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Where Social Justice Activists Persuade Me—and Where They Don’t

(AP/Richard Drew)

What follows are examples of topics where SJ/DEI activists have persuaded me, where they haven’t, and where they have led me to fresh, if heterodox, insights.”

So I did what they told me to do. I listened. I read the greatest hits of the Social Justice/Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (SJ/DEI) canon. I attended the trainings. I took the implicit bias tests and unpacked my invisible backpack. And I did it all with an open mind. It’s not easy at first. The casual vitriol directed at straight white guys can be breathtaking. Once you recover from the initial blows, you can’t help but be struck by how histrionic, tendentious, and cultish so much of it is. It’s hard to take a lot of it seriously, harder still to sit and nod solemnly and pretend to take it seriously in a roomful of people pretending to take it seriously. 

If, like me, you tick all the wrong boxes—White, male, heterosexual, “binary,” and (more or less) in synch with the genitals you were born with—it’s tempting to reject it all outright. It takes real generosity of spirit to dispassionately filter out the lunacies while listening for the valid points, the stuff you really should work to change about yourself, your workplace, or American society. But you should try, because SJ/DEI activists do make valid points. While it’s unfortunate that those points come wrapped in ritualized grievance and buried under thick layers of bad social science and therapeutic nonsense, those points merit honest reckonings. 

Allow me to model an open-minded yet discriminating approach. What follows are examples of topics where SJ/DEI activists have persuaded me, where they haven’t, and where they have led me to fresh, if heterodox, insights. While each topic merits an essay in its own right, I merely offer thumbnail explanations to give the gist. I’ve had to be selective, focusing on topics you’re likely to have encountered in the media or in mandated diversity training. Consider it a sampler. Not everyone will agree on the specific judgment calls; every reader will have to make those for himself. But I will have succeeded if my research and reflections help you regain your composure and maintain a critical, yet sympathetic perspective. 

What SJ/DEI Gets Right

People probably do have implicit biases. I’ve taken the infamous Implicit Associations Tests, the ones that purport to surface your hidden racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other -isms and -phobias. I come out bias-free on all of them—including ones where I already know I have a bias. That’s because the IATs are essentially hand-eye coordination games, and they’re easy ones to master. Give them a try. They’re fun. It’s little wonder, however, that they have been thoroughly debunked as a reliable detector of bias or as a valid predictor of how people with alleged biases will behave toward others. 

But forget the test. Just ask yourself honestly how likely it is you don’t have biases when it comes to race, sex, attractiveness, religion, and all the rest. How could you not? Say you’re interviewing a woman for a job. Her resume is impeccable, her references brimming with superlatives, her answers to your questions dazzling and laced with wry humor. But she’s homely, her name is hard to pronounce, and she’s wearing a headscarf. If it comes down to her or the capable-enough Irish guy from your alma mater who’s an even bigger Cubs fan than you are, it’s worth an honest gut-check before deciding whom to make the offer to.

You do see color. Never, ever say “I don’t see color.” I can prove you wrong with a single question: Have you ever told a story that included a Black guy or Asian woman or Mexican kid or White dude? Then you saw color. You see plenty else besides. The more you get to know someone, the more color recedes. But we all see color. We can’t help it. Stop denying it. And stop being ashamed of it.

White people started it. Tired of everything being about race? Me too. But it did start with the Whites. They created the categories, arranged the hierarchies, developed the pseudo-sciences to justify the hierarchies, and wrote, broke, or failed to enforce laws in order to maintain the hierarchies. (I say “they” here, because back when all this was happening my ancestors—Italian, Polish, Catholic—weren’t considered White. Long story.) Black, Indigenous, and of-color people have since learned to weaponize racialism against White people by using the same pseudo-scientific and legalistic strategies invented by White people. It’s payback time.

There’s a good case to be made for reparations. Forget about slavery for a moment and focus instead on all the injustice meted out to Black people after passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which were supposed to have granted them full citizenship. Instead of equal treatment under the law, freedmen and their descendants got Black Codes, sharecropping, lynching, miscegenation laws, “driving while Black,” redlining, and mortgage discrimination along with segregated schools, neighborhoods, hotels, lunch counters, and drinking fountains. A century of such mistreatment did demonstrable psychological, cultural, and financial damage to Black people that persists to the present day. Government policies helped do that damage. Government policies should help repair it. Whether those should come in the form of direct payments, targeted affirmative action, or race-neutral social programs that disproportionately help Blacks—and whether we should call those programs reparations or remedies or something else—is debatable. The underlying moral imperative isn’t.   

