There’s a strange, profoundly contemporary form of behavior that says a lot about our continuing problems with race and the deeply anxious, neurotic ways in which we’re confronting those problems: the ritualistic practice of white self-indictment.
On the Internet, white people have taken to acknowledging their own white privilege, and thus their own complicity in white supremacy. This behavior is undertaken, with eminent sincerity, in an effort to confront the abundant racial inequality in contemporary America. But like so much else in our society, the practice has ultimately worked not to undermine structural racism — the putative aim — but merely to deepen the self-regard of the educated white elite.
Last month, the New York Times published an essay by George Yancy — an African American philosophy professor at Emory University whose work considers race, racism and whiteness in American life — enjoining white readers to consider their place within a racist system, “to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist.” Only by doing that work, he argues, can you feel “a form of love that enables you to see the role that you play (even despite your anti-racist actions) in a system that continues to value black lives on the cheap.”
In other words, the first step toward solving the problem is acknowledging that there is one.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s a trap within his request: public self-indictment is impossible. Which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate Yancy’s attempt to address white complicity in white supremacy — I agree completely with the basic claim that we live in a system rife with racial inequality and white privilege. In saying that self-indictment is impossible, I don’t mean that it’s an unfair thing to ask of white people. I mean that if genuine contrition and meaningful apology are the purpose of self-criticism — for complicity in white supremacy or anything else — then the practice is a paradox because the very performance of self-indictment, in this context, functions as a form of self-congratulation.
Take a prototypical example of the genre. After describing himself as “white, male, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, tall, thin, blue-eyed, blonde of hair,” someone who “would blend in well in any country club or upscale private school,” Mic’s Charles Clymer claims that “acknowledging my privilege has been liberating for me; it has made me a better person and better equipped to stand beside those who suffer prejudice, often in silence.” Strange that self-criticism seems so similar to self-improvement, and is expressed in such terms of self-congratulation.
Yancy’s entreaty suggests this form of self-critique is quite rare, yet there’s an entire cottage industry devoted to it. Similar arguments calling for white people to own their privilege have been published in places like the Huffington Post and Salon. Popular sites like YouTube and Tumblr play host to hundreds of earnest white people, eagerly disclaiming white privilege and their complicity in white supremacy. White rapper Macklemore recently released his second track concerning his own white privilege. Those who publicly go through with this ritual are, ostensibly, undertaking the hard work that Yancy asks for, waging “war within themselves.” Yet they don’t appear to be at war, at all. Despite their declarations of guilt, they don’t appear guilty. If anything, they have always struck me as supremely self-satisfied.
Take, for example, Elizabeth Grattan, who started out, at Medium, addressing her fellow white people by explaining that once upon a time, “I was once just like you,” before laying out the basics of white privilege and then sharply pivoting to “You don’t yet understand that the only reason you are able to be color blind is because you are white.” You. “Or a widely-shared 2014 comic from the site Everyday Feminism. Written by a young cartoonist, Jamie Kapp, it portrays a young white woman delivering an explainer, or possibly even a lecture, to her fellow white people. She begins by ticking off the elements of her own privilege, a kind of preemptive ritual common to this genre. In short order, she switches to informing other white people of their own ignorance on matters of race. She finishes by exhorting others to “make a change!” and “f—ing educate yourself!” I’ll set aside the question of whether anyone, ever, has actually been convinced by that kind of scolding. But I will point out that announcing her own privilege seems like a token precursor that sets up others to be verbally flogged for theirs. Which is always the way with these pieces; their authors pay a kind of grudging penance for their own white privilege and move on, inevitably and fairly quickly, to the white privilege of others.
This makes perfect sense when you consider that by showily demonstrating their willingness to condemn themselves, these white people really seek to condemn the white people who don’t. The unspoken but unmistakable logic is that by declaring themselves a part of the problem, they are defining themselves as part of the solution. It’s a remarkably effective maneuver: it performs a particular emotional act and in the performance accomplishes its opposite. We’re living in a time of broad awakening to the reality of deep, entrenched racial inequality. That’s a great thing, but even the thought of being implicated in this system has caused anxiety in many white people, that some address by outdoing each other to be the loudest, most visible opponents of racial inequality. The best defense, then, is a good offense. But Yancy’s entire point, of course, is to lower your defenses. This self-negating quality might not matter so much if the performance of self-indictment actually managed to create material change: Sure, maybe this is just another part of white liberal vanity, but at least it gets the message out there! But it’s unclear what asking people to identify their racism or white privilege actually accomplishes. Presumably, acknowledging white privilege comes before some substantively anti-racist action, but specific definitions of such action remain elusive. Just as in the fight against heart disease or drunk driving, awareness only has value if it actually leads to a change in behavior, and there’s no sign that these quasi-religious renunciations of privilege have accomplished such change.
This, in turn, presents a larger problem. The discourse of this school of politics is resolutely immaterial in its language, with endless discussion of acknowledging and feeling and admitting and occupying, almost none of which amounts to what anyone might consider doing. Disclaiming white privilege doesn’t lower African Americans’ inordinately high unemployment rate or increase educational opportunities for children of first-generation immigrants. The alternative is simpler, but harder: to define racism in terms of actions, and to resolve to act in a way that is contrary to racism. Someone who never confesses their white privilege can take small-scale steps to reduce racial inequality, such as voting for candidates who support affirmative action or being an advocate for diversity in the hiring process at their job; someone who tweets all day about the dangers of white supremacy might still reinforce it by clutching their handbag closer when a black person gets on the subway. When we underestimate the immense work actually involved in dismantling racial inequality, we fail to confront the reality that the self-indictment involved in claiming white privilege, by failing to do anything materially to eliminate white privilege, is a farce.
There may be such a thing as real self-indictment. But such self-indictment would necessarily be private in nature, either a genuinely internal act on the part of the person acknowledging their received advantage, or a private admission to an individual who needs to hear it. And if the admission is going to help chip away at white privilege, generally, it has to be tied to some form of action. To imagine that undergoing mental self-flagellation itself constitutes progress strikes me as progressivism at its most self-parodic. Yes, white folks, there’s value in recognizing ourselves as beneficiaries of structural racism, but that work is about building character, not dismantling structural racism. Do it on your own time.
And don’t clap too hard, conservatives. If contemporary liberalism has a problem with performative politics at its edges, contemporary conservatism has it, too. Consider the 2016 GOP candidates who are quick to argue that “as matter of policy, nobody in the administration will say the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’” but are slower to outline their own strategies for dealing with terrorist threats, settling for macho posturing that has no earthly connection to particular military action. It’s a conceit that presents the same problem of performance over action.
My argument here, of course, is subject to the same critique: by indicting the people who so conspicuously acknowledge their white privilege, I’m setting myself on a higher plane than they are, and thus guilty of the same kind of jockeying for rank on the righteousness hierarchy I’m critiquing. But this merely serves to underscore the problem: anti-racism as mental hygiene is a road that has no ending. The question is whether our goal is to be good or to do good.
Yancy argues that many white people are hiding; hiding from their privilege, hiding from their complicity. And he’s right. What he seems to fail to consider is that by placing a premium on the disavowal of white privilege — and treating it as its own end — he’s making it easier for the heirs of white privilege to hide in plain sight.