Privileged Guilt

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.


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§ 17 Responses to Privileged Guilt

  • Very thoughtful…so Superman though – the liberal individual IS superman in that the origin of the self-fashioning individual (Pico’s Oration say) appears at the very dawn of modernity and the conceptualisation of this individual with free will and immune to the usual determinations of nature is dependent indeed on a supernatural plane and an omnipotent creator from whose supernatural omnipotence the self-creative capacities of humanity are presumed to derive. This Individual did drop from another planet like Superman – he is fashioned of celestial stuff and placed on earth where the natural condition of other life is really different and distinct. He’s from the heavens. “Nec certam sedem, nec propriam faciem, nec munus ullum peculiare tibi dedimus, o Adam…”

    In a materialist universe this self fashioning individual is not really intelligible, (he survives as the unexplained wholly supernatural I of pure will, generated by “big brains”, who can, according to Richard Dawkins, overcome the dictates of “genes”) and this individual really depends on a disavowed but persistent Christian cosmology reduced to simple versions like the Superman story. Today all the advocates of the “positive” “universal” “egalitarian” politics featuring this individual and individualism are Christians or crypto-Christians; they are also restoring traditional Christian conceptions of virtue and sin as well as proposing ecstatic, mystical, frenzied models of social and political militancy.

    I think this individualism goes with a kind of fasho politics not just in the temptations of this white individualism (which really is undermined a little is aspects of fasho ideology) but in just this general model of positive utopian politics, as if everyone – all six billion of us – have to be organised together into a common project that includes things like agreements on what this or that tower block should look like. People give kidneys to those they love already – there is a presumption of a love deficit in the species itself that’s in need of institutional enforcement beyond liberation from structural antagonism and competition. This antcity utopia is offered as the only alternative to the Hobbesian world of mutually predatory wolfmen. Both imply that creator who is supplying humanity with divinity (now envisioned sometimes as connectivity through the usb port).

  • W.Kasper says:

    Re: Superman.
    Even when quite young, I took most superheroes to be mid-century allegories for Jewish assimilation/humility vs. difference/superiority. The biographies of their leading creators reflect this tension. Critiques of the recent X-Men movie for ‘rewriting’ the Civil Rights struggle seem to miss this. Seeing it through the prism of queer politics came in the 90s. The ‘good’ mutants try to assimilate. The ‘bad’ ones are Zionist. Their shared enemies either manipulate this tension, or aim to exterminate both factions. This origin story was made quite explicit in the 80s – Magneto, after leaving a concentration camp, steals a huge amount of gold bullion (!) to set up camp in Israel. Professor X emigrates to America to set up a ‘progressive’ school (where even within its walls, students wear masks). They’re both veterans of the camps and the Israeli war for independence BTW. Of all superhero sagas, genocidal themes reoccur most explicitly.

    But back to reality –
    Not that clear what you’re getting at towards the end of the post. As someone who’s often looked at things from ‘outside’, or at least felt as though I was moving along the more blurred edges of the Republic (not so much now, with accelerated enclosure etc.), ‘exchanges’ of privilege have been ambiguous to say the least. Race, gender, class, health, age and disability can overrule each other in different situations. Not where the real power is, but on a micro level. I’ve had personal relationships that have descended into games of Top Trumps along those lines. But that kind of individualism/ambiguity seemed more acute during wealthier times.

    Privileged guilt, or ‘universalism’ outside the white and patriarchal – at least in the UK – is now highly unfashionable, among Liberal, Left and Right alike. ‘Identity’ is becoming as openly reductive as access to property, career and comfort. Interesting that you mention Nietszche here – too much ‘political’ thinking does seem fixated on (slightly) shifting the boundaries of the Republic (not broadening it – just moving it further in their own direction) and condemning any critique of this as ‘slave morality’. However, this most blatant, anxious, form of ‘identity politics’ is the one being given the biggest platform from every corner: affluent white patriarchy. There’s a synthesis occurring that may be more aesthetic than political (or fascist?) – access to The Castle is becoming the main priority, and forms the boundaries of debate/spectacle, more than questions of universal liberation or sufferage. Much of the Left may actually be driving itself nuts with this obsession. Of course this process is so riddled with contradictions that it would be hard to arrive at any big answers, but I do think the War on Terror and militarism has been the biggest influence on this disturbing development. How it all complements recent financial coups could be subject of a whole book.

