June 16, 2011 § 17 Comments
Or, the shame of having what everyone else is supposed to want.
A while ago, Student Activism, along with others, highlighted the problems white people trying to be good creates for activism:
Jill hit the nail on the head when she said that the struggle to be — and to be seen as — “one of the good ones” can be a distraction from the real work of the activist. When you find stuff that needs doing, figure out how to help, and get to work on helping, that’s activism. Checking your privilege isn’t activism. It’s a part (and an ongoing part) of the process, but it’s not an end in itself.
The idea that identity should be entirely determined by the exercise of individual liberty is a product of liberalism, which is raced white, gendered male, classed in the middle, and is probably straight. A person who benefits from a privileged, flexible identity (whiteness, maleness, bourgeoisness, heterosexuality) is more free to think and act independently of obligation to any collective identity, whether that be out of ignorance or antagonism. Liberty in this sense is a form of power over others who are so obliged. Since these identities are the means of securing that freedom/power, when they lose their ‘symbolic efficacy’ they cultivate reaction in the subjects ‘supposed to be.’ Those who are ‘objectively’ white, men, bourgeois, are forced to see the collective nature of their identities (the ‘culture(s)’ through which one can ‘transcend’ ordinary social life) and to try to define them, to justify their ‘right’ to realize their privilege, and can eventually become a sort of semi- or full-on- fascist mishmash (the belated invention of ‘white culture’ by white supremacist groups; the tea party, etc.). They are forced to actively identify with privileges that they used to simply assume.
Enter the ‘good ones’: by engaging in self-criticism, some identified as privileged try to distinguish themselves from their various fascistic mirrors, which translates into either a) a spurious sense of even greater autonomy and freedom than all the ‘successful’ white/bourgeois/male/heterosexual/able-bodied/etc. unaware of their critical intellects. They see their own privilege as a form of constraint or compulsion from which they want to escape. This is the post-68 form of the “beautiful soul.” Or, b) involvement in struggles for equality on behalf of those whose identities are used to oppress them. That is, they identify through critique with non-whites, non-males, etc.
Pretty much everyone is skeptical of attempts to identify with the non-privileged. Sometimes they take extraordinarily crass and self-defeating forms. Other times they’re just condescending or ridiculous. Or at least they’re usually seen that way. Linda Martín Alcoff criticizes the ideal put forward for antiracist whites in the book/journal Race Traitor here:
“The major problem with Race Traitor‘s proposal, however, is that, in one important sense, whites cannot disavow whiteness. One’s appearance of being white will still operate to confer privilege in numerous and significant ways, and to avow treason does not render whites ineligible for these privileges, even if they work hard to avoid them.”
As has long been obvious to anti-assimilationists, all attempts at re-identification are doomed to failure: a white man can’t become a black woman; a straight woman can have sex with women but can’t have grown up gay, just like a black man can’t become a white man; in short the outsider can’t ever become an insider, not because the identity is formally exclusive but because the situation the identity defines is really different and inaccessible. The problem with seeing identity politics in purely discursive terms is that every identity political act is then reducible to either reclamation (black pride) or calling-out (white guilt); feminism and SlutWalk become interchangeable.
As Alcoff defines it, identity is an existential fact, “a site from which one must engage in the process of meaning-making and thus from which one is open to the world.” For a white person to take an oppositional stance to their whiteness is a real (albeit always incomplete) loss of privilege and a real sacrifice of any hope that one’s political and moral convictions and desires can someday coincide with that given identity. A white man can exoticize himself as a ‘race traitor’ or ‘gender traitor’ but this kind of quixotic heroism is always unconvincing and carries the risk of avant-gardism, where the white man who has supposedly divorced himself from his privileged identity has a more holistic perspective on the problems of others than they themselves do. ‘Hybridity’ as a counter-ideal to whiteness doesn’t work either, since no one is better at incorporating difference than white men. Nor does trying to distinguish between who a person is and what they do. To call someone out for ignoring their privilege (because that’s how you take advantage of it) can’t not be a personal attack, no matter how many times one says “there are no racist people, only racist actions.” A person just is a collection of actions, performances, and physical characteristics over which no individual can have complete control. After declaring war on all privileged forms of universalism, the most pride one can take in a privileged identity is moral superiority over his/her false consciousness-ridden counterparts (white people critiquing whiteness, men disowning masculinity, etc.), which is just one more thing to feel guilty about. Self-flagellating martyrdom seems to be the only publicly appropriate response to one’s privilege. Not the best cure for delusions of grandeur.
