On white (male) supremacy, reparation, and the power dynamics of co-writing – a personal process commentary

“These days, of course, everyone knows everything, that’s why so many people, especially most white people, are so lost.” (James Baldwin, 1974, p. 59)

I was brought up in a frankly racist and misogynistic environment.

This sentence, now that I’ve written it out, has turned out far too flat and bland for what it is intended to convey. Or is it that I have produced a flat and bland sentence, to veer away from the surface, and beneath it the substance, of what I (a white man) am really needing to own and attest?

After all, it is immediately evident that I have projected both the malignance and the responsibility for it into my environment, by the simple device of deploying the passive voice: as who would bewail “look what they did to me”…. So: let me try again!

Fear and hatred of people of colour and of women – unconscious, subliminal or out there in plain sight – is what I not only took in from my upbringing; I took up these stances and attitudes – uncritically – and I embodied them and acted them out in various ways.

Now this sentence, in contrast, feels very stark. Straight away I want to append a mass of qualifying statements, so you don’t get the ‘wrong’ idea. I won’t give you a ‘for example’, because that would be to smuggle one of these ‘qualifiers’ in – but the temptation is very strong. It’s a full-time job and a life’s work, untangling those knots inside me that my own mind has fashioned along the way.

In fact, as I write this, I realise that this urge to qualify, disarm, explain, contextualise, differentiate from (possibly) more overt or egregious examples, and generally to smooth off the edges of anthropoemic othering, is part of the whole inheritance and discourse: epitomised in that toxic old trope, the one that goes ‘don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are…’

In any case, I perceive clearly that the very best thing to do is not to qualify that second statement of mine. If I were a woman of colour, would I allow this white man leeway or mitigation? Well, it’s not at all for me to say, but I certainly suppose that I might do only or particularly if I were habituated to or conditioned or controlled or coerced into doing so by the likes of me…

However, I realise that I am not in fact asking for leeway, or for slack to be cut. What I am looking for is the chance to make reparation. I am probably not going to earn myself such a chance if I start out by worrying about the impact upon my status and social capital of speaking truth to my own power.

———————————-

The process of co-writing, and of co-operating and col-laborating more generally, brings all this complexity vividly into focus. The flat little hyphen in ‘co-writing’ (and this is also the case, for example, in the ‘co-facilitating’ of a group, or in the ‘co-production’ of a service development project with service users) is often there to obscure and perpetuate a power differential in which one person leads and the ‘co-’ or the ‘co-s’ must follow in their wake.

I am not invested in perpetuating that differential: this at any rate is what I tell myself, and that is certainly how I theorise it. I want and need and intend that ‘co-’ to signify an active practice of equality. Yet I discover that I – the same ‘I’ – desires to take charge; to lead; to mobilise; to drive the project forward; to break new ground.

Now – being kinder to myself than likely I deserve – I can see this on some level as the operation of the force of habit and pattern, over and above the creativity of re-imagining power relations. If ‘naturally taking the lead’ has been the practice established over time, then my impulse or reflex to continue it, to iterate those same old moves, will be strong, and it will take a lot of carving out new paths in the forest, before there’s a genuine choice when a fork in the road presents itself.

But if my desire to ‘take charge’ is driven by habit and pattern, then the grim fact remains that its roots are therefore easily traceable back to the toxicity that infused the development of the practice in the first place – that toxicity which inheres in the received ‘obviousness’ that a man is going to be the leader (not to mention the highest earner) of this or any group that consists of one man and two women.

Moreover, I note the discourse which establishes that a white middle-class public-school-educated man is supposed to be ‘obviously’ the ‘natural’ leader of Empire, the ‘natural’ holder of such and such a mining concession, the ‘natural’ governor of such and such a province; the ‘natural’ dispenser of arbitrary justice, whatever values local wisdom and culture might uphold.

Such a specimen as I, according to this discourse, is held to be – holds himself to be – ‘naturally’ superior to the other, however the other may be constructed….but see how I have drifted back into the distancing of theorising here!

It is I (not merely ‘such a specimen as I’) who must make amends here. I am the one who is having to carry on grappling with it, because I am still caught up in it. There is no effective difference worth arguing over, as between the ‘reconstructed’ and the ‘unreconstructed’ me – I am still perpetuating white (male) supremacy, if I don’t change my practice.

I deploy my status and social capital, as well as such experience and expertise as I can bring to bear, in order to interrogate power dynamics and relations of domination in the workplace (and beyond). Now, I don’t suggest that’s a bad thing, or a project not worth pursuing. I simply find that the logic of it inescapably presses upon me the realisation that I replay the power dynamics, even as I endeavour to dismantle the structure of my own power.

This is my process (drawing to a close here, because for me to bang on about my process indefinitely, would certainly be to replay the problem!) To make a reparative offering, I don’t see how I can do other than to say what violence it was and is that I did and am doing.

It is not enough to perceive and theorise this violence at the structural level. It is not enough to note that I am a white man and so, yes, I am the beneficiary, by definition, of historical structural violence (in my recent blog about Writing critically about race and racism, I’d be rated a mere B3 there for “evasively identifying Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in the other?”; or at best a B4 for “apologetically acknowledging themself as a ‘beneficiary’ of Whiteness and White supremacy”). That was not enough at the start of this piece of writing and it’s not enough at the end.

Yes, I happen, by circumstance, to be a white man; but I am actively the perpetrator and perpetuator of these several violences. It is not only circumstance that is at work here.

———————————-

The secret heart of co-writing, I have come to understand (perhaps, of co-existing at all!), is, for me at any rate, to begin by giving up the idealised fantasy of how the piece would look if I wrote it myself (as if there even was such a thing as a single voice!); and to know, right from the outset, that the co-equal and creative intersection between two or more minds, across those myriad differences that both divide and connect us, will produce something richer and unexpected, more likely breaking of new ground (at least at the micro level): and, by definition, more precious.

Acknowledgements

This piece arose out of the work of the Equality Working Group at the Bethlem Hospital – and more specifically out of a collaborative writing project which prompted the three of us who were directly involved to agree to each write a ‘process piece’ about the experience of co-writing. To both these colleagues – Michelle Michael and Rachel Allen – I am particularly and profoundly grateful. I have slightly adapted my own piece for this blog.

Reference

Baldwin, J. (1974) If Beale Street could talk. Reprinted 1994. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

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?

———————————-

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.

———————————-

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 – 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.