In his recent article for Jacobin, Cedric Johnson tosses off an eloquent description/demolition of the historical roots and political insufficiency of white liberal self-flagellation:
“Unfortunately, the arrival [with James Baldwin] of the black intellectual as gadfly and conscience of the nation in the television era bore a new set of problems. Too many well-meaning whites mistook their guilt and pleasure of self-flagellation for genuine unity with blacks and authentic antiracist political commitment — in other words, solidarity.
That problem of replacing politics with public therapy endures to this day, and it flourishes in a context where social media linkages surrogate other historical forms of social interchange and collective action. Antiracist liberalism thrives in a context where the performance of self-loathing, outrage, and concern are easily traded public currency, instead of the more socially costly politics of public sacrifice and the redistribution of societal resources.
Like Baldwin, I think Coates fulfills a similar historical role in assuaging white guilt. What we need instead is solidarity.”
The problem Johnson is describing here – what I’m calling the white confessional gesture – was the subject of a recent article by Fredrik deBoer on WaPo, “Admitting that white privilege helps you is really just congratulating yourself.”
I hated this article. I’m pretty sure I annoyed my friend T.J. by going back and forth on his FB wall with someone about it. I hated it because, unlike Johnson’s description above, it conflated the act of public disclosure itself with a lack of solidarity. Of course, that conflation is given away right in deBoer’s title, e.g. ‘really just.’ Admission of privilege can only ever be self-congratulation, it is incompatible with any larger conversation that fosters action. While I agree that public confessions of white privilege will not disrupt white supremacy in and of themselves, neither will their absence.
In fact, I would argue that such white confessional gestures, however incomplete, and however much they risk the psychological cul-de-sac Johnson describes above, have something to offer authentic antiracist movement. More, in fact, than the anguished liberalism of deBoer. His flat rejection of the current trend in white confessionals ignores the complexity of the historical processes that converge to produce it. Of course Macklemore’s new joint doesn’t erode white supremacy… but in the conversations that are sparked by it, their will be moments that organizers, activists, and educators, can leverage to steer white people away from empty gestures and toward solidarity. In turn, the trend of white confessional gestures reflects a larger phenomenon of public discussion of privilege, that offers many such moments of potential. White confessional gestures offer zero substantive political change. They do not shift power. But I believe they do offer cultural traction that can help foster meaningful action toward the goal of shifting power.
deBoer never mentions solidarity as potential alternative to self-flagellation, nor alludes to any context in which discussing your white privilege in public could take on a very different political meaning. I believe he is, in essence, raising the stakes on the very liberal Puritan heritage of paralytic shame. Your sins are so grave you may not even confess them. To discuss them at all would be the sin of pride.
The examples of antiracist action he offers as alternatives to the white confessional illustrate the limitations that this mindset places on the political imagination: “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.”
We need bigger and more nuanced thinking than this.