I’ve always loathed the phrase ‘people of colour’. It’s awkward and dehumanising – one of those PC phrases that somehow manages to be more ‘Othering’ than the alternative. But I’ve been hearing a lot of it over the past year. The phrase, popularised by Eighties anti-racist activists, has crept into the mainstream – into newspaper columns, campus debates and Twitter slanging matches. That along with the execrable tweeism ‘black folks’.
There’s something in this. Among young politicos in particular, a new politics of race arose in 2015. Some of it is familiar and old-school, growing up around issues of police brutality and social inequality, but much of it is quintessentially modern, draped in therapeutic concerns about ‘racial consciousness’, ‘microaggressions’ and ‘cultural appropriation’. But what unifies it all is a troubling desire to erect racial boundaries – a call for black people to adopt the role of the victim and for white people to self-flagellate in a corner.
The discussion about race has been more live in the West than it has been in years. From protests against police brutality to Oxford students demanding ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, there is a sense that racism is not only alive and well but more insidious than ever. Everything from ‘offensive’ statues to racist coppers is seen as part of the same existential threat. This stoked-up sense of racial peril has not only conflated genuine concerns about persisting inequalities with mere thin-skinned offence-taking — it has also worked to rehabilitate race, to give it a PC make-over.
In 2015 there was a constant insistence not on unity or solidarity, but on difference. There is a new racialism festering, which springs not from white supremacist gunmen, policemen with itchy trigger fingers or the bluster of Donald Trump, but from those who deign to call themselves anti-racist. And in almost every corner of modern life this year, its divisive presence was felt.
On college campuses, the rise of microaggressions has made socialising a fraught activity. The brain-child of Seventies academics, microaggressions is the idea that white people’s clumsy comments can destroy black people’s self-esteem and contribute to their macro-oppression. Colleges across the US, including Oberlin, Carleton and Willamette, maintain lengthy lists of verboten phrases, and it’s starting to catch on in the UK, too.