John McWhorter’s conversation for Quillette now available

Reader Jay called my attention to the free online presence of John McWhorter’s  Sept. 25th interview/conversation for Quillette. You can now watch an hour of McWhorter conversing with Josh Szeps by clicking on the screenshot below. The title of the event was “Our oppressive moment,” and I presume that refers to McWhorter as a black person, with “our” meaning “African-Americans.” But it could also mean “Americans'”, as McWhorter’s theme is the theme of oppression that’s dominating the entire country, with whites seen as the oppressor and everyone else as the oppressed.

McWhorter isn’t buying this theme, and he’s one of the few black men who dares stand up against the hegemony of the Oppression trope. Yes, he readily admits racism, but is absolutely opposed to how it dominates political and ideological discourse, with whites castigating themselves as oppressors (à la Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo) and blacks assuming the role of victims. Regardless of whether you agree with this, McWhorter takes a strong stand against both Cancel Culture and Victimhood Culture.

Click below to hear the discussion. There’s a long blank bit in the beginning, with Claire Lehmann’s intro starting at 13:05 and the conversation beginning at 17:35. That gives you an hour of McWhorter. I think you really should listen to this, as it may well change your attitude toward discourse on race.

I didn’t think Szep was a particularly effective interlocutor. He was okay, but this is the McWhorter Show, and at times Szeps banged on too long or tried to pry McWhorter, who can pretty much expatiate at will and at length, off the rails. But it’s well worth hearing.

Here are a few points that McWhorter made or topics he discussed, taken from my notes:

McWhorter asserts that “Black people exaggerate the extent to which racism touches their lives.” He adds that “Black people are taught to pretend this as allegiance and to teach white people a lesson,” but they exaggerate the degree of quotidian racism they experience. He says that blacks should “man up” (then changes it to “people up”) and stop exaggerating. McWhorter adds that he’ll be called an “asshole” for saying this, but he believes it and doesn’t care too much about being demonized.

He discusses whether there are traits that do distinguish ethnic groups. Fried chicken makes a recurrent appearance for both McWhorter and Szeps.  

McWhorter denies that we know that racism was behind the death of George Floyd, or behind many killings of blacks by cops; but he admits that cops show racist behaviors outside of murder.

The topic of McWhorter’s new book, which is nearly done but hasn’t been vetted to publishers, is the idea of Wokeness as a new religious creed, with people like Kendi and DiAngelo as “the elect”. What he means by “the elect” is those Leftists “who are willing to allow obvious suspensions of disbelief in the name of demonstrating that they’re not racists.”  For example, the Elect are those who buy into the idea of pervasive systemic racism simply because they’re scared of being called racists themselves. This cult infantilizes blacks and is patronizing. Further, teachers infecting children with wokeness is equivalent to people bringing religion into the classroom. McWhorter argues that it’s useless to to attempt constructive engagement with the Woke, as it’s as useless as trying to engage a fervent lover of Jesus. He asserts that Kendi is not an intellectual but a priest, for he, and other Woke anti-racists, make assertions based not on empirical fact, but on faith. The best way to deal with the Woke and the Elect is to ignore or mock them.

As with the professor who was suspended for using a Chinese phrase in class that sounded like the “n-word,” McWhorter asserts that many of the blacks who say they are offended by such usages are merely pretending to be offended. He says “nobody is that fragile,” and if you’re really that offended, you need psychological help. (McWhorter is nothing if not outspoken!)

He dilates on the n-word, and even says it several times. He says that the word is being treated as magic—like certain words in indigenous groups that cannot be uttered lest disaster ensue. He goes on to ponder why things have changed, since in the 1980s you could say that word without today’s consequences. He tells his fellow blacks that they should buck up and “don’t let white people win” by acting offended by the word. Black pride, he says, should prevent you from feeling injured.

Finally, he takes up two provocative topics. First, should we changes standards and rules, like SAT score cutoffs, to allow more equity for blacks? He says “no.” Finally, at Szep’s prompting, he deals with the question of “Why bother to criticize the excesses of the Left when we’re facing such a societal erosion by Trump and the Republicans?” McWhorter’s answer is a good one.

McWhorter is well on the road to becoming an apostate in black community, if he isn’t one already. But he doesn’t care, for he’s convinced he’s speaking the truth, and I think a lot of what he says makes sense. No white person would have the bravery, or the credibility, to say what he says. I look forward to reading his upcoming book.


  1. Posted September 28, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    In a similar vein, I’ve just finished reading Wilfred Reilly’s Taboo: 10 facts you can’t talk about, and thoroughly recommend it.

  2. Posted September 28, 2020 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I cannot wait (well…I can and must, but that’s the expression) for McWhorter’s book. I’ve loved him since I first saw him on, of all places, Penn & Teller’s Bullsh*t, where he made sense in much the same way he continues to make sense. The world could do with more McWhorter.

    • Posted September 28, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Permalink


    • sugould
      Posted September 28, 2020 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Wait…! McWhorter was on Penn & Teller’s Bullsh*t? Do you recall the episode/season?

      • Posted September 28, 2020 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        I think the first was on their episode about profanity, in which they contacted him for his linguistic expertise. I may be wrong about this.

        • sugould
          Posted September 28, 2020 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          Aha! McWhorter was in two episodes:
          Profanity (2004) and Reparations (2006).

          Thank You!

          • Posted September 29, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            Yes! That was the other one! I knew there was another, but I couldn’t remember which. Thank YOU!

      • jezgrove
        Posted September 28, 2020 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        Season 4, episode 7:

  3. KD
    Posted September 28, 2020 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    No white person would have the bravery, or the credibility, to say what he says.

