NOTE: Ben appears to have closed and scrubbed the comment section as well as removed language about critics misunderstanding him. I am leaving my piece as is, but you are invited to compare the changes and draw your own conclusions.
Okay, I’m doing something different this time. Because I know I need to stop reading these pieces from Ben Studebaker about identity politics. No one accuses me of good judgement.
The original piece is rather long, but I’ve addressed most of it, in a few parts quickly. A few paragraphs aside, I’ve quoted actual feminists in liberal publications.
Perfectly Fine Start
The piece opens with a reasonably good rundown of the singular intersections of class and gender and class and race. In a piece with a different thesis—one related to those intersections—it would easily pass muster. I think in a lot of ways this answers his comments here, at least in part. I keep mistaking him for a class reductionist because he keeps going to back to economics when talking about race. It looks an awful lot like class reductionism, but I see now that he puts forward a essentially racial theory as he gets going.
He then does a good decent job giving statistics that suggest people are not interested in fixing this. I have no beef with that.
Ben and Mia McKenzie Have a Near Miss
But then, from Ben:
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?
Black Girl Dangerous published this piece by Mia McKenzie that contains a pretty popular thesis among people who actually do feminist work:
Men have never been overwhelmingly interested in fighting that fight, because it requires them giving up power and all evidence suggests that’s not their super-fave thing. Share a link about gender equality? Sure! Count me in! Give up real power in real ways? Nope, not really.
The piece goes on to give specific examples of the ways men benefit—which include but are not limited to economic ones. Ben offers a competing explanation, which I suppose is fine, but he should at some point take some time to deal with the fact that many of us who have put in the hours on this fight think that it might just be a disconnect. If you’ve ever tabled for a controversial law, you know that support for an abstract does not an ally make.
This is Complicated
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.
I’ve sent Ben far-left critiques of many of these ideas before, and what they largely share is a strong ambivalence about these tactics. Ngọc Loan Trần at Black Girl Dangerous again:
I’ll be the first person and the last person to say that anger is valid. Mistakes are mistakes; they deepen the wounds we carry. I know that for me when these mistakes are committed by people who I am in community with, it hurts even more. But these are people I care deeply about and want to see on the other side of the hurt, pain, and trauma: I am willing to offer compassion and patience as a way to build the road we are taking but have never seen before.
I don’t propose practicing “calling in” in opposition to calling out. I don’t think that our work has room for binary thinking and action. However, I do think that it’s possible to have multiple tools, strategies, and methods existing simultaneously. It’s about being strategic, weighing the stakes and figuring out what we’re trying to build and how we are going do it together.
Each of the tactics Ben identifies has a nuanced position in social justice groups. If you’ll permit me to “quote” myself as a feminist, I’ve been part of conversations about when to deploy which tactics. The questions of what will work and what people deserve are part of the process for justice, and the answer is rarely singular. Hold that thought—I will find the urgency for these tactics, at least sometimes, in a few sections.
Ben next addresses two “assumptions” that he sees as commonplace. “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.
The feminist case for subjectivity is more than an assumption: it boils down to the fact that supposedly “objective” measures are necessarily constructed. Take GDP, the national equivalent of income:
In his list of economic principles, Gregory Mankiw argues that “A country’s standard of living depends on its ability to produce goods and services.” However, Mankiw’s approach is based on a particular value system and a specific definition of the standard of living: GDP per capita. Many feminist economists dispute both the consumerist value system upon which Mankiw bases this premise and the use of GDP per capita as a measure of welfare. It is essential that economics be examined for the values inherent in the economic principles, and it is unacceptable for Mankiw (and others) to display his principles as positive, scientific principles when there are legitimate debates over these issues.
The critique that modeling necessarily includes making value judgements about “what counts” runs deep through feminism. Ben is free to advocate for his standard, but when “objective” standards are under attack, implicitly taking these “objective” standards as his contrast is just as fraught as when Mankiw does it. Ben mistakes the objectivity of the measurement for the objectivity of the measure.
On Moving Forward
He reasons a bit simply, if more or less correctly, from there:
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.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a feminist of note who would not proceed to add layers to this—and point out the negative charge. Feminist titan bell hooks writes a much more complicated narrative:
To black women, the issue is not whether white women are more or less racist than white men, but that they are racist. If women committed to feminist revolution, be they black or white, are to achieve any understanding of the “charged connections” between white women and black women, we must first be willing to examine woman’s relationship to society, to race, and to American culture as it is not as we would ideally have it be. This means confronting the reality of white, female sexism. Sexist discrimination has prevented white women from assuming the dominant role in perpetuating white racial imperialism, but it has not prevented white women from absorbing, supporting, or advocating racist ideology or acting individually as racist oppressors in various spheres of American life.
