I was taking part in an online seminar with several hundred public servants recently when one of them started his question to me with an earnest apology: “I am a man of white privilege . . .”. I found it hard not to laugh out loud. Things have come to a pretty pass when people prostrate themselves in public for having a prostate gland, not to mention dumping on their parents for being the wrong colour.
I’d been introduced as someone who had spent more than 40 years trying to ensure people weren’t judged by their race or gender. My idealistic questioner seemed to have missed that bit. I assured him — maybe a little too brusquely — that I wouldn’t hold his colour or his sex against him. His question turned out to be a reasonable one about how to recruit more women but it sounded as though this thoughtful young man was too consumed with angst about his own ethnicity and gender, probably reinforced by some spectacularly bad diversity training, to apply much logic to the problem.
Personally I find the appeal of this brand of ethno-masochism hard to fathom, but then I’m not white. Yet increasingly, such “woke” thinking is flooding our workplaces, schools and universities. It is two centuries since this country abolished the Test Acts under which people were required to make a pledge of religious observance to qualify for public office or the civil service. But once again employees are being required to sign up to statements of belief or face denunciation, demotion and dismissal. Arcane arguments about white privilege and Pythonesque disputes about whether men can be women are no longer confined to warring left-wing sects or social media; they are eating away at the heart of leading institutions, corporations and government itself.
Much of this turmoil began with the best of intentions: a long overdue focus on ethical behaviour in corporate and public life. In 2018 more corporate chief executives lost their jobs for misconduct than were fired for poor performance; the #MeToo movement has left its mark. But the drive for decency is steadily being hijacked by extremists, bringing a dark edge of censoriousness to the quest for better workplace behaviour. JK Rowling, infamously, has been threatened with “cancellation” for sardonically pointing out that there is such a thing as a woman. Kevin Price, a Labour councillor, resigned from Cambridge city council and faced pressure to leave his post as a porter at the university because he refused to sign a statement that “trans women are women”.
The intolerant aspect of wokeism has become plainer than ever. Its strictures against “offensive” language brought some of its adherents close to apologising for the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, suggesting that the journalists bore some responsibility for the Islamist attack by declining to censor themselves. The beheading last month of Samuel Paty, a French teacher who had shown Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Muhammad to his class, left woke activists awkwardly trying to distance themselves from the killer while implying that Paty should have placed the right to free speech second to the sensitivities of some Muslim parents.
In Scotland, the SNP government plans to outlaw speech “stirring up hatred”, even in private homes; if I lived in Edinburgh I imagine that reading my own columns on race or religion out loud in my kitchen would provoke a visit from the police, ready with the handcuffs. Last week the BBC published new editorial guidelines on the use of “racist language”. The first question journalists are told to ask themselves is “Does the identity of the individual using the language make a difference to its acceptability?”, implying that George Alagiah or Clive Myrie might be permitted to use language that Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce are not, a kind of creeping speech apartheid, and a whole new chapter in censorship.
Sex — “the trans debate” — remains a hot issue but race was the principal battleground, even before the Black Lives Matter movement was reinvigorated this year.
According to Ibram X Kendi, the author of How to be an Antiracist, “the original sin is racism”. Bari Weiss, the New York Times writer who quit in July over its wokeism, says that “the beating heart of this new ideology is critical race theory”. This theory holds that whites are uniquely insulated from poverty and injustice, and that even poor whites would be worse off if they happened to be another ethnicity — confronted constantly by police brutality, discrimination and the legacy of transatlantic slavery. This view ignores the inconvenient truth that people of Indian origin in this country (and in the US) outsmart the white majority educationally, outshine them professionally and outearn them by more than 15 per cent. The notion of white privilege would be baffling to the families of white boys who have fallen to the bottom of education attainment league tables, and who are staring at a lifetime of sweeping the streets occupied by their affluent Indian-heritage classmates. But critical race theory is the ultimate guilt trip; it works on the liberal elite because it’s true of enough people, enough of the time.
Protesters demonstrate outside a former museum in east London, demanding the removal of a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, a merchant, slave owner and former lord mayor of London RAY TANG/GETTY IMAGES
The advance of wokedom is made even more unsettling by the fact that the rules are a moving target, driven by a bewildering array of changing sensitivities and shifting language: should we talk about BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic — so yesterday), BIPOC (or Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, as they say in California) or people of colour (so whites are some kind of transparent creatures?). Confusion abounds. But for the past four years wokeists worldwide have at least been able to define themselves by asking a simple question: what would Donald Trump say? And whatever the answer, the reverse would be woke. But with the Great Orange Yardstick on his way out, the movement’s gurus are having to come up with new guidelines.
Ibram Kendi argues that the test of woke purity should be evidence of active antiracism, judged by an independent group of antiracists, presumably with equivalent commissars for gender, sexual orientation and so forth. However, for one group, Kendi is uncompromising: if you’re white, failure is certain because your hideous whiteness is in itself part of the problem and, with the best will in the world, there’s not much you can do about it.
Ibram X Kendi JASON MENDEZ/GETTY IMAGES
I suspect that the man who asked me that question in the seminar had been reading White Fragility, the magnum opus of sociologist Robin DiAngelo, darling of the white self-flagellators, whose bleak remedy for being born the wrong colour is to strive to be “less white”, which she says means “less racist”. She recently told TV viewers that “white privilege is the automatic, taken-for-granted advantage bestowed upon white people . . . it takes us literally seeing a man being murdered in front of our eyes to wake us up”. I’m not sure that the family of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of US police in May triggered protests around the world, will appreciate him being spoken of as a kind of moral alarm clock for white people.
In her excoriating resignation letter from the New York Times, Bari Weiss defined woke as “a mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality and the therapeutic mentality”. But it’s hard to pin down a movement which so far has no leader, or even a single cause, other than to condemn pretty much anything that somebody, somewhere, considers offensive.
Perhaps the easiest way to see the world as wokeists do is to imagine society as an elaborately wrought cage of history, language, laws and customs, whose bars are so tightly intertwined that it would be almost impossible for anyone to break free. According to the gurus of wokedom, only one caste holds the key to escape: white men. Even white women never truly shake off their disadvantages. To misquote Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “The white man is born free, but everyone else is in chains.”
I couldn’t care less if middle-class white men stopped saying sorry for having all the money, power and luck, as long as they did a little to redistribute their privilege to people who do not share their sex and race. But practical remedies don’t seem to be on the woke agenda. To a woke activist, victory is getting a white man to admit to his intrinsic awfulness. Sadly, it seems that an increasing number of them are willing to genuflect.
A senior Whitehall mandarin told me with great enthusiasm that his eyes had been opened to his own racism by a bestseller somewhat inaccurately entitled Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. It explains to white readers that anyone citing competence as a factor in giving a white person a job ahead of a person of colour must be “defending whiteness”. Actually, the recruitment firm I chair puts hundreds of people each year into top jobs. Last year a third of our board appointments were people of colour who made it on merit. Depressingly for anyone who has spent time trying to take racial preference out of recruitment, wokedom seems bent on restoring it.
Reni Eddo-Lodge DAVE BENETT/GETTY IMAGES
Serious people on both sides of the Atlantic are drinking deep at the well of racial self-abasement. A much-lauded course at the prestigious Duke University in the US teaches that there are 15 characteristics to white supremacy culture, including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, worship of the written word and, amazingly, objectivity, all of which, it is argued, need to be jettisoned. If this is the sort of thing our mid-level public service leaders are imbibing, it’s hardly surprising we’re having trouble getting a reliable test and trace system off the ground. Dismayingly, essays of this kind have become sacred texts for otherwise thoughtful white folk who seem to enjoy being told that they are irredeemably racist. Yet the epiphany has not led many converts to move over and let some not-white and not-male people have a go at the top jobs. The most recent appointments at the pinnacle of our civil service and top corporations have seen white men replaced by mostly more white men.
The one place in which wokedom seems to have made least progress is in non-black minority communities. Mr Trump’s strong showing among Hispanics, taking almost a third of their vote in the presidential election, prompted a senior black journalist at The New York Times to say: “We are surrounded by racists.” Another decreed that Latinos should be stripped of their minority status after Miami’s anti-communist Cubans voted heavily for Trump. Here, British Asian voters supported the Tories in huge numbers last year, yet Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, and the equalities minister Kemi Badenoch provoke fury among the woke, who demand conformity to type when it comes to black and brown people.
Some woke taboos are risible. The head of a fee-paying girls’ school was forced to apologise for using the word “negro” during an assembly explaining the origins of Black History Month, which lay in Negro History Week a century ago. It seemed to matter little to her protesting students that, back then, the alternative to negro would have been a truly ugly epithet beginning with “n”, or that “negro” was the word Martin Luther King would have used.
But the woke crowd display little interest in the opinions of those they claim to be defending. In Bristol the statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was brought down without consulting the city’s mayor, the only black elected boss of a big British city. Marvin Rees wryly reflected last week that the woke protesters had a very different set of priorities to those of black Bristolians: “We can get caught up in events . . . but no one turned up to my office the next day with a memo telling me anything had changed on [the topic of] school exclusions, criminal justice, poverty, mental health, educational outcomes, unemployment levels — nothing.”
The march of the woke movement through our institutions is helped by a humiliating collapse of the British establishment’s authority in the face of its young accusers. At a recent meeting of cultural organisations, a number of senior leaders admitted that pressure to declare solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement did not come from black people, who are less likely than average to show up in their institutions, and rarer than hens’ teeth among their senior staff. Demands for the removal of statues and “decolonisation” of their displays came largely from their own staff, most of whom were young and white.
This perfectly sums up the gap between the woke self-image and reality. The woke affect to care for the excluded, yet cannot find room for talented people of colour in their own ranks. They present themselves as passionate campaigners for justice, yet they are ready to yield to the whims of the mob and dole out summary retribution to anyone deemed a heretic. They claim to be the allies of the oppressed, yet have no time to listen to their real priorities. They purport to seek greater diversity, yet require all women or all ethnic minorities to share their view or be branded quislings.
The greatest tragedy in all of this is that the gurus of wokedom have persuaded thousands of idealistic young people who rightly want to change the world into supporting what is actually a deeply reactionary movement. The trans activists can only realise their aim of being able to enter spaces reserved for women by erasing the female sex. Critical race theory remains credible only so long as black and brown people continue to fail. In the end, the woke movement is turning into an echo of the very oppressors it claims to be combating. After all the statues come down, and women’s prisons are opened to all and sundry, the celebrities and social media warriors will move on to the next fashionable cause — and minorities will still be less likely to win the top jobs, and women will still be the victims of violence. The only thing that will have changed is the bitterness of a generation whose idealism was betrayed.