White skin, black squares
by Sam Kriss
Can you get rid of racism just by protesting against it?
Yes. Yes you can, absolutely, yes.
We know exactly how to reduce racist sentiment in people. It’s actually very simple. You don’t need any seminars, or handbooks, or reading lists, or even all that much introspection. There really is just one weird trick, and it’s this: racial animus goes down when people from different backgrounds stand together, work together, and fight together, on an equal footing, in their shared interest, and for a common goal. Once this happens, it becomes impossible to see the other person as only an instantiation of their race, something abstract and empty of determinate content. Once the practice of solidarity is established, it’s much harder for dehumanising ideas to take root. Obviously the process is uneven, and sometimes it only goes part way; you should never underestimate our capacity for hypocrisy. But it works.
This is why I’m quite hopeful about the ongoing protest movement in response to the police murder of George Floyd. Despite all the usual dangers of hope; despite the attempts at corporate hijack, despite the horizontalism, despite the grifters. From what I can see – and with the caveat that I’m not in America, and I can’t see everything – the protests seem to be strikingly racially desegregated. A lot of people from very different backgrounds have been brought together by their shared revulsion. They saw the state snuff out a man’s life, suffocate him to death on the concrete, laughing, sadistic – and said enough. Black lives matter, no more deaths. Without knowing exactly what to do or how to end this, they met each other in the streets. I can’t say what the long-term political impact will be, but this is how new collective subjects are formed.
So what am I supposed to make of something like this?
This is the time for white people and non-black POC to look at themselves in the mirror, take a hard look, and realise that you are not George Floyd in this story. In this story, and in all the different versions of this story, you are the pig that killed him. You cannot ever put yourself in a black person’s shoes.
There’s no nice way to say this: a certain subset of (mostly) white people have lost their minds online. These people wake up to a vast insurrection crossing all racial and national boundaries – and contrive to make this all about themselves. Their affects, their unconsciouses, their moral worthiness. How can I be Not Complicit? How can I be a Better Ally? How do I stop benefiting from white supremacy in my daily life? How do I rid myself of all the bad affects and attitudes? Can I purify my soul in the smelter of a burning police precinct? Occasional ratissages out into mainstream culture (we’re decolonising the Bon Appétit test kitchen!), but mostly what this uprising calls for is an extended bout of navel-gazing. Really get in there, get deep in that clammy lint-filled hole, push one finger into the wound of your separation from the primordial world, and never stop wriggling. Maybe there’s a switch, buried just below the knot, and if you trip it your body will open up like a David Cronenberg nightmare to reveal all its greasy secrets to your eyes. Interrogate yourself! Always yourself, swim deep in the filth of yourself. The world is on fire – but are my hands clean? People are dying – but how can I scrub this ghastly whiteness off my skin?
You could set aside the psychosexual madness of this stuff, maybe, if it actually worked. It does not work. It achieves nothing and helps nobody. Karen and Barbara Fields: ‘Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes. Racism is first and foremost a social practice.’ Social practices must be confronted on the level of the social. But for people who don’t want to change anything on the level of the social, there’s the Implicit Associations Test. This is the great technological triumph of what passes for anti-racist ideology: sit in front of your computer for a few minutes, click on some buttons, and you can get a number value on exactly how racist you are. Educators and politicians love this thing. Wheel it into offices. Listen up, guys, your boss just wants to take a quick peek into your unconscious mind, just to see how racist you are. How could anyone object to something like that?
Only one problem. Carlsson & Agerström, 2016: there is ‘little evidence that the IAT can meaningfully predict discrimination.’ Turns out that the inner content of your heart has no real bearing on the actual racial inequalities faced by actual non-white people in the actual world. (If you come across someone who very badly wants not to believe this, run. They don’t care about improving the world. They just want to take a scalpel to someone’s brain, maybe yours.) And there’s more. Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015: ‘In a competitive task, individuals who received a high prevalence of stereotyping message [ie, messaging about the evils of racial stereotypes] treated their opponents in more stereotype-consistent ways.’ All your Important Work, your self-reflection, your enforced racial neurosis – it’s making people more racist. Whoops! Classic slapstick. Unless, of course… unless that was always the point.