No one really has a solution to this problem, the only one white men suffer from the most. I’ve tried to figure out why for a long time, and the best I can come up with is that anti-privilege is almost always defined to imply hope for an ideal world in which everyone becomes white. White guilt is basically feeling bad because white people exclude everyone else from being white, just like male guilt is feeling bad because men exclude everyone else from being a man. By ‘white man’ I’m referring to the liberal ideal of self-determination, the freedom (and responsibility) to determine who one is in the world without being reducible to any collectively determined identity. In The Racial Contract, Charles Mills argues that the social contract foundational to classical liberal theory is predicated on a society of white men, and therefore their superiority and dominance over nonwhites (and women, as usual): “The terms of the Racial Contract mean that nonwhite subpersonhood is enshrined simultaneously with white personhood.” He nevertheless thinks it’s possible to separate the ideal from its history of oppression. He just assumes this can be done, which isn’t so bad in itself — most things worth doing involve a voluntarist leap of faith — but it depends on the liberal individual not being racist or patriarchal in formal terms. That is, Mills accepts the ideal’s basic assertion about itself even as he subjects it to historical critique. Even collective self-determination, the project of a universalist community of difference, at some point or other depends on erasing history (a.k.a. ‘revolution’). Though of course Mills does not, one can then justify criticisms of feminism, anti-racism, and working-class politics for being too particularist, not universal, positive, queer, or hybridized enough to found a true left-wing mass movement. In the context of liberal ideology, Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations were quite truthful: “It is possible to live almost without memory, indeed to live happily, as the animals show us; but without forgetting, it is utterly impossible to live at all.”
What if we assume instead that identity is a basic fact of social existence, and that the freedom of self-determination is an essentially oppressive form of privilege? Under Alcoff’s definition of identity as a collective response to a real situation, the only way to be really free in liberal terms is to be Superman — to fall out of the sky, the last member of an alien race with godlike powers. And even he, to some extent at least, is American.
This would not mean acquiescing to racial, gender, class, or other forms of hierarchy. It would, however, mean not treating them as commensurable. Fighting them shouldn’t require the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity as either rhetorical justification or theoretical framework: they are distinct problems with different, finite limits. The concept ‘privilege’ without precise contextualization is too broad to be very useful for much more than guilt-mongering ressentiment (tallness, intelligence, gregariousness, or being really good at soccer aren’t things anyone should want to dismantle, despite the inequality they breed). The value of a person to these struggles should simply be their participation, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class — discussion of whether a white person can ever ‘really’ be anti-racist should be considered academic in the pejorative sense. In practice, however, benefitting from racism through being white or capitalism through being bourgeois indeed do constitute barriers to joining in their overthrow, not least in the form of interested ignorance. And at the same time, assuming self-worth is a basic human need like food or pleasure, it seems near-impossible for anyone to base theirs entirely on (what their peer groups arbitrarily define as) ‘actions’ in place of identity, if only because the worth of most actions is less stable than that of most identities. Even heterosexual white cis-male currency speculators with Men’s Health physiques need to feel morally good about who they are, and who they are includes the groups they identify with. And yet the whole idea that a sanitized revision of whiteness or maleness or capitalism (or anything) could just somehow be invented seems insulting to everyone, like old people diapers, ‘smart’ superhero movies, or Will Smith. Most anti-capitalists accept that dismantling capitalism is impossible without expropriating the expropriators — there’s no reason to think getting rid of racism and patriarchy should be painless, either.
As I’ve said, there is no solution to this dilemma. Just three things I think are worth remembering. One is that a problem without a solution is a tragedy, even (especially) if one’s position in the world makes it hard to be sympathetic. White people can’t magically fix themselves. Two, despite all the annoying baggage, white dissident subversion of white supremacy is just as necessary as black, brown, yellow, or red resistance. Finally, it is both vital and difficult to counter this society’s dominant ideals without restating them in a different language. And all that means the tragic, guilty side of whiteness, along with its cousins lurking inside the other major forms of oppressive, institutionalized privilege, belongs to everyone.