a charity model or paternalistic view of helping those they consider “less fortunate” while still maintaining notions of White superiority and social/emotional distance.” (Williams et al., 2021, p. 272)

“Beware of horses/I mean a horse is a horse of course/but who rides is important…” (Run The Jewels, from ‘A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters’ (2016))

“While … white people may think they are being right on by opposing racism, no one will really be able to embrace the mission of tearing “this shit down” until they realise that the structures they oppose are not only bad for some of us, they are bad for all of us.” (Jack Halberstam, from the introduction to Harney & Motem (2013), p.10)

Might a White man write about ‘race’ and racism and racial retraumatisation? A middle-class, middle-aged White man, what’s more, and one with plenty of social capital and standing within the in-group: one who’s lived long enough to benefit substantially and wittingly and actively (as opposed to simply by virtue of being born into the inheritance) from the power and proceeds that flowed from the plunder and pillage that was the Middle Passage and ‘New World’ racialized chattel slavery?

I ask, because lately (and shamefully late in the day) I have been attempting such writing, both on my own and in co-writing partnerships; and because, although I don’t know how my own contributions have been received, I am uneasy about my own practice and I do also understand and respect that there is apt and justified and widespread scepticism, as to whether such an attempt can be pulled off in any helpful way (see e.g. the work of Monnica Williams and colleagues on Racial Justice Allies and of Guilaine Kinouani and colleagues at Race Reflections).

It’s a vexed question, then – it may be vexatious even to ask it. On what authority – if any – might such a question be asked, and such a project of writing ventured? In what circumstances – if any? By what means or in what way – if any? What audience might such an author be imagining and how might he find his way to a place from which to address that audience? How might he find words with which to address such an audience, if he were able to stand (metaphorically speaking) before it? How might such an author (I, that is to say, or anyone in my shoes) rise to the challenge that “genuine allyship requires identifying and decentering Whiteness, empowering others even when this involves peer conflict, and engaging in reciprocal vulnerability” (Williams et al., 2021, p. 272)?

Furthermore: why – if at all – is it any different to address an audience in writing, than it is to speak to, to present one’s thoughts in person to such an audience? It seems on the face of it clear enough that it would be incumbent upon me to at once recuse myself from any panel or programme that would offer me a public platform from which to speak about ‘race’: to ‘present my work’, at the inevitable expense of multiple others better qualified to speak of such matters. Why, then – if at all – would my act of writing be any different: in my presumption, in my displacing of other voices, in my re-assertion of the ‘matter-of-fact’ of being in possession?

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I pose these questions; and in posing them here, I replay, at least to some extent, the very violences I am looking to interrogate. In asking the nominative question “who am I, to pose these questions?”, I may expect the vocative retort: “who are you, to pose these questions?” I do not propose to occupy the space to try to argue a right or claim to the space I occupy in writing this – and yet, there is a conundrum here, one that perhaps I can only avoid by not occupying the space.

Why I want to venture into the space, what I want to try to achieve, is briefly to offer a kind of evaluation tool-in-development. I undertake to use the tool-in-development to hold myself to account, for the manner of my venturing into the space, and also in case I should venture into the space again. It’s a measure with which you the reader in turn may hold me to account (and, if it makes any kind of ethical sense, I hope it may be adopted, adapted and developed for others to use). Meanwhile, think of it as a kind of ‘j’accuse’, if you will; with me as the person who stands (self-)accused, in advance.

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I’ve drawn up this tool-in-development in five different dimensions, each relating to an aspect or quality of the authorial interrogation of ‘race’ and power. Under each head, I have offered five positions, expressed as active gerundive verbs to signify the agency of the author in his ethical choices, and in ascending order of ethical value (as I would see it).

The tool-in-development begins with positions (number (1) in each case) that re-assert or replay relations of domination; moving through perhaps less toxic but still distinctly unhelpful moves (2) and (3) in each case) towards a minimum position (4) below which it would be clearly unacceptable to fall and landing with (5) an ethical stance to aspire to in all attempts to address the subject.

The first dimension is the way in which, and the extent to which, considerations of ‘race’ and intersectionality are addressed in a piece of writing. To give an example I am not proud of: I have in the past written about reciprocal violence – the violence between in-groups and out-groups – without taking the White minority Global North in-group as an example or epitome of the violent in-group in the paradigm. That would get me a ‘(2)’ (for ‘passively omitting’) if I were to attempt such a thing now.

The second dimension explores the way in which whiteness, White racism and White supremacy are addressed. If it is ever addressed by White authors, or speakers at conferences (like the one I have just been attending) it’s often by way of deploring the fact that there are some very nasty White supremacists over there (in the Deep South, or storming the Capitol, or chanting from the stands at football matches, or taking Farage seriously on Twitter), and ‘we’ should be wary of ‘them’, or their nastiness might somehow ‘catch on’. That would get a (3) (probably rather generously!) for ‘evasively identifying’ White supremacy ‘as a thing in the other’. Hint: if there’s only White faces on the conference Zoom screen, we have ourselves a situation already, dear colleagues….

The third dimension explores the place and presentation of authorial positioning in the writing. In the present piece I have begun with (almost) ‘full disclosure’ of my position writing as a White middle-class male of a certain age; I thereby might (or might not!) merit a ‘(5)’ for ‘foregrounding’ – but had I merely said, at some point along the way, something like ‘I too must check my privilege’, that would get me at best a ‘(3)’ for ‘obliquely alluding to’ positioning as an issue.

