The structure is rotten: a response to Mills and his "antiracists"

Fear is a powerful method of control. History is full of examples of how those in positions of power used fear to suppress dissent and to keep those under their control from rebelling and rising against their oppressors. - Mills on the tools antiracists use to further their cause.

Criticising racism in education is certainly tough for anyone willing to take on the challenge. From students being called racist names and ignored by their teachers, BME teachers feeling sidelined and unappreciated by their overwhelmingly white colleagues (especially in Scotland), children whose first language is not English being seen as more of a burden than deserving a good education, racist exclusions policies, and a wholesale failure to place any emphasis on a culturally responsive pedagogy instead of the usual multicultural melting pot love-in (which has been shown to more mask than actually challenge racism), tackling racism is only getting harder. Oliver R Mills, a primary teacher from the south of England, has recently written a blog entitled “Why I’m no longer talking to antiracists about race” which nestles neatly in amongst these challenges in asserting that anti-racism in education has “gone too far”. This piece is a response to that blog which gained some traction and appreciation amongst people on social media. Hence the necessity to respond.

Mills makes a series of points in his post, two broad ones among them that “antiracists” wield too much power in education to routinely silence those who do not adhere to their “doctrine”, and reverse racism is a sorely ignored injustice. He sees white people as the real victims in all of this. For me, this fits into the far-right turn across many spheres of life from politics, to the media, and popular culture: racism is now more explicit, and more reflected in the policies and rhetoric of the powerful than has been for a long time. With this is a concurrent rise in insecurity among the powerful, and subsequent demand that all structural critiques of racism be silenced. Interpersonal racism is still bad of course (even though the most powerful in the land can still get away with it), but asserting it as a structure is dangerous folly. The blog from Mills slots into this overall contemporary mood. This article will have a focus on two arguments that are made by Mills: “wokeness” has gone too far and wields a totalitarian power, and that white people (and specifically men) are one of the most marginalised groups in society.

From the deliberately provocative title (echoing Reni Eddo-Lodge’s excellent book about not talking to white people about race), it is clear from the outset that Mills does not intend to sympathise with activists making structural critiques of racism. Instantly there is a binary set up between white people on one hand, and “antiracists” on the other. These activists have carried out a campaign of “linguistic scare-bombing” against anyone who dare stand against them, and that they have committed a semantic corruption by steering away from a true, dictionary definition of racism. There are repeated comparisons between antiracists and totalitarian dictators who carry out public executions, that they are an intellectual elite inimical to the interest and capabilities of “proles” like him, act like a gang, are cult-like, and that the terms they use like “whiteness”, “white supremacy”, and “white solidarity” are not ideas come about through struggle and lived experience, but are rather tools to silence those on the other side (white people). In the section on the problems of “wokeness”, Mills asserts that antiracists ignore the salience of wealth (and implicitly class) when it comes to power, and, above all, they are uninterested in liberal, rational values of debate and discussion (even when he says near the end of his piece that he “has no interest in engaging” with anyone who thinks his piece is racist - it’s telling how far his own belief in these values extend).

In long passages of weighty, winding prose Mills seems to be on some kind of personal, emotionally-charged crusade against antiracists (including some on Twitter who he refuses to name in his subdigs against them) who he believes are the biggest threat to any ideas of freedom he possesses. This is in spite of the odd nod to the existence of institutional racism, and acknowledging the need to improve education on the British Empire and colonialism - both points of his that quickly fade away with each equation of an “antiracist” with a bloodthirsty hangman.

There is too much to address his points one-by-one, so I will focus first on his contention that antiracists and the “woke” are the real ones in power and use it to totalitarian ends. This clearly ignores that racism is real, and political and cultural elites are becoming ever more brazen in their racism. Think, perhaps, of the Conservative government and their very thinly veiled nods towards making Britishness synonymous with being white, racist exclusions policies in schools, and the rise in hate crimes on people of colour. Like always really, people of colour have most to lose out from a rightwards swing in society and that is again coming to pass. These antiracists that he contends have gone too far are, quite rightly, putting pressure on whiteness and its structures of power.

It seems like his real problem is that racism and other acts of discrimination are being called out, and that more people are recognising that racism is a function of power used to preserve the benefits of those racialised as white. There is a more concerted movement (even in the face of a resurgent far-right) who are asserting the fact that racism is not an aberration in our enlightened history, but rather inbuilt to The Enlightenment and the various ideals many hold dear. For example, commentators have critiqued the worshipping of free speech which is routinely used to discipline people of colour into acknowledging the right of racists to being heard, while simultaneously contending that any critique of this is tantamount to thought control and, again, “linguistic scare-bombing”. Antiracists have worked tirelessly to expose these historical roots of racism, and critique a liberal antiracism that would assert racism as more of an aberration than essential feature of contemporary democracies. This liberal strand (and one that predominates today amongst political and cultural elites) asserts that racism is a problem of individuals and not societies (or structures). Racism is pathologized as individual failures and never as symptomatic of larger structures of power that pervade all spaces, political ideologies, ways of thinking and believing. Charles W. Mills writes of “The Racial Contract” and that “white ignorance” incentivises white people to not “see” racism because it is something they gain privilege from.

On the other hand, Oliver Mills’ critique of woke culture and quotified “antiracists” says that these features of racism simply do not exist, and that any structural critique is just an excuse to have a dig at white people. White people are the new victims of society, not racialised minorities (for whom, amongst the qualitative, there are decades of quantitative data to prove their structural disadvantage). He makes this contention through a comparison between public race “scandals” involving Benedict Cumberbatch and Sara Jeong, who he holds up as an example of where people are too quick to criticise white men of racism, but are completely permissive of women of colour when comments about white people are made. Mills correctly recognises that certain readings of his blog would brand him a part of the “alt-right”. It has all the hallmarks of a Spiked opinion piece crossed with MRA saltiness. This is the milieu that believes that everything is PC-gone-mad, the whites have been ignored for too long at the expense of ethnic minorities (see the recent furore over scholarships at public schools, and Stormzy’s Cambridge scholarships for evidence), and that this activism should be seen as the preeminent threat against western democracy. As a person of Pakistani heritage, Mills’ racism hit me in the face when he equates people using the word “whiteness” to people being called pakis in the street. I have felt the violent impact of that word in countless different settings, and it is obvious that “whiteness” does not come with it the threat of being punched in the face or echoes of empire and being made to feel like the permanent other.

Reverse racism is not real. Racism must not be confused with adjacent but very different terms like prejudice – racism is a system of disadvantage. There is no centuries-long legacy of the countries of white people being colonised and brutally exploited both then and now, proven record of institutional racism against them in, for example, the police, or mobs of people out to kill them (like, say, the days of paki-bashing Mills equates to his own hurt). It is hard to see the disadvantage for someone like Mills. He mentions having unpleasant Twitter exchanges, and people being reported for comments being made on social media. It is all the more bemusing when considering the actual effects of calling out racism in education: marginalising, a freeze on the ladder of promotion, and further abuse.

As a primary teacher like Mills, I find stances like his deeply troubling as well as plainly racist. Even with a nod or two towards racism being a thing, the weight of vitriol reserved for people who fight against it shows up a clear hate for those who correctly say that anti-racism hasn’t gone far enough in righting the persistent racial inequalities we see across society today. This jettisoning of solidarity at the expense of prioritising hurt, white feelings is one that I sincerely hope we do not see further in education in Britain. To do so would erode any gains we have made thus far. We must maintain that racism is a British institution, a structure upon which the country was built, and must be fought against as such.

©2019 The Anti-Racist Educator.