Can woke morality protect us from racism?
Not if it becomes itself racism. Let's explore that question with an archetypal story.
We are staring at many scenarios that all end in some kind of civil war.
— Bret Weinstein, 2020 (min. 01:37)
‘Antiracism,’ as defined by the influential woke movement, preaches that whites are all racist.
But… isn’t that racism?
I explore this question by examining an archetypal anecdote.
Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a colorblind society, I became an anthropologist because I wanted to develop, from an evolutionary, cognitive, and historical perspective, better scientific tools to think about racism.
I am interested in racism generally, but this essay is about anti-black racism in the United States. On that specific topic I have studied: 1) efforts to revive it in media and academia; 2) the eugenicist (proto-Nazi) origins of IQ testing; and 3) the racism of the slave-owning Founding Fathers of the United States. (See here and here.)1
From this background, you might think: Oh, this Francisco guy must be so ‘woke.’ I bet he is a Critical Race Theorist. And this might seem superficially reasonable, because the new and influential morality called woke has, for central central plank and mission, an ‘antiracist’ identity politics that finds academic expression in so-called Critical Race Theory.
But no. My work has little in common with that, because the ‘woke’ among us denounce the very principle of colorblindness that I am attracted to. They want us to be aware—very aware—of everybody’s racial identity (and of other ‘intersecting’ identities too). Only thus, according to them, can we fight racism.
Is this woke idea a good thing? Some believe it is. Others, like Bret Weinstein (see quote above) believe it is dangerous. How to decide?
I’m going to take a stab at this.
I believe woke morality—and first of all its core ‘antiracist’ message—must be evaluated within the framework of the ethic of autonomy, as scientists of moral cognition call it. So consider the following questions:
Where lies the path of least harm—for all—at this juncture?
Which of these two harms is greater?
The above are the sorts of questions that one asks within the ethic of autonomy, because in this ethic every human is conceived as naturally sovereign and precious. None are meant to be slaves, none are expendable. The individual—any individual—must be protected from harm. This is the sacred, fundamental principle.
The ethic of autonomy has been identified as the central process in what is now called WEIRD morality. In modern times, WEIRD morality has been the normatively dominant morality in the West, following the European Enlightenment, built upon the ethical and political foundation laid by the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
It is because of WEIRD morality—anchored in the ethic of autonomy—that we have modern Western democracy. This is famous. The corollary is as follows: lose the ethic of autonomy and Westerners will forsake democracy.
This is not a matter of speculation. Large portions of the West were captured in the 20th century by Nazism and Communism. Each made something sacred—‘the Nation,’ ‘the proletariat’—that was not the individual. On these communitarian faiths such unimaginable crimes were committed that many, for fear of shattering their own minds, could later not even speak of what happened.
Careful, then! If an ideology grows in the West that denies our moral compact—the ethic of autonomy—we are in trouble.
Some accuse that the woke revolution is doing that: denying our moral compact with the ethic of autonomy. But then we have a paradox. Because the woke argue as if their innovations are required by the ethic of autonomy. We must all ‘get woke,’ they claim, to protect every individual from harm.
I think this is good news! If we all invoke the ethic of autonomy, then we’re all playing the same Western game. May the best argument win.
Kindness Yoga: the archetypal anecdote
As mentioned, the central plank of woke morality is what they call ‘antiracism.’ Let us then peer into this ideological core and ask the question this essay means to answer: Can woke morality protect us from racism? Or, put it this way: Does the woke approach to racism—‘antiracist’ identity politics—produce less harm to individuals than other approaches?
I will answer my question with a recent anecdote from the pandemic year 2020, chosen because it is archetypal: a representative token of a statistically interesting pattern that my readers will instantly recognize.
The protagonist of my story is one Patrick Harrington. If all you know about him is that the grievance vanguard—the street-level, institutional, and social-media leaders of woke identity politics—worked overtime to destroy his business, and utterly, then you’ll perhaps imagine him as a bloody white vampire feasting on crippled transgender victims of color. But no—just the opposite.
Harrington was a famous Denver yogi whose rigorous observance of woke political correctness had earned him an impeccable reputation in his own very woke world. To be maximally ‘inclusive,’ his business, Kindness Yoga, operated with voluntary donations, had gender-neutral bathrooms, LGBTQ yoga workshops, and even “person-of-color yoga nights where ‘white friends and allies’ were asked to ‘respectfully refrain from attending’ ” (because in woke circles the practice of excluding whites from certain events and places is often considered ‘inclusive’).
