Contrast this with some of the most prominent attitudes on race today. When Ibram Kendi says that all actions are either racist or anti-racist, a materialist philosophy exposes this for the nonsense that it is. When I’m eating a ham sandwich in my apartment alone, am I engaged in racism or anti-racism? It’s an absurd question. It only can be asked because for Kendi racism is a mystical phenomenon, one with no grounding in the concrete reality of the material world. For Kendi racism is a kind of ether that swirls around modern society, disconnected from events and unable to be tracked by mere mortals - which of course contributes to Kendi’s professional interests and his celebrity. If racism is a kind of dark magic, rather than an everyday phenomenon that causes injustice, then we need high priests like Kendi to lead us out of the darkness. Join the Kendi Club for only $9.95 a month!
Robin Diangelo has already been critiqued from all directions, to the point where it feels like piling on to do so myself. But it’s worth saying not just that her work is wrong and not constructive, but profoundly bizarre, a take on racism that seems to see it as an emergent phenomenon that arises anew out of every interaction between Black and white people and which exists in some sort of strange deontological alternate dimension made up purely of white feelings. Diangelo wants us to invest every single Black-white encounter with an immense amount of ambient tension and stress. This strikes me as the opposite of how to have a livable and healthy multiracial society, but Diangelo thinks that the only way to exist as a white person without harming Black people with racism is to embody a kind of triple consciousness where you act, observe yourself acting, and then observe your observation. Only once you become habituated to constantly thinking of Black feelings as a function of your irresistible white psychic power, and decide to minimize the inevitable emotional harm towards the Black person through the projection of that power, and recognize that your efforts derive from some sort of white guilt or other form of poor mental hygiene, can you act in a not-actively-racist way - but if you ever become convinced that you are not a racist, you are surely a racist. (One of the fun things about Diangelo’s work is trying to decide if she thinks white guilt is a good or bad thing; certainly she wants you to feel guilty, but also to know that your guilt ultimately represents a kind of imposition on Black people, unless you’re aware of both the guilt and the imposition, but not if that awareness becomes complacency.… It’s a lot.)
The obsession with microaggressions is a perfect example of the desperate need for materialism in racial politics. Yes, it’s unfortunate if people say or do things that subtly indicate racial superiority or otherwise embody imperfect racial attitudes, such as making oblique references to stereotypes. But human beings have profoundly limited control over their minute social interactions. (Among other things, we literally do not choose the things we say.) Policy cannot effectively stop microaggressions, even if we implemented heavy-handed laws to attempt to do so, and I certainly hope we won’t. Meanwhile a mile or two from me a bunch of Black children live in Brownsville in environmentally unhealthy housing, go hungry every night, and are regularly exposed to violence and crime. The notion that we should spend so much time talking about microaggressions and so little talking how to improve the conditions of those children can only happen when the racial discourse has been hijacked by a bunch of cossetted affluent college-educated journalists and academics who are as far removed from Brownsville as they are from Mars, whatever their race. And this is another key element of materialist approaches to race: recognizing that we in fact have limited political and social and argumentative resources, that we must prioritize, that we will never achieve a perfect racial environment and that our efforts to do so are counterproductive. We have to decide what comes first, and what should come first is making sure people are safe, fed, housed, clothed, educated, and cared for. After that we can worry more about being nice to each other.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor