When People Say “White People Say”

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.

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20 thoughts on “When People Say “White People Say””

  1. The flip side: accept that “white people” just means the bourgeoisie, as seems pretty clear at sites like Stuff White People Like. Some white Jews and Hispanics are arguing that they aren’t white because Privilege Theory, so why shouldn’t we argue that the working class isn’t white either?

    Hmm. We could say it’s about the whites versus the reds.

  2. On the other hand, when someone who’s been mistreated based on racial categorization their whole life is told racial categorization isn’t real, the person telling them that sounds like the guy telling them to shoot at Company C.

    I don’t disagree with your point, but the way you put it obscures, not reinforces, the strength of the argument when aimed at the people who need most to hear it. Am I a smart guy who knows how to word it better? I am not. But I felt the criticism was worth making.

  3. Matt, you are missing the point by conflating race and racism. RACISM is real. RACE isn’t. We can fight racism without reinforcing the concept of race. That’s precisely one of the strengths of class politics: it can demonstrate to people on a very material level that racism undermines our ability to defend ourselves against the system.

  4. I agree with everything in Steve’s post. The corporate owned media are extraordinarily skilled at this divide and conquer game, however. The best thing to do is ignore their messages, or watch them only in a critical light, with the class struggle in mind. Steve’s also right, though, that those who have achieved a modicum of success (home, car, job, crappy health insurance) might feel superior on the one hand and anxious about revolutionary upheaval on the other.

    George Carlin said it well, about 30 years ago: “They keep the poor people around to scare the s___ out of the middle class.”

  5. Jonas: I’m pointing out how the post comes off. The point, I get just fine, and agree with.

  6. Wonderful, insightful post by Steve and as usual, so well expressed and argued. I would add only that the idea that “race” is a “man-made” concept which promotes material interests (economic) in a class society. As such ir served as a justification for slavery in the western hemisphere, in the U.S. and other coutries where slave labor was integral to the economy. It is not based on the science of biology (genetics) as Anthropologists have proclaimed for a long time (even before I studied college Anthropology roughly 62 years ago.) I recall a photo-diagram in a textbook illustrating the continuity of physical appearance across the species helping to illustrate the point. The Nazis claimed racial differences were based on biology and as we know designated a certain European physical “type” to be the “Master Race”.

    The existence of “false consciousness” based on “race” or ethnicity has always been opposed in the course of revolutionary struggles, as for example in the October Russian Revolution. Likewise. the unity of workers in such struggles involving “white” and “black” workers as that to build the industrial (C.I.O) unions in the U.S. in the 1930s was a necessity. Class interests prevaiIed over race-consciousness. .

  7. “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 [….]

    “I would argue, and have argued, that this latter view is correct”

    Of course you would. And meanwhile the jingoist argues that his view is correct, and the evangelical christian argues that HIS view is correct, and the snob thinks his is correct, and the sexist is sure that hers is correct, etc etc etc.

    They all choose their poison. They all believe their own chosen enemies are THE enemy. “Everybody get together and help defeat MY enemy, and it will turn out that you have also defeated YOUR enemy too! Because my enemy is the one who’s secretly controlling your enemy!”

    It’s possible that one of these is really truly correct, and his own bugbear is the real enemy who manipulates all the other enemies. But it’s hard for me to believe that. It looks to me like people just tend to choose enemies. Maybe somebody has chosen the objectively correct enemy for everybody. After all, with so many choices, so many people with different candidates, they can’t ALL be wrong, can they?

    But there’s a possible explanation which is simpler. I don’t know whether it’s better. Here it is:

    People are assholes. And they annoy each other.

  8. The Camus book I read explores how Camus fell out with Sartre over Camus’s refusal to express solidarity with an international Communist party which, to Camus, was inextricably linked to the atrocities then occurring in Russia.

    Camus was a self-described moderate. Zaretsky, the author of the book, presents Camus as a moderate whose thought can be understood as a response to the atrocities of the twentieth century, and provides a possible counter-example to what you imply is the irrelevance of middle class mores with, yes, just a touch of the philistine to them. It’s true that Camus inaction characterized the political involvement of his later life, but the legacy of his thought is, at least, in part political.

    One can argue, quite reasonably, that the current state of the modern world is a vindication of the liberal mores of Locke, Hume, and Smith, even if class and race are the basis for its most powerful criticisms.


    You’re making me regret that I returned a 500 page monograph on Harlem and civil rights without getting very much out of it. But the critique there, in the part that I read, is that Communist based race activism often had difficulty focusing on the causes which would have the most effect on the immediate black community. The problem with taking as a goal an international labor movement is that sometimes the platform of such a movement suffers from a certain irrelevance to a local black community.

  9. Better wages, benefits and working conditions for the bulk of the working classes are irrelevant to the local black community?

  10. I’ve been thinking about the black folks who object to class-based politics, and I realized they tend to be part of the black bourgeoisie. So, yes, to them, those things are irrelevant.

  11. Just because a category is socially created does not make it unreal. After all the distinction between working class and owning class is a difference in material conditions between groups of people who are not genetically separate. Further I know Steve refers to Ireland and Hungary in spite of the fact the borders are arbitrary lines on a map. George Bernard Shaw (who was often maddening politically) once made the observation that nationalism is a disease that can only be cured by granting national demands. Similarly, race is a social category that can only be abolished with the abolition of racism, or at least a tremendous reduction of racism to the point where it becomes a trivial form of oppression.