Yet as Harrington struggled to reopen his multiple yoga studios after a COVID-imposed lockdown, “grievances aired on social media” alleged that “the voices of minorities and LGBTQ teachers were not heard” at Kindness Yoga. Two Kindness yoga instructors by name Davidia Turner and Jordan Smiley (respectively, a black female and an indigenous transgender person) told the Colorado Sun that the (white) management team at Kindness “was not willing to put in the work to make change.” So they led an Instagram mob-shaming campaign.2
Though stunned, Kindness Yoga tried to do better. Informed that their website was “too white-centric,” they invited “people of color and other minorities to an hours-long yoga photoshoot.” What? Tokenism! Unacceptable: “several instructors expressed their outrage.” The mob-shaming campaign continued.
What, then, should we do?, asked Patrick Harrington’s CEO (a white woman). Davidia Turner replied: “It was not the job of her minority employees to fix the culture.” Upon which, as Turner recalls, her white lady boss started crying.
Then came the death of George Floyd.
In Minneapolis, a black man, detained for using a fake $20 dollar bill, died with a white policeman’s knee on his neck, begging for a gasp of air, the whole recorded in a horrific video.
The full set of details matters to the fine legal considerations of causality, intention, and responsibility.3 And one must ask whether this sort of thing is representative (see here and here).4 But however those matters are judged, one thing is certain: astonishing rivers of angry whites, many organized by Black Lives Matter (BLM), poured everywhere onto the streets to denounce George Floyd’s death and systemic anti-black racism.
On this scale, this was something never before seen. And in their outrage, these white protesters sometimes became violent. They took a risk. They took some flack. And many more whites—again, in numbers never before seen—cheered them along.
It was in this context that Davidia Turner and Jordan Smiley perceived that racism in the United States had become unbearable. So they resigned to protest what they saw as Kindness Yoga’s unacceptable attitude towards Black Lives Matter.
But … Kindness supported BLM!
Yes, but to Turner that was just “ ‘performative activism.’ ” And what does that mean? According to the Colorado Sun, it means that “Kindness touted the [BLM] movement on social media but didn’t do enough in real life to expand its community beyond white culture.”
Given everything that Kindness Yoga was already doing to be scrupulously woke, one may ask: What is enough? Turner didn’t say. The perceived gap, in any case, was outrageous to her.
Davidia Turner’s way of thinking is perhaps better understood by her reaction to Patrick Harrington’s email, sent in response to her very public resignation. In this email, as Turner herself conceded, Harrington did—technically—offer to meet with her to discuss her concerns. It was “after careful consideration,” however, as Turner explained, that “I declined because I felt it [meeting with Harrington] would jeopardize my mental health, well-being and safety.”
Some readers may be wondering what kind of gangster-style ‘invitation’ Patrick Harrington must have sent Davidia Turner for her to feel that accepting would “jeopardize [her] mental health, well being, and safety.” But there is scant need to speculate. We know exactly what Harrington said because Turner herself shared his email on Instagram so that others could partake of and join in her outrage. And this is what Patrick Harrington wrote:
“Hello Davidia and Kindness team,
My first response is sadness.
I feel like an opportunity has been missed in learning and growing together through your experience as a co-worker and employee with Kindness.
For Davidia and all teachers and staff with Kindness, to be clear, my door and heart are open to learning.
Please know that I am available to you Davida, or anyone else on the team, who wishes to connect.
Chief Executive Officer”
To Davidia Turner’s way of thinking, the above letter was such a monstrous attack on her that it deserved a special punishment. So she mobilized her 4,520 Instagram followers against Kindness and other white-owned yoga studios. And as the Colorado Sun explains, she published Harrington’s email and phone number, “and requested that people not only ask Harrington to ‘provide reparations’ to his minority teachers, but to cancel their yoga memberships.”
Enough people cancelled; Kindness crashed. “Harrington and his wife, Cameron, are now putting their Denver home on the market to dig out of the financial hole,” reported the Sun.
But Turner was not done. She posted a video “railing against the former CEO’s tears as well as Harrington’s expression of ‘sadness’ regarding her resignation.” Because
“ ‘the weaponizing of sadness and tears is infuriating,’ Turner said in her viral video. ‘It is one of the more insidious factors of white supremacy and whiteness.’ ”
To this highly mobilized woke ‘antiracist,’ if a sad white person cries because a black person does not love her, that’s a … a what? A white supremacist.
But cannot Fate store at least some reward for those who must bravely endure the yoke of white sadness, white tears, and just… whiteness? Yes it can. Davidia Turner and Jordan Smiley each opened a new yoga studio and filled it with like-minded former Kindness members.
