Discover more from Glenn Loury
A "Tragic" Stereotype
with John McWhorter and Tyler Austin Harper
I shouldn’t have to say this, but it bears mentioning: There’s nothing inherently traumatic about being a black person in the US. Not all black people walk around feeling oppressed all the time. I’d wager that most of us don’t feel that way. Nevertheless, the idea that all black people constantly suffer the indignities of white supremacy has become a shibboleth in progressive circles.
We actually have a term for the assumption that all people of the same skin color share the same experience and mentality: stereotyping. When we think of stereotypes, all sorts of gross and outmoded tropes come to mind: all Jews are “cheap,” all Asians are “subservient,” all Irish are “drunks,” and so on. Often, when someone engages in stereotyping, they’re corrected by those around them, even when there’s no member of the group in question present. That’s a good thing. Most of us not only dislike individual stereotypes, we abhor the practice of stereotyping in general and rightly see it for what it is: evidence of lazy thinking or ignorance.
Why, then, has the notion that there is something, as John says, “tragic” about being African American slipped through the stereotype filter? In the course of an ordinary conversation, offer that all black people in America have been traumatized by systemic racism, and you’ll probably get very little pushback. Not only is it seemingly acceptable to say such a thing, in many progressive circles, it’s praiseworthy behavior. But while this idea may not be as obviously offensive as some of the old tropes, it’s no better. There is no such thing as a “positive” stereotype.
In this clip from this week’s episode, Tyler Austin Harper suggests that misplaced white guilt, abetted by a mania for antiracism, has allowed this stereotype to take hold in the culture. That would be easy enough to correct, were it not reinforced by the many activists, intellectuals, and influencers—not all of them white—who treat this vice as a virtue. In other words, the conceptual edifice of contemporary antiracism has been erected on the foundation of a stereotype—and that’s the true tragedy.
This is a clip from the episode that went out to paying subscribers on Monday. To get access to the full episode, as well as an ad-free podcast feed, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Tyler, what has the feedback been on the piece that you did for the Atlantic about white people over especially about the past three years being very careful to acknowledge to us that they understand what a tragedy it is for us every day to walk around as black people and that it kind of gets on your nerves? Because people often call me brave. I'm not. You were brave to write that piece, because I'm sure a lot of white people really wouldn't know what to do with it. And my sense of things is that a lot of black people do wish to be treated that way, that they like the idea of somebody thinking we spend our lives walking around being assaulted in various ways.
Have you heard from anybody who has said that you're a little too ahead of the curve or that you're being a heartless or that you're letting white people slide back to the way they were? Because I feel exactly like you. I am nauseated when somebody does that acknowledgement of the burden of my upper-middle-class, frankly, successful blackness. Where racism affects me, it's probably one-and-a-half times a year and has nothing to do with the consciousness of any remotely consciously healthy person.
I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I get the feeling that's roughly your life, too.
TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: No one has been critical. I'm sure it upset some people. I don't think they've yet figured out what to say about it, even if it upsets them in an emotional way. I've gotten no negative feedback. I've heard from a lot of people positively.
The closest I've gotten to negative feedback has been people writing or people I've talked to that have said, “Okay, you don't want me to bring up race all the time. But then sometimes people do want to talk about race, and some of my black friends want to talk about it a lot, and other of my black friends don't seem to. So what do I do?”
And my response is you gotta treat them like people. I think the anxiety around interracial social etiquette is that white people feel a profound and overwhelming guilt and sense of powerlessness but also complicity at what they see as American history and ongoing problems around police brutality or whatever. And they just want someone to tell them what to do. They want a fixed set of rules so that they can do the thing they're supposed to do to make them not racist.
I'm a big fan of the French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan, and he has this great line where he says, “Neurosis has the structure of a question,” which sounds like a bit of academese. But what he means is that people who are neurotic experience their whole world as anxiety about who they are. What is their place within society and within the social order? What do authorities want from me? What does my boss want from me? What am I supposed to do? They're constantly anxious about who they are and what to do. And here comes antiracism and DEI that says, “Here's a fixed set of rules you can follow that will mean you're not racist and that will also signal to everyone else you're not racist.”
The main pushback I've gotten has been like, “Well, some black people do want me to talk about race, other people don't. How am I supposed to know?” And I think that expresses this anxiety about an absence of rules. If we pulled back from this particular kind of interpersonal antiracism, people would have to exercise judgment about and take cues from black folks about when they do and do not want to talk about race. The point I've made is sometimes I do and sometimes I don't, and I'll let you know when I do. I think that makes people deeply uncomfortable, because they would have to exercise judgment.
