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Non-racist versus anti-racist? I’d rather be non.

May 20, 2016

On the Guardian “Comment is Free” section, this guy, Marlon James, talked about how it’s not enough to be non-racist. You must be anti-racist, i.e., you just Strike Now against the racism. Such a call to arms for white liberals you could not better engineer.

As thought-provoking as it all is, I have to be “that guy” and point out that if everyone was non-racist, there would be no racism to be anti in the first place. Aspiring to be non-racist is a lot better than what a lot of people are doing. I know people personally who don’t bother with even that much. Let’s not try to fly when half of us don’t know that airspace exists.

Getting rid of racism is basically defined by non-action, because racism is borne of faulty actions. Yes, attitudes too, but attitudes change second to actions. Adjust your actions, by following the advice set out by victims of racism – which all involves not doing certain things – and attitudes will follow. History shows this clearly; today’s attitudes were yesterday’s curtailment of certain actions.

In the video, James makes a comparison to rape and rape culture. It is accurate, and troubling for the fact; again, non-rape has to be good enough, because what does it mean to be anti-rape? Does it mean you form a lynch mob to deal with rapists unofficially? Does it mean you abandon the presumption of innocence enshrined in law, in order to instead tar and feather people by harassing them on Twitter?

These are the trends I see in today’s society, which is obsessed with action and mobilisation, and never sees inactivity as positive. It’s the sort of thing that leads people to claim, hyperbolically and incorrectly, that things are just as bad as they have ever been, and nothing has improved. Things have improved – specifically as a result of people not doing things they once thought were OK. Slave-keeping is a thing we don’t do, which we used to do, and its cessation unequivocally improved society.

The other comparison James makes is to climate change. Social issues are completely different to climate change, which does require action for a simple reason; environmental damage is accidental. It’s a byproduct of our modern lives with our high energy consumption, and the mass wastage of convenience. We make a conscious effort to change because the tacit acceptance is the very thing that causes the damage in the first place. For racism this is simply not true – there must be evil intent first, before anyone can exacerbate the damage by accepting the evil intent and actions without question.

To put it in common terms: “No Hitler, no holocaust.” He had exist, be anti-Semitic, and rise to power before people could ignore him and let him commit atrocities. The important thing was not primarily the “see no evil” attitude – it was the anti-Semitism. It’s surely wrong to suggest that the major change required was in the hearts of the passive onlookers, rather than the heart of the active spewer of hate speech and fascist policy.

Ignoring intent causes problems. When we ignore intent, we attack decent people who make simple mistakes. They get called racist for being a little sheltered and childishly curious, because they lived 20 years in an all-white community. And this, I’m afraid, is all at the hands of the staunch anti-racists, who make all race issues a battleground, no matter how marginal.

I believe that PoC are generally more fair-minded because, being subject to racism themselves, they know the difference between a racist and a person who’s just a bit daft. However, white liberal anti-racists have no idea of the difference, and panic unduly at every mere slip of the tongue.

This oppressive climate does nothing at all to boost knowledge or foster honest discussion. An ignorant person goes from potentially learning something about race that will change them permanently for the good, to being cowed away from asking questions; or perhaps if they are stubborn, becoming vehement anti-anti-racists, who use racism as a political statement against those they perceive to be restricting freedom of speech – racism they may not even really mean.

This exacerbates the problem; we all go around in pathetic circles, insulting each other for the sake of making an increasingly confused and tortured point. See any Twitter “debate” for examples.

I don’t think Marlon James wants us all to badger almost-racists on Twitter. But I do believe many well-meaning, passionate people will misinterpret his words to mean exactly that. And that’s the problem with soundbite advice.

We owe a lot of our morality to inaction: every war avoided; every person not tortured for information or punishment; every person not hunted down and executed. It would be imprudent to forget this.


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