I could not agree to that statement without reservations. These reservations arise because the way `white' is used as an identity marker can vary from community to community. In at least some cases -- for instance in the work of Sally Haslanger; it's also very common in cultural studies and swathes of the humanities, as well as activist circles influenced by these traditions -- `white' more or less picks out `people at the top of a local racial hierarchy'. Understood in this way then the initial statement might look like it's objecting to concreteness in analysis, objecting to focussing on an instantiation whereby a particular group of people have power, rather than an abstract form of supremacy as such. This, though, is not what I mean to agree to -- I don't want people to pay less attention to the particular mechanisms which underlie or uphold white supremacy, far from it. So since my readership includes people who use the word `white' in a manner that ties it to political domination, I cannot just agree to the opening statement.
There is, though, an interpretation under which I think it says an important thing that ought guide and shape our political action. This is the interpretation under which the opening statement is pointing out that swapping out one ruling class for another is not progress; it's moving sideways on the moral arc of the universe rather than forwards. When I say it would be a good thing to end white supremacy this is not because I think there is some other group of people who are properly to be given the arbitrary advantages, domineering power, or generally favourable position in a hierarchy, that white supremacy currently affords to some citizens. It is rather because I think that nobody should have those arbitrary advantages, nobody should enjoy domineering power over others, and I reject hierarchical modes of social organisation as completely as I can (subject to my own biases and oversights).
This came to mind recently when reading and reflecting on certain practices in leftist circles that I have very mixed feelings about. These, roughly, take the following form -- in conversations about matters related to race, the saying goes, white people need to `take a seat'; and generally acquiesce to what they are told. For an instance of the genre see here. Relatedly, faced with critique (calling out or calling in) for doing some troubling thing, it is for members of the dominant group to apologise and attempt to repair the damage they have caused, not ask for clarification on what they did wrong or attempt to defend themselves. This latter is less explicitly defended -- but I've observed enough cases of people accused of wrongdoing asking for clarification and being told in no uncertain terms that `it's not my job to educate you' or that the request for clarification is a further error, or people finding that attempting to defend themselves leads to general communal condemnation and acrimony.
Why the mixed feelings about this, and what is the relation to the initial point? First, I think there are people in these spaces who do not support these deference mandating norms, and people who do. Of the people who do endorse unequal treatment, there are (at least) two classes of people. The first class explicitly and consciously endorses these norms because they've thought about the effects and have come to the conclusion that these norms are instrumental for egalitarianism -- to get from where we are now to a better state, we are going to need (or at least it would be very helpful if it were the case that) a great many white people to suddenly divest themselves, or otherwise be divested whether they like it or not, of a lot of social power. One way to achieve this would be to normalise these different power relations in activist circles. The goal, then, is to get the relevant people used to suddenly having much less power, and vice versa to get people from traditionally marginalised groups used to suddenly having more power; all in a relatively controlled environment. For this first class, unequal treatment is something they would advocate for in these spaces because ultimately they believe it serves the goal of egalitarian relations in broader society. I am not sure if I agree to this strategy, but I can see something to it, and people who have done far more activism than I seem to think there is something to it. I respect their judgement, and trust these people to intervene or work to change the norms when they are no longer useful.
However, I think there is a second class of people who are responding to and deploying these norms without it being part of an explicit plan towards the aim of egalitarianism. For these people, the fact that the white folk are subject to these norms effectively becomes a license to indulge one's will to power. Now is a chance for them to gain the ability to domineer, to arbitrarily order about and sometimes even humiliate, members of the dominant group -- the tables turned, revenge shall be theirs, and a more congenial hierarchy is finally instantiated! I'm inclined to be supportive of the first group of people, while I do not support the second. However, given that it's hard to tell these two groups apart, I overall feel ambivalent toward the norms themselves.