Which is hardly everybody. Other former Kindness yoga instructors—now out of a job—“including people of color and one who identifies as LGBTQ,” were “shocked and heartbroken about the closure.” Racism? What racism? “ ‘As a Black person, I have been asking this myself the last few days: How come I never felt it?’ ”, says Sam Abraham. He and others lament the “trial by Instagram.” Why not just talk to Harrington? The aggrieved were just a “handful of teachers.”
Here I must stop to perform the obligatory ritual: of course institutionalized racism exists in the United States. But this is not the question here. The question is: Was Harrington the enemy? How did anyone benefit from demolishing Kindness Yoga?
Harrington himself has wondered aloud about this—but carefully, for he is internalizing already his learned helplessness: no matter what he does, he’ll have to apologize.
“ ‘I’m practicing learning how to speak in a way that is more inclusive and caring of diversity,’ [Harrington] told the Colorado Sun. (…) ‘Did our community in Denver gain something by Kindness Yoga closing its doors? … I struggle to understand the benefit of this outcome for white people, people of color, LGBTQ+ people. I don’t see the benefit of taking us down this way.’ After a beat, he added: ‘My [white heterosexual] privilege could have me blind to that. I’m trying to learn.’ ”
Context and analysis
As mentioned, this anecdote is instructive because it is archetypal; it is standard, not special. Scenes with the same broad meaning have been repeated all over the United States. Indeed, this process has been institutionalized, for many businesses and universities now require their employees and students to take courses by such people as Robin DiAngelo, one of woke civilization’s most important critical race theorists.5
And what is this prophet selling? DiAngelo explains in her bestseller, White Fragility, that the central claim of woke ‘antiracism’—which is academically expressed as ‘Critical Race Theory’—is this:
“I am saying that … all white people are racist.”6
I find it fascinating that someone can call herself an antiracist and write something like that. Because I was taught, from an early age, to spot racist arguments by checking to see if they were of the form “All the A’s are Y.” (Click here for a quick review of DiAngelo’s book.)
It is Robin DiAngelo (and others like her) who’ve taught Davidia Turner to see evidence of white supremacism in the tears of whites who beg for her love. Because if “all white people are racist,” then you already know what they are, and you cannot trust their tears.
And this idea—that “all white people are racist”—is being taught to children. In schools. Critical Race Theory has become a dogma among the trained pedagogues with responsibility for educating children in the United States.
This ideology is doing white people harm. Because if you can say that all white people are racist, you are saying that all white people are evil. And who is worse than a racist? Hardly anyone. You can take the gloves off with racists. They have it coming. And that’s what Davidia Turner did. She took the gloves off with Patrick Harrington: she took him down—with excess cruelty.
Someone who attacks and destroys an ally—an ally!—just because the latter has the ‘wrong’ skin color is an antiracist? Then you know where you live. Or rather, when you live. Your calendar may say 2022, but the year is 1984—as in George Orwell’s 1984.
War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Bigotry is Antiracism.
I conclude that woke morality fails—utterly—the test of the ethic of autonomy. It protects no one from harm. Least of all from racism, because woke morality is racism. WEIRD civilization doesn’t need this.
What we need, as ever, is our modern and authentic American saint, Martin Luther King, who, applying the ethic of autonomy, wanted us all protected as individuals:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
If there is a Heaven, King is of course in it, and it grieves him to know that, in our day, people who claim to fight racism boast of judging others by the color of their skin and—to boot—beat their chest for righteousness!
Gil-White F. (2004) Resurrecting Racism. Historical & Investigative Research.
Gil-White F. (2011) El Eugenismo: Movimiento que parió al nazismo alemán. Historical & Investigative Research.
‘Kindness Yoga called out: Weakened by coronavirus, 9 studios close after Instagram campaign exposes rift over race’; The Colorado Sun; 29 June 2020; by Jennifer Brown
‘George Floyd’s Cause of Death: What the Autopsy, Complaint Say’; Heavy.com; May 2020; by Jessica McBride.
‘Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings’; The New York Times; 12 July 2016; by Quoctrung Bui, Amanda Cox
Ross, C.T., Winterhalder, B. & McElreath, R. Resolution of apparent paradoxes in the race-specific frequency of use-of-force by police. Palgrave Commun 4, 61 (2018).
‘Lecturers Earn $6,000 Per Hour Pushing ‘White Privilege’ to Students’; The Tennessee Star; 31 July 2019; by Jake Dima and Peter Hasson
DiAngelo, D. R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Germany: Beacon Press. (p.13)