Something’s up with the cops. When phone videos of police beating or shooting Black suspects first started going viral, I anticipated a follow-up wave of videos showing similar abuses of White suspects. I was wrong. I’m familiar with the studies that purport to show little or no statistical racial difference in police shootings and prosecution rates when other factors are controlled for. But in an age where everyone with an axe to grind has a smart phone, I find the lopsided video evidence suggestive. Add to that statistics on who gets pulled over, who gets the longest and harshest sentences, and who tends to commit the crimes that mandate the harshest sentences, and I have to admit something isn’t right.

Women have it rough at the office. While I take issue with the indiscriminate use of patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism as the catch-all explanation for everything that’s wrong with everything, it’s true that the institutions that shape our economic and civic lives were created and shaped by men and—for a long time—run by them. Those men didn’t have to think much about how to integrate women’s needs and work styles into career ladders and workplace cultures. It’s a safe bet that had women been had meaningful roles in building and shaping these institutions from the beginning that they would have. But they weren’t, and that makes getting on in those institutions inherently more difficult for them. 

#MeToo’s core complaint is justified. Yes, the Maenadian frenzy unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein allegations quickly turned vindictive. But put yourself in their shoes. The steady stream of unsolicited come-ons, lewd comments, and outright sexual harassment women contend with at work and on the streets has to be exhausting. The fix here is easy: Stop. Steal whatever furtive glimpses you can of whatever pleasingly shaped body parts pass you on the sidewalk. But look, don’t touch. Imagine performing whatever unspeakable acts with that sexy young admin your depraved mind can conjure. But for the love of all that’s just basic courtesy and common decency, keep whatever’s in your head in your head. Hands and thoughts to yourself. It’s that simple.

Where SJ/DEI Has Failed to Convince Me

Not all biases are bad. SJ/DEI types like to use the example of clutching your wallet when a black man passes you on the sidewalk as a textbook example of unconscious racism. I say it depends. If the Black man in question is wearing a t-shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals, and it’s mid-day and you’re strolling the boardwalk, then yeah, you’re a racist. If he’s clad in hoodie and baggie jeans and it’s night and you’re on an otherwise deserted subway platform I’d say a little heightened awareness is justified. Consider: What does it say about a woman walking to her car late at night when she clutches the pepper spray in her handbag on hearing the footsteps of a nearby White man? Is she a bigot, or just prudent? 

SJ/DEI activists also mock the idea of “fit”—i.e. the degree to which you think a prospective employee will fit into your organization’s culture. They have a point. It’s a bit unfair to turn an otherwise qualified applicant down if you find out he doesn’t drink or doesn’t like to karaoke at 1:00 am on a work night or has never heard of March Madness. You and your colleagues should do your best to make him feel welcome and included for what he does contribute. If, on the other hand, that applicant seems to have a chip on his shoulder about after-hours fraternizing or office pools, and you begin to suspect he’ll poison undermine the camaraderie you’ve worked so hard to build, I say it’s fine to pass on him. Your commitment to diversity and inclusion needn’t obligate you to hire the dour and sanctimonious.

Microaggressions are the ultimate First World problem. If you have the leisure to be offended when someone asks you where you’re from, or compliments your hair, or refers to the United States as a “land of opportunity,” then you have arrived. Congratulations: You’re Americanized!

Cultural Appropriation…Whatever. Don’t wear sombreros or blackface or Indian headdresses to Halloween parties. Otherwise, if it isn’t copyrighted, patented, or trademarked it’s up for grabs. 

It’s not “misogyny” or “rape culture” just because some feminists disapprove of it. Song lyrics that condone the physical abuse of women, violent porn, even using words like girl and p*ssy as put-downs, are misogynist. No question. But mere sexual objectification is normal, natural, universal, and omnidirectional. There’s no contradiction whatsoever between admiring a woman’s managerial acumen and admiring her body. I can do both at once. It’s just how we’re built: brutes hard-wired for sexual reproduction, tragically saddled with overdeveloped frontal lobes. We sublimate our reproductive drives for the sake of a well-ordered civilization. All that stuff certain feminists hate—lewd jokes, rompy sex comedies, sexy lingerie catalogues, and routine surreptitious ogling—is what that sublimation looks like. It’s the opposite of rape culture. 

