Why Anti-Racism and Feminism Aren’t as Popular as They Should Be

by Benjamin Studebaker

Our society has serious issues with race and gender. In the United States, there is a huge race gap in median family wealth:

The gender pay gap isn’t as bad as it used to be, but there’s still work to be done:

To varying degrees similar gaps persist in most other rich countries. There are also all sorts of additional non-economic disparities as a result of race and gender norms. People associate different behaviors and attitudes with different races and genders, often unintentionally as a result of internalized norms and learned habits. These race and gender norms and expectations box people in and limit their individuality. These norms are forms of arbitrary and unjust prejudice and stereotyping. These things seem obviously oppressive and objectionable in principle. Yet when we survey people about their attitudes toward the political movements that exist to oppose these systems of oppression, we find a remarkable amount of hostility. During the Ferguson protests, 53% of American adults believed that most of the protesters were just criminals taking advantage of the situation while only 31% believed the protests resulted from legitimate outrage over the conditions there. When asked to choose between “Black Lives Matter” and the counter-slogan “All Lives Matter”, Americans go with the latter by an 11% to 78% margin. Only 27% of Americans think new laws are needed to address racial discrimination:

Only 20% of Americans consider themselves feminists (including 23% of women and 16% of men). Despite this, 82% say that men and women should be “social, political, and economic equals”. Given that this is the goal of the feminist movement, this cognitive dissonance is troubling. Why are so many people who agree in principle with the goals of the anti-racism and feminist movements declining to support these movements? I have a theory.

Let’s think about how contemporary identity politics movements work. Lately, identity movements have been focused around sharing the experiences of oppressed groups, around getting the “oppressor groups” (white people and men, and especially white men) to listen. People say we need to pay attention to the voices and experiences of various oppressed and marginalized groups, they say we need to “have a dialogue” or a discussion about race and gender. In practice, this dialogue consists primarily of marginalized people sharing their experiences and hoping that the oppressors will show empathy. If the oppressors argue, they are accused of trying to explain the experience of oppression to the oppressed. This is often condemned as “whitesplaining” or “mansplaining”. People who do this are accused of engaging in “microaggressions” and told to check their privilege or educate themselves. They are told that by disagreeing with a marginalized or oppressed person about race or gender, they are silencing the voices and experiences of oppressed people and thereby contributing to oppression. This often takes the form of a “callout”, in which the oppressor is named, blamed, and shamed for their failure to be more empathetic and understanding.

This set of tactics is grounded in two fundamental assumptions:

  1. Oppression is Best Understood as Subjective Experience: To understand oppression, we have to understand how experiencing oppression makes the oppressed feel. Consequently the whole point of the dialogue is to communicate these experiences and feelings to the oppressors. The dialogue only really goes one direction, from the oppressed to the oppressors. No member of the oppressor group can have a better understanding of oppression than any member of an oppressed group because these experiences are subjective, so the only role an oppressor can take is that of listener.
  2. The Oppressors are Bad Agents: Those who propagate racism and sexism are oppressors who choose to refuse to listen or empathize because they are immoral individuals. Anger and condemnation directed against oppressors is legitimate.

These false assumptions lead to a lot of unhelpful interactions where people in identity movements say they want a dialogue when they’re not really interested in engaging with the views of people who don’t agree with them. When they get engagement, they often get upset, and when they get upset, they blame and shame. This often leaves their targets even more deeply entrenched in their views and with a hatred for “political correctness”. Nothing good comes from that.

We should understand oppression in a completely different way. Oppression is produced through systems of oppression that propagate and perpetuate the negative norms, associations, and stereotypes that oppress people. These systems are complicated and overlap with each other intersectionally. Each of these systems contains at its core an idea, an ideology, an “ism” (e.g. “racism” or “sexism”) which the system perpetuates. Individuals do not choose to believe in these ideas freely. Instead, the system of oppression socializes them in such a way that they acquire these oppressive ideologies.

