Briahna Joy Gray versus White Progressive Universalism

Preface: I have been holding off writing this. I wanted and hoped that the sectarianism that has engulfed larged parts of the American left would have abated now that the opportunity to force the vote was lost. That it hasn’t is, in no small measure, down to the fact that it exposed fundamental strategic disagreements between the soft liberal left and the left’s more radical iterations — disagreements that the movement around Bernie Sanders was concealing. About this more should be written. However it has also exposed much more unsavoury — and I believe racist — assumptions regarding who is qualified to speak for the left, who is qualified to take leadership positions, and who is allowed to win arguments. This is not something we can ignore.

Since Kant Western thought has been plagued by the question — how can we know anything universal from the standpoint of our own contingent, parochial, partial experience?

Philosophers have provided various answers to this question of varying degrees of adequacy. The most common and least adquate answer— at first explicitly and then when it became politically unpalatable, tacitly — has been to simply project these anxieties onto lesser ‘others’. By connecting the partial and the parochial with femininity, blackness, indigeneity, and so on, whiteness and masculinity could become untethered to, uncoloured by contingent experience. Whiteness and masculinity could serve as indices of neutrality.

This is why the liberal vogue for celebrating diversity has always unimpressed me. White liberals — even white “progressives” — love it when black women express the particularity of their experience. Especially if that expression comes in the safe realm of “culture”. In their minds it just reaffirms the association they already have of black women being symbols of the particular. When they stress that their stories *matter* or some such piety, they are really doing two things. They are kettling the black female experience. Black women are to be authorities on their experience and their experience *alone*. Secondly they are very loudly and narcissistically affirming their own universalism — unsullied by racism, bias partiality. “Hey, I’m not racist! I can speak for everyone!”

How would liberals react, I ask, when a black woman comes along championing the politics of the universal? When a black woman encroaches uponn territory hitherto the preserve of white men? How will “progressives” respond to the destabilising effects upon such deep, embedded associations. How will it impact upon the assumptions and illusions that inform their comforting image of themselves? How would they respond to losing arguments?

Enter Briahna Joy Gray.

For the record I cannot prove that the hostile and at times unhinged reaction to Briahna’s championing of Medicare For All is because she had the impertinence of stepping outside of the bounds of what black women are allowed to speak about. I cannot point to any determining evidence that white progressive men felt emasculated by the idea that a black woman could “war game” better than they could. I cannot be certain that white progressives find Briahna’s boldness to take a leadership role “uppity”. Finally I cannot prove that a large part of why the fall out from the Force The Vote campaign has been so bitter is because Briahna had the temerity to take on and win arguments against white progressive men that have marketed themselves as master debaters. All I am saying is that the reaction she has garnered — as distressing as it is — has not altogether surprised me.

I realise that calling people racist is the nuclear option on the left. It’s why I don’t want to call anyone out individually. Especially as I cannot read their minds. What I would hope is that comrades a) recognise that the heat Briahna is receiving is way over the top and b) allow for the possibility that this heat is linked to — like most things — our shared history. If we can accept these two things there is the basis for constructive dialogue.

19th Century agitators / 21st Century bloggers