Leaving Humanist

10 Aug 2020

Sometimes, avoiding debate is the same as condoning bigotry.

Update: As of 2020/08/11, the moderator of Humanist has backtracked and allowed responses to be posted; you can read the thread here. In a discussion on Twitter, it emerged that the other participant whose objection to the post had been blocked, a Black PhD scholar, hadn't even received the courtesy of a heads-up about the censorship.

My profound thanks to everyone who saw this post after I tweeted about it and responded so quickly and supportively.

I'm waiting to see whether this actually makes a difference to discussion on Humanist and how it's moderated. Some people are tweeting about starting a new DH listserv without the baggage of Humanist; I'd join.


What do you think when you hear the phrase "anti-white racism"? If you're like me, you hear a dog-whistle. There are many excellent discussions of the problems with this term, not least this one from Scientific American, which shows that the perception that discrimination against whites is on the rise is largely a reaction to the decrease in discrimination against other groups: "whites see discrimination as a zero-sum game", concludes the author.

As a result of the fairly obviously racist undertones of the phrase "anti-white racism", I was disturbed to see it used, apparently unironically, in a post on Humanist, one of my favourite mailing lists. Humanist describes itself as aiming "to provide a forum for discussion of intellectual, scholarly, pedagogical, and social issues and for exchange of information among participants.". It is a publication of King's College London, allied with the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.

The post to which I'm referring (archived here) came in response to an essay by Australian writer Khalid Warsame. It is, in my opinion, an excellent essay. A professor on Humanist disagreed, however, and sent the message linked above to the list. In it, he laments that "A new kind of bigotry is being normalized in literary culture", and accuses Warsame's essay of "casual anti-white racism".

I wrote a brief response to this post, which I will reproduce here in its entirety:

Gabriel, and Humanists,

A few thoughts in response to your message:

1 - Non-white British people are still beneficiaries of Britain’s legacy of colonialism. British colonialism allowed the country to prosper (at the expense of other lands), to build a strong (although now weakening) educational and medical infrastructure, and to establish a strong economy. So Britons, whatever their ethnicity, benefit to some extent from historical British colonialism.

2 - Yes, many modern inventions have been created in what we call the Western world. Perhaps disproportionately so. Why is that? It is certainly not because “Westerners” are more intelligent, more inventive, or more industrious. It is because - thanks, in part, to the same colonialism I discussed in point 1 - Westerners have tended to have better access to education, resources, and funding.

3 - I agree that blaming Britain alone for the shape of the modern world is a mistake; the colonialism of countries such as Belgium, France, and Spain was equally devastating to indigenous people across the world. There is also the blame to be carried by the Christian churches, whose history of aggressive cultural conversion has also destroyed entire languages and cultures, and abused countless human beings.

4 - A fuller quotation of the author’s comment about British shame is revealing, I think: "I was finding it hard to affect a studied disinterest in the birthplace of all the unpleasantness of this modern age (the hope was that the British would notice my indifference to their elaborate cities and quaint towns and thus feel embarrassed about centuries of colonialism—a futile and naive hope in retrospect).” To my ear, this is the voice of someone who recognized the romanticism of his own imagination. He recognizes that he had built up an idealized, theoretical understanding of his own relationship with Britation and of Britain’s relationship with colonialism. But when faced with the realities, the British people do not react to his presence in the way he had imagined, any more than he is capable of reacting to Britain in the way he had intended. This isn’t a passage affirming the absolute duty of the British to feel embarrassed about colonialism, but a passage recognizing that human beings are not fully theorizable objects.

5 - The author’s objection to “sites of significance” has a far more concrete basis than you suggest. This is a term apparently used by the Australian Government "to denote places that are historically or spiritually important to Indigenous people with the aim of identifying and preserving them.” In Warsame’s view, this term limits what is classed as “belonging" to indigenous Australians, implicitly classifying the rest of the continent as *not* belonging to them. Identifying individual sites of significance is an act of transferring everything outside those sites to the legitimate ownership of the white settlers who initially colonized Australia, and their descendants. It is a “white” term in this context; it is a term of the white colonization of Australia. To call it a “white phrase” is not racism; it is an accurate representation of how the phrase is used for the purposes of the Australian government.



I was busy this weekend, so I didn't pay attention to the fact that my response failed to appear on the mailing list. This morning, however, I was contacted by the list's moderator. I won't reproduce his emails here, since I don't have permission to do so. But, in summary, he told me that he has decided not to publish my response, or another sent to the list, because he feels that such discussion is a distraction from the purpose of the Humanist list. (Quite how this can be the case, given the list's stated wish to provide "a forum for discussion of intellectual, scholarly, pedagogical, and social issues" is an interesting question.) Moreover, he argued that avoiding this kind of topic is the only way to maintain harmony. There are, he concluded, other venues for discussing important issues such as racism; Humanist is not the right venue for such discussion.

Again, I'll quote my own response in full:

Thank you for contacting me about this. I appreciate your concerns, and sympathize with the difficult line you must tread in keeping the Humanist list on track.

However, if avoiding inflammatory topics was the aim, Gabriel’s post should never have reached the list. I avoided accusing him of racism in my response, since such accusations do nothing to facilitate calm discussion, but the content of his post used numerous racist talking points (chief amongst them the trope of “anti-white racism”), along with being intellectually dishonest in numerous ways.

If you are unwilling to let list members respond in the same forum in which Gabriel’s screed was posted (an unwillingness which I understand entirely), I would urge you instead to post an official statement with the following content:

a) an apology that Gabriel’s post was allowed to go out to the list;

b) an affirmation that racist (and other bigoted) tropes and talking points are utterly unacceptable on Humanist;

c) a clear outline of the list’s intended response to those who post bigoted content.

Point c) would also entail some kind of warning to Gabriel that he will be banned if he posts racist content again.

If Gabriel’s post is allowed to sit unchallenged, this both suggests that such content is acceptable for Humanist, and leaves list members thinking that nobody else wished to speak against it. There are, no doubt, many list members who would not feel confident in challenging a senior academic, and some of those will be people of colour; it would be immoral to leave them with the impression that nobody cares to stand up on their behalf.

I am grateful for the Humanist list; it provides a wealth of content that is both useful and enjoyable. However, if there is both no official response condemning Gabriel, and continued censorship of posts criticising his message, I will have no choice but to unsubscribe.

I look forward to hearing from you once you have reached a decision as to your next steps.



The response came back fairly swiftly. It is impossible, according to the list moderator, to separate nefarious uses of the "anti-white racism" trope from sincere discussions of a genuine phenomenon. He acknowledges that the original message should not have been posted, but asserts that any response whatsoever (whether from list members or from official channels) would encourage flaming and move Humanist away from its real purpose. He expresses regret if I feel I must unsubscribe.

I unsubscribed.

Although my primary academic focus is linguistics, my interest in corpus linguistics and in the theory of markup languages means that contact with digital humanists is extremely important to me. In addition, I have some close friends who are digital humanists. I hope that posting this discussion publicly won't affect either my professional or my personal relationship with people in the DH community. But if it does, it does. That post was disgraceful and should never have been posted. Since it was posted, the least that was needed from those responsible for Humanist was an apology and an assertion of their anti-racist stance. Failure to do anything at all, other than censor those who objected, is simply standing up for racism. To be clear, I am not calling any individual involved in this a racist. I am, however, asserting that using tropes such as "anti-white racism" and disputing modern Britain's continuing responsibility for its legacy of colonialism are racist acts. I will not support anyone or any institution that chooses to perpetrate or support racist acts.