Tom Rogers is a teacher and columnist for the Times Educational Supplement (TES), an education magazine in the UK. On Monday, he published a list of mainly UK educators to follow on Twitter and all hell broke loose.
Based, it seems, on judgements made by looking at the photographs of the people on the list, self-identified antiracists decided to call Tom out for not having enough BIPOC representation on the list. BIPOC stands for ‘Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour’. It’s an incongruously American term* to use about a UK list of educators, with some questioning what ‘indigenous’ means in that context. I think it is interesting that American terms are applied as a universal in this way.
The British have an irreverent sense of humour and a nose for the absurd, so a number of people started making jokes about the attempts to police Tom’s list. This then became a secondary source of dispute, with many of those involved expressing their hurt at the mockery of those who had attempted to police Tom’s list. After all, these folx were doing important antiracist work.
The antiracists described the actions of those who made fun of them, or who disagreed with them, as ‘racist’ and evidence of ‘white supremacy’. This, in turn, was taken as further evidence of the absurdity of their complaints. The thing snowballed.
Perhaps the most unedifying episode was when it turned out that, funnily enough, judging social constructs such as race simply by looking at pictures of people is not a valid process and had therefore led to an underestimate of the number of BIPOC people on Tom’s list:
Are you feeling queasy?
There are a number of lessons we can learn from this. Firstly, people are starting to fight back against the attempt by a small group of ideologically committed individuals to impose their ideology on everyone else. Some have described this ideology as a religion, but I don’t think that is accurate. Religions require you to have faith and they often leave some questions, such as why we suffer, unanswered. This ideology is more like a cult in that it provides absolute certainty to its adherents.
I have written previously about the ‘unfalsifiability’ of this ideology, but that concept is hard to get across. Essentially, it means that any and all evidence may be interpreted as supporting the ideology. It is perhaps best captured in a tweet by Pran Patel. I don’t think he is intending to be ironic:
So there is no way out. It’s exactly the same logic as claiming that denying you are a witch proves that you must be a witch. If you are white and you challenge this worldview, your challenge can be dismissed on the basis of your race and as a demonstration of ‘white supremacy’ or ‘racism’ of whatever. If you are BIPOC and you challenge this view then you may be treated a little more politely, but you will still be told you don’t understand and you need to read more.
This is dehumanising. It is not to deny the role of race in our perspectives to demand that we are treated as human beings first rather than racial drones. Dismissing someone’s views on the basis of your perception of their race is racism. It is certainly nowhere near the worst form of racism someone can experience, but it’s still wrong. I am aware that the sociological definition of racism means that this term cannot be applied in this way but I don’t accept that definition.
In fact, the concept creep of definitions is a key feature of this discussion. At the same time as excluding some forms of prejudice from the definition, academics have sought to broaden the base of racism to such an extent that it can include lists with some, but not enough, BIPOC people on them. How do we now condemn the rhetoric of Trump if both are described by the same term? This blunts the power of the word and creates a kind of arms race where heavier terms such as ‘white supremacy’ must now be deployed.
To the person in the street, ‘white supremacy’ means the Ku Klux Klan or apartheid or those militias that gather in forests in the U.S. and plot a white ethnostate. However, in this ideology it basically becomes equivalent to white privilege, the concept that white people have an invisible backpack of unearned privileges due to their race. When you look at what many of these privileges are, you could perhaps equally define them as rights and the denial of these rights to non-white people as racism. But this ideology puts things the other way around.
Nevertheless, you may argue, these concepts have been introduced by academics so they must be valid, right? I’m not sure. There are many academic ideas I reject in my own area of expertise and if we value critical thinking then we cannot simply accept the pronouncements of academics as fact.
And there is a larger problem. Who do we think is influenced by these discussions? Will an actual proponent of a white ethnostate be worried about being called out as racist or white supremacist? No. The only people who will be silenced are moderate, centrist and left-of-centre types who care about racism. By calling out Tom’s list, antiracists do nothing to stem the populist political surge. If they do persuade one Trump or Farage supporter of anything, it will be that the traditional left has gone and been replaced by the po-faced absurdity of identity politics.
If you really want to do valuable antiracist work then I have a suggestion. Go and work in a challenging school in London and ensure that you teach students the foundational, academic knowledge that will give them access to wealth and power. Better still, be like Katharine Birbalsingh and set up your own school with the unashamed guiding principle of giving kids a rigorous education, free from the low expectations that plague many challenging schools.
You will not fix racism and your students will still be challenged by racism on a daily basis, but you will do far more to advance equality than you will by calling out a list posted on Twitter.
*Since publication, a number of Americans have suggested they have not heard this term before and wondered if it might Canadian. Some Canadians then said they had not heard of it. It may not therefore be a mainstream term and, instead, one predominantly used by a small community of antiracists