On Notions of ‘Embracing White Guilt’ & ‘Renouncing White Privilege’
By Argiris Malapanis and Geoff Mirelowitz
The second article in this series outlined why distortions of history by liberal academics, journalists, or others weaken the effort to place facts and evidence at the center of the study of history as well as the fight against racism. This article takes up other notions that present similar obstacles to such an effective fight.
One such argument is that “embracing white guilt” is a motor force to combat racism today.
In an article published on October 22, 2021, in The Root magazine, titled “Maybe White People Should Feel Bad,” Michael Harriot argued, “For more than a century, school districts preferred textbooks that taught students about ‘happy slaves’ and framed the Civil War as a disagreement over taxes.”
He then sharply criticized former U.S. secretary of state Condoleeza Rice. While speaking on the TV program The View on October 19, 2021, Rice disputed critical race theory and “launched into a soliloquy defending the fragile white children whose lives would be destroyed by learning the truth about America’s past,” Harriot said.
“One of the worries that I have about the way that we’re talking about race,” said Rice on The View, “is that it … seems so big that somehow white people have to feel guilty for what happened in the past. I would like Black kids to be completely empowered; to know that they are beautiful in their Blackness; but in order to do that, I don’t have to make white kids feel bad for being white.”
‘Make white children feel bad’?
“Why shouldn’t white children feel bad?” Harriot retorted. “Maybe we should make white people feel bad,” he went on.
But that’s the wrong response and an ineffective one. Past and present racist discrimination is a “big” issue. The problem is failing to put both the history and the ongoing reality of institutional racism front and center. The facts of history should be taught irrespective of whatever emotions they may generate. The goal is not to generate guilt. As in the study of all history, the goal is a clear understanding of the factual record. From there, conclusions can be drawn and debated.
Justifying his approach, Harriot claimed, “This is not a theory; history is rife with examples of how making people feel bad actually starts the process of fixing problems. Seeing cops in Birmingham spray Black children with firehoses made white people feel bad. We passed the Voting Rights Act after people felt bad about Alabama state troopers cracking the skulls of nonviolent protesters marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Selma]…. White people felt so bad when they saw Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck that they took to the streets last summer.”
There is no evidence, though, that feelings of guilt led to the widespread support that developed for the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s or for the explosion of protest against police brutality and racism in 2020. Millions were angered by racist violence and inspired by the defiance of racism led by Black people in the Battle of Birmingham in 1963, the struggle in Selma in 1965, and countless other examples. When a mass social movement put a spotlight on racism, as the civil rights struggle did, millions supported action to end it. That was certainly true in 2020 following the vicious murder of George Floyd, which was captured on video and seen by hundreds of millions—or more—all over the world.
Consider another example. The U.S. war against Vietnam over 50 years ago rained down unspeakable death and destruction on the people of that country. A movement developed against that war around the world. Was the primary motive for years of massive antiwar actions that their partisans “felt bad,” or guilty, toward the Vietnamese people? No. That movement was motivated primarily by anger against Washington’s war as well as solidarity and respect for the Vietnamese who resisted and ultimately defeated the U.S. aggressors.
Empathy is a far more powerful and productive human sentiment than guilt. Empathy—not “sympathy,” which often involves pity—is understanding the situation others face and identifying with those who are struggling against unjust or unfair conditions of life.
No one has ever explained this better as a political concept than Che Guevara, a leader of the Cuban Revolution and an outstanding Marxist. In a letter he wrote to his children in 1965, Che said: “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. That is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.”
Social vs. individual responsibility
There is an additional error in Harriot’s line of argument. It is rooted in the idea that the persistence of racist discrimination lies primarily in the thoughts or feelings of men and women, not in the institutions of the social system that impact how people think.
This society’s institutions—criminal justice, the education system, labor market, housing, finance, healthcare, and more—are historically laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, procedures, and practices. As these systems operate each day, they lead to differential—that is, worse—outcomes for Blacks and other people of color.
It can be a challenge to separate individual identity from the institutions of the society we live in. This can be true regardless of skin color.
In his “Message to the Grass Roots,” a talk delivered in 1963 in Detroit, Malcolm X captured this well.
“Imagine a Negro, who says ‘Our government!’,” said Malcolm. “I even heard one say, ‘our astronauts.’ They won’t even let him near the plant—and ‘our astronauts’! ‘Our Navy’— that’s a Negro that’s out of his mind. That’s a Negro that’s out of his mind.”