See, for instance, the form letters: How To Talk To Your Black Friends Right Now. Because I refuse to be told I can’t ever empathise with a black person, I try to imagine what it would be like to receive one of these. Say there’s been a synagogue shooting, or a bunch of swastikas spraypainted in Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Say someone set off a bomb inside Panzer’s in St John’s Wood – and then one of my goy friends sends me something like this:
Hey Sam – I can never understand how you feel right now, but I’m committed to doing the work both personally and in my community to make this world safer for you and for Jewish people everywhere. From the Babylonian Captivity to the Holocaust to today, my people have done reprehensible things to yours – and while my privilege will never let me share your experience, I want you to know that you’re supported right now. I see you. I hear you. I stand with the Jewish community, because you matter. Please give me your PayPal so I can buy you a bagel or some schamltz herring, or some of those little twisty pastries you people like.
How would I respond? I think I would never want to see or hear from this person again. If I saw them in the street, I would spit in their face, covid be damned. I would curse their descendants with an ancient cackling Yiddish curse. These days, I try to choose my actual friends wisely. Most of them tend to engage me with a constant low level of jocular antisemitic micoaggressions, because these things are funny and not particularly serious. But if one of my friends genuinely couldn’t see me past the Jew, and couldn’t see our friendship past the Jewish Question, I would be mortified. Of course, it’s possible that the comparison doesn’t hold. Maybe there are millions of black people I don’t know who love being essentialised and condescended to, who are thrilled by the thought of being nothing more than a shuddering expendable rack for holding up their own skin. But I doubt it. Unless you want me to believe that black people inherently have less dignity than I do, this is an insult.
(An anecdote from Frantz Fanon. ‘It was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: “Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.” And I found that he was universally right – by which I meant that I was answerable in my body and my heart for what was done to my brother. Later I realised that he meant, quite simply, an anti-Semite is invariably anti-Negro.’)
If you want to find the real secret of this stuff, look for the rules, the dos and don’ts, the Guides To Being A Better Ally that blob up everywhere like mushrooms on a rotting bough. You’ve seen them. And you’ve noticed, even if you don’t want to admit it, that these things are always contradictory:
DO the important work of interrogating your own biases and prejudices. DON’T obsess over your white guilt – this isn’t about you! DO use your white privilege as a shield by standing between black folx and the police. DON’T stand at the front of marches – it’s time for you to take a back seat. DO speak out against racism – never expect activists of colour to always perform the emotional labour. DON’T crowd the conversation with your voice – shut up, stay in your lane, and stick to signal boosting melanated voices. DO educate your white community by providing an example of white allyship. DON’T post selfies from a protest – our struggle isn’t a photo-op for riot tourists.
Žižek points out that the language of proverbial wisdom has no content. ‘If one says, “Forget about the afterlife, about the Elsewhere, seize the day, enjoy life fully here and now, it’s the only life you’ve got!” it sounds deep. If one says exactly the opposite (“Do not get trapped in the illusory and vain pleasures of earthly life; money, power, and passions are all destined to vanish into thin air – think about eternity!”), it also sounds deep.’ The same goes here. Whatever you say, it can still sound woke. Why?
Some right-wing critics have argued that the reason for all this contradiction is that the people making these demands want to boss their white allies around, but don’t know what they actually want from them. (Malcolm X with his cold hard stare, and a word: Nothing.) It’s a form of lashing out, a way to extract obedience for its own sake. If you think this, you don’t understand a thing. You have a layer of toilet bleach surrounding your brain. Look closer. What you’re reading is a menu. Good evening sir, ma’am – what would you like to be forbidden today? If you like, I could tell you not to empathise with black people. Or would sir prefer to be cautioned against leading chants at a rally? We have a specials list of phrases that aren’t for you this week…
This stuff is masochism, pleasure-seeking, full of erotic charge – and as Freud saw, the masochist’s desire is always primary and prior; it’s always the submissive partner who’s in charge of any relationship. Masochism is a technology of power. Setting the limits, defining the punishments they’d like to receive, dehumanising and instrumentalising the sadistic partner throughout. The sadist works to humiliate and degrade their partner, to make them feel something – everything for the other! And meanwhile, the masochist luxuriates in their own degradation – everything for myself! You’re just the robotic hand that hits me. When non-white people get involved in these discourses, they’re always at the mercy of their white audiences, the ones for whom they perform, the ones they titillate and entertain. A system for subjecting liberation movements to the fickle desires of the white bourgeoisie. Call it what it is. This is white supremacy; these scolding lists are white supremacist screeds.
