The moment Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars for a tasteless joke, it was all anyone talked about. But it was also remarkable how the ethnicities of the two men involved brought out the worst of identity activism.
One worrying strand of argument – because of its greater mainstream acceptability – was that society should not comment on the incident because it was between two black men, and therefore any criticism is inherently rooted in white racism.
On Twitter, a lot of well-meaning white progressives recused themselves from the terrible burden of having an opinion on a celebrity slapping another celebrity. They openly announced that no-one needed to hear their views and so they weren’t saying anything. It was as if the declaration itself was a badge of anti-racist allyship politics being done correctly. The good ally is the one who stays in their lane and treads carefully and doesn’t dare to wonder critically.
This is what people refer to as “stay in your lane”, an idea that people, particularly white men, have little knowledge on issues that might pertain to marginalized identity, and should therefore not speak on them. Instead, people should only listen to those from affected groups. This view is rooted in believing that a lack of institutional power means some groups are inherently vulnerable and unable to deal with criticism and therefore, outsiders are only fueling violence with bad rhetoric.
No-one who exists outside Twitter or academic circles genuinely thinks like this. Believing that Will Smith was wrong does not automatically mean one thinks the Metropolitan Police is fine to racially profile young black men. A disagreeable opinion is not automatically rooted in white supremacist thought or white privilege. Sometimes a disagreeable opinion is just that, one we disagree with. They believe it is far better if others keep their ideas to themselves because of who they are.
This might have been mildly acceptable if people within discriminated groups were sometimes able to echo critical thoughts freely without being accused of doing a white man’s work or having a colonized mind.
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But that aside, this growing view speaks to two things.
Firstly, the Americanization of racial discourse is powerfully clear. In a country where white supremacy left a lingering stain, such languages around race are a direct consequence of how American societies saw each other. But this has now spilled into Britain where racial hostilities – though undeniably an issue – was not as profound and ingrained as it has been in the US.
Secondly, it’s a reflection of where society is going. In the absence of class, some people are organizing on more fragmented concepts of identity, less interested in living together with others or seeking a commonality.
This activism is rooted in communalism over communitarianism, in accepting that divided groups exist and focusing on building equality between these groups rather than a shared space that transcends these identity labels. Where a class-based activism recognizes these different struggles as part of a greater assault on the working-class and therefore requires unity, stay-in-your-lane activism opts for allies over coalitions.
This is the antithesis of a shared community. The flip side is that progressives would not like is when staying in your lane eventually becomes not caring about what happens to other groups. If people are told continuously to stay in their lanes and not have any mildly critical opinions, at some point they will also no longer see it as necessary to have any opinions whatsoever on whatever structural issues other people face.
The reality of living together in diverse societies means understanding that there will be differences, and possibly conflicts. The art of living together is finding a way to make it work.
Rabbil Sikdar is a freelance writer and researcher