In one of my most read pieces on Race Reflections ‘why I no longer argue about racism’, I attempt to explain why debating racism and oppression with people racialised as White is almost always a fruitless and doomed task that reproduces whiteness and, which I am no longer willing to engage in. By sheer coincidence, Eddo-Lodge’s excellent book (why I’m no longer talking to White people about race) was published shortly after. In it, she explains that not engaging in conversations on race with White people, was self-preservation and, sets out the historical and structural context for these ‘difficult’ conversations. It has been fascinating to see the apparent rising interest in some of the dynamics at play, when racism is raised.
Perhaps, there is an increased appetite for understanding what happens when our racialised lived experience is openly shared. Still, we have a long way to go and so, I have continued to resist getting drawn into race debates and arguments. It is of course not always easy. Nonetheless, I have learnt to pass and say, ‘I do not feel the need to have this conversation with you’. There is a lot at stake when it comes to confronting the reality of racism. Everything in this system of white supremacy requires racialised power configurations to be invisibilised or denied and, this is achieved via various linguistic and discursive devices. So in this article, I wish to start to explore some of them and how they turn conversations on racism into non-conversations.
Opinions as discursive tools
Opinions are excellent non-conversation devices. I am focusing here on the everyday/lay person’s use of opinion such as in ‘in my opinion racism is not as bad as sexism’ (believe it or not, an opinion I recurrently encounter from White women) rather than, on the use of opinion as synonym for expert advice as in ‘you need to seek a second medical opinion’. Below are a few definitions of opinion I have quickly googled;
‘Opinions are a thought or belief about something or someone’.
‘Your opinion about something is what you think or believe about it’.
‘A view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge’.
Collectively the above definitions propose that opinions are simply statements or at best judgements about a particular phenomenon. Beliefs, feelings or views about something which may be unsubstantiated or false. Given that whiteness is founded on the fantasy of ultra-logic and reason, it is notable that opinions are constructed as being exempt from falsification and extracted from logico-deductive frameworks.
Well researched and/or lived experienced informed arguments on racism recurrently hit ‘white opinions’. In fact, I rarely hear the expression, ‘I am entitled to my opinion’ or ‘well, in my opinion…’ until racism is the subject matter, then suddenly, opinions are uttered left, right and centre. And since ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ apparently, this functions as a defensive conversation-terminating strategy. It is not so much that we often state fallacies, untruths and, problematic statements —often statements of incorrect facts we attempt to pass as ‘opinion’— that bothers me, it is mainly the cultural notion that problematic statements (even if they are not factual) should be left without challenge and, that this constitutes freedom of expression.
It is a rather bizarre logic to use freedom of expression to essentially stop challenges to problematic or indefensible opinions and, force those expressing dissent or disagreement into silence.
There is an enduring White liberal notion which posits that every opinion on any social phenomenon (or on anything, for that matter) has validity and deserves equal ‘respect’. This is part of the problem. The reality is some opinions are informed and some are not. Some opinions are educated others are bigoted. Some opinions are violent in that they lead to social harm and increased violence outside the discursive realm. Discursive harm often precedes harm in other spheres of functionning. Thus, the myth that every opinion deserves to be heard and more dangerously, be heard and left unchecked, helps ensure not only that discriminatory or otherwise socially harmful beliefs are uttered unchallenged but, that our understanding of the phenomenon of racism remains confused, since our epistemic field is crowded by so many unhelpful and unsubstantiated opinions constructed as equally valid, competing for ‘our’ attention.
The epistemic shiftiness of whiteness
‘Both sort of evidence is used to demonstrate the non-existence of racism…When there is a particular piece of overt racism then it is dismissed as anomaly as a one off, an aberration, the fact that this is anecdotal and not statistical is used to render it meaningless, particularly because it is said this evidence being a one-off is not part of a pattern and therefore says nothing apart from itself. On the other hand, when statistical evidence is marshalled to demonstrate that an institution is favouring group A or group B, then anecdotal evidence is used to undermine the statistics…It is part of the complexity of racism that things have different meaning depending on which side of the fence they occur’ Dalal Farhad (2002)
The passage by Farhad above highlights how statistical evidence and anecdotal evidence will each be positioned to deny the reality of racism depending of what argument is advanced, at a particular point in time. I have highlighted a similar process when White individuals focus on their subjective experiences in relation to power and privilege. This is important. One of the main reasons of course White people want to debate racism is to argue that there is no such thing as white privilege. That they have not benefitted from being White in a white supremacist society. They simply do not feel structurally advantaged.
This subjectivist position is used to refute the existence of white supremacy as a system irrespective of structural reality and social inequality or indeed any objective evidence one might advance. Since I do not feel the existence of white privilege, it cannot be real.
However, watch what happens when people of colour or marginalised individuals attempt to speak of their lived or subjective reality e.g. ‘I experience you as oppressive’ or, ‘I feel discriminated against’, an epistemic shift occurs, objectivity is now preferred and, instrumental rationality is employed to delegitimise and invalidate their subjective experience. Questions such as ‘do you have any evidence?’ may be asked. ‘Do you have any evidence’…Think about it. You have got to laugh.
No, seriously. You really have to laugh.
This is what I refer to as the epistemic shiftiness of whiteness. When one’s epistemic position shifts constantly depending on where threats to one’s ‘truth’ lie. Truth being the non-existence of racism, particularly racism ‘in here’ and, the invisibilisation of racial oppression. You could say the ultimate function of such epistemic practices is the protection of white ignorance and with that, its concomitant oppressive systems. Fundamentally, this epistemic shiftiness means nothing is set. Beliefs, ethics, politics, principles…everything can be shifted to support whiteness. Every cause is arguable…every argument can be made, every epistemic position can be occupied, if this is needed to support the invisibilisation of racism.
Debating as violence
There are various forms of violence. And, the above linguistic and discursive devices are employed to ensure non-conversations look like conversations, while violence is being enacted. I’m not arguing here that those tools are uniquely used to protect and serve white supremacy, however when they are used for that purpose wether intentionally or unintentionally, they do harm. Firstly, they (to the untrained eye) help maintain racial tropes and stereotypes. Guess who appears irrational and intellectually inferior? I can’t tell you the number of times my intelligence has been questioned or that I have been otherwise insulted for refusing to get sucked into these sadistic power games and, be baited into toxic relational configurations. Another way to control and achieve silence.
In our society the person who refuses to engage is usually seen as the ‘weaker’ party, when invited to ‘debate’. We are generally socialised to be suspicious of the absent and, draw negative inferences, particularly when the absent is a person of colour, but not educated on the linguistic tools power uses to sustain itself through everyday practices. Too few of us can recognise that often enough, it simply is not in the interest of the person colour to engage. Certainly not to engage recurrently. There is a cost. These repeated ‘debates’ can take their toll on our psychological and physical health, they place significant demands on our emotional resources.
Resources we would in all honesty be better off investing in our liberation rather than in convincing White folks of the existence of racial oppression. There is something utterly dehumanising and mad making in seeking to prove one’s reality and experience to those who benefit from and, have vested interests in not seing the same. Not only does it render people of colour vulnerable to racial violence and trauma through compulsive acts of denial and defensive retaliation, it reproduces the power configurations of whiteness by positioning White people as truths holders and arbitrators of reality. In other words, it reproduces epistemic inequality and violence.
Non-engagement as resistance
A Black woman claiming expertise, even on her lived reality is an act of resistance. A Black woman saying actually you will not use my body and my mind as sites for the reproduction of whiteness and, the relational space that exists between us to perform white superiority and pseudo-rationality, is still socially transgressive. So transgressive that in fact, these acts of non-engagement can easily lead to violence and to racial abuse, of their own right. Fascinating, isn’t it? That racial violence and racism be used to demonstrate non-racial violence and the nonexistence of racism.
Actually, predictable and tragic. But such is the logic of whiteness. Try following a few Black women scholars on social media if you want to witness the toxicity and thickness of white denial. Certainly I get my fair share of trolling and abuse. But white ignorance is no accident. It is by structural design. Debate require access to the necessary conceptual and linguistic tools for all parties. And conversations presume equality. Openness. Willingness to listen and most importantly, a willingness to change. I seriously doubt these conditions are met when it comes to talking about racism. Until then, our exchanges will continue to be a spectacle of the enactment of white violence and denialism and, remain non-conversations.
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