Women give as good as they get. Until about 1800 most of what was written about relations between men and women was written by men. Unsurprisingly, it was skewed—Medusas, Harpies, hysterics, shrews, Maenads. Since then, women have dished out plenty, giving us the manspreader and mansplainer, belittling our pastimes, demonizing our desires, and relabeling our virtues—such as courage, protectiveness, and stoicism—as toxic. Men and women will always speak critically of one another. It’s what men and women do. So don’t fall for the trick of attributing criticism of individual women to blanket misogyny. Still a little gun-shy about calling that bitchy creative director in the marketing department a bitch? Smart man. But that doesn’t make her any less of a jerk. 

I’m probably too old to get on board with the new gender orthodoxies. When it comes to the proliferation of new gender categories and the complex new rules of etiquette that attend them, I’m like those older guys bewildered by all the new-fangled coffee drinks they were confronted with when Starbucks went mainstream in the early 1990’s: “Whatever happened to a cup of coffee?” Those poor codgers probably hoped the fad would pass—just as I hope the enthusiasm for maverique and genderfluid and preferred pronouns will. But it might not. Either way, I’m out. The kids can have their grande quad nonfat soy one-pump no-whip matcha mocha lattes. It’ll always be regular or decaf for me.

The ad hominem fallacy is still a fallacy. The ad hominem argument—the one where someone attacks the person instead of his or her argument—has been recognized as fallacious for thousands of years. Identity politics doesn’t change that. If you dismiss my position on rape culture because I’m a man or shout down my distinction between acceptable and non-acceptable bias because I’m White—and think you can leave it at that—you’re wrong. It’s lazy and cowardly: the sign of a weak mind and weaker position. It tells me I don’t need to listen to you either.

Stuff I Learned That I Don’t Think I Was Supposed To

Black and Indigenous people are oppressed. Of-color people aren’t. There’s a critical difference between Black, Indigenous, and of-color that the catch-all “of color” obfuscates. Black people’s experience under slavery and Jim Crow sets them apart from everyone else except the Indigenous, who got muscled out of two continents they once dominated. Their experiences qualify them as oppressed. If you’re neither Black nor Indigenous, you’re just another ethnic (or religious) group occupying expropriated Indigenous lands, benefitting from the alleged legacy of slavery, and engaging in old fashioned ethnic rivalry. This is true whether you’re Irish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Mexican, Honduran, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Somali, Kenyan, Indian, Catholic, Buddhist, or Muslim. All of these groups and more have faced bigotry and discrimination, traded slurs, and jostled each other for power and position. The grievances of those ethnic and religious minorities deemed of-color have no more purchase than those of the White ethnic and religious minorities who came before them. To claim otherwise is offensive to White ethnics whose ancestors fought their own battles against bigotry and discrimination to gain a toehold in American society. It should also offend Black and Indigenous people because the rest are free-riding on their unique historical grievances and, in turn, diluting their claims. 

The more I learn about slavery the less guilty I feel about it. Everyone did it. Everywhere. For like 5000 years. Nobody liked being slave. Anyone who could escape it did. But, through most of history, few questioned its necessity or legitimacy. Then White people came along and invented the principles of liberty, equality, and human dignity, which made enslavement just about the worst thing you could do to a person short of murdering him or her. So White people condemned it. White people abolished it. White people fought and died to abolish it. In the United States, it took a while to get it done. Sooner would have been better. But viewed from a global-historical perspective, it’s not bad.

We’re all hypocrites when it comes to Indigenous peoples. True, Hispanics and Anglos did the dirty work. And they didn’t give the Black people they brought with them a choice. But the rest of us followed. All of us—White, Brown, Tan, Tawny, and Beige. When I start seeing non-indigenous people self-deporting en masse so that the Indigenous can have their lands back, I’ll take the White-shaming over dispossession more seriously. 

I don’t believe in “White Male Privilege”—but I’ll take it. So you say I didn’t earn my college degree or my house or my career? OK. Then first, F*ck you. But second, Thank you. Think about it. We all hate the truly privileged because they have things we want but can’t have—like yachts and mansions and sports cars and trust funds. But none of us has a right to these things, and no one blessed with them has any moral obligation to hand them over. The privileged are expected to demonstrate noblesse oblige—that is, to act honorably and generously toward those with less privilege. That’s it. I will gladly meet that expectation. Beyond that, anything SJ/DEI designates as White male privilege is mine to keep. 