Consider racism, for instance. At its core, racism is an idea–the notion that for either biological or cultural reasons (or some combination thereof), people from different racial backgrounds are fundamentally different from one another because of those racial backgrounds. This can be explicit (e.g. “black people are stupid”) or it can be implicit (e.g. “black people have a culture of welfare dependency”). For racists, the racist idea is what justifies continued support for policies and parties that either allow racial oppression to continue or actively increase the amount of racial oppression in the society. So if we want to be anti-racist, we have to understand how people acquire this idea and disrupt that process.

How do people become racist? It’s not because they choose to be racist, it’s because there’s something about the social environment that encourages them to believe in this idea. To really oppose racism, we want to prevent people from becoming racist in the first place by changing the social environment. As Ben Franklin put it:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Different people have different theories about how people acquire the racism idea. Each of these theories is a theory of race, a race theory. Here are a few possible race theories, as examples. They may not be mutually exclusive–racism probably has multiple causes. Each of these race theories implies different policy approaches:

  1. People become racist because they grow up in racially homogeneous communities and are never exposed to different kinds of people. As a result of their racist attitudes, they support policies that segregate their communities later in life, reproducing homogeneous communities and consequently racism. If people met different kinds of people at an earlier age, they’d learn to understand them as individuals rather than as examples of their racial groups. Consequently we need to increase diversity in our schools and communities.
  2. People become racist because they see that people from other racial backgrounds are disproportionately impoverished or prone to criminal activity, and they blame race instead of recognizing the true causes of these phenomena. This causes them to support or excuse policies that perpetuate cycles of poverty and crime in marginalized communities, reproducing racism. Consequently we need to ensure that people from these disadvantaged backgrounds have equal access to opportunities and resources of all kinds, possibly through redistribution, rehabilitation, etc. This theory would give racism a strong intersection with economic classism.
  3. People become racist because human beings are genetically predisposed to make snap judgments about people based on very small amounts of often irrelevant information, and the fact that people look different from us predisposes us to mistrust one another. If this fully accounted for racism, there would be nothing we could do about it (unless and until genetic engineering makes it possible to modify the way we make judgments). However, the fact that there are clearly some people who care about racism and want to do something about it while others don’t care shows that this cannot be the only cause, because it doesn’t account for variations in racial attitudes across time and across different populations.

Racism and sexism are intellectual diseases that we all suffer from to varying degrees. These diseases are caused by some combination of genetic and environmental factors. We need to treat these ideologies like the pathologies they are–by figuring out what causes them and going after those causes at the source. Blaming racists for their racism, calling them out, or directing anger at them is like blaming a rabies victim for trying to bite you. It doesn’t accomplish anything.

When we go from individual to individual trying to get them to empathize, we are treating symptoms rather than the disease itself. Individuals’ beliefs are not freely chosen, they are produced by conditions. Unless we confront the conditions that produce the beliefs, we are exhausting ourselves to little purpose. This doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to share experiences or make arguments, but instead of targeting these at individuals and blaming or shaming those individuals for failing to be convinced or emotionally moved, we need to target these at a general audience to raise consciousness of the various forms of oppression that are out there and what could and should be done about them, without pointing fingers at any individual or group of individuals.

When we understand racism in this systematic, pathological way, we also see that the sharp distinction people draw between the oppressed and the oppressors falls away. Any person, irrespective of race or gender, can believe in the ideas of racism or sexism. Ben Carson is a black man, but he doesn’t understand the extent to which racism continues to be a serious problem in our society. He also doesn’t seem to have much of a theory of how people become racist, and he has no policy plans that target this problem. Carly Fiorina has the same kind of problems with sexism. Carson knows what it’s like to be a black man and Fiorina knows what it’s like to be a woman, and I’m sure both have been victimized by these systems of oppression and know how that feels, but they don’t seem to have any understanding of how these systems of oppression operate. In political theory, we call this tendency for people to fail to understand their own interests “false consciousness”. You don’t have to be reactionary to operate under false consciousness. If someone doesn’t see racism or sexism as a pathology, if someone thinks individuals choose to be racist or sexist or if someone thinks racism and sexism can best be dealt with by sharing experiences and shaming people who don’t empathize, that someone is also operating under false consciousness. Understanding racism and sexism is not about understanding how it feels to be oppressed (only the oppressed can ever really know what oppression feels like). It’s about understanding systems, about understanding intellectual pathologies and their causes.

