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In defence of humanism
A Q&A with Christine Louis-Dit-Sully, author of Transcending Racial Divisions: Will You Stand By Me?
In recent years, I’ve become increasingly hungry for a more nuanced, more complex — and, frankly, more interesting — public conversation on the big issues of our day. I’ve found that in the world of books in general and in book-length essays in particular, which seem to slow down the dialogue and promote thoughtfulness.
One recent title that’s had a profound influence on my thinking is Transcending Racial Divisions: Will You Stand By Me? In this penetrating polemic, Christine Louis-Dit-Sully, a French academic based in Germany, lays out an impressive analysis of identity politics and its history, and argues in favour of an anti-racism movement that’s humanist, universalist, and political. Here, she talks about the dangers of racial thinking, the problems on the left and the right — and how we might move forward, collectively, to change the world and ourselves.
I want to start with two observations you make at the beginning of the book. One is about a recent shift toward simplistic, race-based views on yourself as an individual; the other is about how complex the race conversation actually is — even within your own family.
My mother and my sister and I, we are three Black women, and we are also very individual. We don’t have the same point of view; we don’t see the world the same way. We don’t have the same political opinions, or even philosophy. How could we be called “Black women” and put in the same group? That is my problem. This is basically the process of racialization: put people into specific groups and look at the individual as if they represent the group, and the group as representative of the individual.
I’m over 50. So, I lived with a period of open racism in France, in Britain. Less when I went to America, because of the area where I lived. At some point after the 1990s, I felt like I became more of an individual than just a “Black woman.” You don’t say “Christine the Black woman” but, like I said in the book, “Christine the difficult woman.” [Laughs] I am a very difficult person. This is me. I am old enough to admit who I am.
I just felt that there was this new trend, this very large trend of anti-racism, that again put me in this category of “Black woman.” So, if you are a Black person with different views, you end up being seen as not Black, or not Black enough, or being a traitor, or being an indoctrinated Black person. … Both [the left and the right] are basically putting you back into the “Black” group and telling you how you should behave and what you should think. Your individuality is gone again — and that’s my problem. That’s why I use the example of my mother and my sister. We are quite close, and we are free individuals, and I can assure you we are very different from each other.
How do you define racial thinking?
Racial thinking is accepting the notion of race, that was developed quite recently, and understanding the world only through the notion of race.
Why do you reject that premise?
Because it’s wrong. [Laughs] For me, the notion of race is fundamentally wrong. It’s an anti-human notion; it goes against what humanity is about. It is also an anti-political notion. Politics, for me, is humans’ way of understanding and challenging the world, and making the world better. Also, I understand the notion of race as socially and historically specific. So: Why has the notion of seeing humans as divided by race developed? Why is it still here?
In the book, you challenge the idea that victimhood equals moral authority.
Again, this idea is based on an anti-human notion: looking at humanity as weak. Since the Enlightenment, there are a lot of ideas that view humanity in an anti-human way. … If I see myself as a Black person who is a victim of racism, then my word somehow has more authority, more truth in it than someone who is white and is supposed to be an oppressor. This is very wrong.
First of all, it’s patronizing to me; it’s insulting. You don’t have the possibility of engaging with ideas, discussing them, opposing them, challenging them. Because you are going to look at me and say, “She’s Black, she must know about racism more than a white person.” Says who? I have experience with it; it doesn’t mean I know about the issue. But victimhood is really wrong because it makes us vulnerable and weak. If we are vulnerable and weak, how can we change the world? How can we change ourselves? … It doesn’t mean that there’s no victims. You can be a victim of racist abuse, of aggressions. But it’s the status as victim; your identity becomes a victim. That’s what I’m challenging.
You argue that the current approach to diversity maintains the status quo.
Bascially, you don’t challenge the foundations of racial discrimination, or racism. You are basically saying that we are divided by race, and that if we want to have a society which is just, we are going to have enough percentage of Black people on the top, the bottom, the middle. The society itself, which created the inequalities in the first place, is still there. … If you don’t challenge the society that we are living in today, all you are saying is, if we have more Black entrepreneurs, we are going to be okay. Somebody asked me: Don’t you think it would be better for you to have a Black boss? No. No, I’m sorry to say. Somebody is still going to have to fight for my wages. Whether that person is Black, Chinese, or whatever, they are still my boss at the end of day.
You write that an effective anti-racist movement needs to be political, universalist and humanist. What would that look like?
That’s what I’m trying to work out in my reading and my thinking. … Unless you have a notion of freedom in discussion of politics, you don’t have politics. … Identity politics is understanding the world through different identities, and you have a competition between different identities, and you are fighting for the identities you support. Each identity group is fighting for resources.
We need to go back to this notion of what we would like to see in life. Politics can only exist if you have a vision of what the world will be for all of us. As humans, could we think of a world that would be better for all of us? Can we have a vision? Can we challenge what we have today? There is a possibility for humanity to create a world that is more human, and more free. … We need to think about how we can do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.