Jul 6, 2017

White Purity and The Problem with White Privilege Activism

By Asad Haider / viewpointmag.com
White Purity and The Problem with White Privilege Activism

Among other things, whiteness is a kind of solipsism. From right to left, whites consistently and successfully reroute every political discussion to their identity. The content of this identity, unsurprisingly, is left unexamined and undefined. It is the false foundation of the prototypically American model of pseudo-politics.

The most insidious form of white pseudo-politics is white guilt. Whether it is as dangerous or as ethically reprehensible as the open racism of white supremacy is a misleading question. Both reinforce the delusion of whiteness.

In a speculative screed called “The center has fallen, and white nationalism is filling the vacuum,” white author Ned Resnikoff reports with alarm that “white members of the self-styled radical left are closer than they know to right-wing white populism.” Considering that right-wing white populists are proudly giving Nazi salutes in public and claim Trump as their hero, that certainly seems like a cause for concern.

But Resnikoff runs into a bit of trouble when he tries to go into detail about this dangerous “white left.” The problem, as it turns out, is that not all of them are white. Jacobin Magazine, held up as the exemplar of the white left, has as its founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara – I’ve seen him in person, and he’s darker than me. Resnikoff also points to an approving citation by white nationalist Chris Roberts of a Jacobin article written by Shuja Haider. I am fairly certain that this other Mr. Haider is not white, since I am in fact related to him.

These debates, flaring up constantly since Trump’s election, provide whites with a perfect opportunity to make the world revolve around them. On Twitter liberal whites accuse critics of identity politics of ignoring white privilege, while socialist whites respond by pointing out how many white people there are in America.

In the meantime, nobody knows what to do with the non-whites, like me, who attempt to intervene in the debate. So far the strategy of the liberal whites has amounted to a glorified form of sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “I can’t hear you!” Whites on Twitter continue to resolutely accuse us of being white, while white acquaintances point out that we are not. And so it turns back around, back to white people and their fantasies. We have tried, for some time, to ignore this and continue to discuss the substantive issues. But white people make our lives even more difficult when they claim to speak in our name. I can only conclude that the strange phenomenon called whiteness produces a very deep and tenacious psychopathology, and that it is time for us to attack it openly.


What Ned Resnikoff demonstrates is that white guilt has a dark side, which I propose labeling “white purity.” It is a kind of ideology of racial hygiene which embraces multiculturalism and diversity, but attempts to eliminate undesirable elements from the white identity itself.

From the perspective of white purity, there are good whites. They have college degrees, listen to NPR, and have many POC friends. But unfortunately there also are bad whites. They’re bad because they probably voted for Donald Trump. But it gets worse. They listen to country music and eat factory farmed meat. They are offensively overweight, and go to church instead of yoga on Sundays. Most disgusting of all, they work in dirty manual labor jobs and have a petty fixation on making more money, unaware that at Harvard an English major of color is being forced to endure the trauma of reading Huckleberry Finn.

The whole thing gets more complicated because there are a few other bad whites who shouldn’t be bad whites, like Mark Lilla or Todd Gitlin. Despite their good educations and their incomes, they fail to embrace white purity. Instead, they advocate returning to the white politics of the 1930s and 1940s, when a benevolent white president secured a welfare state for his fellow whites.

As it turns out, these lapsed whites are actually a godsend for the whole project of white purity, because they serve to discredit any possible ideological threat. All non-white critics of white purity can be dismissed by loudly claiming that they are little more than lapsed whites in disguise. Whether you are black, Arab, Puerto Rican, or Korean, you will need to be re-identified if you fail to play your role.

Indeed, to the consternation of good whites, not every non-white is on board with white purity. Many are, to be sure, because the secret reality which white purity hopes to obscure is that non-whites are just as capable of a diversity of opinions and perspectives as whites are. For white purity to succeed, non-whites have to be romanticized as noble victims. When they fail to fit into this category, white purity seems to lack a proper foundation.

