If I type “educate yourself race” into my Google search bar, I am met with book lists compiled by Hello magazine, Variety and Glamour. They include titles like White Fragility, How to Be an Antiracist and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that these authors’ anti-racist projects run directly up against each other, nor that many of history’s most important anti-racists would strongly disagree with their recommendations.
The message seems to be that there is a set of uncontested facts about race, and anyone can find them with the help of a how-to guide. So long as you are willing to follow a preordained path, you can walk a straight line from A to B, coming to understand both your unearned privilege and how to make up for it.
But even a cursory glance at America’s intellectual history makes clear how false this presumption is. The disagreements between American anti-racists go back centuries: there were angry letters between William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. Furious exchanges between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin exchanged critical essays. Martin Luther King, Robert F. Williams, Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X engaged in vigorous debates.
All these heroes explicitly disagreed with each other about how to move America towards a better racial future. Their work ought to be a reminder that any attempt to educate oneself about racism must involve understanding the conflicts between those who have sought to eradicate it.
Among contemporary intellectuals and activists, you have to look a little harder for disagreement, if only because an orthodoxy is quickly taking hold of many of our mainstream institutions. But even today, there are black economists—from Thomas Sowell to Roland Fryer—who strongly disagree with the depiction of our current reality laid out on those reading lists. And there are many black sociologists—from Orlando Patterson to Karen E. Fields—who vehemently disagree about what an anti-racist America would look like.
Those who plaster the phrase educate yourself across their timelines make the pompous presumption that only they could possibly have the right opinions. There is an irony in the fact that many of those who claim to be suspicious of grand narratives and objective truths have such faith in a stringent, absolutist picture of racial education. And it is tragically ironic that they use their adopted slogan to corrupt the essence of independent learning.