Friday, September 18, 2020

54. me and white supremacy by Layla F. Saad

A bit of a step outside my usual reading habits, this book is a work assignment!  We are decolonizing (can't decide if  I should put that in quotes or not) at the organization I work for and one of the tasks we've been asked to do is to read this book and have discussions about it.  I am very much in favour of rooting out racism and discrimination and I as a reader was kind of excited to actually have a book club at work.  We are pretty much full on "radical lefty" anyways, so it's not a big stretch for anybody, though I did hear some grumblings about being assigned homework.  Some may see it as preaching to the converted but there is a real and deep structural problem in the non-profit world where it is pretty much educated, economically comfortable white people in a majority of the roles, especially in management.  On the positive side, there are a majority of women in those roles and I have seen that change over time.

The argument is, and I hope everybody is now aware of this is nothing new, but that we have to look at racism as a structural problem that goes far beyond just individuals being racist.  Even if we can make people not be racist, the way we educate and hire, the way the markets work, all these institutions join together in a social structure that makes it almost impossible to create a racially just society.  The racism gets reinforced sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly at every step in someone's life journey.  The black kid who is bored in school gets labelled a troublemaker and her parents who work in a low-income job don't have the time or resources to fight back and when they do they are labelled also as difficult. And thus the black kid doesn't get the same education (and are already disadvantaged because they live in neighbourhoods where their schools are less funded).

The target of me and white supremacy is more specifically at how we have internalized racist thinking (white supremacy as she labels it) because of all these structures and cultures around us.  The book is more like a self-help guide where you read a chapter, learn a new thing about white supremacy and then you are supposed to "journal" (that I will definitely put in quotes) and more importantly think and discuss deeply how you are racist and then work to root that out.  Chapters are on subjects like white fragility (how white people freak out when they get called on their racism and make it more about their pain), white silence (being against racism but not standing up when you see it in front of you), the way children are raised, the idea of being "colourblind" and so on.

As you can tell I am very much in favour of the goal of this book and so I don't want to think that the overall mission is not valid.  I also agree that the issues she brings up are real white people need to deal with them.  However, I do have several serious critiques of it. Primarily, it is very simplistic.  Both in the portrayal of the concepts and in the audience.  It really is a self-help book and so I understand why you are will only spend a few pages on what are incredibly rich and complex topics (again, when I say "complex" I don't mean some both sides argument bullshit, but that the history behind them and the mechanics of how they work are multi-faceted and vary depending on context; here is a one-size fits all that starts to undermine the validity of the overall argument).  She also has a very monolithic understanding of the white people she is talking to.  It feels like the only white people she knows are Nancy's she argues with on the internet.  Many of the questions you are asked are of the "have you stopped beating your wife" construction (for instance, "what have you learned about the dehumanizing ways you think about and treat BIPOC and why?").

After a while, it starts to feel like one of those terrible situations in college where you are surrounded by white upper middle-class east coast kids who are denouncing themselves and their bourgeois values, each competing to be more extreme and radical in unpacking their own class and race biases. And then in ten years they will all go on to be currency traders and homemakers in Greenwich, CT (this actually happened).  It all feels very culty.

There is a problem in general with this approach to white supremacy.  It assumes that all of us are already indoctrinated in it and we can't not be.  According to this book, we have all this hard work to do.  But at what point are we doing enough work to be free of white supremacy and who decides?  There is no option here for someone to say that they are doing the work and do not have white supremacist thinking.  So you either wait eternally for an external arbiter and meanwhile you live in constant guilt or you reject the premise altogether.  The first way leads to cult leaders and totalitarian thinking and the the other option makes you at best opt out or at worst be a total racist.  And even saying that would have people on the internet saying "see you are a racist!"

Maybe white supremacy is so deep that this is the only solution, but I can't help feeling there is a better way.  Again, all the concepts here are real and need to be fought against, but I think there needs to be a more nuanced approach and a recognition that there are many white people who are committed to anti-racism and really not approach the world with even the subtlest white supremacy thinking.

I think part of the problem with this book is that it has this unspoken foundation of 60s self-development ideas.  Those are great for some people, but not so great for others. It really wants us all to be in constant self-critiquing and development and to have all these emotional upheavals that help give us new clarity.  My mother is a therapist and her advice and perspective has been very good for me. I believe in personal development, but this method leaves me wanting, to say the least. There are a few sections of actual concrete work you can do to be anti-racist (supporting movements with money and time in the background, creating roles and opportunities in your job or organization, giving voices to BIPOC in situations where you have that power, etc.) and I would have found a book that emphasized those things to be much more helpful for me personally.  Maybe it is smart the way she did this book because she does seem to be going after white liberal women especially in the wellness field (which she mentions specifically several times) and they love that shit.

If you are someone who thinks racism is bad and that you are not a racist but maybe have some tiny doubts or have been confronted with accusations on the internet that angered you but you didn't really have a defense, I would recommend this book for you. Just be ready to not get defensive.  She really lays it out clearly what the issues are in a digestible way and it may open your eyes.

If you are fully on board with Black Lives Matter and all in in understanding structuralist racism and looking to deepen your knowledge and tactics, I would suggest you look elsewhere.

No comments: