Notes on Race, Identity and Online Activism

In mid-2017 I spent several months immersed in “Black Twitter”, that section of the Twitterverse populated mainly by young persons of colour and devoted to discussing issues of race, identity and social justice. Some of what I read was inspiring. It’s heartening to find so many passionately trying to forge a less sexist, racist and homophobic world, a world in which the traditionally disadvantaged are more likely than they are now to live fulfilling lives. But in the midst of all that fervour I found much to depress me. For far too many “social justice warriors” the fight has become tribal. Battle lines have been drawn between the ostensibly oppressed and their presumed oppressors, and one’s status is determined not by actions but by race, gender and sexual orientation. Blanket denunciations of men and white people are common. “Men are trash.” “All white people are racist.” Some of this is meant humorously and sometimes it’s deliberate hyperbole, but often such statements are made by young people who believe in their literal truth.

The fragments below reflect my engagement with this community. Most of them are responses to specific tweets or online arguments. They are written from the perspective of a black person living in the UK, one who believes that while racism is a hindrance and social evil, it is not as important a limiting factor for minorities in this country as it arguably is elsewhere. Britain is not the United States. Prejudice and privilege work differently here. Our peculiar problems require peculiar solutions, analytical and rhetorical tools tailored to this environment.

Many of the points made below are obvious. For this I make no apology. We should be prepared to restate obvious truths when faced with those who are unaware of them. We should be prepared to repeat ourselves, to be unsubtle, to be boring. 

Because these notes are meant to serve as correctives, they skew in one direction. Readers will notice this rightward drift and may doubt my commitment to anti-racist activism.  They shouldn’t. The people I criticise are my people. Their fight is my fight. I believe, as they do, that we must work together to dismantle the systems of power and entrenched prejudice known as white supremacy. This work is as necessary as it is difficult, but it can’t be done with inaccurate maps and the wrong tools.

Racialisation and racial solidarity aren’t paths to a solution. They’re part of the problem.1

Avoid generalisation. It’s unwise to declare entire groups guilty by association. Do not punish children for the sins of their parents.

Do not declare guilty all those who have not made strenuous efforts to prove themselves innocent.

“I won’t support X because he has failed to address the anti-blackness in his community.” “I won’t fight for Y because members of Y’s ethnic group do not fight for me.”

Petty. Unhelpful. Unjust.

Blackness is not wisdom. Blackness is not a separate state of being. Blackness does not automatically confer on its bearers special insight into the nature of (and solution to) racism.

Not all women are gynaecologists. The best gynaecologists aren’t necessarily female.

The idea of blackness is itself a problem.

I am an authority on my life. I am not an authority on the lives of people like me.

All things are possible. The average 20-year-old POC may know more about racism than the average middle-aged white journalist. But since “knowing about racism” entails more than being familiar with the specific forms of oppression faced by one’s own group, this is far from certain.

Most young people are experts on their own lives and on little else.

Not all racism is structural racism. Not all racists are privileged.

Racism isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. All this talk of educating “white people” is condescending rubbish.

Avoid using the term “white people” uncritically.

You can introduce outsiders to your mores and linguistic conventions and provide valuable information about how racial discrimination affects you and your peers. But don’t presume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that you have knowledge inaccessible to those outside your race.

Racism isn’t original sin. Some people are racist, other’s aren’t.

“All white people are racist” is becoming this generation’s “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Often seen on Twitter: “Black people can be prejudiced, but since they are members of an oppressed group and lack power, they can’t be racist.”

Power is relative. Virtually every black person has some kind of influence over someone else. Black employers have power over their workers, black teachers have power over their students, black people have power over anyone whose life they are capable of affecting. In western democracies there have been black presidents, supreme court justices, attorney generals, military commanders, media moguls etc. There are African countries in which black nationalist are in power. Institutional privilege isn’t limited to members of one race.

A person who harbours racial prejudice is racist.

Anyone who claims there’s a neat racial divide between sinners and saints, perpetrators and victims is, by most definitions, racist. What could be more racist than the triad

Racism is bad.

Black people cannot be racist.

All whites are racist.

And the gloss “All white people are potentially racist” is either so obvious it doesn’t need saying or a claim that racism is a problem in all white demographics (even, for instance, among those who think of themselves as anti-racists).