Malcolm’s point was that even those who are oppressed by the institutions of this society learn to identify with those institutions. That is equally true—or more so—for those who are not the direct victims of racism. Consequently, some interpret characterizing social institutions racist as equivalent to labeling all members of the society, individually, racist.
It is true that institutional racism affects every member of society. But institutional discrimination that maintains racist oppression does not make every member of society a racist. Millions who grow up among racist institutions decide to fight against this evil.
How do people shed racist prejudice?
It is important to recall that it was Black people who took to the streets, organized sit-downs at lunch counters, refused to give up bus seats to whites, and fought in a myriad of other ways, in their millions, to end Jim Crow—from Montgomery, Alabama; to Little Rock, Arkansas; to Jackson, Mississippi; to Greensboro, North Carolina; and beyond.
White workers and others began to shed racist prejudices by joining these struggles led by African Americans, not by internalizing “white guilt.”
The first Freedom Riders, eight Black and seven white activists, for instance, embarked on a trip through the U.S. South in 1961 to protest segregation on the interstate bus system. While facing vicious brutality by cops and white supremacists, they focused international attention on racism in the United States and won widespread support for fighting against it.
It was this defiance of racism by African Americans, which some people of other skin colors joined, that led large numbers of white youth and other sectors of the population to begin to cast off racist biases. These struggles resulted in overthrowing the Jim Crow system of segregation and made some inroads against institutionalized racism. Another outcome was a widespread change in the consciousness of the generations that grew up during and after the civil rights struggle.
The huge numbers of youth and others who joined the mass protests in the summer of 2020, triggered by the horrific police murder of George Floyd, was in part a result of that change in consciousness. It was another step forward. Again, it was primarily the initiative of large numbers of African Americans to take to the streets that prompted others to join in, not “white guilt.” Did most whites identify with Derek Chauvin—the cop who killed George Floyd—and feel guilt for what Chauvin did, or did they identify with Floyd, the terrible injury that was done to him, and his efforts to avoid death? The latter is more credible.
Calls to ‘renounce white privilege’
Another related liberal concept is the claim, also not new, that “renouncing white privilege” is a path to ending racist discrimination.
To be clear, white privilege is real. Inequality, and systematic inequality certainly, means that some enjoy advantages relative to others who are denied those advantages. The word “relative” is important here. While white workers, for example, enjoy advantages denied to Blacks, all workers are exploited by the capitalist system. The decades-long offensive of the employing class has driven down the working and living conditions of all workers, including many who are white, making them more similar to those of workers who are not white.
Moreover, there has always been a large political cost to white workers and the entire labor movement for privileges granted by racism. Such privileges have historically divided the working class. They have made genuine unity and effective working-class action more difficult to achieve, thus holding down wages, benefits, and working conditions that a more unified working class could have won for all workers.
This remains true today. Employers benefit from racism far more than those white workers who still enjoy some relative privilege as the result of inequality. Some workers who are not Black have learned this; millions more still need to.
An opinion piece in the October 25, 2017, issue of Yes! magazine, titled “How I Can Offer Reparations in Direct Proportion to My White Privilege,” advocated precisely the erroneous notion that “renouncing white privilege” is a prerequisite to fighting racism.
The columnist, Chris Moore-Backman, is author of The Gandhian Iceberg: A Nonviolence Manifesto for the Age of the Great Turning and producer of “Bringing Down the New Jim Crow,” a radio documentary series.
“White folks—including everyday progressive and radical White folks,” Moore-Backman wrote, must “renounce their routine enjoyment of the fruits of White supremacy…. Why? Because there can be no end to White supremacy until White folks renounce its spoils and privileges.”
The headline of another commentary published in the July 7, 2020, issue of the Detroit Free Press conveyed a similar view. “Solidarity is not acknowledging your white privilege, but relinquishing it,” it read.
Systemic privileges, however, cannot be “relinquished.” The social system that gives rise to and perpetuates such privileges must be ended and replaced by a different society.
Men, for example, cannot relinquish the privilege capitalist society imparts because they were born male. Ending that privilege requires ending the patriarchal system. In addition, men don’t shed sexist attitudes by “renouncing male privilege” but by joining struggles initiated by women for genuine female equality.
In the same way, no amount of “renunciation” by individuals can end racism. Only mass struggle leading to revolutionary change that dismantles the institutions of racism can begin to do that job. And as experience since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 has shown, there is still work to do even after institutional racism is ended.
