Why I Am Not a Fan of the Term “Anti-White”
by Helen Pluckrose
Essay originally from Counterweight.
Some people have questioned why I do not use the term “anti-white” to describe aspects of Critical Social Justice Theory and activism that explicitly generalise negatively about white people. Instead, when someone points out that a statement is racist about white people, rather than focusing on the fact that the denigrated group is white, I am likely to address it as a failure to consistently oppose racial essentialism and the evaluation of the worth of any individual by their race.
The main reason I do this is because I think it is important to focus primarily on first principles rather than identity. The first principle of liberal opposition to racism is that it is stupid and unethical to evaluate people’s worth by their race or attribute any characteristics, traits, values or behaviours to them because of the colour of their skin. That is, the first principle of liberal approaches to racial equality is an individual and universal one that racist generalisations are always factually and ethically wrong. There is enormous value in foregrounding this universal principle because liberally minded people of all races can get behind it. It is this consistency of opposition to racism that will bring us together to oppose both the ideological loons whose negative racial generalisations are about black and/or brown people and the ideological loons whose negative racial generalisations are about white people.
Negative generalisation about individuals on the grounds of their race is a concern shared by all people who oppose racism in genuinely liberal ways. Even though the people who denigrate black and brown people and the people who denigrate white people are different people who are motivated by different ideologies, there is value in pointing out that they are manifesting the same factual and moral failures. Despite the fact that negative assumptions made about black and brown people by white identitarians are different to the negative assumptions made about white people by Critical Social Justice anti-racists and impact people differently, there is still value in calling upon the first principle of liberal opposition to racism in order to oppose both.
This does not mean that we should not address the differences above. If we want to oppose white supremacist ideas, we will need to focus on their ideological framework. It is necessary to look at how they are specifically anti-black and how they make specific false claims about the unintelligence and criminality of black people. It is important to look at how this specifically affects black people. If we want to oppose CSJ approaches to anti-racism, we will also need to focus on their ideological framework. To do this, we need to look at how they are specifically anti-white and make specific false claims about white people being racist, arrogant, ignorant and entitled, and how this affects white people. We don’t need to make any false equivalencies when addressing both of these forms of racial stereotypes. We can openly acknowledge the mountains of historical evidence that the people most grievously impacted by racist views have been black. We can and should also acknowledge that the legacy of this can be measured today in the comparative prosperity of white and black people.
However, we need to look at what will best address and remedy both the legacy of historical racism and the racial polarisation we are facing today. The universal liberalism of the Civil Rights Movement is best equipped to do this, and there is much evidence to support this view. Society makes most progress when it appeals to our shared humanity. When Martin Luther King said he dreamt of a day his children would be judged by the content of their character not the colour of their skin, he was appealing to white Americans’ hopes for their own children and their claimed liberal values. He was saying ‘We are human just like you. We have needs and personalities and abilities and feelings just like you. Yet we are treated as inferior and denied full access to society.’ This appeal to empathy and common humanity was something that white people could relate to and get on board with. With liberal feminism and Gay Pride working in much the same way, we saw much legal progress between 1960 and 1980, and have seen much social progress since. This works with our best impulses of fairness, empathy and reciprocity.
Identity politics, on the other hand, works against those best impulses and brings out the worst in human nature – our in-group bias (tribalism) and tendency to callously disregard the wellbeing of the out-group. When Robin DiAngelo calls upon white people to be less white – by which she means less arrogant, ignorant and oppressive – this does not appeal to their empathy and create a sense of shared humanity. In fact, she rejects universalism explicitly. This causes mostly resentment from white people who are none of the above, and resulted in DiAngelo writing a whole book about how fragile white people are as the only possible explanation for them being unreceptive to her approach. Other appeals to identity which categorise certain groups as oppressors and others as oppressed have caused the same closing in and shutting down reaction. DiAngelo can call it ‘fragility’ but I would call it completely unnecessary alienation of whole sections of society from what should be a shared endeavour that is in the best interests of all of us – a society free of racism, sexism, homophobia and all other bigotries.
This is why I think the term ‘anti-white’ is seldom useful. It may certainly sometimes be valid to use the term to point out that the race being denigrated in this case is white in order to address the problem specifically. However, as a general rule it is better to refer to principles rather than identity because shared principles are something that bring us together, while shared identities can too often drive us apart.
A black person being abused because of her race can say “This is anti-black and that is wrong.” A white person being abused because of her race can say “This is anti-white and that is wrong.” They can both say “This is prejudice against an individual because of her skin colour and this is wrong.” In this last case, there is no element of identity politics – just consistently liberal principles.
We are seeing the rise of a new and largely reactive white identity politics and a new white victimhood narrative at the moment. White identity politics have always existed, of course. That’s what underlies the historical racism that has caused so much harm to non-white people. But we have made remarkable progress toward overcoming that old racism which just ignorantly assumed the superiority of white people. What we are seeing now is something new which is appearing in response to the identity politics and victim narratives of the Critical Social Justice movement. It is a defensive response to theories which make negative claims about white people such as that they are all racist, oppressive, arrogant, entitled, selfish, ignorant and more. This occurs alongside the development of concepts like ‘whiteness’ which is nebulous and indefinable, is explained in the Theory as a kind of ideology held by white people that upholds white supremacy but is often used in practice to mean existing while white which is inherently bad.
There are good grounds for seeing these ideas as racist and ‘anti-white’ and you are not fragile if you are a white person who feels wronged by being presented in this way when you are actually none of those things. You are feeling the sting of injustice and it is natural to feel defensive. However, it is essential that what you defend is consistent principles of opposing racial essentialism in all its forms and not evaluating people by their race. Do not defend being white – thisis an accident of birth and not something you should feel either proud or ashamed of, be credited for or blamed for. If you find yourself defending your white identity, you could be slipping into white identity politics which could separate you from everybody else who consistently opposes evaluating people by their race. This is a fatal error as a post-racial future is a vitally important goal that requires the combined efforts of all of us. Such a future is the only truly liberal outcome and it is impeded by anybody who behaves in ways that add salience to race itself rather than consistently opposing racism. I do not claim that people who use the term ‘anti-white’ are embracing white identity politics or asserting a white victimhood narrative. Most of them do not and are not. They are simply describing an incident specifically. However, I would advise strategically to avoid doing this.
Instead, rise above any efforts to demean you as a person whose skin happens to be white by consistently objecting to anybody being demeaned because of the colour of their skin. This keeps you in sync with liberal opponents of racism of all races, and they do come in all races. Three people who have come to Counterweight for help in defending white colleagues against language that is demeaning to white people have been black. Two of them said they did so because they have experienced racism, and they know what it feels like and they cannot stand by and allow people to be denigrated solely on the basis of their skin colour. These are genuine liberals whose opposition to racist generalisations is absolutely consistent. I have the greatest respect for them and so should you. Join them and all the other liberals of all races in working towards the post-racial future that will benefit us all.