What began as a social justice movement directed by empathy and compassion for those who have experienced racism, social inequality, and marginalization due to power differentials in social institutions and culture, has now devolved into a radical left political-social ideology bordering on authoritarianism wearing cloaks of virtue. There is no consensus on what wokeness actually stands for. Some call it an awakening of liberal social activism based on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and LGBTQ+ movements and those fighting gender inequality, while others call it a new religion, cult, or postmodern ideology under the spell of illiberal hypocrisy. But what I am largely interested in exploring here is the phenomenon of white wokeism.
White Fear in the Age of Cancel Culture
We all know of the ploys and effects of cancel culture. Oppose someone’s statements, built up a strawman bulwark that they are offensive or immoral, and send them off to the execution squad. There is no tolerance for hearing opposing arguments that have their own merit. The military tactic is to kill-off their voice. If you cost someone their job, all the better. This is often done under the guise of progressivism when such unprogressive attitudes and entitlement to feel offended while others cannot is simply a hostile pretense of moral condemnation masquerading as a philosophy of right in the service of promoting self-value. Anyone unwilling to hear another point of view or perspective that is moreover in need of suppression is the root of fascism and authoritarianism the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory was so intent on exposing.
Race has once again become a power-word cast under the banner of color. Despite the fact that there is no biology of race, for it is simply a social construction, a person’s skin color now defines who they are to the public. And Whiteness has become the new infectious disease, so much so that many whites feel the need to apologize for their whiteness, for their so-called “unearned privilege,” and for all the atrocities other whites have inflicted on civilization in the past. The new racism is that whites have to struggle to overcome their facticity of being white. But how is that possible?
Because a large portion of the population cast as “white” is afraid of being publicly open about their political views on race matters is simply because they are afraid of being singled out or cancelled. When other whites prey on virtue-signaling and the need for white guilt inducement, we must wonder about this curious phenomenon. Why do white antiracists want whites to feel bad? Are they guilty? Are they blameworthy? Do they feel ashamed for their own racist tendencies and now need to reproach anyone who smells of bigotry? Is this an unconscious attempt to atone and make reparation for their own moral intransigence? Why would a white person get down on one knee and raise their fist high in the sky to protest the abstract racist society in which we purportedly live? What motivates their actions?
One viable hypothesis is that they are not very self-aware about how they come across to others as ingratiating themselves to identity politics. Mounting social pressure makes people self-conscious that they should be and act a certain way. And being vocal about antiracism draws the heat away from themselves as being culpable as compared to others who feel little need to engage in public social activism. But white wokeism also appears in some forms as sadomasochistic exhibitionism of how ethically superior they believe they are to others; or conversely, as felt-loathing and self-castration over being white, as if we don’t all know that the moral dog whistle is being blown.
The world of racial politics has become based on fear of offense, and fear of not appearing virtuous as some new form of political correctness. Why else would people have the need to avouch their antiracism in open public forums when this should be an obvious position most decent people observe? Because they are afraid of being labeled “racist.” Rather than the gaslighting propaganda of so-called “white fragility,” it is white fear that drives these attitudes. And wokeism preys on these fears.
Consider the chicanery that if you are white you have to admit to being racist as a starting point because of your so-called privilege, as if black kitchen help or a butler is nearby. Or you have a Filipino nanny or Mexican workman who mows your yard. Heaven forbid if you have an object in your house that comes from another culture, lest it be deemed “cultural appropriation.” If you try to deny your white privilege, you confess your sin via default. This stealthy strategy is to expose certain disproportional advantages whites may have but they are not based on skin color alone. Contrarily, it is usually due to class distinctions and socioeconomic status that condition these social disparities. Consider how Indian caste determines who is master and who is servant. Economics and class discrepancies have much more to do with social status and equal opportunity rather than skin color, especially in hybrid multicultural societies like Canada and Britain.
Why We are All Racist
Let’s not mince words. We need to confront a most uncomfortable empirical fact most people would deny: every person by nature is racist, it is simply a matter of degree. We all know this, as we are intimately aware of our own emotional prejudices directed toward others but largely keep this aspect of our psychic lives secret and reserved for our own private thoughts. Anyone who denies this is simply posturing, for it is not something one wants to admit or be forced to acknowledge publicly. As psychoanalysis long ago has perspicaciously demonstrated, prejudice is universal to human nature and is evolutionarily informed.
Even though everyone knows they harbor some racist tendencies, even if only benign, we feel a need to deny it, especially in open social discourse because it is thought to be distasteful, even if we largely think it is unconscious or due to involuntary attitudes or unintentional (implicit) bias. And this holds true for all peoples regardless of their skin color. No one gets a free pass or is exempt regardless if their neighbor is of a different hue. We cannot escape this in our culture, upbringing, or social milieu as it permeates our early familial environment, communal structures, and institutional politics of any given society, whether democratic, patriarchal, or governed by religious totalitarianism or a psychopathic despot. It simply becomes a question of how it manifests in its modes of appearance regardless of demographics.
Antiracism and the Oppressive Narrative
The contemporary antiracist movement is nothing new. It is merely a recapitulation of civil and civic values that any considerate person should and does adopt. The George Floyd murder sparked an outpouring of moral indignation that draws our attention, once again, to how racism infiltrates social systems, in this case policing practices that are in need of attention, analysis, and rectification, but this is not a simple matter. The naïve, causally reductive and unsophisticated argument that every public institution in society is racist is a fallacy and it should not be accepted as unquestioned fact or dogma. These broad-sweeping pronouncements do more harm than good because they do not accurately represent social reality. How could all the social structures, legal systems, private and public organizations, and collective customs that govern our democratic cultural institutions have it in for the designated racially disenfranchised Other, let alone conspire in cryptic accord with maintaining the alleged white supremacy that sustains it?
This is not to deny that racism exists in society and trickles into institutional fabrics—of course it does. Racist individuals comprise every social collective and make decisions that impact on the operations of broader systems, especially when the climate or culture within certain organizations and workplaces nourish and support it. But to collapse everything into an abstract monolithic system that is pathological is to simply negate the component parts that come to play in the system as a whole. And those component parts as individuals within a society are informed by the psychological and psychosocial factors that motivate collective instantiations just as the collective supervenes on individual lives and personal motives. To privilege one factor over the other is to miss the dialectical relation that constitutes human sociality.
Here the oppressive narrative is that “whites” have caused a dysfunctional society that victimizes all Otherness, namely, the residue and bane of colonial imperialism. Everyone needs a whipping boy, and everyone has the need to have enemies. So, who is to blame here? “Whitey,” of course, even when the brutalities of the past are superimposed on present white people who had nothing to do with historic colonialism.
Woke campaigns against racism is a foil for identity politics of a certain kind, which I will discuss momentarily. Why are big corporations, companies, and social institutions reinstating the need to have Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies as antidotes against racism when they always have had antidiscrimination policies and practices in place? Optics, of course, a capitalist ruse. “Look virtuous, act as if we care, and people will continue to buy our products.” Racist denialism at its finest is in the service of ethical capitalism. And the diversity industry has capitalized on the backs of corporate America in order to look antiracist so it can wave a moral flag to the public or get the five-star review on Google—as if you can simply make this an HR issue. How can we get rid of racism? now benefits the businessman and politician alike. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives are fast becoming the new scam, and they have all but destroyed academic freedom for stellar professors who have dared to question these paralogisms.
Invoking a blame-game sets up a strawman only then to burn. The white Other is cast into the role of victimizer while the accuser adopts a victimized persona of pseudo-moralization as a social justice avenger with a congratulatory sense of self-importance. Racial blame binaries and one-sided proclamations of virtue that cast certain groups into antithetical opposition with others based on the color of their skin is to commit its own form of moral transgression that negates the personal identity of others, ignores nuance and complexity, and fails to authentically engage the other as a real person and not simply as an impersonal category.