Fredrik deBoer asks, “Does it matter to Resnikoff that the most acid critiques of identity politics I know of have come from writers of color?” It is a question that keeps many whites awake at night. But for the rest of us the reasons are obvious. Because we have experienced racism from well-behaved and well-educated liberals as often as from the rednecks they despise; because we have never benefitted from the condescending and patronizing attitudes of white multiculturalists; because we recognize in the affluent liberal hatred of the white poor the same depraved social Darwinism that in less public moments is directed against us.


“Metaphor is never innocent,” Jacques Derrida remarked. “It orients research and fixes results.” The primordial metaphor for whiteness is the knapsack, introduced by white author Peggy McIntosh in her influential article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

Of course, McIntosh was not the first to try to describe the consequences of whiteness. W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote of the legal and social advantages granted to whites in Black Reconstruction:

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.

However, McIntosh’s article operated at a very different register from Du Bois’s historical investigation of the class composition of the postbellum United States. It is likely that McIntosh wrote with the best of intentions, aiming to reduce barbaric behaviors among whites. Unfortunately, the effect of her article has been to provide whites with new and seemingly progressive ways of centering politics on the white identity.

This is because McIntosh refers throughout her article, interchangeably, to “my race,” “my racial group,” and “my skin color.” The first “white privilege” she names is: “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” Another is that she can “go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented.”

We will set aside what appears to be a lack of familiarity with the history of American popular music. What is significant is the equation of skin color, the category of “race,” and discrete groupings of human beings.

With this equation, white guilt reproduces the founding fiction of race: that there is a biological foundation, expressed in physical phenotypes, for separate groups of human beings which have separate cultures and forms of life.

This idea of race is a delusion, one which nevertheless has a “real” material effect. The “white race” is a more specific formation – a political structure of recent invention.

But the metaphor of the knapsack serves to obscure the reality of whiteness. McIntosh writes: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

The knapsack is carried by an individual navigating the open social field. It contains tools which enable the individual to navigate this field with greater effectiveness than those whose knapsacks are comparatively empty. The resources contained in the knapsack constitute whiteness as privilege, because the knapsack is carried by an individual who belongs to the white identity.

If the knapsack of privileges is carried by an individual already identifiable as white, then whiteness must necessarily be understood as a biological trait. The falseness of this notion is evident: the people who are currently described as white have a wide and complex range of genetic lineages, many of which were previously considered to be separate “races” of their own (the well-documented though frequently forgotten racialization of Slavs, Italians, the Irish, etc).

We might conclude that there has only been a minor error of description: in reality, whiteness itself is constituted by the contents of the knapsack. The constitution of whiteness as identity and its constitution as privilege are simultaneous: the knapsack’s provisions confer not only advantages but also identity upon its bearer.

But how do we know, then, that the content of the identity conferred has something to do with “whiteness”? Surely, in addition to the specific items conferring a privilege, one would find in any knapsack of identity an infinity of arbitrary details: hair length, gait, dietary preference, computer skills, etc. That is, in order to describe an individual’s identity, the knapsack would have to contain everything constituting the this-ness of that particular individual. It would offer us no insight as to the organizing principle which constitutes these traits as something which can be called “white.” There would be no way to distinguish “white” characteristics from human ones, Pennsylvanian ones, or heavy metal ones.

This is the failure of liberal thought. A political formation such as whiteness cannot be explained by starting with an individual’s identity – the reduction of politics to the psychology of the self. The starting point will have to be the social structure and its constitutive relations, within which individuals are composed. And it is too often forgotten that decades before McIntosh’s knapsack, the term “white privilege” originated with such a theory.