  12. Kragar: This isn’t just a complaint about Communism with respect to black communities, but a criticism I’ve heard of working class movements organized by intellectuals in general.

    Communism is more than a political platform for the working class. It’s a theory, worked out by Marx and Engels in great detail. Worker’s movements which are organized by intellectuals, from what I understand, tend to faction over the problems of reconciling theory with the pressing working class problems of the moment. I don’t have any good examples, sorry. It’s not a subject I have any detailed first-hand knowledge of or that I’ve read anything substantial about.

  13. Hi Steve. No I’m specifically arguing against your trying to combine opposition to racism with an attempt to erase the concept of race. I’m saying that the fact that race is social rather than biological does not make unreal. You will have difficulty opposing racism successfully if you ignore the reality of race. Racism created race, not the other way, around, but that does not mean that race does not exist. Denying the existence of white people (and of black people) narrows the ability to analyze and understand anti-black racism. Ultimately the categories of race need to be eliminated, or reduced to unimportance. But that elimination, or reduction to triviality, can only happen as the battle against racism advances. Right now, the material social conditions in which the struggle against racism takes place does not allow for the elimination of the categories of White People and Black People. I would guess that just abut every non-White person in the USA has at one point or another encountered someone who says “I don’t see color” and turns out to be a horribly racist. Telling a Black person in the USA today that there is not such thing as White People is like telling a 19th century Irish nationalist that there is not such thing as an Irishman or Irishwoman. After all, Ireland was just an imaginary line on a map. The sense in which that war true was irrelevant to the life and death struggle for freedom which the Irish of the time were waging. Your saying “there is no such thing as white people” is a denial that there is such a thing as race. Biologically, you are right. But the social categories of “Black People” and of “White People” do exist, and I’m not convinced that the struggle against racism can take place effectively while denying their social reality.

  14. Do “white people” exist in the same way that “black people” exist under modern racism? A lot of times white is the faceless default. These days people don’t define whiteness and tick off the differences: they just treat black people differently. People can check off all the things they feel are “more prevalent” about black people, but no one defines the qualities of white people anymore (except for overt racists who want to be known as racists.)

    Black is bad. White is neutral. No real person is neutral; so no actual person is “really” white, for most purposes. (As I said, white people who actually claim to be white ironically become something different from hegemonic white.) That’s modern racism in a nut shell. Borges with a gun.

    Try fighting that. Black people are put in the position of either fighting everyone and everything else, or nothing, or both simultaneously. The African American community was forced to do linguistic gymnastics to figure Zimmerman as white; otherwise, the crime would have no purchase in national debates. Let’s be honest, if Zimmerman had committed crimes against anyone else, he would have been “Mexican.” Still, when all was said and done, Zimmerman might as well have been carrying one of Richelieu’s famous letters: What the bearer has done, he has done in hegemonic whiteness’ name.

    (And white people cannot fight racism because they are always already racist, even if they are also invariably the subject of some other oppression. Privileging that oppression, even in limited situations, over anti-racism magically becomes exerting your white privilege. Which of course is the worst thing you can possibly do today in polite company. In other words, you can fight all those other fights once you completely and utterly eradicate racism, including the internalized racism in your subconscious. Easy. Right. Get back to us when you’re done.)

  15. strawberryrevolution, you’re making enormous generalizations about black people. A few facts:

    1. About 40% of black people think black people are too different to speak of a single black race anymore. The split, interestingly, is pretty much on class lines.

    2. Most black people prefer #AllLivesMatter to #BlackLivesMatter.

    3. People like Morgan Freeman think it’s time to stop perpetuating the idea of race.

    That said, I’ll repeat what every critic of race says: yes, racism exists, and we must fight it. But what bourgeois anti-racists can’t see: you can’t fight something and embrace it too.

    (If you doubt any of my three points, I’ll happily provide links to polls and quotes.)

  16. Strawberry: It sounds like you’re saying that either you eliminate the concept of race, or you hammer it, solidify it, make people think it reflects objective differences. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you?

    I am arguing that racism cannot be defeated while the concept of race is being treated as if it were a permanent, cast-iron, fundamental division between people. I am arguing that society can not move forward in any meaningful way without unity among the oppressed. I am arguing that this unity must be built around a fight against all oppression, including racism. I am arguing that those who treat race as if it were real and fundamental are working against that goal, and thus helping the oppressors. Where is it you disagree?

    And let me add, since you bring up Ireland, that no Marxist told an Irishman, “There’s no such thing as the Irish.” The fight by our Irish was comrades was to say, “Irish nationalism is being used to divide you from the English working class, and, in turn, to make them hate you. We must focus on what the English worker and the Irish worker have in common, and together fight British Imperialism.” In the mid 70s, this actually got a really strong response in both countries.

  17. You’re “on the money”, Will. Thanks. As has been shown. the “black Lives Matter” is another “identity politics” gambit, and many working people would prefer “all lives matter” in the context of police violence against working class blacks, white, hispanics, etc. The upper middle class and black bourgeoisie are rarely the victims.

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