JOHN MCWHORTER: You realize that it's harder for the white person here than it is for us in a way, because there's a kind of black person who is upset if you are not acknowledging race all the time. It is their entire process. I hate to say, you might want to call it that they're living amidst Lacan's sense of what neurosis is. I hate to say it. Then there's a kind of black person who really, frankly, doesn't want to hear it except under extraordinary conditions. That's certainly me. Then there are people who are in-between.
And the white person has to also decide, do they believe this? Because a lot of them really don't believe in all of this oversensitivity. Then some of them very much believe in it, and then they would have to put up with somebody like me. I think most of them know, to an extent, that a lot of the exaggerated version of this is an act. Is it part of being a civilized white person to pretend? And is that what you're telling them to do? Pretend to believe something that you know is, to an extent, a kind of performance art? That's tough. It was easier fifty years ago for all of us, in a way. I would not want to go back there, but that's tough. That's really tough.
TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: I think I'm a little less cynical than you in the sense that I, at least, know a lot of really true believers. Like white folks who really believe the whole antiracism etiquette. They're not acting. And then there's another kind of person, too, who knows that you have to go through the motions in order to be accepted the right way in whatever place, wherever you're enmeshed.
But in my experience—and yours or other people's might be different—I mostly encounter people who really feel guilty as white people and desperately want to feel less guilty. And so they're just clawing and scraping for anything, someone to tell them what to do, to issue a demand and say, “Just do this and then everything will be fine.”
I think some people are cynical and have learned the rules and know all the jargon, and [that] lets them get by in their workplace and in their performance reviews or whatever. But mostly I experience people who really believe, and that might be symptomatic of the social circles in which I travel. But I encounter more true believers.
GLENN LOURY: Okay. I have a question. The editors at the Atlantic titled your piece “I'm a Black Professor. You Don't Need to Bring That Up.” Something like that.
TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: Not my title.
Yeah, I assumed not. But it's clever.
TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: I think that's an AI one.
You draw a distinction between a colorblindness in policy and a colorblindness in social intercourse as goals that one might put forward, as ideals. You reject the former. Colorblindness in policy is not what you're talking about, and you hope to buy yourself a hearing from your progressive audience as you advocate for the, it seems to me, latter, a deemphasis on color in our informal social relations.
And my question is, can you really have it both ways? Aren't those things symbiotically intertwined with one another? If we do policy in terms of race, don't we perforce invite personal relations in terms of race? That's my question.
TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: Yeah, I think that's a really good question. The argument against colorblindness in law and policy is very different than the argument against colorblindness as an interpersonal ethos. I think they're entwined, and I think there are ways in which they feed back to one another, Glenn. I don't deny that. But I think they rest on fundamentally separate arguments. The first is a political argument about the way in which certain kinds of race-neutral laws, going back to even the Homestead Act, but also the Fair Housing Act, the GI Bill, whatever, might officially be race-neutral, but then in practice tended to have racialized impacts that were differential.
That's a very different argument. Saying that race consciousness in law is sometimes anything but, that's a really different argument from saying that, interpersonally, between two friends or two colleagues around the water cooler, it's racist not to acknowledge racial difference and that professing not to see color. On this last point, Coleman Hughes has been really good, where he points out that there's this space of terminal literalism a lot of people get, where they're like, “Obviously you see color. You have two eyes in your head. We can see race. The brain picks up race within milliseconds or whatever.”
And that's not what anyone means when they say, “I don't see color.” They mean, “I try to treat everyone the same.” And there's a big difference, to me, between pointing out that the law often doesn't treat everyone the same, and institutions like banks or police departments often don't treat everyone the same despite the rhetoric of race neutrality. There's a huge difference from that and saying that we shouldn't aspire to treat everyone the same in our interpersonal reactions.
So I don't deny that there are ways in which, particularly in workplaces, that can be a really difficult line to straddle. But nonetheless, I think we used to straddle it a lot more than we do now. I mean, my race comes up infinitely more post-George Floyd than it did pre-George Floyd when I talked to progressives. And those same progressives back then would have critiqued colorblind law policy. So obviously there's been this metastasis of critiques of colorblindness that have gone from this political claim about the way that certain race-neutral laws are race-neutral toward “colorblindness as such is bad.” And it's this slippage from politics to social psychology that I find both bizarre and a kind of mismatch. I don't think those two claims have much to do with one another.