Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World by Layla F. Saad is just the thing to carry round if you want to signal that you are not just talking the intersectional talk, but doing the work (and in these post-Black Lives Matter times, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right?). An easy read – I got through it in a few days at the poolside while sipping mojitos back in February – it is in fact a book to do, Saad insists, not just skim through, with bullet points of actions-oriented instructions for self-reflection and critique at the end of each short chapter.
All this focus on doing “the work” is core to the objectives of Saad’s little manual to change the world, as the subtitle has it. As Robin DiAngelo (yes, she of White Fragility fame) points out in the foreword: “While the racist status quo is comfortable for me virtually twenty-four-seven as a white person, challenging the racist status quo is not. Building the racial stamina required to challenge the status quo is thus a critical part of our work as white people.” Taking Saad at her word that her manual is a workbook, we can see that, in a strange way, DiAngelo has a point: Although it’s a quick read, being something like White Fragility’s less academic little sister, stamina really is essential to get through it.
The book, for any familiar with its subject matter, is tedious. Predictably, the first chapter is an introduction about the author. So that she might establish her claim to authority, we hear of her intersectional score points: black – tick, Muslim – tick, growing up as a minority and a female in the UK (that white supremacist hellhole) – tick. “Black girls like me did not matter in a white world,” she moans. The reasons: she did not see enough black girls like herself represented in the media, and she struggled to find a foundation shade that matched her skin tone. She also claims there were other, still-subtler signs of racism in her experience and that she was unfairly treated by her teachers. (Are all teachers always fair to everyone?)
Saad has since escaped to a country not plagued by white supremacy, and now lives in the progressive haven of Qatar, where women have to endure male guardianship and Wahhabism, a strict, literal form of Islam. This, she informs us, is a profound improvement over her life in the UK: “Living in the Middle East, I am not exposed to the more direct experience of institutional racism that my younger brothers and my niece and nephew are exposed to living in the United Kingdom. However, the childhood that I had growing up as a Black Muslim girl in a primarily white, Christian society influenced my self-development and self-concept in negative ways.” Perhaps we should all move to Doha?
Then comes the romanticising of Blackness: “My work is born out of both the pain and the pride of being a Black woman.” (Yes, Black is capitalized, because it is Special.) “I do this work because I belong to the family of the African diaspora (…). I do this work because I have a voice, and it is my responsibility to use my voice to dismantle a system that has hurt me and that hurts BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) every day. I do this work because I was called to it, and I answered that call.” Hallelujah, or rather, Alhamdulillah. This approach seems to contradict Critical Race Theory’s definition of race, which is a social and political construct, but logic and reason are believed in Critical Race Theory to be hallmarks of White Supremacy, so I won’t challenge her on that point.
Next come the scholarly definitions. White supremacy is all-encompassing. It’s the reason for discrimination, abuse, marginalization, and even the killing of people of colour in white communities (regardless of the skin colour of the perpetrator). In fact it is given as the one factor that determines every ill that befalls non-white people, according to Saad. Moreover, whites have been born into this system, but Saad tells us it’s not about skin colour, but the “construction of whiteness as inherently superior to other races.” Those of us who are white shouldn’t feel bad, however, that we happen to find ourselves trapped in it. This isn’t to remove any sense of white guilt, however, but a kind of imperious command. Saad makes that clear when she dedicates a chapter – spanning all of 2.5 pages – to “self-care,” which amounts to telling yourself that no matter how hard you find it, your struggles will never equate to the hardship that people of colour experience day in and day out.
It would be easy to dismiss Saad entirely at this point were she not so popular in these strange times. When covering the knitting wars for Quillette, I came across Saad frequently. She was the go-to “resource” (as the knitters put it) for moving beyond mere words of sympathy for the antiracist cause: doing the 28-day challenge, which was free via her web site and advertised on Instagram, was proof that you were trying to remedy the fact that you were born in the wrong skin colour. For the premise of Saad and other purveyors of Whiteness Studies and Critical Race Theory is that all white people have been conditioned, from birth, into a system of oppression that is called White Supremacy. The original sin of this quasi-religion is White Privilege, which is the hurdle white people need to get through to become “truly anti-racist.” But there is no forgiveness in her program, just a relentless, constant struggle to overcome privilege and the willful ignorance in which it is allegedly based.