When a white man tells someone what oppression feels like, that’s whitesplaining or mansplaining. White men cannot know better than the oppressed what it means to subjectively experience oppression. But when a white man offers someone a different theory of race or gender, when he thinks a different policy response would be more effective than what’s been offered, when he thinks that the political tactics and strategies being used are ineffective and that something different ought to be tried instead, that white man could very well be correct, and the arguments that white man offers ought to be taken seriously. White men with egalitarian beliefs, who think that racism and sexism are wrong and are a serious problem, are immensely useful and may even sometimes have special insight, because they are more likely to have interacted socially with reactionary white men when those reactionary white men have their guards down and aren’t filtering themselves. This can give white men a better understanding of how racists and sexists think, allowing them to craft political strategies for enacting feminist or anti-racist policies that are more likely to overcome the resistance offered by reactionary whites. White men can be more than allies–they can help lead civil rights movements and contribute to debates about causation, policy, strategy, and tactics. They shouldn’t replace leaders from marginalized groups, but they can certainly be among them.

Many of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the United States were pushed through congress by Lyndon Johnson, a Texan white male. LBJ seemed to have no idea what racial oppression felt like. If he did know, he didn’t care. He personally indulged in racist language unapologetically and frequently. But intellectually, LBJ knew that racism was an unjust system of oppression and he recognized that there were things the government could and should do about it. Aided in part by his experience as a white southerner, LBJ had an understanding of how to push legislation through congress in a way that would get the support he needed. He knew how to talk to people with racist attitudes and he was willing to get his hands dirty where necessary to get the votes. LBJ helps us see that to get things done, it’s more important to understand how the oppressors think, not how the oppressed feel. From a policy standpoint, most of the legislative progress we’ve made on race was made under a president who routinely used the word “nigger” in front of black people. Today’s identity movements spend far too much time and energy scolding white men about language, about being sensitive to how they’re making oppressed people feel in everyday conversation. This is needlessly alienating too many people who could and should support the anti-racism movement. It’s making the movement about individuals and their subjective feelings, not objective systems, policies, and institutions. Targeting individuals instead of systems makes dialogues combative, accusatory, and unproductive. This doesn’t mean that it was fine for LBJ to use the word “nigger”–I’m sure every time he used that word it hurt the hearts of the black people around him. But going after LBJ for that distracts us from confronting the true causes of racism. LBJ’s use of the word “nigger” is just one among millions of symptoms. Treat the disease, not the symptoms. Rather than condemn LBJ or any other person with racist or sexist attitudes, we should pity them and do our very best to change the social environment so that people in the future are less racist and sexist than we are today.

I’ll close with a chart to help clarify the distinctions laid out above:

Concepts Contemporary Identity Politics Smart Identity Politics
Racism/Sexism Should Be Subjectively Experienced Objectively Understood
Racists/Sexists Are Bad Oppressive Individuals Victims of Pathological Ideas
Racists/Sexists Should Be Called Out & Shamed Shown Compassion & Pitied
Movements Should Reshape The Discourse & Language Policies and Institutions
Movements Should Change Individuals’ Hearts & Minds Environment & Socialization
White Men Should Listen Help Lead
Anger Is Righteous Unproductive & Alienating
The Oppressed Are Always Right Sometimes False Conscious
We Need to Understand How the Oppressed Feel How the Oppressors Think
Racism/Sexism are Perpetuated By Individuals Systems