Compare “All blacks are criminals” and “All blacks are potentially criminals.”

Often seen on Twitter: “Why are you so bothered by the statement ‘All white people are racist’? Focus on being better and on using your privilege to dismantle structural oppression”

Why are you so bothered by ‘All blacks are criminals’? Focus on being law-abiding and on working to root out the wrongdoers in your community.

There’s a difference between “Swans are white” and “All swans are white.”

The first is a true generic. Swans tend to be white. This isn’t falsified by our stumbling on a few black swans. Similarly, men (and women) tend to be sexist. Whites (and blacks and everyone else) tend, to varying degrees, to be racist. These statements are true even if we can point to many non-sexist men and anti-racist whites.

The statement “All swans are white”, on the other hand, is falsified by the existence of one black swan. If we know of a single white person who isn’t racist, we can’t possibly claim that “all whites are racist.”

Similarly with “All whites benefit from racism.” Some do not. Some white people been directly harmed by anti-black and anti-white prejudice. White anti-racists have suffered injury and death at the hands of white supremacists. White farmers and their families have been subjected to horrific assaults, torture and rape in Zimbabwe and South Africa. White people in interracial relationships have faced violence and ostracism.

I would argue that just as a parent is affected when her child is bullied and a man is harmed by his friend’s misfortune, anyone who is in a close relationship with a person of colour is harmed when that person suffers racial violence or is discriminated against.

Those who insist all whites benefit from racism imply that white and black lives are cleanly separated.

Even black anti-racists sometimes unwittingly spread racist ideas.

Why, for instance, do so many speak of a transnational “black” culture encompassing virtually everything produced by persons of African descent anywhere in the world?

Anyone who begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but …” is probably racist.

Anyone who says “I can’t be racist because X” is probably racist.

This applies even when X = “I’m black”.

When an African American refers to black culture she usually means African American, that distinct culture borne out of a collective history of segregation and slavery and the reality of having to live, work and create art in distinctly black spaces. America has had black publications, black colleges, black TV stations, black organisations, entire cultural ecosystems built along racial lines.

Black Britons have nothing comparable. When we speak of black culture we include Kanye West and Issa Rae. The average black American rarely extends the same courtesy to our Stormzys and Michaela Coles. From across the Atlantic they are seen as distinctly British as opposed to distinctly black.

Black women living and working in London are more likely to identify with the characters in Issa Rae’s Insecure than with those in Fleabag. Why does race trump everything else?

Racism is substrate independent. Black policemen and security guards are often just as racist as their white counterparts.

Even if we define racism to exclude anti-white prejudice, it is pervasive among people of colour.

How could it be otherwise? If we have all been socialised in environments permeated by anti-blackness and white supremacist ideas – indeed, if these ideas are so virulent that exposure guarantees infection, blacks are just as likely as whites to be racist. Unless one claims, as many now do, that racial prejudice is only racist when expressed by a person belonging to a privileged group.

Often seen on Twitter:

“Hire black writers to write about black art” rather than “Hire competent writers familiar with the culture.”

“All whites are racist because we live in a society permeated by white supremacist ideas. No one is immune.” rather than “We are all racist. We live in a society permeated by white supremacist ideas. No one is immune.”

Many are unaware of the implications of their own arguments. They don’t want justice; they want better conditions for members of their favoured communities.

Even if persons of colour do not imbibe negative ideas about members of their own group (a doubtful proposition) why can’t they be prejudiced against other minorities?

The average black person may not be as anti-black as the average white, but he may well be as antisemitic. He may well be, in every other respect, just as racist.

“Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates

If there are crimes of whiteness, there must also be, at least theoretically, crimes of blackness.


1. By racialisation I mean the tendency to see everything through a racial lens. Racialised discourse is peppered with references to black businesses, “black excellence,” black art, interracial couples, etc. Its practitioners reflexively assume differences in racial outcomes are due, at all links along the chain, to racial discrimination. If victims of police brutality are disproportionately black, it is assumed that most of this disproportionality is due to racist policing, rather than to preexisting factors that lead to differences between the groups about which frontline officers have to make snap judgements. It’s the flip side to not seeing race: seeing it everywhere and in everything, not seeing lawyers or architects who happen to be black but black lawyers and architects, and not being able to address societal ills without looking for a racial angle or grievance.