Stop saying “white people say.”
This has come up anew because Beyoncé flipped off the cops in the middle of the Super Bowl, with the result that bunches of us cheered, and the defenders of the status quo were deeply offended and outraged. Naturally, that outrage itself infuriates us, and makes us want to distance ourselves from the bigots and reactionaries. This is healthy. The next step is to go onto Facebook or Twitter and publish some meme that, while it may not advance our knowledge, at least serves to tell our friends, “Yes, I’m on her side!” There’s nothing wrong with that. Facebook memes are about shows of solidarity, or displays of wit, or cute cats, but they aren’t about advancing knowledge, which is fine. And if you want to vent, and rage against overt bigotry, hell, I’m last person to suggest not doing that.
It’s fine until that meme works to reinforce the very sort of thinking we need to reject. At that point, it becomes part of the problem, whatever the intention of the creator.
No, my objection is not based on “not all white people,” or, “not all men,” or whatever. That isn’t the problem. It isn’t about lumping racist white people in with non-racist white people, that isn’t it either. And it isn’t about offending white people who aren’t racist. That’s another thing that misses the point. In fact, it isn’t about “white people” at all. And making it about “white people” is exactly the problem.
We’re in a war right now. There are two sides in this war: those who profit from the exploitation of the masses, and those who are exploited. The people who are blowing up hospitals and bombing children in the middle east are the people shooting unarmed poor and working class people, especially minorities, in the US. The people who are carrying out and financially backing genocidal attacks on the Palestinians are the people spying on us, poisoning our water, and reducing us to subsistence level wages, when we’re lucky enough to have a job. The people pushing us into conflicts with Russia and China are the people attacking our educational system. So the first step is to face it, we’re in a war.
There are many ways to fight a war, depending on objectives, conditions, and resources. But you know how you don’t fight a war? You don’t fight a war by saying, “Hey, never mind those people shooting at you, your real enemy are those folks in Company C, the barracks next door. Go get ’em!” Here’s a clue: the person who tries to get you shooting at your comrade is not your friend.
It’s about categories. Now, the middle-class philistine loves to tell us, “we’re all people, we should just be people and we ought to never see things as us against them.” I will leave the middle-class philistine to this opinion, comfortable that this sort of “ought” will never actually have an effect on the world. For the rest of us, the question is, what sort of categories? Well, it depends on what you’re doing with them, doesn’t it? The jingoist sees “American” and “Foreigner.” The evangelical Christian sees those who are saved and those who are not. The snob sees the elite and the hoi-palloi. The sexist sees men and women. The homophobe sees gay and straight. The bigot sees black and white. The Marxist sees things in class terms, and seeks to explain things—including those other divisions—according to class interests. I would argue, and have argued, that this latter view is correct, in that it corresponds to the objective processes that drive society forward at its most fundamental level.
When you say, “White people say” you are treating the category of race as if it were real, and vital, and central. You are making it stronger. You hear the enemy say, “Shoot at those guys in Company C” and are understandably saying, “Company C, you need to shoot back.” Understandable, but wrong—I say we need to be shooting at that son of a bitch who is trying to get us to shoot each other. You are letting the enemy dictate the terms. Are there people who pull their personal identity from race, or from sex, or sexual orientation, from religion, from ethnicity? Certainly there are; I daresay people can pull their sense of identity from wherever they choose. But this will not keep the bombs from falling on Syria; it will not halt the drive to World War III; it will not prevent more and more unemployment, poverty, homelessness. And it will not help to organize the working class—the one force on Earth with the power and the historic duty to go up against capital.
We need to recognize our side. And our side is not determined by our color, or the shape of our genitalia, or who we like to sleep with. It is determined by external war and internal repression and the answer to a fairly simple question: Are we exploiting the labor of others to make billions of dollars on human misery, or are we in the ranks of the exploited?
So the oppressed minorities are just supposed to ignore their oppression for the sake of unity?
No. We are all supposed to demand and work for an immediate and unconditional end to that oppression—for the sake of unity. We must band together against police murder, against the hysteria directed against our Muslim brothers and sisters, against the impoverishment of the American Indian, against the brutal exploitation of the Latino, against the attacks on the reproductive rights of women. The fight against institutional racism must be part of the fight against capitalism; and the fight against racism and other forms of backwardness within the ranks of the oppressed (which does exist, although not nearly to the degree the media wants us to believe) must be part of the fight to organize against oppression.
ETA: I’m adding this in response to the comments, because the point Matt brings up is valid, and Jonas’s answer is spot on: I am arguing that race is a fallacious category created to keep the oppressed divided; but racism is real, and it is the duty of every class-conscious worker to fight it.
You know what helps in the fight against racism within the working class? When you say, “The category of race is pure crap, created to keep you apart, and look at how low your wages are exactly because the bosses have kept you fighting each other by convincing you that the category of race is real. We have to work together, and that means saying ‘NO’ to any effort to try to convince you, by economic advantage, social advantage, or psychological game playing, that you have any interests in common with the exploiters. And we work together in this way, not because you should sacrifice for others, but because it is your own best interest that we are united against our enemy.”
You know what doesn’t help? Telling them, “categories of race are real, and we must make them stronger, oh, and be sure you sacrifice what supposed privileges your masters have given you over the doubly oppressed, because you’ll feel all warm and glowy.” This, of course, is very helpful to those who want the oppression to continue. And I’m sure it feels very good to those in the middle—those with secure and comfortable lives who don’t want those lives disrupted by something as untidy and disturbing as the class struggle. If this describes you, then, sure, feel free to say, “White people say.” But don’t pretend that you are helping the oppressed.