~ Kerri Coombs
The public acceptance of an exploited underclass requires their dehumanization. Familiarity breeds empathy, and empathy leaves people less vulnerable to exploitation. The only real threat to the power and wealth of the ruling class is our recognition that many of our values and collective aspirations are shared across the entire working class, regardless of privilege, gender or cultural background. There are so many more of us than there are of them that when we work together, empires fall. Power dynamics are rearranged.
Because of this, it’s in the best interests of oligarchs and their loyal network of ambitious, privileged social climbers to ensure that the voices of the working class are suppressed, and that any minor divisions between them are exaggerated and exacerbated. This is why the police and their supporters spend so much time and treasure at BLM rallies causing trouble for fascist pundits to amplify, and so little effort protecting the public from white supremacist terrorists: BLM threatens the plutocracy by challenging the norms of labour exploitation, while the Proud Boys are defending the status quo.
When the inequities between the ruling and the ruled become so vast that workers go hungry while the gluttony of the wealthy goes unchecked and unregulated, it causes deep anxiety at every level of society. The rich worry about keeping their heads on their shoulders, while the poor worry about finding food and shelter. The rich pour billions into divisive propaganda via their media empires, while the underclass pours into to the street in what those media empires claim are dozens of unrelated single-issue ideological groups with no shared goals.
There are real differences in how the economic anxiety of the white working class is expressed. Those differences are determined primarily by whether or not we feel like we might be a member of the ruling class, or at least someone who can do well for ourselves by loyally serving their interests.
For those who know they are exploited, who face structural barriers to the full participation and representation in society, socialism often takes root. The core promise of socialism is that unfair power structures can be completely destroyed, leading to a more abundant, fair and cohesive social contract.
For those who see no systemic obstacles between them and lives of wealth and power, fascism gains traction. The core promise of fascism is that our structural inequalities are compelling evidence that a) we live in a meritocracy where any individual can succeed if they work hard enough, and that b) cis white men control all of our institutions because of their superior merit, not because of the many centuries they have spent violently imposing their preferred power dynamics on the rest of us.
What does this have to do with identity politics? Everything.
There’s a reason the echo chamber of white male opinions (and well-behaved tokens) that makes up our chattering class is so obsessed with “identity politics” and “cancel culture”. Centering white reactions to BIPOC news in the media is a crucial tool for persuading a majority of working class whites that “there’s nothing to see here” when it comes to the lived experiences of racialized people.
Kvetching about how tired we are of “identity politics” and clutching our pearls about “cancel culture” represents the entire right-left spectrum of privileged white opinion. On the right, we have white people lamenting “nobody can take a joke any more” and scolding racialized people for “playing the race card” when they talk about the discrimination they endure. On the left, we have white academics jumping on letter-writing bandwagons to concern troll about being held accountable for the bigoted things they say and do.
But like a magician doing something fancy with his right hand while his left pockets the playing card, the real purpose of white pundits spilling all this boring ink about “identity politics” is to draw our attention away from what they don’t want us to look at — racialized people speaking for themselves.
Drowning the issue of systemic racial injustice in pseudo-cerebral white reactions ensures that the underclass from which we draw exploitable labour for wealthy whites is not represented in our public conversations. Our media moguls maintain a steady stream of white chatter about race because representation breeds empathy, and empathy makes people less vulnerable to exploitation.
It’s no coincidence that Black Lives Matter broke through racial barriers to attract substantial support from white working class progressives within only a decade of social media throwing our white supremacist story-telling norms into chaos. The internet gives everyone more equitable access to a platform and a following, and removes a lifelong obstacle course of white gatekeepers from the path of racialized people with something to say.
For white people who haven’t dealt with our internalized biases, who don’t want to sit with our discomfort with our whiteness until we understand it, who aren’t already out there marching in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en and BLM, our first impulse when we hear criticism of white supremacist norms is to try to make it stop somehow, because it hurts to hear it. We all want to believe we are good people, that our families and friends and ancestors are or were basically good people too.
For white people, the most comfortable way to not hear things is to just keep on talking over everybody else. Our motto is dubitantem sicut ebullit — “when in doubt, just spout”. We know other white people will take us seriously no matter what we say. We’ll get our letters to the editor about race printed. We’ll land media interviews about race. We’ll chair all-white Human Rights Committee meetings where we ask each other how to “reach out” to people who aren’t white so that we can be a little less embarrassed about our failure to establish safe spaces for racialized people.
White people know we can make a vapid public performance out of our troubled feelings about racism without ever having to actually end racism. And that’s where “identity politics” enters into the picture. As long as we’re bitching and moaning about “identity politics”, we’re not talking about racism or listening to racialized people. As long as we’re concern trolling about “cancel culture”, we’re not talking about racism or listening to racialized people.
As long as we keep drowning out conversations about racism with inane chatter about our feelings about conversations about racism, we can kick back and enjoy our privilege without having to disrupt the systemic injustices that give it to us. And we can avoid humanizing the indigenous people, immigrants and refugees whose backs we stand on to enjoy a disproportionate share of wealth, power and influence.
So what can we do about this?
For racialized people, the best way to combat inane white chatter about racism is to ignore it completely. Don’t angry-face, call out, re-share, quote tweet or otherwise amplify inane white chatter about racism. Don’t make racists into household names. Without your clicks & re-shares, ad revenue for that type of content will dry up, capitalism will work its unholy magic, and some other trending topic will emerge for white people to opine about. It will also save you a lot of grief.
For white people, we need to normalize not speaking every single thought that crosses our minds out loud. Public discourse is not a race to see who can think up an opinion the fastest and bang on about it the longest. This response took me over a month, because until a couple days ago I simply had nothing of value to say. Spending time with a few indigenous people has taught me that’s a great time to shush. If we become uncomfortable with conversations about racism, we should allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and stop fighting it with chatter about our feelings.
The discomfort has something to teach us, if we listen. Like Luke confronting his deepest fears in the cave at Dagobah, the true cause of our uneasiness is our knowledge of of what we may become. We conquer our fears by looking them straight in the eye and defeating them in battle, not by complaining about them and writing editorials. Otherwise, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and you know the rest.