The current terms “virtue-signaling” and becoming “allies” of minority identities is merely to invoke an ancient rhetorical oratory technique inherited from the sophists, namely, the need to announce to the world “Look at me! I am a good person.” It also implies that you are morally superior to the ethically inferior other who you just set ablaze. But at some point, the moral fig leaf falls off.
To say “I am against white supremacy” is a given: it merely states the obvious, unless you are a member of a hate group. Who but a white supremacist would need to defend their social-political stance? This dupe of wanting to make sure everyone knows that you are for social justice, that you oppose oppression or domination of others, and that you are against hegemonies and the exploitation of power differentials is to signal a fake virtue that you are not complicit in these social institutional practices and that you stand above them. We are complicit in society because we exist in it and form it. It is one thing to challenge, refute, and militate against discrimination and racist practices through antiracist campaigns, but it is quite another to want to scapegoat white society that we ourselves participate in.
Given that the UK, Canada, and the US are arguably among the most multicultural societies in the democratic world open to every immigrant nation, culture, religion, ethnicity, and language, it becomes a psychological displacement that the white whipping post is needed to avenge ancestral wounds from the archaic past. Every deplorable sin in culture is now due to white (unearned) privilege/racism/supremacy. And to call someone a white supremacist by virtue of simply being white is ideology at its finest, and I will tell you why.
Essentializing Race and the Myth of White Privilege
What I am opposed to is essentializing people based on racial categories of skin color. The minute you have invoked or imbued the attribute of color to a person, it trivializes their individual existence and personhood by reducing them to an object or thing. The term “white privilege” is a sham, as it assumes all whites are the same. Tell multigenerational under-class whites in Liverpool or Redcar, a European immigrant who grew up in a tarpaper shack in Sudbury, or a working-class family with Irish ancestry in rural Kentucky who can barely keep the lights on that they have unearned privilege, and see how far that gets you. Given that the educational underachievement of white British working-class pupils is the highest in England and middle-class working and impoverished whites between the ages of 50-54 in America comprise the highest rates of suicide, addictions, and physical and mental health problems, it is no wonder that the Tucker Carlson’s and David Duke’s of the world come out of the woodwork when “whiteness” theory is introduced.
These essentializing discussions that boil everyone down to skin color damage any serious and sincere dialogue about race relations because they evoke a racial binary that pits all groups against others and misses the nuance of context, social class, economics, culture, familial attachment influences, and individual psychological (and moral) development, among other notable variables.
How does the term “white privilege” help others when it merely collapses the broader and more important social issues into the category of color under the reactionary emotion of envy? It is nothing short of guilt inducement and is a political trope to bring about a desired outcome of provoking defensiveness, shame, splitting, projection, and reaction formation in whites. It is divisive, inciting, and racist.
The problem with racialized language is that it collapses all people falling within a particular social demographic into a single entity based on racial identity, when it is not possible to even remotely speak for all people within that demographic. How can you represent let alone speak for all people who are classified within a certain group based on skin color? You can’t. Personal identity, intersectionality, and heterogeneity are too complex to simply boil down to in-group homogeneity. Such reduction leads to splitting, bifurcation, and contrived categorization rather than focusing on the social-political justice issues that need to be addressed where people feel repeated victims of racism. But this is nothing new. The current direction this seems to be taking in some parts of society, in popular culture, in social media, and in some professions and academic corridors is the careful manipulation of identity politics and diversity optics where we can’t even ask people to spell out their positions and defend their premises with cogent arguments without fear of being canceled or called a racist. Rather than focusing on class disparities that saturate a transracial world, skin color becomes the calling card of an oppressive superior class that abuses the inferior Other based on race.