Of course, everyone who understands and opposes racism should do whatever is possible on an individual level to insist on fairness and an end to discrimination. But the power of institutional racism is precisely that it reproduces racist social relations independently of the will of individuals.
‘It’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg’
This is what Malcolm X taught us when he explained in a 1964 speech that “it’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg even though they both belong to the same family of fowl—a chicken just doesn’t have within its system to produce a duck egg. It can’t do it. It can only produce according to what that particular system was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period. It’s impossible for this system as it stands to produce freedom right now for the Black man in this country.
“And if ever a chicken did produce a duck egg, I’m certain you would say it was certainly a revolutionary chicken!”
Harry Ring (1918-2007), then editor of the Militant newspaper and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party for decades, engaged in a valuable exchange on the issue of privilege more than 50 years ago. He was responding to a letter to the editor from Carl Davidson, at that time a former leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which emerged from the 1969 split in SDS.
Ring’s column—titled “How will whites overcome ‘skin privilege’?”—was published in the Militant’s January 23, 1970, issue. Despite the passage of time, Ring’s reasoning and educational approach remain relevant today.
“I’ve been wondering why you always put quotation marks around the term ‘white-skin privilege,’ ” Davidson asked in his letter, referring to the paper’s coverage of a recent RYM conference. He explained he had read some writing by Russian revolutionist Leon Trotsky that used the term “privilege” without quotation marks.
“The reason we put quotation marks around the words ‘white-skin privilege’ is because RYM’s use of the term is so completely ambiguous as to render it almost meaningless,” Ring responded. “The fact that capitalism has granted white workers certain very real privileges, which it denies Blacks, is a fundamental reality of American society. What is needed is to analyze that reality and develop a meaningful strategy for coping with it,” he said.
“RYM has not spelled out just what it considers these privileges to be or how the workers will be persuaded to ‘renounce’ them, much less what the actual content of such renunciation would be,” Ring noted.
Do-good approach to combating racism
RYM’s position “smacks strongly of a do-good, social worker approach to combating racism. It echoes the liberal theme that the problem is lodged in the hearts and minds of men, not in the social system,” he said.
“This class society is based upon and permeated with a multitude of socially damaging privileges,” Ring continued. “Corrupting privileges are used to help keep white workers pitted against Black; Blacks against other oppressed minorities; union workers against unorganized; skilled against unskilled; young against old; men against women; etc., etc. Some of these privileges are in fact illusory. Others are very real.
“Clearly, privilege plays its biggest role in terms of white vs. Black. Whites enjoy access to homes, schools, hospitals, recreation facilities, and jobs from which Blacks are barred. For Black people, forced to do the hardest, dirtiest work at the lowest pay and being ‘last hired, first fired,’ the job issue is particularly vital,” Ring wrote.
Fighting racism, Ring noted, “won’t be done by abstract moral preaching or relying on the emergence of a mass movement for the renunciation of privilege.”
Revolutionaries born with a white skin can and must educate fellow working people who are also white on the nature of racism as a tool of capitalism in keeping white and Black oppressed. They can help white workers understand that every blow Blacks strike against the system “redounds to the benefit of all who seek a better life,” Ring explained.
However, the most important educational process of all, Ring said, is the self-action of Black people for their emancipation.
“I’m convinced that the key to Black-white unity in struggle rests not so much with the attitude of whites as with the strength of Blacks,” Ring continued. “Capitalism will in fact be abolished by an alliance of white and Black. But that alliance will be forged on the basis of the Blacks developing their own independent power, as they are now trying to do.”
Experience has taught Black people that the road to liberation lies in their capacity to struggle for what is due them—not in waiting for whites to renounce their privileges.
“As Malcolm [X] explained, before there can be Black-white unity there must first be Black unity,” Ring said. “This is the only insurance that such an alliance will not be one more deal where one partner in the alliance is more equal than the other.”
This kind of education is effective but not as a scholastic exercise aimed at improving morality. Profound changes in mass consciousness are achieved only when education is carried on in the context of a living struggle.
“Vanguard ideas win broad acceptance to the extent that masses of people have the opportunity to consider them not in the abstract but can relate them to struggles in which they are actively engaged,” Ring noted.
All opponents of racism can learn something from this approach, both in understanding history and in finding the road forward to uproot racism once and for all.