Support Black Lives. Reject Racial Essentialism

Balanced Perspectives

I support Black Lives Matter as a movement that is drawing much needed attention to specific structural disadvantages faced by Black Americans and other People of Color in the United States.

But, I do not support some of the ideas and philosophical positions that are becoming popular in some of the other movements that are adjacent to Black Lives Matter.

One of the most popular philosophical positions that I reject is *racial essentialism* -the idea that individuals of any race share a single, over-arching character trait that is said to belong to their group. Throughout history, we have seen how racial essentialism has offered justification for slavery, war, and genocide. But, it can also cause a more subtle outcome in more advanced civilizations… It can create an ever-present cloud of suspicion and a smoldering, slow-burning resentment between groups, undermining the collaboration, mutual trust and sharing of networks and skills that is necessary for a society to function in the most optimal way.

Here are two of the most popular racially essentialist ideas that have been advanced in recent years:

1. The idea that White people are permanent oppressors 
2. The idea that People of Color are permanent victims.

These and similar ideas come from a specific set of beliefs found in an ideological framework called Critical Race Theory, and although this framework has been embraced by academics and has the appearance of moral authority and scientific respectability, some of its central ideas has neither of those things. When we consider the deeper dimensions of CRT’s chief beliefs and the implications of a society that has embraced those beliefs, we can even say that some of these ideas can contribute to a perpetual and unnecessary spiritual war within our ourselves and between entire demographic groups for generations to come.

Here’s a brief simple history of the development of some of these ideas.

In the 1970’s anti-oppression manuals were passed out to workshop facilitators who were just beginning to hold anti-racist workshops that were based on Critical Race Theory’s beliefs about human nature and power and conflict, including the belief that all social, economic, political, and interpersonal relationships are governed by the pursuit of power and domination. With this ideologically-derived belief in mind, these manuals gave the facilitators instructions to intentionally inflict feelings of guilt and shame in the White workshop participants so that they could be freed from their junkyard dog grip on the idea that they were the cultural default and that Black and Brown people were just satellites forced to circle around the margins of a supposedly White world.

Over time, the central theme of these workshops (and the framework of Critical Race Theory itself) began to morph from the deep explorations into patterns of cultural domination and marginalization into advancing the twisted idea that all groups have permanent, unchangeable positive or negative traits. In short, these workshops and the published literature began to teach that all White people are racist oppressors and that all People of Color are permanent, innocent victims.

It’s important to understand that most people we see out on the streets protesting and most advocates who work on behalf of people of color, social justice and civil rights do not hold these extreme beliefs. But, we also have to be aware that these beliefs are becoming more popular in certain areas of civic life and that we are likely to see more evidence of this as time goes on.

One idea that seems to be gaining a great deal of ground is the idea that all White people have a permanent condition of internalized racism deep inside them (that cannot be gotten rid of) and that they must learn to live with this condition almost like a chronic disease that has to be managed. This idea is accompanied by the idea of the exceptional access to wisdom that people of color are claimed to have due to their lived experiences as victims of oppression.

There are aspects of these ideas that can be said to have value, but ultimately, they have little practical value in any meaningful way. While it’s true that White people have often benefited from generations of accumulated wealth, property and access to language discourses and power networks, it does not follow that all White people are intrinsically and permanently racist. And while it’s true that victims of oppression should always be regarded as having the most insight into the impact of oppressive policies and systems on their own bodies and minds and the bodies and minds of their families and communities (their lived experiences), it does not follow that individuals who belong to oppressed groups, including People of Color, are permanently and intrinsically more wise than all other groups or that they themselves are somehow incapable of inhuman and oppressive behaviors (which even a cursory study of history can confirm).

So, now a question arises.

Should we reject all ideas associated with the specific CRT framework currently called anti-racism?

I don’t think we can.

Like all political ideologies and religious cults, there are some good ideas mixed in with the bad ones. Some ideas and understandings found in anti-racist teachings, in fact, have enormous value.

For example, if we replace the word “Whiteness” with “Majority-ness”, we can see what anti-racist literature is getting at. Growing up as a member of a majority group causes people in majority groups to consider themselves as the default stand-in representative group for all people. This is the idea that a majority group’s experiences (in this case White people) can be considered the universal experience that all other groups must relate to as a reference. One of the artifacts that results from this attitude of default-ness is an indifference to the suffering and inequities faced by those who exist on the margins of society, which means that systems and policies we have built often to not take into account the specific contexts and experiences faced by marginalized groups.

It’s important to acknowledge these things if we want to do the difficult work of building sustainable relationships in a multicultural society and if we want to clear the way for equal rights for all races and ethnicities.

But, to be truly effective in our aims towards an inter-culturally harmonious society, we also need to free ourselves from the idea that the attitude of majority default-ness or cultural supremacy is somehow permanent and unchangeable. The idea that people who belong to majority groups cannot become more deeply accepting of the intrinsic preciousness and equality of other groups is simply not accurate and is unsupported by scientific evidence and real life experience.

Another helpful way to look at this is to see that these ideas are not *sociological discoveries* observed through empirical investigation, but *ideological equations* designed to achieve specific political goals. And while we may support some or all of these political goals, indulging the psychodrama of guilt and absolution based on these designed equations is a pointless distraction that does nothing to advance those goals. It simply does not compare with the rigors involved in the serious analysis of problems and the actionable policy-making that can make a real difference in the lives of millions of people of color.

And it risks the deepening of the grooves of separation and inter-group hostility that can stifle the forward movement that all thinking people with a conscience desperately want.

Racial essentialism must go.

* This writing is Part 2 of a 2-part series. The other piece is called “Black Lives Matter Everyday” and can be found HERE:

http://socialjusticeevolution.org/2020/06/13/black-lives-matter-everyday/