Victimization culture is unfortunate because everyone becomes a victim if you look at life that way. We always need someone to blame, to become the designated scapegoat, to displace our rage onto—to tie to the whipping post. The problem with this attitude is that it leads to an infinite regress. You must always appeal to some prior condition or state of affairs that is the purported cause of your suffering—collectively, historically, contemporarily or otherwise. Someone else must always be held accountable as a displacement of blame. Might as well get in line and whip the dog.
Racial/gender/ethnic/religious essentialism reinforces binaries and polarization, erases all nuance, distinction, and context, and gets us nowhere. It perpetuates a dialectic of dysfunction that does not advance any genuine progress or constructive dialogue on how mutual recognition can be achieved because we already have a symbolic whipping boy to condemn and pillory.
The Infantilization of Alterity
Wokeism also infantilizes other non-white collectives. The notion that white people must protect the oppressed Other and insist that they are being harmed by white privilege, and that no white people have any right to question the values of alterity is itself absurd. A most obscene form of condescension is to assume that others cannot defend their personal thoughts or political views without mommy or daddy stepping in to rescue them from bullies; or to try to redirect discourse because people are uncomfortable talking about real life matters regarding race relations. That is not what critical thinking and logical analysis is about, and these woke sensibilities should be challenged based on their intellectual rigor and viability alone as legitimate arguments that also make practical sense. They do not. Woke whites talk for the oppressed other, as if they are children incapable of speaking for themselves, what we might not inappropriately call woke racism.
Since when does emotional polemics or moral hyperbole under the guise of protecting oppressed others deserve to be respected when people have their own minds, agency, and responsibility to speak for themselves regardless if others disagree? The point is you cannot have critical dialogue without open debate, even if you find it unsavory.
But my main point is to expose the moral proselytizing and ethical prescriptivism going on in the woke academy and society at large today, as if one person or group has cornered the market on truth, virtue, and value. When you step into the fray of ethics, you better be able to defend the principles you take at face value and impose on others. And you should not harbor any entitlement that your ethics is superior to others without providing proper justification and demonstrating validity. Moral prescriptivism or racial relativism always meets with pushback because we can never agree to value others’ beliefs over our own when they are in fundamental opposition: the most we can strive for is to listen and try to find a stance of mutual recognition or hospitality even if we vehemently disagree with our interlocutor.
People who never want to hear a negative word against their beliefs, are intolerant of opposing views, or object to any opinion that does not mirror their own under the rubric of victimization discourse, are typically insecure and potentially dangerous to the institution of liberty of speech. When opposing factions virulently instigate heckling, outrage, violence, censoring, and canceling of people who are told they should not be allowed to speak because they offend a certain party or group, this is the antithesis of democracy and academic freedom, and it is the first step toward fascism. We need a sober analysis of the arguments, coherency, and cogency of why we should believe in, let alone adopt, such positions. Just because we disagree does not mean we are enemies let alone are opposed to common egalitarian goals.
In order to make progress through a dialogical communicative approach to ethical engagement with others, we should adopt the aim of mutual recognition of the other’s perspective even if you think it holds no water, is crass relativism, or has little pragmatic value. If you do not start from the standpoint of trying to the understand the other’s position before you respond, then you are acting in bad faith. Whether you can defend your position, let alone universalize it to society as a whole, is a burden any single person or particular group bears.
Returning to the ancient notion of virtue where we recover ideals of common sense, realism, prudence, moderation, civic-mindedness, and good character instead of indulging in various forms of acting out, externalization of blame without accepting one’s own accountability, and denial of personal problems that one brings to the table or brings on themselves needs to be re-examined. This sensibility also has a more successful chance at achieving positive social change where marginalization is replaced with the benefits of empathy and mutually recognizing difference within a moral framework of civil coexistence and tolerance without resorting to infantile rage, demonization, or dehumanization of alterity.
Originally posted on Grapevine Magazine
By Jon Mills, a Canadian philosopher and psychoanalyst. He is Honorary Professor, Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, UK, and author of over 30 books in philosophy, psychoanalysis, psychology, and cultural studies.