“I’m not racist, I’m just playing the devil’s advocate here” , “I’m all for equality. I’m just debating all sides here”, “I don’t want to just agree with everything. Don’t you like your ideas to be challenged?”
When a White friend provokes you, a South Asian immigrant cis-woman, and follows that with a patronising smile alongside these calmly laid out words, you are often lost for words. The game would, in most cases, pull you into a debate that you hadn’t signed up for.
You find yourself aghast between recognising the insensitivity and ignorance of the devil’s advocate and the hard labour demanded by the role that the devil’s advocate has coerced you into playing — the strength it demands to repress your rightful emotion of anger whilst justifying your existence, the knowledge it demands to solicit your humanization and most importantly, the painful self-betrayal it causes to squish your words and body language through a spiked funnel of politeness.
For one to play devil’s advocate is for one to claim absolute objectivity. “For now, imagine I’m not White” – – meaning, for now, imagine I’m not speaking from the privilege of disproportionately benefiting from oppression; for now, imagine I don’t belong to the social group that dominates other social groups in an asymmetric power relationship, multi-generationally oppressing the group you belong to; for now, imagine we are socially, culturally, economically and politically equal; for now, imagine colonization never happened and that neocolonialism is a myth.
The devil’s advocate is not only claiming that they are able to levitate from their body, mind and soul, they are also coercing you into denying your lived reality. This claim of absolute objectivity and attempt to universalize knowledge is colonial in itself. The denial of personal context is the bastard child of French enlightenment that postcolonial studies in the recent decades have attempted to overthrow, though unnoticeably.
White cis-men who claim to read philosophy, psychology or history also tell the sob story of their library, school and university not having had enough resources to fund postcolonial studies. They simply couldn’t afford to integrate Frantz Fanon, Bell Hooks or Edward Said into their intellectual diet.
Does education in the global North deliberately overlook this ‘correction’ and update of knowledge in their curriculum? Perhaps the investment demanded by the democratization of this knowledge is self-servingly too far down in the list of budgeting priorities. Just as any knowledge that humanizes the dehumanized, it is erased. Over and over again.
Since your friend is White, the status quo privileges them and it also doesn’t serve them to personally invest in reflecting on their Eurocentric socialization. Therefore, it is important for you to know that their distorted sense of self and reality are the unfortunate debris that don’t deserve your time and resources — both of which must be allocated to your own journey of healing. If you find yourself being left with a surplus and generosity, offer support to your community. Engaging with the devil’s advocate often proves to be a zero sum game unless they are willing to learn, in which case, they wouldn’t play the devil’s advocate in the first place.
Your self-preservation starts with the denial to engage. It is the job of White allies to engage with the devil’s advocates. They hold the epistemic power of being listened to without being instantly dismissed as ‘too angry’ or ‘self-victimizing’. They hold the immunity of not having their humanity laid on the table to be withheld or returned based on the outcome of that debate. They hold the autonomy and uncontested ownership over their worth that cannot be discredited as undeserved reparation. They hold the privilege to engage in an intellectual political debate without paying the cost of triggering personally-experienced trauma and anticipating spending the next hour of therapy hoping their White therapist has magically reflected on their positionality and wouldn’t accidentally gaslight them.
The countless degrees of perpetually reproducing racial trauma are invisible. This shouldn’t be a surprising outcome in a world where the dominant groups have historically maintained control over the knowledge economy. The winner writes history and that history doesn’t hold space to address the empathy gap, but that simple absence of empathy in the eyes of your friend is the most devastating of all. The closer the source of racial gaslighting is to your personal boundaries of trust and vulnerabilities, the deadlier the damage.
Recognizing covert racism was and still is one of the most difficult aspects of living with a marginalized racial identity albeit one that is the most crucial to your mental health. When it comes to White allyship, ‘doing the work‘ means to actively read and listen first; to willingly learn and initiate uncomfortable conversations with their White family members and friends to share the knowledge so as to open the possibility of collective self-reflection.
This point is often lost in the haze of white fragility and the inherent urge to either drown oneself in guilt or externalize more harm through self-defensiveness. It is virtually impossible to never have come across a White person who doesn’t want to play the devil’s advocate although it is perhaps one of the first lessons one would learn had they barely tried to learn.
Institutional racism can hide behind the warm smiles of bureaucracy and simplistic policies. It hurts and costs lives but the denial of your reality by the people in your life is the real dagger to your heart because their decision to close their eyes and blind themselves is really them closing their eyes and making a wish with an innocent smile– ‘may your children be born to a world as unkind as the one you are living in right now.’
No, friends don’t do that.
The devil’s advocate is not your friend.
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