Admitting That White Privilege Helps You Is Really Just Congratulating Yourself

Fredrik deBoer, Washington Post, January 28, 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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