What can we learn from the war of Tom’s list?

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’ or 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


20 thoughts on “What can we learn from the war of Tom’s list?

  1. David says:

    For whatever it’s worth (and I stayed out of #listgate), Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay, “An Introduction into Politics” (1956) that prejudices of “people say…” and “people think…” often turn into pseudotheories, with closed worldviews and ideologies that provide an explanation for everything and that “pretend to understand all historical and political reality.” Ideologies shield us from thinking, judging and even experience by creating a new reality.

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    Let’s call this obsession with ‘racism’ what it is: the most pernicious form of racism of all. What better way can there be to inflame such resentments as may exist in the extremes of society? What more effective way of telling people from minority groups that ‘you’re not one of us’?

    One of the great joys of immigrating from the US in the 1970s was to find out that in Brum, it was perfectly normal to have lots of friends from different races and cultures, and discovering that they were just people, no better nor worse than anyone else. Young white kids aped Rasta slang, followed Bob Marley, and could tell you the best curry houses in Ladypool Road. We’ve lost a lot of that for various reasons, and I’d guess the constant barrage of hysterical articles scouring up every imaginable incident of ‘racism’ is one of the main causes.

  3. chrismwparsons says:

    Thank you for our elongated (and I thought very civil and useful) Twitter discussion of this Greg – I hope we can maintain similar things in the future.
    A distinction I’d like to draw here if I may…?
    I do actually find myself convinced by the overall societal thesis portrayed by the wider ‘white supremacy’ meaning.
    I don’t necessarily think that focusing in on it distracts from bigger issues with racism.
    I do however have problems with the language used and perhaps the approach (though I’m in no way on the butt-end of the system, so I probably naturally wouldn’t find myself as het-up about it.)

    If I could explain further?
    We spend a lot of time in these education forums drawing battle-lines with people about evidence-informed approaches to education etc. Indeed, it would seem that we’re trying to close in on the cognitively perfect approach to instruction. If we got there, and declared to people who still use a mix & match approach as suits them “Your children are not getting a schooling!”, you could imagine them getting indignant, and pointing at children who don’t come into school at all; at parts of the world where children don’t have a teacher or a school; or times in history where there was no formal education for the masses.
    We would indeed be advised to modify our use of language, and I would support that.

    However, if people went-on to say that our fixation on the aspects of schooling we spend our time arguing about distracts us from the fact that some children don’t get schooling at all, we might then say – yes, but – we can’t wait until every child in the world is in regular, normal schooling before we start trying to improve things for those that already are.

    I hope that seems to have some logic to it!
    Thanks again.

    • The equivalence does not stand. The version of antiracism in question blends things that are demonstrably true with things that are at the very least debatable and then pursues them with a bulldozing monomaniacal zeal.

      A closer parallel would be if I said that all teachers must use explicit teaching all of the time because students cannot learn from inquiry learning. Moreover, anyone in favour of inquiry learning is in favour of learnicide. Moreover, denial of being in favour of learnicide is well documented as an act of learnicide.

      • Tom Burkard says:

        Quite so–once one retreats into a dogmatic position on complex issues, the possiblity for growth and greater understanding disappears.

      • chrismwparsons says:

        Learnicide sounds fun! Why would denial be a characteristic of it…?

        The thing is, ‘white supremacy’ is supposed to be a cognitive/affective bias effecting our intuitions, and present in people who’ve never known any other way of doing things. Like other biases it’s to be expected that people don’t notice it, and might deny it effects them.

        Of course, I would dispute that denial is proof off having it, simply that it is to be expected.

      • chrismwparsons says:

        – Just to add, regarding evidence for it, it seems to me as well supported as the evidence for the existence of things such as confirmatory bias, hindsight bias etc, but I’m not in a position to substantiate this. I guess, like these things (and black holes until very recently), its something we infer the presence of indirectly.

      • Chester Draws says:

        It’s not that people infer things that causes the problem. It is when they demand that others accept their inferences, and call them names and cause trouble when they don’t.

  4. Chester Draws says:

    But the diversity only works in a couple of dimensions, notably skin colour and gender. The identity warriors won’t care if every single blogger in Tom’s list are left of centre politically. That is an unimportant type of diversity.

    Indeed, quite a lot of them would go ballistic if a representative number of UKIP supporters were represented. That would be evidence of white supremacy just there.

  5. DM says:

    Two thoughts: (1) I think you misinterpret Pran’s quote. The way it is framed in this blog, I think you are reading it as “denial of (your) white privilege is a well known act of (your) white privilege.”

    I believe it is more accurately read as “denial of (the existence of) white privilege is a well known act of (global) white privilege.” In other words, those who object to the very discussion of such things are further enabling it. Claiming it doesn’t exist is a furtherance of the status quo.

    (2) I have only watched the “listgate” unfold as a third-party. I didn’t follow Tom before (not as a choice, just didn’t even see him in my circles) and didn’t follow the primary commenters on either side of the debate – I’ve seen it all through sharing, liking, etc. I don’t have strong opinions on his list as I don’t know most of the people on it.

    But if he published a list of best people to follow and they were all men, would it be so insane for a few people to mention that he didn’t include any women? And if the first responses to these questions were about “merit” and “who should be removed to make room for these women,” would your post read the same? It has always taken some measure of intentional action and confrontation to change these underlying norms. I don’t agree with every element of the anti-racist movement, but I think many responses in defense of the list are equally wrong in their adherence to “merit is merit, get over it” mentality.

    – If this comes off as anything other than legitimate discussion – i.e. if it comes off as snark, cynicism or just simple meanness, it’s not intended that way.

    • 1. The interpretation you give of the tweet still involves circular logic and makes the conceit unfalsifiable.

      2. It was not a list that was all men. It was not even an all white list.

      • DM says:

        I will continue to disagree on #1. I see it as more observation of reality than accusation in most cases. “That law doesn’t mention race, therefore it can’t be racist” – historically used, still used, to defend laws that in fact were based on racial motive in the US.

        2. Didn’t address the questions. Thanks and good day.

  6. Adam Pryce says:

    #listgate makes interesting reading. Remember the Gotham episode where the inmates take over Arkham Asylum?

    “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.”

    There is a way out – don’t dignify these opinions with a reply in the first place, on Twitter or IRL. Works for me.

    Does it diminish the usefulness of Tom Roger’s recommendation list if uneducated people post some catty remarks when they weren’t included? Any reasonable person reading these tweets will shake their head in amazement.

    More generally, it shows there are many teachers in the UK who could hardly be considered good role models in terms of how they conduct themselves on social media, often under their own names. If it was up to me, I would draw up a list of staff who post abusive messages and accusations of *-ism/*-phobia and sack the lot. Better a teacher shortage than “teachers” who behave like this.

    N.B I think your last 2 paragraphs are spot-on.

  7. Pingback: When a word has two meanings – Filling the pail

  8. Pingback: What can we learn from the war of Tom’s list? by Greg Ashman – Social Justice Archive

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