‘White privilege’, ‘black oppression’ – these are the kinds of grand generalisations with which we are all familiar by now. They are the sweeping concepts we are encouraged to use to interpret our world – a world in which we don’t realistically live as individuals, but as ‘black people’, ‘white people’, ‘Asians’, ‘people of colour’ et al. The only ideas that are deemed to matter are the ‘structures’ and ‘systems’ that underpin the Big Picture, while everything else is deemed pretty much irrelevant detail. In the world of these grand theories and totalising narratives on race, the individual is relegated to the background.
The important question, of course, is why this has happened, especially given that the desire to be treated as individuals, not nameless members of this or that group, is a pretty universal one. I find it difficult to imagine there are people of any ethnic or racial background who do not want to be viewed primarily as individuals, including those most responsible for popularising the sweeping groupist language of our times. I find it hard to believe many would disagree with the words of Czesław Miłosz, the Polish Nobel-winning writer, who, in reference to the soul-numbing language of the communist ideologues who ran Cold War Eastern Europe, said: ‘The true enemy of man is generalisation.’ Nothing quite diminishes us more. So why then has language obscuring our individuality taken such a strong hold in what is supposed to be an age of empathy? After all, to empathise requires, by definition, seeing a human individual, not a group or statistic.