Me and Emotional Manipulation

Three or four years ago, I got called out for something I said about rap music: that I didn’t like it and that many musicians’ names started with “Lil” and were thus hard to tell apart.

“Called out” is a gentle way to put it. “Viciously attacked” would be a more accurate description.

It was a group conversation. Someone had brought up rap. I said I didn’t like rap. The caller-out asked me a question. In retrospect, they were probably eager for me to say what I said, to have the chance to pounce.

I don’t use words like “pounce” lightly. I don’t use any words lightly. I’m a writer. Words matter. I can see how a dislike of rap music might be rooted in racism. Mine is not. (For the record, I’m also not a fan of country, EDM, jazz, or anything with Justin Bieber.) I’m telling this story because I want to discuss another trend: the way I’ve seen some people weaponize their social justice identities and use their perceived oppression and/or self-righteousness as an excuse to bully others.

I’ve been guilty of it on a few occasions. I’m not proud of that, but it was intoxicating. Of course, that doesn’t make it okay.

I’ve talked to various friends about this phenomenon, one-on-one, and pretty much all of them agree that this is going on, but no one is willing to say so, because we all know what will happen to them. Maybe it’ll happen to me, too. At this point, I’m familiar with the slew of epithets that get hurled at apostates. Racist, for sure. Sexist, misogynist, transphobe, and plenty of other ones that vary depending on the sin in question. It’s fun to live on the edge.

(If someone does read this blog post and hate me for it and call me such names, that’s fine. I’ve realized that it’s not the end of the world if someone calls me a racist. Especially since they’d be wrong. *shrug emoji*)

I’ve thought about this lovely call-out a lot, so it’s strange that I only started writing about it a few paragraphs ago – you know, given the fact that I write hundreds, sometimes thousands of words a day. For a long time, I believed that what I said was deeply racist and that I had revealed some hideously, disgustingly immoral side of myself. What actually happened probably has more to do with my inability to read social cues and unawareness of the fact that rap was code for something else. (Can you feel the autism kicking in?) I’m exceedingly grateful that this happened a few years ago and not, say, a few months ago, because there is now an entire industry based on guilting white people. I had the pleasure of encountering one of its core texts today: Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad. It has an endorsement from Elizabeth Gilbert (remember Eat Pray Love, from way back when?) on the cover, so you know it’s legit.

The inside cover says that the book belongs to the “social sciences/self-help” genre. Emphasis on “social,” light on the science. Huge emphasis on “self,” and help times negative 12.

Allow me to explain.

The premise of Saad’s book is simple, and it’ll be familiar to anyone who’s been hanging around the Internet lately. White supremacy is everything: “an ideology, a paradigm, an institutional system, and a worldview that you have been born into by virtue of your white privilege.” Conveniently, this definition is ridiculously expansive and thus impossible to disprove. The solution? You must purge your soul of these sins by doing “the work.” Specifically, Saad offers a 28-day version of said work, except she goes on to insist repeatedly that the work lasts your entire life, and if you do it well, you get to be a “good ancestor.”

John McWhorter is right. This is definitely turning into a religion, or some ugly version thereof.

You will become overwhelmed when you begin to discover the depths of your internalized white supremacy. You will become intimidated when you begin to realize how this work will necessitate seismic change in your life. You will feel unrewarded because there will be nobody rushing to thank you for doing this work. But if you are a person who believes in love, justice, integrity, and equity for all people, then you know that this work is nonnegotiable.

How’s that for a sales pitch?

It goes on:

If you go deep, if you tell the real, raw, ugly truths so you can get to the rotten core of your internalized white supremacy, what you get out of this work and put out into the world will be beyond transformational.

Here’s where I use more words. Strong ones, actually. I believe that what Saad is doing is despicable. She is preying on her readers. This is precisely how cults work. They identify weaknesses (e.g., feeling as though you are rotten inside) and then present the solution (do the “work”). The above statement alone sounds more religious, not too different from certain strains of Christianity. I wouldn’t call it inherently cult-y – at least not yet. But don’t worry. We’ll get there.

As you root out your internalized white supremacy, your body, mind, and spirit will be affected…Challenging emotions like shame, anger, grief, rage, apathy, anxiety, and confusion will come up for you if you are doing this work deeply. Don’t run away from those feelings. Feeling the feelings – which are an appropriate human response to racism and oppression – is an important part of the process. When you allow yourself to feel those feelings, you wake up.