(Emphasis mine.) This is where things like microagressions, calling-out, whitesplaining, mansplaining, and elevating voices find their urgency—you can stop holding that thought. Ben simplifies the argument that we must critically examine these relationships down to the assumption that any oppressed person must better understand their relationship to oppression; bell hooks argues there is a pervasive problem where the oppressor does not faithfully interrogate their relationship to systems. Ben’s critique is valid as far as it goes, but that is not nearly as far as he may think.
Intent Does Not Make Racists
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.
The main arguments here are actually very different. There is a fairly consequentialist wing that says that it is about harms. From (gasp) an actual Tumblr feminist, “Racism is not in your intent. Your intent is immaterial in how racist your actions are. This isn’t about you BEING a racist. It’s about you DOING A THING that is racist. Your intent doesn’t change it. Your ignorance of its meaning doesn’t change it. It’s got nothing to do with you as a person and everything to do with the meaning of your action in the context of sociocultural history.” Consider as well this quote from the truly excellent essay, What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism
The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time—even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and schools, in our own homes and from our friends’ mouths—can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?
Ben falls into the trap of placing white people centrally in the minds of people doing racial justice, as though the justice is for white people. Given that the question is “do people have a right to be upset by casual racism/sexism?”, it is telling that he skips directly to “oppressors are bad people”. I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People is basically the same essay and actively considers that the problem with racism is the opposite. This is such an important question to third wave feminists that it is insulting that Ben would suggest it has not been considered.
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.
Let me take this one, rather than a quote. There is some truth to this, but I have a complicated relationship to it. I have organized adjacent to groups that do a terrible job defining what success would mean and so do not show up ready to succeed. But at the same time, look at how Ben imagines success. It is defined entirely in terms of what the oppressed do for the oppressor. If they do not successfully enlighten their oppressor, they have failed.
What Ben fails to recognize, quite apart from how oppressive holding activists responsible for their oppression is, is just how ambitious their critique often is. The idea that white people are owed black “dialogue” where white racism is viewed as inherently equal to black anti-racism is part of the problem. If Ben were talking about a particular instance—especially one he had particular knowledge of—I would be more sympathetic. But as a general proposition, quite the opposite holds more water: a culture that puts racism on equal footing and then lets the racists decide if the anti-racist has succeeded is racist. (And this works in analogy for any axis of oppression.)
As someone much less radical than the people I’m quoting, I recognize the value of collaborating with these systems in certain ways and so I’m open to asking if groups are meeting their goals. Likewise, I’m open to a critique of radical politics at the level of value-making. Just as using economic metrics as “objective” hides the fact that economic value is defined in a politically charged way, choosing white enlightenment as the standard of anti-racist success devalues black lives.
Verging on Agreement
This could be placed in a piece with a different thesis and be very compelling the perspectives I’ve been quoting:
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.
Here is a piece that takes the same position that Ben is, at least to start:
To begin with systemic oppression is not about individual “guilt.” It is about collective responsibility and an acceptance that, as these systemic injustices are ingrained in our society profoundly deeply, we all participate in them whether we wish to or not and that we often do so entirely unconsciously.
Systemic oppression, be it patriarchal, racist or colonialist also exists whether or not, unsurprisingly, individual members of the dominant group/class wish to think they are a part of it or benefit from and facilitate it.
The point that these are not about individual moral failings is absolutely vital to the theory. Ben is onto something here. You correctly sense the “but”.
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.
(Emphasis mine.) Compare, from the same sources as the last section:
Of course attempts by feminists to redress our collective history of patriarchal oppression will anger many men. I think this is a very safe assumption. But it is also ludicrous to ask a liberation movement to frame itself in ways that will please or appease the beneficiaries of oppression. All men do and have benefited from patriarchy and the systemic oppression of women, whether they wanted to or not. Being unwilling to accept this is a serious obstacle to social change.
The difference is subtle. It’s taken me a long time to put my finger on it. In many ways I’m (finally) answering the string of comments left on our last spat about this. In echoing bell hooks, the author defines racism as something present. In talking about creation, Ben defines racism as something future.