    This is the whole problem in its essence. The use of force in policing is an empirical question. Crime statistics are empirical facts. They are not white or black or brown, they are just facts.

    If your not a Mormon, then maybe you have no business sticking your nose into how the Mormons do things.

    However, if we live in a secular republic without a state religion, then all citizens are equal, and all have just as much right to stick their noses into the public discourse as anyone else.

    You shouldn’t have to be descended from the Chosen People Lifted Out of Slavery to be “brave” or have “credibility”. You can’t wade deeper into the Abrahamic reeds than that!

    No, this land was made for you and me.

    McWhorter doesn’t say the things he says because he is Black, he says them because they are correct (at least he believes that they are). You shouldn’t believe what McWhorter says because he is Black, but because its true.

  4. jezgrove
    Posted September 28, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    McWhorter was great, and it was an interesting conversation. Some well-argued points and wording to try and remember. (For what it’s worth, I thought that Szeps was OK, and didn’t get in the way too much.)

  5. veroxitatis
    Posted September 28, 2020 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Dr Coyne for drawing this to our attention. Dr McWhorter expressed some valuable thoughts. I would love to hear him in a well moderated debate ( Oxford Union? )with Ms diAngelo.

  6. Posted September 28, 2020 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    with whites castigating themselves as oppressors (à la Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo)

    That makes it sound like Kendi is white, but no.

  7. Roo
    Posted September 28, 2020 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    In regard to the excesses of social justice mobs, I thought Paul Bloom’s recent tweet on this was interesting. He stated:

    “Many see bullying, piling-on, and mockery on academic twitter as good people trying to make the world a better place. Others dismiss all of this as “grandstanding” or “virtue signaling”.

    Here’s a third explanation: Sadism. People often enjoy humiliating and dominating others.”

    At first I found this explanation extreme. But then, reflecting on this, it occurred to me that in the most technical sense (not the pop culture sense), sadism is something that we consider horrific on one end of the spectrum (psychopaths who torture animals,) and actually laudable on another (Basically any situation where one ‘teaches the bad guy a lesson’, be it criminal justice, warfare, or even disempowering hate groups through comedy and mockery. Just imagine removing any and all moral context from those situations and imagining it was one random person doing it to another random person.) And I think that maybe what moral crusades do is risk playing around with the dopamine button of Righteous Retribution way too much, and slowly moving the dial on where the line from ‘justified’ to ‘unjustified’ is on that spectrum. Almost no one, at least I hope, gets pleasure from torturing a bunny rabbit. We have a mental brake in there that says “Nope, no, now you’re just a psychopath.” But slowly moving the bar and moving the bar and moving the bar allows for the same amount of “Righteous Warrior!!” dopamine with increasingly harmless targets. Orwell had an insightful comment on this regarding the Nazis, although I am hesitant to quote it as I don’t want to make it sound as if I’m drawing a comparison here. Let me be clear, I am absolutely not, I just thought it was an insightful statement about human psychology in general, when he says of the Hitler: “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” I think we have moved the bar way too far on who the targets of ‘righteous’ anger are these days.

    I do feel like I am more of a softie than McWhorter on some issues, however. My bleeding heart liberal self was fairly ok with ‘snowflake culture’ until it became ‘Angry Retributive Warrior Snowflake Culture’, ha ha. I do think people react to things in all different ways and coming into contact with racism, even on occasion, may be something to laugh at for one person and really difficult for another. I grew up in what was generally a “Toughen up, get over it!!” kinda culture and I actually appreciated that liberal culture used to, in my young adulthood, try to eschew that kind of thinking and honor people’s feels. Now they have gone the other way to “You need to check your privilege and STFU about your feels unless they’re the right ones,” much resembling the culture I grew up with.

    • Roo
      Posted September 28, 2020 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

      … I should also say, I very much enjoyed hearing what McWhorter had to say. He is essentially, I think, anti-authoritarian. I have mixed feelings about that – a part of me dreads the idea of Hobbesian anarchy (be it intellectual, social, political, etc.,) but a part of me of course sees the good that has come from intellectual freedom in our time. I find it odd that he so often has to answer questions along the lines of “But the Right is just awful, so who cares if the Left organizes into an authoritarian hierarchy!”. I mean… of course one should care about that, it should be self-evident why that is important, and the fact that it’s apparently not is worrisome.

  8. dd
    Posted September 28, 2020 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    I understand that Dr. McWhorter, despite his scholarly accomplishments, has not been granted tenure at Columbia.

    • Jay
      Posted September 29, 2020 at 1:10 am | Permalink

      He’s an Associate Professor, which usually implies tenure.

  9. Filippo
    Posted September 29, 2020 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    “As with the professor who was suspended for using a Chinese phrase in class that sounded like the “n-word,” McWhorter asserts that many of the blacks who say they are offended by such usages are merely pretending to be offended . . . He dilates on the n-word, and even says it several times. He says that the word is being treated as magic—like certain words in indigenous groups that cannot be uttered lest disaster ensue.”

    As I was departing Lowes today heading for my car, I passed by a late-model (“Big-Ass,” I gather) pick-up truck, from the interior of which loudly blared a most aesthetically-pleasing rap “song,” the lyrics of which every 3-5 second featuring n – – – – -. An African-American lady in her twenties was in the driver’s seat. Next to her was a little African-American girl. I estimated her age to be three years old. Off to a good start, wouldn’t you say? Several seconds later, three other AA beguiling lassies got in the truck. I – not worthy and “checking my privilege” and dressed in sackcloth and ashes, and smiting myself with cords – resisted the urge to hold forth to them about the matter.

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