You rehumanize yourself. You start to realize that you weren’t feeling these feelings before because you had shut down a part of your humanity in order to participate in white supremacy.

Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so benign. We’ve gone from “white supremacy is something you were born into and couldn’t help” to “white supremacy is the ugly, rotten core of your soul that makes you inhuman.” We’ll keep bouncing back and forth between these two poles throughout the rest of the book, and in many Woke discussions, too. It’s a motte-and-bailey rhetorical strategy. When its proponents are on the offense, they can advocate for the extreme social justice exorcism version, and when others object, they revert to the former, milder definition, which is much easier to defend.

A small poster captioned, "Motte & Bailey: Speak from the Bailey, Defend from the Motte!" The right side of the poster includes a clipart image of a man and a woman standing next to a water cooler and talking; a line-drawing of a knight riding a horse beside a windmill; and a silhouette of a temple building with an ornament in the shape of the letter W on top. The dialogue on the poster reads:

Speaker 1: "We must defund the police because they are systemically racist."

Speaker 2: "But there is no evidence that they are systemically racist."

Speaker 1: "What, you think racism doesn't exist?"

The text at the bottom of the poster reads: "The Woke Temple: Bringing Woke Salvation & Forgiveness from Whiteness."
A drawing titled, "The 1619 Project Motte and Bailey." The drawing is of a green hill with a square stone building on top, surrounded by a fence. A bridge leads down the hill to a neighboring, larger patch of land, where houses with straw roofs are enclosed by a fence. The speech bubble above the small hill reads, "It's important to document the brutality of slavery and the legacy of racism today. How can anyone object to that?"

The speech bubble above the larger patch of land reads, "American capitalism is singularly responsible for and irredeemably stained by the sin of slavery. To make amends, we must recognize the innate brutality of capitalism today and purge our society of its injustice!"
More on that here.

Okay, so all of society is evil, especially me, good thing I bought this book and I’ll repent for the rest of my life, I’m the spawn of Satan, we reach chapter one. Each chapter ends with “reflective journaling prompts” that I’m pretty sure could appear in law school textbooks under the definition of “leading the witness:”

  • In what ways have you wielded your white privilege over BIPOC that have done harm (whether or not you intended to do so)?
  • How have you weaponized your fragility against BIPOC?
  • How have you derailed conversations about race by focusing on how someone said something to you rather than what they said to you?
  • What tone policing thoughts have you harbored inside when you’ve heard BIPOC talk about race or their lived experiences, even if you didn’t say them out loud?

Day four illuminates the disgusting phenomenon of white silence, examples of which include “not attending protest marches against racism like Black Lives Matter,” “staying silent by not holding those around you accountable for their racist behavior,” “staying silent about your antiracism work for fear of losing friends and followers,” and “not sharing social media posts about race and racism in your spaces because of the way it might affect your personal or professional life, or simply reposting the posts of BIPOC but not adding your own voice or perspective.” If you do add your voice or perspective, you’re probably centering yourself and taking up too much space, but it’s nice that you tried. These items foreshadow what’s to come: Saad’s plan for redemption involves, as she puts it, “seismic change” that will utterly transform your personal and professional life. And you thought it’d be over in 28 days…

There are a bunch of other bad things with “white” in front of them: white privilege, white fragility, white superiority, white exceptionalism, and more. From this anti-racist standpoint, nothing related to whiteness can possibly be good, especially since anti-blackness is Theorized to underly all of whiteness. Robin DiAngelo explicitly expresses her intention “to be a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant and arrogant.”

That doesn’t sound like a recipe for bitter divisiveness and the reinflammation of racial discontent. What?

The tl;dr of all this is that Saad can and will turn anything you do (or don’t do_ into further evidence of her theories and proof of your culpability. “White apathy,” for instance, is shorthand for “not doing what I want you to do” – and like many of her fellow anti-racists, Saad seems quite comfortable stretching, twisting, or just ignoring the meanings of the words she uses. Thus, the term “apathy” has been reimagined to include:

  • “Doing very little antiracism work and therefore not understanding just how urgent this work is” (because if you don’t believe that antiracism is the best and only way forward, you clearly don’t understand it well enough)
  • “Using your high sensitivity, high introversion, or mental health and personal issues to opt out of doing the work, ignoring the fact that there are BIPOC who are also highly sensitive, highly introverted, and have mental health and personal issues who cannot opt out of being at the receiving end of (your) racism”