Ben has made a good faith effort to deal with this as a present tense issue—he has talked before about “interrupting” a racist “cycle”. But he fails to see the expectation that white people have their racism treated as serious position worthy of dialogue as racism that needs interrupted. It is existing racism that is there before people of color run afoul of it. To echo bell hooks myself: It does not matter to people of color if white people are more or less racist after they have been informed of their racism. What matters is that they are racist.
Let’s get bogged down in determinism for a bit
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.
Ben and I have corresponded at length about determinism, a view he holds and is clearly invoking here. I pointed out—and maintain—that in a deterministic universe, there are no alternatives and so the idea of “morality” is trivial. If choice is illusory, then so would be morality based on alternatives. Ben cleverly suggested that the ability to conceive of counterfactuals is sufficient to compare moral universes; we can determine if we missed a better world even if we cannot access it. Let us grant him this.
Why then did he fail to imagine a world where activists had their reactions determined but white people could change their responses? Or, more consistently, where neither or either could change their response? Ben imagines that black people are responsible for the enlightenment of white people, but that white people are responsible for nothing because of determinism? Ben subtly frames this in terms of black choice and then denies choice categorically when it comes time to reckon with white prejudice. That his alternative moral universe is one in which black people accommodate him might say more about him than he means.
What is this?
“As Ben Franklin put it: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.””
Literally the only quote in the whole piece is from a womanizer who died before feminism got underway. Superficial? Yes. Emblematic, even.
Tokenism; Theory and Practice
I’m going to skip a little ways in his piece. He largely develops the thread I’ve been following. He gives a plausible and properly qualified survey of race theories and recognizes the incompleteness of his run-down and the fact that those there are not mutually exclusive. I’m here for that. The problems with that section are the largely addressed by quotes already printed above; he continues to assume white centrality and blame black choices. That brings us to this:
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.
The inverse of this is surprisingly central to this kind of work:
At a recent hustings event in Cambridge, five rival parliamentary candidates made a point of battling each other to boast the highest amount of supporters, candidates and representatives they had who were women or from minority backgrounds. It was the familiar barrage of clichés: ‘UKIP isn’t a racist party; our Commonwealth Spokesman is black!’ or ‘The Conservative Party no longer welcomes misogynists – our membership is over 40% women!’, as if including people with brown faces means you can’t perpetuate systematic structures of white privilege, or including women means you must be infallibly egalitarian with your eyes always fixed on gender equality.
Too often tokenism is a mask for box-ticking, an easy gesture to show that parties are ‘doing enough’ to combat the marginalization and symbolic violence inflicted upon minorities. And if we allow political candidates to get away with using reductive statistics about minority supporters as a substitute for genuine engagement with very real structural inequalities in the UK, we fail to be serious about combating those inequalities.
Ben’s point is here again good to its limits. Tokenism has been a problem in both social justice circles and the wider world and I will say it is one of the places that social-justice organizers have been unusually prone to group-think. What is interesting, however, is that the theory is actually quite prepared for this: simply elevating a particular voice for their identity is tokenism, but elevating a voice for their experience is not. When white people bring a theory that conflicts with the experience that a person of color brings, it is probably not the experience that is flawed…because flawed experience is not a thing.
LBJ is Missing The Point, So Let’s Talk About Him At Length
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 “nxxxxr” 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 “nxxxxr”–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 “nxxxxr” 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.
Sainting LBJ has been a hobbyhorse among white liberals since Selma gave a nuanced portrayal of his actions:
Other critics of “Selma” have been offended by the idea that Johnson wanted King, and a voting-rights bill, to wait in line behind the President’s other legislative priorities. But that’s exactly what the historical record shows, including the January 15th transcript. In it, Johnson tells King that he wants his “people” to lobby “those committee members that come from urban areas that are friendly to you” in support of Medicare and Johnson’s education and poverty bills. Those were the priorities; they needed to get through without any filibuster. After those bills are passed, Johnson says, “then we’ve got to come up with the qualification of voters.” It was the protesters’ attempts to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge that changed Johnson’s timetable. Their first attempt ended with a brutal assault by local law enforcement—Bloody Sunday. The White House sent John Doar, an official in the Justice Department (who had earned the protesters’ trust), to try to talk King out of making the second attempt, urging him to abide by a federal injunction blocking the march. (This is the legal mess behind the exquisitely filmed moment in “Selma” when Oyelowo, as King, leads protesters to the middle of the bridge, only to turn them back.) It is ahistorical to insist that a film show how civil-rights leaders ought to have experienced Johnson, given his fine intentions, and not how they did. There is no question that Johnson was deeply, viscerally committed to civil rights—no question historically, and, again, no question in “Selma.” It is also the case that the White House waited several days after Bloody Sunday before making an official statement about the violence, and that it did not, in that interim, respond to urgent requests for federal protection, including sit-ins at Administration offices. Sending in federal marshals or troops, at that point, might have been politically risky; it might have played into the hands of segregationists. One way or another, by the time either of those things happened, another man, a minister from Boston, was dead, and Johnson had set his staff scrambling to write a draft of a speech, and to assemble a voting-rights bill that he’d send to Congress sooner than he had planned.