  • traxus4420 says:


    thanks – i follow everything you’re saying except for this:

    “Today all the advocates of the “positive” “universal” “egalitarian” politics featuring this individual and individualism are Christians or crypto-Christians”

    what i’m talking about isn’t really a minority or partisan interest — liberty as self-ownership and self-determination is basic to all forms of liberalism, no? even if you’re doing so pragmatically, to struggle for equal rights in a liberal society is to buy in to this ideology. where you get in trouble is when you push past the libertarian individualist interpretation and start talking about a black nation, or any system of alternative norms. but fighting for an identity, whether individual or collective, is generally understood, legally and ideologically, to be a fight for ownership or ‘creative rights’ over that identity, to have authority over what it means and be able to exploit it as you see fit. i think in mills’ book there’s actually an ambiguity over whether the racist human/subhuman distinction just underlies and corrupts the mainstream social contract (and can be excised) or is constitutive of it (which he says in the above quote). if the latter then his arguments for realizing the true potential of the social contract are rhetorical.

    left utopianism of the critical theory sort is i think the flipside of this libertarian individualism — where the latter says ‘everyone should be free to author themselves without the influence of race, gender, class, creed, etc.’ the former says ‘everyone needs to get beyond race, gender, class, creed, etc. to build a better world for everyone.’

    alcoff’s rebuttal to the critique of identity is really good. the false assumptions behind it that she enumerates – the belief that identity is inherently separatist, that reason requires a transcendence of identity, etc. – are maintained by this anti-materialist ideal of liberty at the heart of all mainstream (and most critical) political discourse.

    • traxus4420 says:

      or, riffing off that george trow book you keep recommending and i finally read, liberty here is the freedom (the power) to determine the context of one’s identities, which is basically the holy grail of privilege, the thing everyone is supposed to want. and it works to completely trivialize the content of any particular identity.

      • lecolonelchabert says:

        what did you think of the Trow book?

      • traxus4420 says:

        enjoyed it quite a bit — still trying to figure out if the internet alters the characterization of ‘no-context’ or just expands and intensifies it. facebook seems to have a lot in common with his reading of People magazine, for example. and then he tops off all those sharp and frequently-better-than-baudrillard aphorisms with that part about the 1964 world’s fair – what a fantastic example of that capote/didion/thompson type of ‘creative nonfiction’ that also looks forward to and summarizes (many of) david foster wallace’s contributions to the genre.

        this part seemed relevant to the discussion here:

        “How lonely the white men are. They are not the grain that goes with the grain, nor can they bring themselves to dye their hair green. They thought they would have both things: the flow of history, because they knew history; and the edge, because they had talent. But history belongs to children, and the edge belongs to adolescents, so they have neither. What they have is a kind of superior whining, and the one freedom they have been able to make use of is the freedom carved out by certain adolescents to make an aesthetic out of complaint. So this is what they inhabit now: a tiny space where they struggle toward a sense of history and a sense of edge by refining their whimpers. Something happened. What went wrong? I want to tell you about my divorce.”

      • traxus4420 says:

        …its limitation is what makes it so good: that on some level it’s just literate crankism. it basically is a “refined whimper.” but at least its refinement is genuine.

    • lecolonelchabert says:

      ” if the latter then his arguments for realizing the true potential of the social contract are rhetorical.”

      I felt it was rhetorical, also strategic, to avoid the obvious dangers in the current situation of taking a position undermining individual claims to the protections of existing rights schemes. The case he makes, like Losurdo and most US criticial legal studies comment, reveals the (material and “theoretical”) dependence of the protected free individual on the other. Clearly human reproduction for example is a problem from the start but the subhumanisation of women solves it to a point.

      • traxus4420 says:

        what did you mean about the Christian stuff? i suppose you were just talking about the left public intellectuals (walter benn michaels, wendy brown, zizney of course)…

        i can accept and even respect the rhetorical/strategic phrasing, but, and maybe i’m just too naive, i don’t expect it in the midst of critique as incisive as his; i kind of expect (and would prefer) him to be direct about everything. i mean isn’t it worth keeping in mind that “individual claims to the protections of existing rights schemes” from the left are or should be more pragmatic than ideological?

        i’d appreciate it if intellectuals of whatever kind (public or academic) would stop trying to be strategic.

    • lecolonelchabert says:

      And agreed about Alcoff, who makes this kind of obvious and yet mysteriously unfashionable point against which this whole spectrum of purported left universalists are railing (Gitlin but also Walter Benn Michaels, Wendy Brown, Zizney of course, etc etc) and grounding their sympathies with petty bourgeois fascists:

      Thus, one cannot either imaginatively or practically pursue “class demands” as if the working class has one set of united and homogeneous material interests.