I find this last one particularly disturbing because the callout I described at the beginning of this piece happened during one of the most severe depressive episodes I’ve ever had. (Psychomotor retardation, inability to feel pleasure for months on end, complete brain fog, sleeping 12 hours a night, etc.) This isn’t me playing the victim card and I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for me, but I just want to emphasize that if I had found this book following the callout, as a sort of remedy for my guilt, it would have f*cked with my head so much. Depression is characterized by endless, crippling guilt. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for me to take on all of this, too. And here’s where we get to the cult-y part, and I’m really not exaggerating, because fast forward through week two (“How have you expected Black women to serve or soothe you?” “How have you fetishized Black men?”) and we arrive at the solution to all this guilt, shame, and moral rot: allyship. All of this has entered common discourse by now, so I’ll spare you the details and jump to week four, which encourages some seriously disturbing practices, all of which are grouped under the heading “power, relationships, and commitments:”

  • “Are there certain people you continue to stay in friendships with even though they are problematic and refuse to change?”
  • “How do you feel about your friends who are not doing their own personal antiracism work?”
  • “How have you allowed your friends to influence you not to engage in antiracism work?”
  • “How have you excused your elders’ racism because they are ‘from another time?’”
  • “What new core values and beliefs do you feel you need to integrate after doing this work in order to better practice lifelong antiracism?”
  • “What risks must you be willing to take? What sacrifices will you be willing to make?”

On the final day, Saad informs readers, “What you uncovered over the last twenty-seven days can no longer be hidden again. You cannot go back to sleep. You cannot unsee and unknow what you now see and know.”

This is the crux of critical theory, something that’s called “critical consciousness,” helpfully defined by James Lindsay of New Discourses:

“Critical consciousness is…to have taken on a worldview that sees society in terms of systems of power, privilege, dominance, oppression, and marginalization, and that has taken up an intention to become an activist against these problematics. To have developed a critical consciousness is to have become aware, in light of this worldview, that you are either oppressed or an oppressor.

I would argue that Saad’s statement to readers – “you cannot go back to sleep” – is more than just a prediction. It’s a threat. The entire premise of her book, and of Critical Race Theory, is that racism is the natural state of things, and that unless you are engaged in a very particular set of practices deemed “anti-racism,” you are a racist. You’re either with us or against us, awake or asleep, enlightened or deluded. Saad makes it abundantly clear that if readers reject her claims, refuse to “do the work,” or disagree with anything she says, those readers are racist bigots. I would guess that most people are moderately terrified of being labeled a racist, which is exactly what makes this whole anti-racism movement so effective. Ultimately, fear trumps logic. 

I’m not saying that Saad is threatening readers in a direct or violent sense; I’m just pointing out that her entire goal is to coerce readers into an ideology they might not otherwise choose. This becomes even more concerning when you take a look at her website, where she doesn’t exactly hide her disdain for all white people – especially women. In August of 2017, she penned a letter titled, “I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy.” The letter begins with a number of disclaimers, including one that boils down to “if you disagree with me, go away” and another that informs readers about the specifics of her menstrual cycle (???). Once all that is over, she starts with Charlottesville, explaining the events and asking readers to “imagine how it is for people of color.”

She does not mention Jews once. She scolds readers for their failure to acknowledge the racial implications of this event (though how does she know exactly how all of them think/feel?), but come on. They were chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” You do not get to pretend this is only about people of color. I mean, come on.

I’m guessing she thinks Jews are white and therefore complicit in white supremacy – which is, of course, quite anti-Semitic. I’m digressing a bit, but the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of this blog post is unbelievable.

She continues with some stuff about the Goddess (?), her spirituality, her exhaustion at having to write this at all (no one’s forcing you!!), and more. Then a few months later, she posted a piece called, “I built a white feminist temple. And now I’m tearing it down.” The title pretty much says it all. She concludes on a super friendly note:

“…if you are a white person who is truly dedicated to the dismantling of systems of oppression, then this work and the work of all black women and women of colour (regardless of whether or not we are anti-racist educators or anti-oppression teachers) is worth supporting and uplifting.

“Even if it’s not for you.

Especially because it’s not for you.”

The following summer, she started the Me and White Supremacy Instagram challenge. Now it’s a book. Soon, it’ll be a workbook. She seems to be quite famous at this point. So here’s my question.

Did she banish her white feminist following? Or did she use her existing influence to coerce her fans into a belief system by targeting their emotional vulnerabilities and convincing them that the “lifelong process” of antiracism was their only path to salvation?

Just something to ponder.

Categories: Blog, Cultural Commentary

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