Prestigious universities and worthy nonprofits shouldn't push nonsense
I have a slightly reductive view of wokeness/political correctness that I think is worth considering. It's not a complete explanation but I think it might be a partial one.
It strikes me that a significant motivation for wokeness is *not being confident in one's own first-order abilities*. When a college student in a poetry class puts his hand up and says "I think the metaphor in the second stanza is sexist", it's sometimes because the student doesn't have anything interesting to say about meter or imagery or the other things the professor might have hoped to hear about. Critiquing injustice is almost always *easier* than whatever it is a group of people is supposed to be doing at any given time.
I think Matt is right that white leftists are more likely than white conservatives to prefer doing collaborative work in a non-hierarchical way, but that isn't necessarily a problem if they're good at what they're doing. The more serious risk is that woke-ifying all human activities serves the vested interests of people who aren't very good at doing actual things.
I also think David Graeber's theory of "bullshit jobs" is relevant here. A larger and larger share of white-collar professional employment seems to consist of positions that are essentially bureaucratic: people who get paid to monitor and surveil the people doing the first-order work. (Insert gif of guy digging hole with people standing around watching.)
I think Graeber's book is amazingly important and raises serious questions about whether neoclassical economists understand anything at all about how labor markets work. But it's also worth considering whether the "bullshit jobs" phenomenon might be a major cause of workplace wokeness. For whatever reason, the phase of capitalism we're currently in has produced an enormous class of people who don't need to be good at any useful first-order activity, and who have a strong vested interest in developing new reasons for everyone else to be monitored and surveilled.
The best part of all far reaching theses of the variety "X is not limited to Y, but also includes Z because X permeates everything" is that they are totally non-refutable, thus incorporating all the features of a good conspiracy theory.
The readership of Slow Boring being what it is, I doubt we’re going gear any full-throated defenses of the idea that effectiveness and efficiency are not only bad but literally white supremacy, so I have a related question for the audience…
Okun’s shtick, shorn of its racial aspects, is familiar to anyone who’s ever attended PTA meeting or been part of a dysfunctional organization: the More Process Is Always Better person. You can easily grind any organization to a halt just by demanding one more meeting, another study group and justifying it as “more Democratic”.
Okun has effecting cloaked the death-by-process approach in the language of fighting white supremacy, but this is a universal danger in any organization (heck, it’s literally what we recommended as a method of sabotage to allied-leaning people in Nazi germany) and what I’m really curious about is: will anyone here admit to having done enough time in _conservative_ organizing and activism to say how it manifests there? Constant demand for more prayer groups and bible study?
Given how credential-obsessed white liberals tend to be, her utter lack of scholarly background is the most bewildering aspect of this process. How precisely were inroads made? By what metric is anyone choosing or evaluating her methods?! Or is that white supremecist thinking?
I’m old enough to remember how white American sloppiness was going to be crushed by Japanese perfectionism. I’m glad we white people got our shit together.
Thanks for this piece Matt. I'm a Black Southerner who recently returned to the South after a five-year stint in the Bay Area and I'm a bit terrified that Okun's version of "racial justice" that seems primarily concerned with white people's emotions is going to do real harm to improving Black people's material living conditions. I've seen it crop up at the giant (200,000+) firm where I work where "uncomfortable conversations" take up mental energy that should go towards being as intentional about our talent pipelines and career supports for non-white employees as we are about the core work we do. I've seen it in progressive politics where the love of process actively detracts from making progress on stated goals and has the curious side-effect of empowering the process lovers despite supposedly "flat" org-structures.
I was briefly excited last summer when I thought we might be on the cusp of a third Reconstruction (the second being during the 1960s) but the absorption of a scary amount of white Americans' interest in this topic into unfounded and counter-productive arenas makes the boring work necessary to address continuing racial injustices less likely to be successful.
The "defensiveness is a form of white supremacy" is a maddening trap. It's always frustrating when some theory holds that disbelieving the theory is evidence the theory is correct—some people use psychonalytic theory this way—but it's particularly frustrating when applied to white supremacy, because our culture (with reason) treats racism/white supremacy as an egregious personal failing! You can't set a category as dangerous, hateful, and backwards and then expect people not to defend themselves against being put in that category. Of course, people sometimes try to reframe an individual being "racist" or "white supremacist" as being (in a society defined by racism) morally neutral, purely descriptive, but of course in practice it isn't treated that way, including by many of the people attempting this reframing.
My main takeaway from this stuff is that Americans really need to learn more non-US history. No one would believe this nonsense if everyone were familiar with at least some of the intellectual and political histories of China, India, Japan, the Middle East, and the pre-Columbus Americas. The idea that there is "only one right way" to do something, for instance, might be pretty appealing to some Confucians. And "either/or thinking – seeing things in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, black or white" reminds me of the pretty famous passage in Mozi where he denounces warfare as just an accumulation of murders, saying basically "if you saw a huge black spot you wouldn't call it white just because it's huge". I could go on.