“When we talk about loss of privilege, I want to make this clear: you still don’t lose your white privilege. You still get to walk around with your white privilege. But what you lose is the privilege to pretend that you don’t know what’s really going on. What I want is for you to practise this for the rest of your life. And what that means, is that you can’t treat it like you’re in a sprint. You have to treat it like you’re in a marathon. In the process, you might need therapy,” Saad – who is an elegant, soft-spoken Muslim woman of East African and Middle Eastern descent – said in a conversation about her book with Melissa Carter at the Strand Book Store in New York in February this year. Her words were met with warm approval by the audience, mainly comprising of white women.
The book itself is, indeed, organized as a sequential workbook centred on meeting these goals. The first week consists of learning about how we, although well-meaning, perpetrate racism through constructs such as white privilege, white fragility, tone policing, white silence, white superiority, and white exceptionalism. The question is not if racism occurred, but how it manifests. This presumptive core tenet of Critical Race Theory (the first one typically given, in fact) provides a perfect Kafka trap (a situation in which one’s denial of guilt is treated as proof of guilt), especially when paired with the inescapable accusation of white fragility, the invention of DiAngelo. White fragility explains how most white people will resist being called racist when confronted with it, and deny it – which is a sign of their fragility, and thus complicit in a white supremacist system. Owning up is the only way out, but even then, you’re never fully redeemed, just a more honest sinner.
To facilitate “learning,” at the end of each chapter are “reflective journaling prompts.” I’ll be honest – I did not complete these, mostly because they are ridiculous. One prompts reads: “How does your white fragility show up during conversations about race? Do you fight, freeze or flee?” (“It doesn’t” isn’t an option, and so the question is begged.) Another: “describe your most visceral memory of experiencing white fragility. How old were you? Where were you? What was the conversation about? Why did it bring up white fragility in you? How do you feel about it today?” (“No such thing has ever occurred” is similarly not going to be acceptable.)) Or “How have you weaponized your fragility against BIPOC through, for example, calling the authorities, crying, or claiming you’re being harmed (‘reverse racism!’)”? (“I haven’t” clearly defies the underlying presumptions.)
The exercises are all like this. The questions are never open. The formula is set – the “work” you’re asked to do has in fact been pre-programmed, and the only correct answer is “yes, I’ve done harm, here’s an example for me to feel bad about, I’m sorry, and I will work tirelessly to do better.” There is no room for your own, personal thoughts or experiences, no space for nuance. There’s the assumption that every white person who picks up this book is complicit in white supremacy and needs to be guided into recognizing it and “doing better.”
I want to be clear that I even approached this book openly and honestly, not merely to write a critical review. I had originally decided to “do the work” – as countless others have purportedly done (more than 90,000 people downloaded the challenge when it was first out in 2018) – but I could not do this earnestly. Saad’s questions – indeed her book in itself – are an example of gaslighting. In the film 1944 film Gaslight, a man manipulates his wife psychologically until she thinks she is going insane. In Me and White Supremacy, the reader is told she (for it is aimed at women) needs to confess, ameliorate her flaws (whiteness) and commit to a lifelong process of denouncing this in order to become a respectable human being, or a “good ancestor” as she prefers to put it. The basic structure is the same: the reader is repeatedly invited to recontextualize her own life until she sees it the way Saad wants to manipulate her into seeing it.
To facilitate this psychological abuse, the book is a veritable catalogue of profound moral accusations against white women. In chapter after chapter, there is no end to how white, well-meaning women are making the lives of people of colour a misery. There is a whole chapter dedicated to anti-blackness, because allegedly, black women bring up all kinds of feelings in people with white privilege and non-black people of Colour: fear, awe, envy, disdain, anger, desire, confusion, pity jealousy, superiority, and more. Black women are either “superhumanized and put on pedestals as queens or the strong Black woman, or they are dehumanized and seen as unworthy of the same care and attention as white women.” Black men and black children are also objectified rather than seen as individuals, according to Saad.