Let's focus on the second group. Lacking explicitly egalitarian goals, this latter group, I take it, can end up supporting just what the opening statement is meant to rule out. It is no political advance at all to simply change who gets to dominate who. To parody a bit: I would not want to replace white supremacy with a beautifully diverse rainbow of oppressors, nor would I want to see white supremacy replaced by some kind of rule by the saints, wherein the woke may dominate the problematic. What is more, I think these norms can, if we are not careful in how we deploy them, generate a kind of servility in people, where they become accustomed not to having reasoned acceptance of claims and a sincere commitment to anti-racism, but rather a pledge to defer to members of a favoured class; a kind of faith-seeking-understanding in their attitude to anti-racist thought. This way lies dogmatism and a dead doctrine, rather than a living tradition. This may not seem a problem if it was just the white folk doing it (maybe the white folk in many Western societies should just be a bit more servile than they typically are when it comes to reasoning about race relations) -- but these norms don't just go for white folk talking about race, they go for any instance of a demographically dominant group reasoning about a matter related to which they have an advantage. We all of us fit under the category `demographically dominant' for some axis or another, and axis of advantage and disadvantage encompass all of social life. We all thereby grow accustomed to being servile, conversation becomes a matter of working out who to defer to on what.
For all that, I really do see the practical or instrumental advantages in something like the norms discussed. The first class of people really do seem to be on to something, even though I think the second class can badly misusing the opportunities for power this norm creates. How, then, to retain those advantages, serve those ends of acclimatising members of a dominant group to relinquishing power, without thereby enabling domineering behaviour, or inculcating servile frames of mind? Of course there are no easy answers, but I wonder if philosophy might help.
Philip Pettit has done much work outlining the Republican ideal of freedom as non-domination. A nice summary can be found here, with the key definition being:
Someone has dominating power over another if
(1) they have the capacity to interfere
(2) on an arbitrary basis
(3) in certain choices that the other is in a position to make.
A good Republican society is one in which we minimise or eliminate dominating power, we make it such that nobody has dominating power over another. I think we can take this and use it as the basis of self-conscious norm creation for activist circles. What we should like is norms for interaction that both acclimatise people to reversals of socially typical hierarchies -- which allow the black folk to tell the white folk what is really up rather than vice versa -- but which also do not allow for dominating power; in particular that do not allow for arbitrariness in application.
While there are difficulties defining exactly what counts as arbitrary, my sense is that a lot of the problems with these norms regulating the speech of dominant groups arise because they are effectively unconstrained in how they may be applied. I think we can agree we are in a situation that involves dominating power: in at least some circles one person or group can simply dictate to some others what is to be taken as the relevant consequences of these norms, and what is more can declare what counts as violation of these norms in a manner that cannot be challenged. How do we go about removing this dominating power? I think having the Republican ideal in mind when self-consciously framing norms for how we communicate and interact with each other, and in particular framing them in such a way as to make it much more difficult for there to be arbitariness in application, may be a path forward for trying to shape norms for members of dominant groups in activist circles. I do not know exactly how this would go, and even if I did I would prefer to just offer this as a starting thought and trust in people to reason their way to the better norms themselves; this is just where I think we should begin.
Finally, I want to stress something, lest I be quoted against people who I am actually in great sympathy with. My attitude here might seem like I am being harshly judgemental of people in the second class -- I accuse them of wanting to dominate and humiliate others, surely disreputable desires. But it is well to remember one's own position. While I am a black man in a white dominated field -- I am relatively light skinned, and generally rather meek and soft spoken thereby arousing less of that absurd superstitious fear from white folk than is typically aroused by black men with an otherwise similar build, I grew up in quite a racially integrated environment (South London represent) in a racially integrated family, and my profession and lifestyle grant me a far greater degree of personal autonomy than is typical under capitalism. To summarise, relative to the class of black people in white dominated fields, I am somebody who is least likely to face the kind of pressures, strains, and daily experiences of visceral discrimination that might make the chance to turn the tables so tempting. I would not want, and in any case would have no right or standing, to judge those who, faced with these pressures, use activist spaces to avenge themselves on a world that mistreats them so. The harsh critique of these folk I see from some quarters strikes me as coming from people even worse positioned to judge than me. There but for the grace of God go I, and I do not forget that.
(Lots of thanks to Yuzuko Nakamura for helping me write this post!)