I love Cancel Culture. I would have enjoyed AC/DC’s Back in Black as a kid without the religious right’s pearl-clutching over the damage its satanic lyrics would do to my vulnerable young soul. But their hysteria heightened the pleasure of owning and listening to that album by giving it a transgressive, anti-authoritarian thrill. As I grew older and the religious right’s cultural influence waned, such thrills faded. Happily, SJ/DEI has filled the void with its own brand of moral hysteria, thereby opening a whole new world of transgressive pleasures. I get a little of the old frisson now from reading David Foster Wallace (misogyny) and Dr. Seuss (racism), hosting Mexican-themed Cinco de Mayo dinners and practicing yoga (cultural appropriation), driving my kids to soccer practice and helping them with homework (dream hoarding), being married to a woman (heteronormative) with a vagina (cisnormative), watching Game of Thrones (rape culture) and reruns of Friends (transphobia, fat-shaming, too many White peoplethe list goes on). It’s invigorating. 

Social Justice is the new Manifest Destiny. As you may recall from high school history, Manifest Destiny was an ideology dreamed up to justify European settlement of the Western hemisphere and displacement of the Indigenous peoples who occupied it. Social Justice is an ideology developed to justify taking that territory away from Anglophone White men. I admit the comparison sounds wing-nutty. But ask yourself: What else do you call a movement that aims to take over your territory, your government, and your institutions, and whose ultimate demand from you is to step aside—and wraps it all in a mantle of historical inevitability and moral self-righteousness?

“White Identity Politics” is a slur, but also an imperative. The SJ/DEI appropriation of the identity politics label to wield against White people who resist it was a shrewd move. Give as good as you get. But I have no problem with it. Having surveyed the identitarian landscape, I’ve concluded that the anti-Whiteness people are right: We need to shake off our White Guilt, dry off our White Tears, overcome our White Fragility, and man up. Like it or not, identity politics is the only game in town. You have to play to win. By this I don’t mean becoming a White nationalist or trying to compete in the Victimhood Olympics. I mean standing up for ourselves and those things we value that are now labeled as “White” and denigrated for being so. Just the old ethnic rivalry again, only with new combatants and reconfigured alliances. 

Conclusion

Curiously, after overcoming my aversion to what I read and heard from SJ/DEI activists, I acquired a taste for it. It can be weirdly fascinating, as well as occasionally edifying. So I keep reading and listening. I survey the latest journal articles, books, and online screeds at least once a week. I seek out diversity trainings for the small group discussions they entail. Confident as the foregoing conclusions sound, I’m open to revising them as I learn more. It’s only recently that I came to endorse reparations (or remedies), a conversion I owe largely to recent work by  Ta-Nehisi Coates and the economistRichard Rothstein on the impact of government housing policies on Black homeownership and intergenerational wealth accumulation. That work helped trigger the insight that one can assess the claims based on slavery separately from claims based on Jim Crow, at which point my objections to the former became irrelevant. It’s unlikely I’ll have a similar epiphany regarding the idea that sex is “assigned” rather than observed at birth—or assertions that good writing and performance appraisals are instruments of White Supremacy. But you never know.

My adventures in SJ/DEI have nonetheless taught me that I can never be what activists call an ally, let alone an accomplice. I emphatically will not “step aside.” I’ll stand up for myself where I suspect I’m being discriminated against for what I am. I’ll oppose policies designed to give darker skinned immigrants and their descendants unfair advantages over lighter skinned immigrants and their descendants, as well as legal reforms that restrict freedom of speech or due process. And I certainly won’t apologize for my culture, history, language, standards, tastes, or biological drives. “There is nothing good in the world that does not have some filth in its origins,” wrote Anton Chekhov. Let he or she whose history is without blemish cast the first aspersion.

But I’m not going to run out and join the Proud Boys, either. I’m still a compassionate and fair-minded guy. I will continue to back policies that equalize access to social goods such as education, housing, and health care, including those that put a thumb on the scale for victims of Jim Crow and broken U.S.-tribal treaties. I will continue to support and abide by sensible policies that protect women from unfair discrimination and unwanted sexual advances. Most important, I will continue to bear in mind that we live in an interpersonal face-to-face world. I’ll try to distinguish the “social justice warriors” from regular people so as not to punish the latter for the excesses of the former. I’ll see color and recognize gender, as I always have. But as I rub elbows day-to-day with people at work and elsewhere I’ll learn other things about them. How hard they work. How courteous they are. What they’re good at. What movies and music and sports they enjoy. Where they like to vacation with their families. Over time their color and gender will recede further. I’ll befriend or support or stand up for those who have qualities I respect, and I’ll eschew those who don’t. In other words, I’ll try to think and behave toward others as I always have, including a commonsense commitment to diversity, inclusion, and fairness in the ordinary meanings of the words. I hope you will, too.

David Ferrero is  an independent education & non-profit management consultant based in Seattle.

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