I confess to having once bought into this line of thinking. Basically if you look around and see white people dominating positions of power, and using that power to maintain their position, it’s a slippery slope to seeing bog standard “how to run an organization efficiently” methods as manifestation of racism. It takes some very hyper-collectivist, biased observation to get there, though. It takes willful dismissal of the actual social benefits of any of those behaviors. It takes ignoring the global ubiquity of those behaviors. It requires seeing the world as revolving around whiteness. In so many words, it requires buying into white supremacy yourself.
I agree with other commenters that this stuff is more harmful than just making organizations inefficient. It is literally creating racism where there wasn’t any. It’s making progressive people of color feel oppressed in their organizations. It’s making anti-racists resentful of “white people.” (People will call Matt racist for posting this because he is white.) and worst of all, it feeds the Tucker Carlsons of the world confirmation that “racism against white people is the real problem.”
My simple guidance for earnest anti-racists is: treat white people like you want them to treat people of color. That includes not making lists of what’s “wrong with their culture” that neither reflect their “culture” nor are wrong.
Thank you for doing this. As someone who watched similar insanity spread on the right for years and figured “it’s harmless” - it’s not.
Once people believe in one set of absurd things, it’s very easy to make them believe others. Especially when you tell them things like “objectivity is white supremacy” or in the case of the right “scientific research is a sinister tool of leftist propaganda.” Don’t ever think “it can’t happen here.”
I consider myself anti-racist. For instance, in my view, if you don't use race as one of the primary lenses through which to learn American history, you're not learning American history. I strongly believe race is a social invention, and not a biological fact. Where appropriate, I think white people should challenge their peers on the issue of race, although I would trust an individual's judgment on when and where it might work, and when and where it might have the opposite effect. I almost always favor public policy that effectively pushes back the effects of hundreds of years of racism. Finally, in this particular arena, if not "woke" (and I consider the term ridiculously reductive), I would probably fit the category of "anti-anti-woke."
That said, Okun is just playing Calvinball. "If you disagree with me, that's White Supremacy. If you challenge my standing to make a rule that you can't disagree with me, that's also White Supremacy. See how this works?" Worse, her Calvinball involves buying into all the most pernicious stereotypes of African-Americans. Just as much as you, Ms. Okun, black people can write, do math, be on time, respect legitimate authority. I don't see where you get off implying otherwise.
At least in the progressive nonprofit work environment there's quite a bit of (understandable) guilt/anxiety about the fact that the organization, which is dedicated to an ostensibly progressive cause, is often extremely white. The reasons for this are entirely predictable: Relative to the level of education required, nonprofit pay isn't great, there are few opportunities for promotion or pay raises, and the jobs are extremely scarce and competitive. So to really make it in nonprofits, you need to have a level of economic security that, in the United States, typically accrues to white people. (As a white person with a postgraduate degree who has worked at nonprofits and grew up in a household with two professional-class parents, I can speak from experience.)
This is an objectively bad outcome and I think nonprofit executives should address it. The problem is that those structural solutions are hard to solve and the answer usually includes some variation of "we need more money." My take is that Okun, DiAngelo, et al. are popular because they are an easy way to make it appear like the organization is "doing something" about its existing racial imbalance without having to commit much in the way of resources.
One obvious thing missing here is how these sort of wokeness documents are a massive liability for Democrats and are regularly used on Fox and Facebook to scare low-information viewers about how Dems are coming for you. It’s INCREDIBLY damaging.
It really bothers me how the term "white supremacy" gets used. In normal language it means KKK or Nazis, not describe generalized everyday culture. It's another thing where I feel like highly educated liberals feel the need to use academic terms instead of common language and I find it really condescending.
Would you like to see these ideas summarized in an infographic? Follow the link below!
Last summer, my lefty friends started circulating this approvingly on social media — this thing that says the scientific method is white culture — I knew something was deeply fucked up about all this. Science is for everyone!
Jumping off a comment below, a fun hot take might be to do a "mommy party/daddy party" thing on how, as society polarizes and the two political coalitions sort more and more along gender lines, each side is taking on more of the pathologies that stereotypically correlate with their dominant genders. So conservatives are turning more and more to moronic dominance rituals instead of thinking things through strategically ("I need your help can't tell you what it is you can never ask me about it later and we're gonna hurt some people." "Whose car are we gonna take?") While progressives are becoming more interested in talking relative to acting, as well as becoming overly sensitive to feelings to the exclusion of substantive goals, and fixated on extremely micro-level personality-based factional rivalries. That ought to get people's attention. (Obviously these are stereotypes and I don't actually subscribe to all of this, yada yada.)