But systems of white supremacy have never been in the interests of most whites (‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded’), and they have never really fostered any solidarity between whites. Look at the stories. I had a run-in with the police, you announce, and a black person might have died, but I’m fine, because I’m white. No – you’re fine because you’re white and rich. You’re fine because you look like someone who reviews cartoons for a dying online publication called The Daily Muffin, which is exactly what you are. Bald and covered in cat hair. Frameless glasses cutting a red wedge into the bridge of your nose. The white people who get gunned down by police don’t look like you. Their class position is stamped visibly on their face, and so is yours. And you’ve trained yourself to see any suffering they experience as nothing more than ugly Trump voters getting what they deserve.
Why aren’t there protests when a white person is murdered by police? Answer 1: because, as John Berger points out, ‘demonstrations are essentially urban in character.’ Native Americans are killed by cops at an even higher rate than black people, but this too tends to happen very far away from the cities and the cameras; it becomes invisible. Answer 2: because nobody cares about them. Not the right wing, who only pretend to care as a discursive gotcha when there’s a BLM protest. And definitely not you. Sectors of the white intelligentsia have spent the last decade trying to train you out of fellow-feeling. Cooley et al., 2019: learning about white privilege has no positive effect on empathy towards black people, but it is ‘associated with greater punishment/blame and fewer external attributions for a poor white person’s plight.’ A machine for turning nice socially-conscious liberals into callous free-market conservatives.
The rhetoric of privilege is a weapon, but it’s not pointed at actually (ie, financially) privileged white people. We get off lightly. All we have to do is reflect on our privilege, chase our dreamy reflections through an endlessly mirrored habitus – and that was already our favourite game. You might as well decide that the only cure for white privilege is ice cream. Working-class whites get no such luxuries. But as always, the real brunt falls on non-white people. What happens when you present inequality in terms of privileges bestowed on white people, rather than rights and dignity denied to non-white people? The situation of the oppressed becomes a natural base-state. You end up thinking some very strange things. A few years ago, I was once told that I could only think that the film Black Panther isn’t very good because of my white privilege. Apparently, black people are incapable of aesthetic discernment or critical thought. (Do I need to mention that the person who told me this was white as sin?) This framing is as racist as anything in Carlyle. It could only have been invented by a rich white person.
Give them their due; rich white people are great at inventing terrible new concepts. Look at what’s happening right now: they’re telling each other to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. You should never tell people to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo – but we live in an evil world, and it’s stormed to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list. You maniacs, you psychopaths, look what you’ve done. I’m not saying people shouldn’t read the book – I read it, and I don’t get any special dispensations – but you should read it like Dianetics, like the doctrine of a strange and stupid cult.
Robin DiAngelo is a white person, an academic, an anti-racism educator, an agent of the CIA or Hell or both, and the author of a very bad book. It’s at the vanguard of one of the worst tendencies in contemporary politics, that of particularising the human condition. Freud showed us that the ego is just a scar or a callus on the surface of the id, a part that had to crack and harden on contact with a cruel and unpleasant world. We are all brittle. We are all fragile. We all try to protect ourselves with shabby costumes, and we all get upset when someone tries to triumphantly snatch them away. But some people like to pretend that this condition is specific. It’s ‘being a snowflake.’ It’s ‘white fragility.’
The book is a thrill-ride along a well-paved highway – ‘powerful institutions are controlled by white people;’ true, accurate, well-observed – that quickly takes a dive off the nearest cliff – ‘therefore white people as a whole are in control of powerful institutions.’ Speak for yourself, lady! All a are b, DiAngelo brightly informs us, therefore all b must also be a. She doesn’t advocate for her understanding of the world, she simply assumes it. So it’s not a surprise that the real takeaway from White Fragility is that Robin DiAngelo is not very good at her job. See this passage:
I recently gave a talk to a group of about two hundred employees. Over and over, I emphasised the importance of white people having racial humility and of not exempting ourselves from the unavoidable dynamics of racism. As soon as I was done speaking, a line of white people formed – ostensibly to ask me questions – but more typically to reiterate the same opinions on race they held when they entered the room.