The theory of “white-skin privilege” was advanced by members of an early anti-revisionist split-off from the Communist Party USA (the Provisional Organizing Committee), and would come to have an enormous influence on the New Left and the New Communist Movement. A series of essays by Theodore Allen and Noel Ignatiev, collected as the pamphlet White Blindspot, offered the initial formulation. Ignatiev and Allen’s argument was that the legacy of slavery was the imposition of white supremacy by the ruling class, as an instrument of class division. But this was a political theory, not a cultural or moral one, and it held that “white chauvinism” was actually detrimental to the white working class, preventing unity with black workers. So fighting against white supremacy was in fact a central part of a political program that favored the self-organization of all workers. Ignatiev’s initial entry is worth quoting at length:

The ending of white supremacy is not solely a demand of the Negro people, separate from the class demands of the entire working class. It cannot be left to the Negro people to fight it alone, while the white workers “sympathize with their fight,” “support it,” “reject racist slanders” etc. but actually fight for their “own” demands.

The ideology of white chauvinism is bourgeois poison aimed primarily at the white workers, utilized as a weapon by the ruling class to subjugate black and white workers. It has its material base in the practice of white supremacy, which is a crime not merely against non-whites but against the entire proletariat. Therefore, its elimination certainly qualifies as one of the class demands of the entire working class. In fact, considering the role that this vile practice has historically played in holding back the struggle of the American working class, the fight against white supremacy becomes the central immediate task of the entire working class. 

As this language was taken up by the New Left, however, it went through considerable ideological transformations. The manifesto “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” circulated at the turbulent Students for a Democratic Society conference of 1969, proposed a politics centered on white guilt rather than proletarian unity. The Weather Underground used the language of “privilege” to reject the white working class as a force for revolutionary change, instead associating political struggle with vanguard groups like themselves, who attacked their own privilege by adopting a revolutionary lifestyle. What this amounted to was the self-flagellation (with explosives) of white radicals, who substituted themselves for the masses and narcissistically centered attention on themselves instead of the black and Third World movements they claimed to be supporting – reducing those movements to a romantic fantasy of violent insurrection. In other words, the project of black autonomy and self-liberation – which implied the overall self-liberation of the poor and the working class – was effectively disabled by the Weather Underground’s skin analysis.

Ignatiev ruthlessly attacked the Weatherman problematic in a paper called “Without a Science of Navigation We Cannot Sail in Stormy Seas,” which is today a jarring discovery:

White supremacy is the real secret of the rule of the bourgeoisie and the hidden cause behind the failure of the labor movement in this country. White-skin privileges serve only the bourgeoisie, and precisely for that reason they will not let us escape them, but instead pursue us with them through every hour of our life, no matter where we go. They are poison bait. To suggest that the acceptance of white-skin privilege is in the interests of white workers is equivalent to suggesting that swallowing the worm with the hook in it is in the interests of the fish. To argue that repudiating these privileges is a “sacrifice” is to argue that the fish is making a sacrifice when it leaps from the water, flips its tail, shakes its head furiously in every direction and throws the barbed offering.

Today’s privilege politics cannot possibly permit a position of this kind. We are instead left with endless variations on the Weatherman position, though without the appeals to armed struggle, bank robberies, and Lenin’s theory of imperialism.


White liberals are suggesting that a new wave of “pro-white” socialists have arisen to defend the “white working class.” This is nonsense. Black revolutionaries throughout American history have argued that the project of emancipation requires overcoming the divisive logic of identity. Although he characterized the material advantages of whiteness as a “psychological wage,” W.E.B. Du Bois did not reduce whiteness to an effect of individual psychology. In fact, immediately preceding the passage on the psychological wage, Du Bois wrote:

The theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.

If today liberal whites refuse to recognize this common interest, and eschew the socialist program that Du Bois vigorously endorsed, we will remain locked within the original sin of whiteness: the alliance of poor whites, abandoned by Northern elites, with the regressive and reactionary power of white capital.

“Capitalism cannot reform itself,” Du Bois wrote. “It is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all.” Unlike today’s multiculturalist liberals, DuBois did not merely seek a more diverse ruling class. He recognized that inequality would persist as long as capitalism persevered. There has only ever been one alternative to whiteness and its barbed offerings: the multiracial alliance of the working class against white supremacy and private property.

is an editor of Viewpoint.

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