As with much in the Critical Race Theory approach, it’s hard to argue with this directly, as popular culture often caricatures people, but being stereotyped isn’t limited to people of any race or sex. Careful analysis of these delicate and relevant issues isn’t offered, however, and straightforwardly relevant questions go unanswered and unaddressed. For example, one might ask who is doing the stereotyping in “popular culture” in the first place. Is this the fault of regular white people, who have nothing to do with Hollywood or the media? Self-reflection is also ironically thin on the ground. Saad never bothers to ask herself if the points she raises in this way are yet another grievance that has nothing to do with racism or white supremacy, but more to do with the victim narrative that she is so eager to portray?
The remaining of the book is a menagerie of the now-usual buzzwords, a glossary (in case you need to look up “misogynoir” or “ally cookies” – they’re both in there), and advice for spreading the Saad gospel further. For although this appears to be a self-help book, it’s about reaching, guilting, and converting yet more people to the Critical Theory view of the world that lives at the heart of Saad’s workbook, assertions, and exercises.
Saad’s book is just one of many ways in which Critical Social Justice and so-called “anti-racist” thought is cultivated online in spaces like Instagram and other social media, where it is incredibly popular. The mainstream media, particularly since the death of George Floyd, has also been infected, and it is seeping into education and work places via “racial sensitivity training.” All of this follows a pattern, which Saad’s book seeks to operationalize in the individual psychologies of its readers.
In a speech last October at the Speaking Truth to Social Justice Conference, James Lindsay paints a scary picture that offers context to what is going on: “The infected monkey is loose in the city, and just like in the movie, people don’t believe the threat is real.” But the virus is spreading, and new hosts are recruited every day. Saad’s book is only one small piece in this puzzle, but it is a pernicious one. This is racism, nicely packaged into virtue-signalling self-development. Saad says on her Instagram account that she’s working on a “Young Reader’s Edition of #MeAndWhiteSupremacy,” which will only spread it further and to some of the most vulnerable minds in our societies, children. The newly announced ban on Critical Race Theory being deployed by federal agency is a step that might help turn the tide, but clearly there is much work yet to be done.
I still have yet to fully grasp why her work, and that of others such as DiAngelo and Ibram X Kendi (both authors have had books in the top five on the New York Times Bestseller list this year), attracts so many readers. Are our lives so easy and perfect that we feel the need to repent of something over which we have no control? Do we feel so guilty about how successful our Western societies have become that we needed to find ways to say they’re inherently evil? If there is still racism, and of that there can be little doubt, whether it’s towards black people or people of any other skin colour, even white (despite the new Merriam-Webster dictionary definition that contradicts this can be the case), countless examples show that this Critical Race Theory approach is the wrong way to go about it. My own documentation of the witch hunts that ended up fragmenting a community and ruining people’s personal lives and careers was a surreal, if entertaining, warning. Evergreen college was another, even starker, warning. And now we’re seeing riots, cancellations en masse and growing racial discord in the streets of American cities, we really can’t afford to keep going in the same direction.
If anyone recommends that you pick up Me and White Supremacy, then, do the opposite: tell them that rather than absorbing Critical Race Theory, we should form real-life friendships with people of all creeds and colours and refuse to see the world through the lens of snake-oil salesmen who would convince you that every interaction you have with people who look different from you is tainted by yours and their race. As Douglas Murray says: “I’m deeply concerned. I think we’re standing on a genuine precipice, and it’s getting worse all the time.” The direction of travel will need to change before it’s too late. We’ve come to expect being told that everything is racist. Although these claims can be comical – just today I read that white people owning a dog is racism, although I hope it is satire – there will come a point when people will have had enough. When reading Saad’s book, I often found myself laughing, perhaps helped by the mojitos, but there’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Although Saad’s message is a deeply troubling one, it is also ridiculous.