This is another stylistic experiment, the first of (I hope) an occasional series of exercises: I want to get better at critically reflecting on, and writing about, my experiences as a white man in a structurally racist society. I want to think of them as ‘exercises’ in the sense that they demand something of me (and perhaps of you), and that I hope to get better at them through repeated practice.
While I don’t note any direct influence, I should acknowledge that I spent large chunks of last week reading and learning from Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and Mixed-Race Superman by Will Harris (as well as Authentocrats by Joe Kennedy – not, by its own admission, a book about race, but which I think might be in the background of some of these thoughts). Part of the challenge of writing autobiographically as a white man, in the wake of reading books like these, is making it clear that, when I articulate how experiences make me feel, I’m doing something different from amplifying structural “aggression” hidden within a felt “micro-aggression”. The feelings that I write about below are best seen as small, liveable-with, not to be pitied, even boring. The utopian horizon would not be one in which these feelings are transformed or replaced, but where they become fully acknowledged and shared as a common form-of-life without having to be “spoken” as they are here. For this reason, but to different or differently-weighted ends, I’ve tried out appropriating Claudia Rankine’s strategy of reframing my personal experience as “yours”. I’m not sure if it works – the story might be too long and specific. Thoughts welcome.
It also felt important to share these thoughts publicly, but to do so on a platform like this, where the capital I’ll accrue from publishing them is fairly minimal. You’re obviously welcome to like, share and circulate on social media, and I’d be touched if you do – but I say this recognising that reservations about whose voices get amplified how, and how they feel about it, are part of what this post is about. You’re also welcome to contact me privately (email in the ‘About’ page, or DMs on social media). I’ve no idea what, if anything, I’ll write about next: it would mean a lot for me for these exercises to be part of an unfolding conversation.
“and sharp white shards / of Arcopal […] do for charitable prayers” (R.F. Langley)
You have recently finished and submitted a doctoral thesis on political theatre, which deals only glancingly with questions about race and empire. This thesis is in sustained and detailed dialogue with the work of another middle-class white male early-career academic: so early-career that you’re mainly citing his own unpublished doctoral thesis and the scripts for conference papers that he publishes on his blog. The work that you cite is also on the politics of theatre-making, and also deals only glancingly with race and empire. However, since writing his thesis and alongside these conference papers, this academic has become particularly vocal on issues of decolonising representation in the academy and the theatre industry: much of his most recent published writing, many of the other posts on his blog, and almost all of his recent posts on Twitter consist of exposures of structural racism and (extended, sometimes angry and sarcastic) condemnations of the racist treatment of people of colour.
Throughout your thesis, you, unsurprisingly, express your admiration for this academic’s work but also potential limitations to his approach. In your own thinking – and, ultimately, in one rather hedged sentence in the conclusion to your thesis – you wonder whether this can be related to your own conflicted feelings about his public stance on race and decolonisation. His interventions are confident, polemical, conventionally “activist” in a way that comes easily to white men with a certain level and kind of education: both you and he studied the same undergraduate course at Cambridge, and are publicly open about its attendant privileges and limitations. But the thought of making such interventions yourself makes you uncomfortable. True, this academic seems to avoid the common pitfalls that come with these kinds of intervention: he checks his privilege regularly; he acknowledges and amplifies the work of others, even if he doesn’t hide the fact that he himself is performing the speech-act of exhorting change; he seems to recognise that no personal intervention can cast off or absolve him of the structural privileges that attend to him as a white man. Yet the very fact that he is doing something and knows it feels like it carries its own attendant reward.
You begin to think of these interventions as a kind of sacrificial machine that works – like certain kinds of ‘radical’ theatre – on, and with, the shame of the white subject. This machine provide conditions in which deep experiences of shame can be acknowledged but, by being acknowledged, can also be somehow minorised and recouped as something from which the activist (and, hopefully, the wider community) can accrue at least a degree of cultural and positive emotional capital. This machine might be masochistic in the proper sense: the greater the shame, the better the potential reward. It also might have the worrying effect of enshrining a division between ‘virtuosos’, who are capable of minorising and thus living sustainably with new feelings of shame to the point that they might appear to enjoy them, and ‘novices’, for whom these new feelings of shame still hurt – in some cases because other feelings of shame, perhaps instilled by class and education, remain sore. You wonder whether this academic’s approach leaves too little space to account for the political necessity of white men finding ways to make sacrifices without this kind of compensatory recuperation. Perhaps we should step back from the field of political action, in order to allow those whose agency we seek to activate to get on with it.
You want to be clear that your fellow academic’s intentions, and principal effects, are entirely good; the side-effects, and side-affects, are just that. You recognise that your thoughts might be an attempt to recuperate your own sense of humiliation at not being as vocal or as publicly committed. You also recognise that, as someone who’s now on a (potentially indefinite) career break from standard academic trajectories, you have the privilege of not needing to find ways to balance the production of visible outputs and interventions, in order to remain employed, with a commitment to doing so in a way that is more broadly emancipatory, maximising the potential for others to intervene. In short, you worry, in thinking and saying all this, that you are just spoiling for a fight: a fight you don’t want, one you expect to lose, and one in which, yet again, the experiences of people of colour become relegated to the status of a prized object over which white men fight.
You realised you wanted to articulate this long-held uncertainty when, late last night, you received an email saying that a paper you had proposed for a conference on race and poetics has not been accepted. This was not too much of a surprise or, for the most part, a big disappointment. The material you proposed was new to you, based on vague ideas you’d been able to make only initial sallies into as you finished your thesis. You said as much in your email accompanying the proposal, and made it clear that you’d still do your best to come to the conference just to listen if that was more appropriate. (In retrospect, this was unnecessary, even patronising: who are you to implicitly give people already in a position to judge your ideas permission to judge them?) But a bit of you, you’re embarrassed to say, was still disappointed: a bit of you had hoped that this couching might, anti-performatively, mark you out as the kind of ally that deserves a chance to speak; a bit of you had paradoxically even begun rehearsing how you might make a version of your “shame-machine” point above, to acknowledge the attendant risks of speaking as a white man at a conference like this. You recognise that the committee’s decision is not intended as, and shouldn’t be taken as, passing judgement on your allyship. But… damn it, a bit of you does still compare yourself to those white people who get to speak (or, indeed, are on the conference committee) who have put more work than you into mitigating their privilege: by showing up, doing the reading, starting the reading groups, generally presenting themselves as allies (or even just more sociably as friends) quicker and better than you did. And you don’t know whether this comparison is driven by a “bad” feeling of envy of their cultural capital, or a “good” feeling of shame at the fact that they have acquired it by being, by your own criteria, better political subjects than you are – or whether these two feelings enter a kind of perverse dialectic.
In the end, you keep coming back to how touched and impressed you are by the committee’s response: how the detailed reasons that they give for not accepting the paper feel kindly attuned to the emotions that you had brought to bear on offering it, even though it was (probably) not personally composed for you. You recognise, and feel embarrassed by, all the unacknowledged labour that people of colour put into sustaining the allyship which you’d prefer to frame as an active and sacrificial choice on your part. You hope you’re worth the labour, and that you can find more ways to not require it of them in the future.