Well, it didn’t work, then, did it?
Imagine a devoted cultist of Tengrism, who sometimes gets invited by company bosses to harangue the workforce on how the universe is created by a pure snow-white goose flying over an endless ocean, and how if you don’t make the appropriate ritual honks to this cosmic goose you’re failing in your moral duty. But every time she gives this spiel, she always gets the same questions. Exactly how big is this goose? Surely the goose must have to land sometimes? Geese hatch in litters – what happened to the other goslings? Something must be wrong with these people. Why don’t they just accept the doctrine? Why do they hate the goose? We need a name for their sickness. Call it Goose Reluctance, and next time someone doesn’t jump to attention whenever you speak, you’ll know why. Of course, the comparison is unfair; ideas about eternal geese are beautiful, and DiAngelo’s are not. But the structure is the same. Could it be that Robin DiAngelo is a poor communicator selling a heap of worthless abstractions? No, it’s the workers who are wrong.
(By the way, how did you feel about that phrase, racial humility? I didn’t like it, but her book is full of similar formulations – she also wants us to ‘build our racial stamina’ and ‘attain racial knowledge.’ Now, maybe I’m an oversensitive kike, but I can’t encounter phrases like these and not hear others in the background. Racial spirit. Racial consciousness. Racial hygiene. And somewhere, not close but coming closer, the sound of goosestepping feet.)
I didn’t seek out any of the material I talk about here. It came to me. And it’s making me feel insane. The only social media I use these days is Instagram – because if I’m going to be hand-shaping orecchiette all night, and serving it with salsiccia, rapini, and my own home-pickled fennel, it’s not for my own pleasure, and I demand to receive a decent 12 to 15 likes for my efforts. (I will not be accepting your follow request.) A week ago, on the 2nd of June, my feed was suddenly swarming with white people posting blank black squares. People I’d never known to be remotely political, people whose introduction to politics was clearly coming through the deranged machine of social media. Apparently, that was ‘Blackout Tuesday.’ I don’t know whose clever idea this was, and I don’t want to know, but it came with a threat. If all your friends are posting the square, and you’re not, does it mean you simply don’t care enough about black lives? Around the same time, I was helpfully made aware of a viral Instagram album titled Why The Refusal To Post Online Is Often Inherently Racist. I honestly can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to live like this – always on edge, always trying to be Good, always trying to have your Goodness recognised by other people, in a game where the scores are tracked by what you post on the internet, and the rules are always changing.
The real kicker was what happened next. Under just about every black square, some self-appointed prefect had commented, warning people not to tag the things with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Activists use the hashtag to post important information, and the black boxes risked swamping it, flooding the whole thing with silence. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. After all, the #blacklivesmatter tag is – like all the rest of them – indifferently and algorithmically curated by Facebook’s proprietary software. The ethico-political demand, then, is to avoid disrupting the algorithm at all costs.
Why am I complaining about this? The police are brutalising demonstrators on the street, multiple protesters have already died, Trump wants to deploy the army, something truly horrible might be lurking in our near future – so why spend nearly 4000 words talking about stupid ideas on the internet? Because I want the movement to win, and this is poison. It has killed movements before. It kills everything it can touch.
At the end of Black Skin, White Masks, in his closing burst of glorious autopoietic Nietzscheana, Fanon gives his sole demand: ‘That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever.’ It’s a hope I share, and one that I think the actual movement could one day help realise. But not if it surrenders to the forms and codes of social media, because social media is a tool that possesses the man. Like the owner of property, but also like a possessing devil. It takes over your mouth and your hands, and it whispers right into your brain. It tells you that the people around you are enemies, that you might be an enemy; it sends you spiralling into the claustrophobia of yourself. I can hope that this explosion of madness online is a final efflorescence, the monster making one last screech for attention. Something genuinely inspiring is happening, and maybe all the parasitic brands and networked neurotics will be left in the dust. But maybe, if we’re not careful, and if we can’t look away from our phones, a dumb comment from someone a thousand miles away will drown out the solidarity of the person next to you, and the moment will be lost.