      This is the important – and suspiciously so often rejected by bourgeois dissidents – observation that Selma James made in the 70s against theory that had been formed in the boom era heydey of social democracy (also the era of fascism) and also showed that Marx had made as well. It offends bourgeois dissidents in lots of ways – it offends them aesthetically (modernism, exchangeability, the generic individual, was taylorism now digitality) and threatens the function these aesthetics have of maintaining mainstream common sense with irrational appeal.

      • lecolonelchabert says:

        there’s one thing wrong in the Alcoff though which is that she finds “identity” in Fraser’s case where recognition doesn’t matter supposedly – the white male skilled worker laid off – by assuming that the worker has been replaced by someone cheaper. But that might not be. “Identity” comes into it in a way that Fraser herself is too indoctrinated to see, which is that for management to take measures which negatively affect the livelihood of employees is fine but it is illegal to take measures which negatively affect the extraction of value of shareholders. Proprietorship, ownership, is a personal attribute whose social constitution Fraser avoids noticing.

  • traxus4420 says:

    @W. Kasper

    i didn’t interact much with the X-men outside of the ’90s, so i’ve only just recently been learning the history you’re talking about here. thinking about them in terms of genocide and zionism meshes with the other marvel heroes a lot better too – just about all the major ones are victims of some sort of gene-altering science experiment (captain america, incredible hulk, spider-man, fantastic four) or techno-wizards (iron man). what-if fantasies of actualizing or giving cash value to political theories of racial hierarchy.

    and ‘access,’ yes — to the point where any left struggle (like against education cuts) is automatically interpreted as a narrow minority group self-interestedly (and ‘violently’) claiming limited access rights that could/do belong to you or someone ‘naturally’ more fit. even when it’s basically the nation’s youth.

  • lecolonelchabert says:

    Christian – I mean neoplatonist, the individual is a fistful of celestial spirit trapped in mucky matter, plotinus kinda thing. Dawkins and Badiou obviously attached to this mysticism, but its also implied by Fraser and indeed Foucault.

    yeah I too wish Mills had not made that concession, it seems so lame and so implausible after everything he has explained. Alcoff too lapses into wierd naîveté a lot (Gourevich good grief), I don’t really know how much this is professionally necessary, but if Andrea Smith didn’t get tenure…

  • I mean xtian – the erroneous assumptions that Alcoff enumerates so clearly would not be possible were there not this supremacism, this group that doesn’t think its a community or particular type of humanity but just insists it’s generic humanity. Only members of this un-self-aware group can see other people as being affiliated in these ways destructive of collectivity and solidarity when they themselves have no such obstacles (except other people’s identity is somehow blocking their universal connectivity). The idea that identity is seperatist implies the existence of people without such identity whose experience establishes that access to everyone without borders. This is an old argument and usually the reactionaries (wittily de Maistre) are puzzling over where this specimen without determinations and modifiers can be seen, but the proponents of this view of universality as inimical to identity are all xtian or trace to Paul and the Roman context. Because that’s where this antagonism is found. There’s plenty of universalism elsewhere but the Pauline formulation of universalism positions itself as hostile to and inimical to social bonds and identities. The idea that the existence of Jews interferes with “universalism” is not typical of religious/metaphysical thinking about universal humanity, it’s a xtian peculiarity and the thinking has flourished in a pretty narrow european context.

  • It’s only a narrow set of identity bonds that are objectionable from Fraser’s pov -obviously trade unions are not presumed an obstacle to a national and international labour movement but the pathway into it; Alcoff doesn’t quite stress enough the sinister quality of the assumption of seperatist “special interest” (interests inimical to others) as inevitable consequence of “identity” – which assumes all kinds of mythology (and now this “race war”‘ stuff is very popular again, vampires, apes or zombies) which assumes (but cannot describe of course) some kind of structural antagonism between people who speak different language or whatever similar to that between buyers and sellers of labour power. It overlooks that shared interests as wage labourers concretely bind people as they concretely order people in competition individually, that’s the point – they don’t have to be stripped of names and particularities, tastes and relationships, speak in math, have their heads shaved and be streamlined in lycra jumpsuits, to have this in common and to be orgagnised by this commonality.

  • […] This is probably the conclusion to the last post: […]

  • […] affirmative action and other anti-discrimination policies. White Guilt is a real manifestation of privileged guilt and is real despite the politics that deny its relevance to contemporary social issues.  The […]

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