The left needs to address the rise of identity politics
Last month, Bahar Mustafa, the welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths university, asked white men not to attend a meeting for ethnic minority women and 'non-binary' people. She also sent out a tweet with the hashtag #killallwhitemen.
Her actions kicked off a predictable cycle of online outrage. There is a perverse trend for dominant groups in modern Britain to portray themselves as victims, so they seized on her actions as proof that white men are actually some sort of highly-marginalised class. Petitions started circling demanding her sacking.
It probably is untenable for Mustafa to stay in her job. If you're a diversity officer and you tweet that a certain racial group should be killed you are unsuitable for the job either on a political basis or a presentational one. It's very unlikely she really wants to kill white men. It was a joke, but you can't hold down that position while being foolish enough to make it.
Nevertheless, a kick-back soon came from those defending Mustafa. And that's where things got murky. Many of the people jumping to her defence strongly backed her claim that she could not be racist or sexist, because she is an ethnic minority woman.
Here's her quote in full:
"I, as an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender.
"And therefore women of colour and non-binary genders cannot be racist or sexist as we do not stand to benefit from such a system."
A similar line of argument was pursued yesterday by the excellent Labour List journalist Maya Goodfellow. She does so with admirable clarity and patience, but the conclusions are depressing.
For all the good intentions of Mustafa's defenders, and for all the frankly questionable ones of many of her detractors, this is a terrible place for the left to find itself. How did it end up defending gender and racial segregation on a university campus? How did it end up defending someone who says ethnic minorities can't be racist?
— Victim Blaming (@EVB_Now) May 24, 2015
The answer to these questions lies in the way identity politics has developed over recent years. When Mustafa's defenders say 'racism' they do not mean what most people mean. Most people mean: 'negative thoughts towards another individual on the basis of their race'. That is the commonly accepted usage. But for many radicals – and particularly young radicals – racism is something different. It is structural. Black people, for instance, cannot be racist towards white people, because it flows against the structure of racism. This might be discrimination or prejudice, but it cannot be racism.
This sounds like a semantic point and to some extent it is. But the battle for the semantics is a political one, with political intentions and repercussions. Most on the left would agree that racism and sexism have structural underpinnings, not least because of the way capitalism favours those who start with capital. Because capital flows tend to disadvantage ethnic minorities, the entire system is weighed against them. So racism isn’t just the despicable thought of idiots, it's embedded in economics.
But whether we agree with this view or not – it is a political view. What they've done is inject that political argument into the word 'racism' so it cannot be used any other way. The left often confuses changing language for changing the world and this is a case in point. It attempts to semantically disenfranchise those who have a different view, in the same way that Orwell's Newspeak made certain thoughts impossible.
— Evening Standard (@standardnews) May 22, 2015
Except of course it doesn't work. The public look on in bafflement at those saying ethnic minorities can't be racist, or that someone writing 'kill all white men' isn't racist. These silly semantic games have merely made anti-racism campaigners incomprehensible to the public and ghastly hypocrites to their political opponents.
But the tactic is not just wrong on a level of political strategy. It is also wrong as a point of objective truth. We already have the phrase 'structural racism'. Injecting it into the word we use to designate 'negative thoughts towards another individual on the basis of their race' just deprives us of the opportunity to understand the world.
There is nothing in modern British politics as laughable as a men's rights activist, or one of those people who act as if white Christians are an oppressed minority. But let's be clear: many of those who have experienced racism will become racists themselves, just as those who are bullied will often turn into bullies. Often marginalised groups will be vitriolic towards any of their members who associate with the dominant group.
— The Rebel (@TheRebelTV) May 13, 2015
This often makes itself felt in mixed race relationships. White people going out with black or Asian partners will often be subject to disapproval from their partners' racial group, from hostile looks in public to outright aggression. Usually it's aimed at the partner, sometimes it is aimed at them. Let's call that what it is: racism.
Ethnic minority women will often have fathers who angrily tell them not to date anyone who is white. If they're Asian, they usually don't like them being black either. Let's call that what it is: racism. And we can't do anything about it unless we accept that it exists. It will not do to say 'it's prejudice, you can call it that'. It deserves to be called by the name it has earned for itself.
Let's call blocking white people from political meetings what it is too: racism.
On matters of race, campaigners are instituting a racial hierarchy of intellectual worth. It is based on the idea that only those with 'experience' can properly assess a political issue pertaining to it.
There is obviously a grain of truth of truth in that – all the most powerful falsehoods are based on a grain of truth. But what happens when we embed that fact into how we conduct political discourse? We are saying that the race of the person speaking is more important than the content of their words. We base our assessment of their intellectual and moral validity on their race. This is, quite plainly, 'negative thoughts towards another individual on the basis of their race'. It may be racism with a positive purpose. It may be a drop in the racist ocean compared to the horrors and abuses ethnic minorities go through every day. But that does not change what it is.
The colour of one's skin has been given primacy over the content of one's character.
Most depressingly of all, it is a rejection of the power of moral imagination. It turns its back on empathy as a political force. It does not perceive us as people fighting for the rights of others as well as ourselves. In fact, it is a highly capitalistic and right-wing vision of humanity, as self-interested units only capable of improving their own lot.
A recent article by Yomi Adegoke said:
"It appears that, in a world where the default is white and male, comprehending why something for once may not and should not concern you simply isn't possible."
The notion that racism does not concern white people and, most devastatingly of all, "should not" concern white people, is a real low point for the left. It gives up on the motivating human force which drives progressive thought. It is a rejection of the very concept of solidarity.
— Independent Voices (@IndyVoices) May 22, 2015
If the left has a single unifying belief it is that 'no man is an island'. We are in a society. We affect each other and we must help one another. The idea racism does not affect the people it benefits, and that they must be separated out from those they wish to help, is a betrayal of that central left-wing idea.
The Mustafa story should be a watershed moment. Not, as her critics want, because it shows how whites are some poor hard done-by minority in a politically correct Britain. But because some on the left need to look at the tactics they are defending and recognise they are betraying the values they wish to protect.