Why I Refuse to "Educate Myself"
Telling people that there is only one way to think is a sure-fire way to stop them from thinking at all.
A few weeks after George Floyd’s murder, I was on a Zoom call with two friends. One of them, a middle class white boy, kept expressing his shock that this had happened in modern day America. The other, a middle class black girl, grew increasingly frustrated. “This shit isn’t rare,” she finally replied. “I mean, it really is naïve for you to even say that.”
Visibly embarrassed, the boy frantically began asking what he could do to help: “Should I be out on the streets protesting—posting stuff on social media?”
There was no reply, so I stepped in to break the silence. I told my friend that he could consider “educating himself” about racism in America. It took me a few seconds to recoil from my own words.
When the phrase fell out of my mouth, I had George Orwell in the back of my mind. I thought it silly that my friend wanted to go out and protest when he did not have the slightest idea what he was protesting against. But I realized that in using the phrase, I had committed an Orwellian faux pas of my own—for over the previous weeks, the phrase educate yourself had become a cliché.
Before I could clarify my meaning, the other friend immediately perked up: “yes,” she said, “I think that’s a really good idea. You should go and educate yourself.” Her tone was different from mine—she placed all the emphasis on the word yourself, and very little on the word educate.
I had to leave the call, but the two of them carried on talking. And a few days later, the boy posted this in a large group chat:
Hi guysssss. Have an ignorant question to ask so please forgive me … went protesting yesterday and I’ve been trying to do some more learning about how we got here. But I’m still curious about one thing: what is the desired outcome from protesting?
I laughed when I saw the message. It was a perfectly fair question—and it didn’t have a single, clear answer. But I knew that for the rest of the group this would not count as an attempt to educate himself. Rather, it was evidence that he was not sufficiently educated already. I was the only one who even tried to offer him a response.
I don’t have a problem with the idea that Americans have a responsibility to study the history of racism in their country. Indeed, I think that Black Lives Matter have performed a public service in forcing many to consider how their fellow citizens continue to be hurt by its persistent effects today. The problem is that those who claim the right to tell others to educate themselves place so much emphasis on who ought to be educated, and so little emphasis on who is doing the educating—and this turns what could be an opportunity for real intellectual engagement into an occasion for moral grandstanding.
When I type “educate yourself” into my Facebook search bar, I am met with popular posts by my fellow Harvard undergraduates: “Educate yourself on your complicity in white supremacy.” “Educate yourself on systemic racism.” “Educate yourself on some black musicians.” “Just f**king educate yourself, leave your Black friends alone, and maybe donate some money if you can.”
And if I type “educate yourself race” into my Google search bar, I am met with book lists compiled by Hello magazine, Variety and Glamour. They include titles like White Fragility, How to Be an Antiracist and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that these authors’ anti-racist projects run directly up against each other, nor that many of history’s most important anti-racists would strongly disagree with their recommendations.
The message seems to be that there is a set of uncontested facts about race, and anyone can find them with the help of a how-to guide. So long as you are willing to follow a preordained path, you can walk a straight line from A to B, coming to understand both your unearned privilege and how to make up for it.
But even a cursory glance at America’s intellectual history makes clear how false this presumption is. The disagreements between American anti-racists go back centuries: there were angry letters between William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. Furious exchanges between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin exchanged critical essays. Martin Luther King, Robert F. Williams, Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X engaged in vigorous debates.
All these heroes explicitly disagreed with each other about how to move America towards a better racial future. Their work ought to be a reminder that any attempt to educate oneself about racism must involve understanding the conflicts between those who have sought to eradicate it.
Among contemporary intellectuals and activists, you have to look a little harder for disagreement, if only because an orthodoxy is quickly taking hold of many of our mainstream institutions. But even today, there are black economists—from Thomas Sowell to Roland Fryer—who strongly disagree with the depiction of our current reality laid out on those reading lists. And there are many black sociologists—from Orlando Patterson to Karen E. Fields—who vehemently disagree about what an anti-racist America would look like.
Those who plaster the phrase educate yourself across their timelines make the pompous presumption that only they could possibly have the right opinions. There is an irony in the fact that many of those who claim to be suspicious of grand narratives and objective truths have such faith in a stringent, absolutist picture of racial education. And it is tragically ironic that they use their adopted slogan to corrupt the essence of independent learning.
Education is not re-education. It is, at least in part, figuring out why we think the way we do, and examining the inevitable contradictions in our thought. That means understanding why 54% of black people in America don’t think hiring decisions should take skin color into account, and why 81% don’t want reduced police presence in their local areas. It also means understanding how racial attitudes have changed over time, and critically assessing the ideas and policies that even the most well-intentioned anti-racists take for granted. It does not mean fighting for a world in which everyone looks different but thinks the same.
America’s racial wound is buried very deep, and many activists, scholars and community organizers of all colors are doing the difficult work of healing it. A national conversation about racism that isn’t just an empty cliché—one that actually debates the different types of racial or post-racial worlds we want to live in, and the different ways in which we might get there—could propel that work to greater heights. But telling people that there is only one right way to think about a question is a guaranteed way to convince them not to think at all. The current conversation is dominated by the pernicious use of a phrase that is doing more to erase that work than to bolster it.
As Coleman Hughes has written in this magazine, liberals should reclaim the expression anti-racism. They should also reclaim the phrase educate yourself. Self-education can change hearts and open minds. But many of its current proponents are sacrificing its true promise in favor of false certainty and a smug sense of superiority.
Sahil Handa is an Associate Editor at Persuasion.