Activism, BLM, Culture Wars, Identity, Psychology, Top Stories

Towards Practical Empowerment

The following critique of anti-racism is intended to empower people of color and stave off the modes of disempowerment I see in my field of rhetorical studies. Rhetorical studies examines persuasion in all its forms, but just like everyone else, rhetoricians have a hard time communicating with one another, especially when it comes to anti-racism. I’m not suggesting that all scholars, activists, and pedagogues interested in anti-racism abide by the detrimental ideology of orthodox anti-racism, but enough do that a dissenting voice is in order.

Critiques like mine are often understood as oppression or “punching down” because they threaten a narrative of anti-racism in which people of color are perpetual victims fighting the ubiquitous and systemic specter of white supremacy. Anti-racists go to great lengths to discredit such views, even—or especially—when they are espoused by people of color. Consider the newly coined term “multiracial whiteness,” which NYU professor Cristina Beltrán defines as:

…an ideology invested in the unequal distribution of land, wealth, power and privilege—a form of hierarchy in which the standing of one section of the population is premised on the debasement of others. Multiracial whiteness reflects an understanding of whiteness as a political color and not simply a racial identity—a discriminatory worldview in which feelings of freedom and belonging are produced through the persecution and dehumanization of others.

In a (since deleted) 2020 tweet, Nikole Hannah-Jones, curator of the “1619 Project” for the New York Times, declared that there is a difference between being black and being politically black. She failed to provide an adequate definition for this latter term, but the distinction appears to permit blacks to be expelled from the Community of the Good if they do not meet Hannah-Jones’s ideological requirements for membership of their own racial group.

I just want an anti-racism that does not require a feeling of victimization or, at times, infantilization and learned helplessness in people of color. I want an empowering anti-racism that provides and maintains racial dignity while encouraging deliberative engagement with the social and material realities of American society. Unfortunately, most contemporary anti-racism suffers from a primacy of identity that consists of four parts: a narcissistic embrace of lived experience as its primary ethos and epistemology, a tendency to essentialize people based on race, a demonization of critical inquiry (let alone blunt disagreement), and a neglect of fundamental aspects of rhetoric like context and audience consideration.

The primacy of identity tends to produce what is known as “prefigurative politics”—a politics in which people try to perform the world they are trying to bring about. Prefigurative politics is not a problem when coupled with clear strategy and concrete planning. Unfortunately, the real-world strategies needed to create that world are often neglected by those willing to settle for the comfort of make-believe. The prefigurative bubble can be a conference, an institution, a department, or a club in which modes of behavior indicate a societal structure unreflective of social and material realities. It is therefore unsuited to the demanding task of actually bringing about meaningful change.

In my recent book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, I spend very little time discussing Critical Race Theory (CRT) that informs most contemporary anti-racist pedagogies and trainings. This is because CRT is downstream from the primacy of identity, and therefore a symptom and not a proximate cause of the real problem. The primacy of identity is itself the result of personal and interpersonal disempowerment, which has a number of causes.

First, Dr. Joy DeGruy has argued that it is produced by what she calls Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (or PTSS). “Slavery,” she writes, “yielded stressors that were both disturbing and traumatic, exacting a wound upon the African American psyche that continues to fester.” Second, the rhetorical embrace of the religious promise that the downtrodden and meek shall inherit the Earth was an early and understandable tactic of black survival. However, it proved to be so effective that it is still the basis of much activism today, irrespective of context. Third, Shelby Steele has argued that the anxiety and insecurity produced by a new discourse or interpretive community—what he calls “integration shock”—can be expressed as righteous defiance of innocuous norms and expectations. For those drowning in a soup of PTSS, victimhood, and integration shock, seeking refuge in the primacy of identity may provide relief—CRT is simply the buoy to which they cling to stay afloat.

John McWhorter has recently argued that many of the loudest anti-racist voices in the black community suffer from a distinctly black insecurity. In response to the coerced “resignation” of the New York Times‘s veteran columnist Donald McNeil, McWhorter writes:

The reason a black person engages in this kind of inquisition is not ill-will, and it isn’t stupidity. It’s insecurity. Slavery and Jim Crow have many legacies, and one is on black psychology. People who really like themselves can’t be destroyed by someone referring to a word, even a word that has been used against them. If the blackest thing you can do is get someone canned for referring to a slur, we see that the frame of mind that famously led black kids to choose white dolls in the 1950s experiment lives on.

As a black American myself, I am obviously not claiming that disempowerment is the condition of all black people (and I find it depressing that I must say so). I am saying that those who feel disempowered are more likely to embrace radical activism driven by a primacy of identity intended to protect a vulnerable self. Not all black people are prone to PTSS, integration shock, or victimhood. Many embrace a healthy self-esteem and the ability to express themselves in their various civil and professional lives. Unfortunately, these people are often disparaged as dupes, traitors, or multiracially white.

Nor am I claiming that nothing good comes of group solidarity. A sense of belonging can provide fulfillment and security, and a sense of duty can provide meaning and purpose. However, many people are only looking for the belonging and purpose (what Max Weber called the “ethics of ultimate ends”) with no real concern for strategies that can realistically secure progress and societal improvement (what Weber called the “ethics of responsibility”). Prefiguration crafts a make-believe world of heroes and villains at the expense of the real world in which people are nuanced, multi-dimensional, and often on board with the ostensible goals of progressive social justice movements: the eradication of racism and inequality.

