I’ve previously praised Dear White People but now I want to address the contentious issue of Critical Race Theory which seems to underlie the film and series. The present inspiration is twofold: bitter words about bodily words with a friend for whom I have deep affection, and the 2020 Equality & Diversity lecture by Prof. Kendall Thomas for the Oxford University Faculty of Law.
The past and continuing inspiration is, as usual with me and ethical controversy, the late Dr Robert M. Pirsig, about whose work I wrote my doctoral thesis. CRT has become a huge ideological issue in the USA and, of course, the opposing positions tend to follow party political lines. What’s interesting for me is that, listening to opposing speakers, both sets seem utterly convinced of being right and (apart from some glaring misrepresentation of socio-political reality) both can be quite convincing. Having now alienated most readers, let me explain why.
Firstly, arguments that are intractable are often so because:
1) people are arguing about different things
2) people are arguing about the same thing but in different contexts
An example of 1) is abortion. The main reason why this is intractable is that each side of the argument is consistent with an opposing view on pregnancy: baby or blood clot, basically. A huge step forward is therefore to say: “I don’t agree with your understanding of biological reality but I can see how your stance seems reasonable to you, with that understanding”.
An example of both 1) and 2) is transgender. Because not only is one person thinking about a post-op (top & bottom) m-f transsexual and the other a male serial rapist and occasional crossdresser but the one is imagining the first popping on a blouse in M&S and the other imagining the second naked, erect and threatening in a women’s locker room, shelter or prison.
Both confounders can come into play in any argument over race. “White people” can variously refer to the young metrosexual hipster whose only experience of an all-White space is his immediate family when no visitors are round, or to Mrs Old Money who keeps a gun handy and can’t decide which ethnic group upsets her the most when they come treading the White sands of her favourite New Englander island. Similarly, “Black people” can refer to anyone from President to a prisoner on Death Row.
But, thinking about both my new inspirations for writing, together, I realised that it’s 2) that’s the real problem – and I have to turn to Pirsig to explain why. (His explanation involves metaphysics or the nature of nature but you can just think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, if you prefer.)
Pirsig says that there isn’t just one level of ethical conflict, there are are 4. Only 2 concern us here. These are:
B) Social vs Intellectual morality
A) Biological vs Social morality
I’ve written them as A) under B) because it is. These three levels of wellbeing/ reality (Pirsig calls them “static quality”) form a hierarchy like this:
So you can see that the two zones of overlap (with potential for harmony and clash) are also one above the other, with the lower both supporting and undermining the upper. The important point is that each upper level is moral, from its own perspective, but is transcended by the one above.
– perhaps the reason why White Republicans (and their Black allies) quoting Rev Dr MLK arguing for a colourblind America seem racist to Black Democrats (and their White allies) is that they appear to take no account of the lived reality of especially young Black men being harassed, to despair or death, by the police and other institutional forces.
– perhaps the reason why Black Democrats (and their White allies) quoting Rev Dr MLK arguing for a just America seem racist to White Republicans (and their Black allies) is that they appear to take no account of the fond wishes of especially wealthy old White people that everyone should just get along in the Home of the Brave and God Bless America!
I’m not being fair, I know. Putting it more philosophically, one ethical clash is all about rejecting biological values in favour of social values. If this is the struggle Black people see themselves as involved in then it’s about the control and appropriation of Black bodies by White people and the effort for them not to be seen and valued solely as bodies but as social personalities supporting justice.
The other, transcending but being undermined by that, is all about rejecting social values in favour of intellectual values. If this is the struggle White people see themselves as involved in then it’s about the control and appropriation of social groups by ideology and the effort for them not to be seen and valued solely as demographics but as intellectual beings supporting equality.
Now. Caveat! All of us are engaged in all of these clashes all of the time, directly or indirectly, consciously or not. If White people tend to be more concerned about control of their minds than their bodies it’s because they don’t experience the latter as intensely as Black people do. Even in something as basic as Stop and Search. I’m White and middle aged. This has never happened to me. For some young Black men, it’s a daily occurrence.
In this hierarchy of needs (which it also is) we tend to focus on our greatest need and when that is fulfilled we transcend it. So if Black people just want to be able to walk to the shops and back without being shot or arrested, it makes sense that they’ll tend to focus on institutional racism and defunding the police. Conversely, if White people just want to walk to the shops and back without finding it boarded up and the streets full of rioters, it makes sense that they’ll tend to focus on national unity and the rule of law.
So one side is also focussing on the way things should be, but they’re not, while the other focuses on the way things are, but shouldn’t be.
The answer is for both sides to stop automatically assuming that the other is racist/ reactionary/ Marxist revolutionaries and to attempt to acknowledge the coherence of their worldview with their lived experience.
Meanwhile, everyone would perhaps benefit from taking the trouble to educate themselves about the content of CRT (including those opposing and promoting it) and to realise that it is possible that answering YES or NO to the question “Is America racist?” could indicate a desire that:
little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.MLK