It is cold and dark but, in the distance, you see a fire. As you approach, you feel its warmth and can see within its light. You move closer; the warmth grows, the light is brighter. Nearer still, you become uncomfortable, it is too warm. You try to move away, but you are pulled forward. Or pushed by an invisible hand? This close to the fire, it is too hot. Sparks sting like wasps and the smoke chokes you like brutal hands. You want to move away, back to the pleasant warmth. But you are pushed forward. You hear anguished screams over the fire’s crackle, you see people burning within the flames. They stand upon a heap of charred bone and ash. This fire has burned a long time. You are shoved into the flames. As it consumes you, you understand that many who bask in the fire have no idea what it burns. Others know full well—they command the fire be fed and they are obeyed. This fire is racism in all its forms and its fuel is human beings.
This allegory is, obviously, modeled on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Like any philosophical allegory, it requires additional explanation and analysis.
The fire, as noted in the allegory, consists of racism in all its forms. Being within the fire is analogous to living fully with the harms of racism. For example, being wrongly imprisoned because of the racism of those running the justice system one had the misfortune to encounter. Or being killed because of racism—in that case, the analogy is to the charred bones.
The too hot circle is analogous to those who are harmed by aspects of racism, but the harms are not as great as within the fire itself. As an example, people who have enough financial resources to usually avoid the most brutal of harms of racism.
The too warm circle can include two types of people. One group can be people who do experience some of the lesser harms of racism, but not the full effects—an extreme example would be an African-American celebrity who is pulled over for driving while black but is let go when the officer realizes who they are. The second group consists of those who are not the target of racism but are aware of its existence and are uncomfortable with its existence—this comes in degrees ranging from a mild discomfort when hearing about the harms of racism to a sincere and burning hatred of racism.
The “just right” circle is made up of three groups of people. Those who benefit from racism while being ignorant of it, those who benefit from racism and are aware of it, and those who benefit from racism, are aware of it and play an active role in inflicting and maintaining it. Those who play an active role in maintaining it are part of the hand and they include those who command, such as politicians and corporate leaders, and those who obey, such as the police.
There are, of course, many fires that are defined by those who are pushed into them. People are burned based on the sex, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, religion and so on. A person can, of course, be both the burned and the burner. For example, a poor white man might support racist policies while he is pushed into the economic fire when he is forced to choose between working in a pandemic or suffering economic ruin.
This allegory is obviously subject to many criticisms. One obvious point of criticism is that it can be seen as an argument by analogy—I am obviously intending that the audience think that racism is bad because being burned in a fire is bad. As with any argument by analogy, it can be assessed in terms of the number of similarities (the more the better), the relevance of the similarities (the more the better), and the number of dissimilarities (the more the worse).
One can also engage the allegory by arguing against my claims about racism—one could argue that racism is not that bad, that it does not exist, or that people are generally getting what they deserve—or all of these at once, as some do.