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Book Review: "Woke Racism"
by John McWhorter
The meaning of the term “Woke” has been so radically destabilized over the past few years that sensible people should generally pause before invoking it at all. The word originated years ago in the grassroots anti-police violence movement as a way to describe someone who was simply aware of politics and history. Later, it migrated to the world of academia and NGOs, where it became a catch-all term to describe progressive politics, including on issues of gender and sexuality. The word later earned itself a suffix (“Wokeism”) as some claimed to see it evolving into a full-blown ideological successor to liberalism built upon the elevation of identity politics above classical liberal and materialist-leftist concerns. Woke has now reached its final form as a derogatory term used by conservatives to decry what they see as racial or sexual radicalism on the part of liberals, or sometimes just affirmative action. This incredible linguistic voyage reached its apotheosis when wokeism was decried in a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin last year as a globe-spanning imperialist ideology intent on colonizing the world. Today it is being cited by Big Tech oligarchs as the precipitating cause of a coming nuclear holocaust that they refer to as “Woke War III.” What a journey!
John McWhorter is a conservative-ish, Black American columnist at the New York Times. As you can probably tell from the provocative title of his book, he is not a fan of the current drift of liberalism when it comes to race and identity. His major thesis is that identity politics has become a means of self-actualization for America’s white liberal elite, veering into the realm of spirituality and religion. Although it’s theoretically intended for their benefit, minorities, who must play the role of perpetual victims in this system, actually suffer from a degraded status as a result. Judging by the title I expected this book to be bitter or paranoid in tone, but to my surprise McWhorter is actually a funny writer. He is indignant about what he sees as progressive condescension towards Black people. But he also takes the time to point out a few material (you could even say, “secular”) responses to racial disparity that he thinks would genuinely be helpful: ending the drug war, changing the manner in which reading is taught in schools to emphasize phonetics, and funding more high-quality vocational colleges. The argument is a little pat and I’m sure there are objections to be raised. But it’s not unreasonable.
For the record, I like liberals. I would even go as far as to say that, whatever their faults, Anglophone liberals are some of the least racist and most open-minded people in the world. That said, racism can sometimes be produced not through malice but through a simple insistence on reading race into every situation. I’m not going to regurgitate any familiar cringe stories about “muh teacher who didn’t believe in me.” I think everyone is bored of those by now, including me. That said I’ve had numerous experiences where I’ve noticed people assuming I was some kind of dimwit because of ingrained preconceptions about my race or culture, and then being visibly surprised to find evidence to the contrary. There is a resilient assumption out there that non-white people are less intelligent or capable. Oftentimes, however, the response to that is expressed not with hatred but friendly condescension. It’s unfortunate. Personally speaking, I would find it less offensive to have racial slurs yelled at me than to be indulgently patronized as some kind of benighted noble savage, which is not how I see myself.
“Why Can’t We Be Friends, Why Can’t We Be Friends…”
There is no way that people can be friends across different races unless they judge each other on equal terms as individuals, rather than doing political calculations about how each others race should factor into how they interact. As a brown person, for example, you literally cannot be friends with a white person if there is some sort of racial filter through which all your interactions are viewed: positive or negative. I’ve known a few people who have done this by constantly indicating in conversation how cognizant they were of their race and mine. I have no idea where they learned to act this way, but suffice to say it’s extremely weird. It’s true that we don’t all come from the same place, or in some cases, have the same advantages, but I can’t see any alternative to just treating people as people first and foremost. It’s the only way we are are going to have a functional society where we can cooperate for a greater purpose. Because of my upbringing, most of the intimate people in my life happen to be minorities. But my best white friends, across many ages and classes, are the ones where we have had mutual respect for one another and race has been basically irrelevant.
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The reality is that people all have the same capabilities regardless of racial background and should just be judged on their moral and intellectual merit as individuals. Racial hierarchies and pseudosciences like IQ determinism really are nonsense. It’s not some kind of noble lie to assert that, it’s just the truth as I’ve observed. People succeed or fail based on a mixture of circumstance, character, and fortune. We should help everyone as much as possible on the “circumstance” part by striving to provide equal opportunity to as many as possible, and recognizing talent wherever it comes from. No one is lesser or more because of their race, and the people continuing to do racecraft by reducing everything to this one variable are making less and less sense these days.
A Little Contrarianism..
If you, like McWhorter, live in a coastal liberal metropolis and are relatively well-off its probably true that overt racism is not a major concern, and its the “other” racism that bothers you more. This is also why I suspect that a lot of the most radicalized anti-woke types come from places like San Francisco and New York where liberalism is utterly hegemonic and sometimes you almost wish someone would call you a slur just so you can feel something again. Big liberal cities are not the only places in the world, however, and the way you feel about this subject could be quite different if you live somewhere where universalist attitudes are in short supply and people are more tribal.
There are indeed a lot of other places in America and beyond where old-fashioned xenophobia is still quite pronounced and people could probably do with being slightly more “woke.” I don’t think anyone who lives most of their life in cosmopolitan urban areas, where they may not even be a minority, can make a blanket statement that racism isn’t a problem anywhere and that the real issue is fighting radical liberal excess. It’s a complex subject and very contextual. We have to listen to one another and not universalize our own personal experiences to the world at large. I experienced a lot of racism when I was younger, a lot of it from other minorities, to be honest, but now that I’m an adult I get less of that and more of the subtle kind. But who knows what some other peoples lives may be like? We should have humility in talking about sweeping issues that inevitably impact everyone in different ways.
That said, I do agree with McWhorter that Americans need to get used to treating each other once again as people with a shared destiny rather than representatives of separate tribes, while putting together public policies that address the brutal class chasm that affects members of all races to some degree. That chasm is the source of our most serious discontents, though we have forgotten how to express it. It may unfashionable at the moment, but I hope one day to see a truly anti-racist world where the subject of race itself is deemed to have been transcended in the eyes of future generations. Perhaps that is naive and idealistic. But it won’t be the first superstition that humans have outgrown.