Life on Twitter Part 3

Instead of using the comments section on my post where I defend myself against charges of racism, Rob Sheppard did another thread of tweets. I replied to some of the tweets and ended up by thanking Sheppard for his engagement in the discussion. I want to repeat those thanks here. I’m grateful to him for his contributions.

James Burn, in his article The Kitsch of “Wokeness” gives the Cambridge Dictionary definition of wokeness: “the state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.” As Burn says, this definition implies that the woke person has correctly identified what form racism takes. In his thread of tweets replying to my post, Rob Sheppard identifies racism in a way that makes it difficult for any white person to defend themselves against accusations of being a racist. He says:

  1. You are still failing to address possibly the most fundamental insight of the anti-racist movement, one that is central to understanding Gerald’s work.
  2. You say “I do not participate in racism.” This is where you seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding Gerald’s work. You work in English language teaching. So do I. By virtue of that fact, we participate in racist systems. So, yes, we absolutely do participate in racism.
  3. Racism is baked into systems. Government, healthcare, criminal justice, policing, education, and certainly ELT. Saying you don’t participate in racism is like a fish saying they don’t participate in water. You move and act in a racist world and so you inevitably participate.
  4. This is why your emphasis on your own not being “a racist” at an individual level is pointless. I mean good, don’t be a bigot, obviously. But that’s not sufficient. But this is where systemic racism comes in. You can remove all the bigots, and the system is still racist.
  5. This is true of nearly all fields, but particularly true in our field, which is fundamentally grounded in colonialism. That the systems themselves are racist independent of the racism of individual bigots is what makes the active “anti-“ in anti-racism necessary. Just like being neutral in situations of oppression favors the oppressor, being merely “not a racist” within a racist system favors an inequitable status quo.
  6. There are power dynamics at play that now intersect with your individual behavior, regardless of your motivation. This is why you can be (and are) perpetuating racism regardless of your receipts from 40 years ago.
  7. But now you are an established white academic tearing down the work of a young Black academic. I do not think that this is motivated by individual bigotry on your part. But that’s beside the point.
  8. This is why your emphasis on your own not being “a racist” at an individual level is pointless. I mean good, don’t be a bigot, obviously. But that’s not sufficient. But this is where systemic racism comes in. You can remove all the bigots, and the system is still racist.

Discussion

1,2, 3 and 4 say: We all participate in racism. (Ergo; I participate in racism.)

5 says: We must be active in fighting racism. (I have always been active in fighting racism – I dare to say that I’ve done so more than he has, and contributed more than he has to that fight.)  

 6. says: I am perpetuating racism because of power dynamics at play that now intersect with my individual behavior, regardless of my motivation. (Decipher that for yourselves,)

7 and 8 say: Although my motivation is not individual bigotry, my attempts to show that I’m not a racist are beside the point because of the existence of systemic racism.

Given that my only concern has been to defend myself against personal accusations of racism, I hope that the weaknesses in Sheppard’s argument speak for themselves. What is troubling is the wokeness of the argument, summed up by this bit:

“Saying you don’t participate in racism is like a fish saying they don’t participate in water. You move and act in a racist world and so you inevitably participate.”

My attempts to defend myself against personal accusations of racism are doomed to fail if this sort of reply is given credence. In Sheppard’s world, the world of wokeness, the persistent, endemic racism that pervades our world makes any attack on the work of black scholars a minefield. If the person treading through this minefield is bad old me, known for making “weird” personal attacks on people, and if the victim of my criticism this time is “a young black scholar”, then I’m almost bound to tread on a mine. And when I do, it’s only right and proper that the full wrath of wokeness should descend on me. “He’s a racist!” chant the woke people – and Sheppard’s there, true to his family’s heritage perhaps, guiding the sheep towards a slightly more nuanced understanding of why they take so much delight in cheering from the sidelines as another offender’s character gets dragged through the social media slime.

Whatever my criticisms of Sheppard’s arguments, I respect him, and his attempts to fight racism. I have nothing but contempt, however, for those on Twitter who get so much perverse enjoyment (“I can’t sleep” for fuck’s sake) from making wokeness an artless, vicarious form of kitsch. Burn, cited above, quotes Kundera: “In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” He adds “Crucially, indulgence in kitsch brings with it the feeling that one is part of something greater—joining with others in being moved to happiness, sorrow or anger”.

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