In the last edition of the Saturday Paper for 2018 there is an article by a self-styled ‘Person of Colour’ (POC) which explores the ideas of Robin DiAngelo, an American academic who specialises in ‘white studies’. A discipline which seems to be concerned with the awful things that white people do to the rest of humanity.
According to Dr DiAngelo, ‘Old white men’ and ‘progressives’, who are defined as ‘any white person who thinks he or she is not a racist’, are the ones who ‘cause the most daily damage to people of colour’. So there we have it. As you sit in your comfortable chair sipping a latte you are, apparently, perpetuating racial inequality and damaging people of colour. Dr DiAngelo is a prominent US academic whose latest book on this topic, White Fragility, has been on the New York Times best seller list for 22 weeks. Her ideas, as she would be first to admit, are formed by her investigation and experience of the racial history of the USA.
It is undeniable that the original inhabitants of America, and the Africans brought over as slaves were victims of social injustice which has persisted for most of the modern history of the United States. The Chinese who came to build the American railways and the Japanese who migrated to America were also subjected to various forms of racial prejudice. It is also undeniable that some POC still experience discrimination to this day.
The trouble with the sweeping generalisations such as those made by Dr DiAngelo is that they ignore the increasingly complex racial mix that exists in most Western societies today. The author of the Saturday Paper article which so successfully got up my nose describes herself as a Person of Colour and is clearly a big fan of the work of Dr DiAngelo. She’s also the editor of Liminal, an online magazine ‘for the interrogation and exploration of Asian-Australian Identity’
She is also, if her name and online photo are anything to go by, what I would respectfully describe as a part person of colour (PPOC?) who, in the style popular with many Australians who boast a mixed Aboriginal/European or Anglo heritage, appears to prefer – on this occasion at least – not to give too much weight to the ‘white’ component of their own ethnicity.
Australia’s history of race relations is remarkably similar to that of the US. The indigenous populations of both countries were ruthlessly pushed aside by the whites as they took possession of vast amounts of land which was used for commercial agriculture and mineral exploration. Both countries passed legislation to keep out Asians (The Chinese Exclusion Act 1882 in America and the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 in Australia) and both countries were largely blind to the widespread racial injustice that existed until well into the middle of the last century. Both countries still have a long way to go, as incarceration rates of their respective black populations show.
But the idea that white people in the US and Australia are unwittingly supporting a position of white supremacy and perpetuation of racial inequality is more than a gross oversimplification of the complex reality that exists today; it is in fact nonsense.
Throughout Western universities in the 1950s and 60s a debate took place about the nature of social class. Classical Marxist theory held that the working class were inevitably exploited by the bourgeoisie. With globalisation it became increasingly difficult to say who was exploiting who, as the working class in First World countries all benefited from, and participated in, the exploitation of agricultural production workers in plantations in Third World countries.
At the same time, the rise of feminism created another level of complexity in the debate about who were the oppressed and who were the oppressors. If all white women contribute to a system of oppression of POC and all men contribute to a system of oppression of all women does this mean that white women are both the oppressed and the oppressors? And are POC/black males, who were suffering under the relentless pressure from white women simultaneously oppressing them as mere females?
The latest ingredients in the oppression stew are the numerous variants on the binary gender and sexual identity systems that had existed for several millennia before the LGBTQI crowd came roaring out of their closets. If we accept that black lesbians are oppressed by straight people does that mean that their black straight brothers and sisters are part of the forces of oppression?
For the first half of the 20th century, throughout the Western world, a significant proportion of the left-wing intelligentsia firmly believed in the inevitable triumph of socialism. The only serious question to be determined was whether the Marxist paradise in Soviet Russia was better than the Maoist Utopia in China. Both systems were seen as better than capitalism which perpetuated social inequalities and exploited the working class. Instead of genuine intellectual or spiritual debate, catchphrases such as ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ were the rhetorical devices fed to the masses.
By the 1960s it became increasingly obvious that the only thing inevitable about socialist economic systems was their economic collapse. The Chinese Cultural Revolution is possibly the last burst of enthusiasm for a socialist revolution. By the time that the tanks rolled over students in Tiananmen Square, Marxists throughout the Western world could no longer seriously argue that the Soviet and Chinese political systems had anything to offer democracies.
But the Left, despite the overwhelming evidence to be found in the history of the 20th century, still cannot rid itself of the idea that some sort of egalitarian utopia is just around the corner and will shortly replace the perpetual inequality of capitalism. Dr DiAngelo seriously argues that white people in general and, in particular, old white men such as myself, are the primary cause of all that is bad in our society.
In this she is part of the intellectual tradition which goes back to the 1940s in Britain when the Cambridge Marxists such as Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, despite their privileged backgrounds, saw nothing but corruption in their own culture. Left-wing academics may no longer see Marxism as the bee’s knees of political and economic systems but they have lost none of their contempt for Western society.
Tony Letford won the 2015 Spectator Thawley Essay Prize