The fourth dimension concerns the respect and recognition given in the writing to the authority of Black voices. Going back to my example of previous writing on reciprocal violence, it doesn’t cut it to be relying on Marx and Hegel, Weil, Foucault and Butler, if Du Bois and Fanon, Davis, Lorde and Patterson are nowhere in sight (that’s a (2) for ‘passively ignoring or anthropophagically incorporating’). Neither will it do to reference Fanon without grappling with or getting inside of his line of argument, as who would say “clever me, for I too have read the whole of The Wretched of the Earth, and I did not merely content myself with Sartre’s Preface” (that would be a (3) for ‘casually ventriloquising or ‘culturally appropriating’’). In this piece, for example, does my opening reference to the American rap artists Run The Jewels earn me a (5) for ‘foregrounding and deferring to’ or a (3) for ‘culturally appropriating’? I am unsure, but I am sure that it is not for me to say, and so I can only submit myself to your judgement in this matter.

The last of the five dimensions attends to how the operation of power and relations of domination is attended to in the writing. The author is not above the fray, as my account so far hopefully makes clear. I very much respect the words of Williams and her colleagues cited above, but for myself I would not be comfortable claiming an intent to ‘empower’, since in my own observation and analysis, empowering, from a position such as mine, is a way of hanging onto power, rather than sharing it on equal terms or abjuring it. Ultimately I consider that followership is going to be a more important attribute than leadership, if White authors are to be able to make a contribution to the deconstruction and dismantling of their (our!) own power and dominance. This last dimension is both the summation and the ‘acid test’ of the tool-in-development as a whole.

Three final points: first of all, I hope it is self-evident, but it’s clearly worth spelling out all the same, that this project assumes sincerity and authenticity on the part of the author, rather than representing a blueprint for some calculated and cynical pretence. The truth, in any case, will certainly out.

Secondly, as I have already suggested at the outset, there is a preliminary dimension not in the list, and that might be summed up in the simple injunction ‘don’t go there at all’. The ‘evaluation’ tool-in-development may also lead back to that starting point, if the reader concludes that even a ‘score’ of 25 out of 25 wouldn’t justify the presumption and the replaying of the power dynamics inherent in ‘putting pen to paper’. Alternatively, the ‘evaluation’ might leave you the reader feeling ‘okay, anything more than (say) twenty out of twenty-five, and no single score under four, and I’ll give it a read’. You the reader must decide!

Lastly, it would have been profoundly inconsistent and wrongheaded of me, given what this piece is about, if I hadn’t first run the text past a small group of comrades and colleagues, to get some feedback and critical appraisal, and to check whether anyone would want to rate the piece under that ‘don’t go there at all’ heading. None of them did give me so complete a thumbs down, but it’s still on me that I pressed the ‘publish post’ button. Therefore, this time, I want to largely preserve the anonymity of those esteemed correspondents of mine and simply to say to them – D, K, L, and M – you know who you are! Thank you so much for your generosity in permitting me to bend your ears on this one…

Here it is, then:

A.       ‘Race’ and intersectionality

Is the author:

1. actively denying the centrality of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

2. passively omitting the concepts of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

3. obliquely invoking the relevance of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

4. directly naming the impact of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

5. actively foregrounding the centrality of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

B. Whiteness, White racism and White supremacy

Is the author:

1. actively denying Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in theirself?

2. passively occluding Whiteness and White supremacy?

3. evasively identifying Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in the other?

4. apologetically acknowledging themself as a ‘beneficiary’ of Whiteness and White supremacy?

5. actively owning Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in theirself to be grappled with?

C.       Authorial positioning

Is the author:

1. actively dismissing authorial positioning as irrelevant (‘scientific neutrality’)?

2. passively avoiding authorial positioning?

3. obliquely alluding to authorial positioning?

4. directly mentioning authorial positioning (in passing)?

5. actively making explicit and foregrounding authorial positioning?

D. Authority of Black voices

Is the author:

1. actively dismissing or denigrating the authority of Black voices?

2. passively ignoring or indifferently incorporating Black voices?

3. casually ventriloquising or ‘culturally appropriating’ Black voices?

4. incidentally referencing Black voices in passing?

5. actively foregrounding and deferring to the authority of Black voices?

E. Operation of power and relations of domination

Is the author:

1. actively reinforcing in-group power and privilege?

2. obliviously replaying existing power relations?

3. naively ‘empowering’ out-group members from ‘on high’?

4. consciously sharing power with the out-group?

5. actively renouncing power in favour of the out-group?

Scores:

1-5 points:           The author actively pursues a White supremacist agenda in pursuit of retaining position, power and privilege

6-10 points:          The author evidences no reflection upon their position and privilege and unwittingly or unconsciously perpetuates White supremacy

11-15 points:        The author is aware of their White precarity but is giving ground to hold onto power (‘empowering’) and still locates White supremacism in the Other

16-20 points:        The author is reflecting on their position and privilege and recognizes the case for power-sharing to reduce the toxicity of White supremacy

21-25 points:       The author is actively working to relinquish position, power and privilege and to dismantle White supremacy in themself and in the world around them

References

Harney, S. and Motem, F. (2013) The undercommons: Fugitive planning and Black study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.

Run The Jewels (2016) RTJ3. RBC Records.

Williams, M.T., Sharif, N., Strauss, D., Gran-Ruaz, S., Bartlett, A., & Skinta, M.D. (2021) ‘Unicorns, leprechauns, and White allies: Exploring the space between intent and action’, The Behavior Therapist 44(6), pp. 272-281.

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