Ironically, the record here is in favor of pushing white people harder. I remain amicable to conversations about pragmatism; optimizing our limited resources should be a goal. But LBJ proved that if you want black people on the agenda, you have to push white people, at least sometimes.
In the past when I’ve made arguments of this kind, the conceptual distinctions seem to go over some people’s heads.
The List of False Dichotmies
Ben ends by giving a list of issues and contrasting “contemporary identity politics” with “smart identity politics”. I’ve added to that a column giving links where people with social cred express an opinion I consider representative and high quality. Most are not repeats from above.
|Concepts||Contemporary Identity Politics||Smart Identity Politics||True Justice|
|Racism/Sexism Should Be||Subjectively Experienced||Objectively Understood||Interrogates Objectivity|
|Racists/Sexists Are||Bad Oppressive Individuals||Victims of Pathological Ideas||Not entitled to accommodation|
|Racists/Sexists Should Be||Called Out & Shamed||Shown Compassion & Pitied||Given a Measured Response*|
|Movements Should Reshape||The Discourse & Language||Policies & Institutions||All of the Above|
|Movements Should Change||Individuals’ Hearts & Minds||Environment & Socialization||All of the Above|
|White Men Should||Listen||Help Lead||Listen**|
|Valid & powerful & divisive|
|The Oppressed Are||Always Right||Sometimes False Conscious||More Credible|
|We Need to Understand||How the Oppressed Feel||How the Oppressors Think||How to Decenter Whiteness|
|Racism/Sexism are Perpetuated By||Individuals||Systems||Both|
*Calling-out is a little more divisive in social-justice spaces. Plenty of activists have now condemned the practice as counter-productive. This might be the one where a majority of activists now agree with Ben and not me and certainly not the column that he supposes represents him.
**The advice on leading is to mainly take a back seat, though, as mentioned, in practice most feminists recognize that a small number of men will earn a leadership role.
Now is as good a time as any to point out something about all this: No summary will represent all people committed to social justice, including mine. Many social justice aligned people will quibble with my choices. More, I concede Ben could evidence his first column with links to self-identified social justice folks who would take those positions to the exclusion of mine; there are some smart critiques of some reductive ideas that are alarmingly common to be excavated from his piece. But critically, I think my evidence shows that it is incorrect to consider those as well-regarded positions among those writing about this work.
Ben is quick to say that his critics don’t understand distinctions he is making. I would suggest that insofar as that is true, it is because he is not engaging with the conversation. To be fair, he seems to be engaging with the garbled version that is too common on social media; that is no excuse to have not, after repeatedly being directed to primary writings on the matter, refocused his critique on those or changed tact. The disconnect is apparent just looking at the implicit works cited for his piece. Not a single theorist or even tumblr hack is named, quoted, or linked. That some of his interlocutors get unmoored is unsurprising given that he is not engaging real positions, even if they at times mimic the real world. That creates a disconnect I admit to having gotten lost in.
Insofar as I think Ben makes one single mistake beyond that, it is in centering whiteness. His defense of LBJ is that he had white power and used it. He argues racism is created by black people performing incorrectly for white people. He thinks that justice is changing white people’s surroundings. In parallel he centers feminism as a movement for men. This is a failure to imagine that ultimate victory for feminist and anti-racist projects will require a reckoning with male and white fragility. They are part of racism. There is a case to be made that the time is not ripe—I’ve been part of strategy debates where questions about offending those in power were central. But those of us urging accommodation had no illusion that we were accommodating oppression. Ben places no discernible limits on a case that is in other terms that making racism comfortable will solve racism.
On those terms, Ben’s central point holds: anti-racism and feminism are not more popular because people with power get upset when asked to give power up. But doing that is the whole point of social justice in the first place.