In A Critique of Anti-Racism, I offer empowerment theory as a framework for anti-racist work, whether it is activism or pedagogy. Empowerment theory is derived from psychology and social work, prominently championed by Marc Zimmerman and Judith A.B. Lee, respectively. It also has a tacit presence in the work of writers like Chloé S. Valdary and organizations like the Greater Good Science Center. And it overlaps with theories of emotional intelligence set forth by Daniel Goleman, George Kohlrieser, Vanessa Druskat, and Richard Boyatzis. (The work of Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Donald Laurie in Leadership Studies is also relevant.) Empowerment has three components: the intrapersonal, the interactional, and the behavioral. One needs all three components to be truly empowered.

The intrapersonal component involves how we speak to ourselves—what rhetorical scholars like Alexandria Peary and Jean Nienkamp call “internal rhetoric.” It involves self-awareness and self-management and is meant to help people build self-confidence and self-esteem. Ultimately, it is intended to provide what psychologist George Kohlrieser calls a “secure base,” a condition that helps us develop a sense of protection and encourages us to “focus away from pain, danger, fear, or loss toward a focus on reward, opportunity, or benefit.” Without a strong intrapersonal component, it is hard to make use of the other two because we are too focused on self-protection and fending off “pain, danger, fear, or loss.” Activists in this situation may believe they are fighting for a better world, when in fact they are simply searching for a secure base to assuage their sense of powerlessness.

The interactional component of empowerment is concerned with the world around us, in which social awareness and relationship management are key competencies. Empathy, active listening, fair-minded critical thinking, and an acknowledgement and respect for context and socio-material influences are of particular importance. This requires critical awareness, which refers not to the search for power dynamics per se, but to what is known as organizational awareness reflected in concepts of moral dialogue and negotiation. Moral dialogue implies a shared goal, while negotiation is the recognition of shared values as the starting point for understanding and co-existence. In my article for the Heterodox Academy entitled “A Rhetoric of Common Values,” I encourage us to find commonalities in discourse—understanding discourse and one’s place within it is a key to fair-minded critical thought and engagement.

The behavioral component, also sometimes referred to as the political component, informs the nature of collaboration. This component deals with actual social and material realities in civic and professional contexts, which makes it most incompatible with prefigurative politics. It requires the competencies of teamwork, achievement orientation, conflict management, and adaptive leadership. The behavioral component is also informed by pragmatism and the need to gauge the reality of a situation and make rational moves toward particular goals.

If we were to apply empowerment theory to pedagogy, it might look like problem-based learning (PBL), which is student-driven and focuses on engagement with real problems from real stakeholders. For one of my courses, “Communication in Professional Cultures,” I spend the first half of the semester exploring rhetoric, professional writing genres, and the importance of empowerment theory and emotional intelligence in civic and professional life. These discussions are then put into practice as students are asked to examine a concrete situation using mindfulness and metacognition (the intrapersonal), an understanding of context and competing interests (the interactional), and an ability to work as a team to discover and convey practical solutions (the behavioral).

PBL accomplishes several things. First, it demands reality testing; a problem cannot be solved if one refuses to acknowledge the contexts in which it arises. Second, it provides a locus of control that allows the components of empowerment to emerge by forcing students to develop agency and efficiency. Third, it enhances diversity and tolerance because all involved have to work together to get the task done, irrespective of their identity.

Political scientist Kurt Burch argues that the democratic, deliberative, and interpersonal nature of PBL means it will improve “the participation, achievement, and enthusiasm of women, minorities, introverts, and those frustrated by the competitiveness and alienating isolation fostered by typical classroom instruction.” Burch believes that the relationship between participation and diversity is reciprocal—that each enhances the other. Why? Because “problems are vehicles for learning… Problems transport students from the classroom to tangible, real-world situations that stimulate their curiosity and creativity.” Identity has to be transcended or, at least, de-emphasized in most cases to achieve authentic and effective solutions. Stakeholders just want the problem solved; they don’t need it to be solved “blackly” or “whitely.”

Problem-based learning is so conducive to true empowerment that it can be effective beyond the classroom. In an essay for the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum argues that collaboration is the way to transcend current societal divisions:

Get potential protesters of different political views into a room and ask them, “How are we going to protect our state capitol during demonstrations?” Ask for ideas. Take notes. Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting. “Who won the 2020 election?” is, for these purposes, a bad topic. “How do we fix the potholes in our roads?” is, in contrast, superb.

At the local level, people with apparently disparate values, attitudes, and beliefs can nevertheless collaborate to address things that actually matter and yield benefits that improve the lives of all concerned in the process. Joy DeGruy argues that what she calls “improvement science”—a societal PBL similar to that described by Applebaum—could help assuage or remedy Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. This societal PBL is a “learn-by-doing” approach, she writes, that has the fundamental goal of ensuring that “improvement efforts are based as much on evidence as the best practices they seek to implement.” This approach can “zero in on the problem quickly and involve engaging with partners and stakeholders from the beginning of the process and throughout the life of the project.” This requires “an outward focus that investigates how the environment, history, and human systems have created the problem that is in need of solving.” The self-absorption of a narrow focus on the primacy of identity precludes a clear understanding of the social and material realities that need to be addressed.

Empowerment theory has particular relevance to diversity and implicit bias trainings which illuminate the importance of a strong intrapersonal component. An abundance of literature demonstrates that mandatory diversity trainings not only fail on their own terms, but can make things worse. That is because every diversity training I’ve experienced, including those I organized and facilitated earlier in my career as a diversity officer, begin with either the behavioral or the interactional component of empowerment. They tend to skip the intrapersonal component that prepares an individual for fair-minded critical thinking and coexistence in the first place. Mindfulness and metacognition should be a much bigger focus if we truly want to get things done. Otherwise, we may remain in our prefigurative bubbles, running on metaphorical treadmills, getting nowhere.


Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania and a writing fellow for Heterodox Academy. His latest book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, was recently published by Lexington Press. You can follow him on Twitter @Rhetors_of_York.