An article by a fellow Shout Out UK writer made the claim that ‘wokeness’ ignores the individual.

Paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech at the March on Washington, my fellow writer asked: why can’t we live up to the ideal of judging a person on the contents of their character and not the colour of their skin? According to him, the new Left have reversed this idea so that we now see everyone through designated lenses of race, gender, sexuality, disability and so forth.

A deeper truth, however, can be found in King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. King knew this was the utopian ideal and that we were not there yet. It would take a fundamental change to get us there.


We need to discriminate to achieve equality

In the absence of this fundamental change, we must do our best to correct systemic injustices — such as our grossly unequal economic system — and part of that means that we can’t simply ‘treat people the same’. Acknowledging differences is necessary to bring about equality.

King was a huge advocate of ‘Affirmative Action’ programmes. We need only look at his letter to President John F. Kennedy where he spoke of making provisions ‘not alone for equality, but for special treatment to enable the victims of discrimination to leap the gap from backwardness to competence’. Equity was needed before we could have equality.

I believe that my colleague and those who think of themselves as progressives have fallen into a fallacy. Namely, that acknowledging a person’s race, gender, sexuality or any form of disability is the same as being a racial determinist or gender determinist and the like.

It is one thing to wrongly suggest that different races or sexes are biologically different in a way that fundamentally determines who we are and what we’re entitled to, and another to say that socioeconomic structures and bias within society affect people’s lives.

We are all individuals, but we are not individuals born in a vacuum. Many aspects of our lives are not even under our control but the result of structural forces. I and my experiences cannot be fully understood without taking into account my race, my gender, my sexuality and my dis/abilities — and more importantly, how society interacts with those aspects of me.

A quote in an article by Andrew Doyle, states that ‘being gay is like being left-handed’. This is a rather perfect analogy. Systemic injustice was best explained to me many years ago with this very analogy. We live in a world of right-handed supremacy. Those of us who are right-handed often don’t even notice it. We take it completely for granted. But it’s a supremacy that we right-handers benefit from drastically. For instance, we don’t smudge our writing, tools and utensils of all sorts are often made for right-handed people, also sports equipment, and even the way desks are organised in a classroom cater to the right-handers.

We don’t appreciate what an advantage it is to be right-handed and how it makes life easier and more accessible. In this case, society determines the quality of life for left and right-handers. Ensuring that the things which give right-handed people an unfair advantage are either removed or compensated (for left-handers) results in a fairer society. Admittedly, the example is relatively trivial but it shows how someone’s particular differences shape their lives owing to how the society in which they live is set up.

Colour-blindness is an empty gesture

To become ‘colour-blind’ and treat difference such as gender and sexuality as if they were the same thing as being left-handed, completely ignores the fundamental structure of society. Both historically and contemporarily, western society is rooted in exploitation and subjugation that disproportionately targets race, class and gender.

Today, you are far more likely to be materially disadvantaged if you are LGBTQIA+, if you are a woman, if you are a person of colour, if you have any disability, and if you’re born into a working-class family. These factors also often intersect.

It’s certainly not the case that all those on the left blindly believe that everyone who is gay or anyone who is a woman live identical lives. That would be ludicrous. Nor is anyone saying that by virtue of being a heterosexual male you face no hardship or disadvantage. The only claim made is that certain hardships do not result from, and are not exacerbated by your whiteness, maleness or heterosexuality.

And that’s really the point of identity politics; to highlight that the current system is inherently unfair and needs change.

If you want to have good cake, you need the right ingredients

Certain liberals want to have their cake in large forkfuls without appreciating the necessary ingredients required. They want small and slow piecemeal reform, but they don’t seem to want the accompanying ‘positive discrimination’ that is necessary to enact that slow and piecemeal change. But if you reject dramatic economic change and redistribution, and you also don’t want people to be given an ‘artificial leg-up‘, then how will anything ever change?

It feels appropriate to end with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr:

‘There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society […]

Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation […] are all tied together’.