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A genealogy of white privilege
On the politics of confession and guilt
The discourse of white privilege is motivated by a genuinely anti-racist and democratic vision. But as a mode of confessional introspection aimed to provoke shame and guilt, its effects can be the opposite of transformational.
How much shame and guilt should a movement for social justice try deliberately to cultivate?
In recent years, this question, superficially abstract, has again become personal for me, both in my ongoing involvement in political protest movements, and my job as a teacher, working at an institution devoted to promoting equity, inclusion, and social justice.
Like most Americans of my generation, I came of age in a country that treated democracy as a self-evident ideal. I grew up in a family of academics who were ardent liberals, and as an adolescent, watching the evening television news with my parents, I often felt ashamed of the America I saw in the news.
As I came to understand later as a historian of the New Left, my feelings were, in no small part, the result of a deliberate strategy by Martin Luther King, Jr. As he confided after a sheriff’s posse wearing gas masks and wielding clubs attacked a peaceful group of protesters before television cameras in Selma, Alabama in 1965, ‘We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television’.
Looking back, my shame at what I saw in Selma was, for me, productive politically. Two months later, I attended my first political demonstration, a protest organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had played a leading role, along with King, in organizing the Selma protests.
A year later, after I had arrived at college, I joined another demonstration, this one against the war in Vietnam, and organized by a local group of Quakers. Before the event, we gathered at the local Friends Meeting House, sat silently in a circle, and then quietly talked about our feelings of fear, and our worries about getting hurt by counter-protesters, and about why we nevertheless all felt compelled to protest: we were all quite self-conscious about ourselves as moral agents, and we earnestly tried to take care of each other, while also pledging to use only nonviolent methods to express our collective outrage at what we all felt were war crimes being committed in Vietnam by American troops.
In the years that followed, like a lot of campus radicals in the sixties, I also began to read, voraciously, especially all the critical theory I could lay my hands on. And slowly but surely my considered views on strategy and tactics, and on the political value of shame and guilt, began to change.
Nietzsche, in his second essay On the Genealogy of Morals, claimed that the advent of the Christian faith had refashioned souls in ways that inwardly enslaved them. The faithful, he hypothesized, had perfected a masochistic new form of introspective self-government, in which humanity’s ‘powerful instinct for freedom’ (what he also called our ‘will to power’) was ‘driven back, repressed, and imprisoned inside’. The result was a bad conscience, and the suffocation of freedom by what Michel Foucault – perhaps Nietzsche’s foremost modern disciple – once termed ‘the stifling anguish of responsibility’.
In a more sober but equally speculative context, Freud also echoed Nietzsche’s hypothesis in Civilization and its Discontents. ‘The sense of guilt’, Freud writes, is ‘the most important problem in the development of civilization… The price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt’.
For me and many other avowed radicals in the 1960s, Nietzsche and Freud – read in conjunction with Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, and Foucault’s Madness and Civilization – helped us articulate a shared worldview.
We came to believe that modern societies suffered, not only from unjust economic and political institutions, but also from a needless surplus of guilt and shame, much of it aimed at regulating desire, imagination, and the endless sources of pleasure that both made possible.
‘It is forbidden to forbid’, someone scrawled on a wall in Paris during the student uprising of May ‘68. Lifting a needless burden of guilt was part of what I understood to be the emancipatory project of my generation.
Of course, that utopian project is a distant memory – and perhaps for good reason.
For many veteran activists my age, the past few years have felt like a new beginning, raising hopes not unlike those we first felt forty years earlier. The election of the country’s first Black president in 2008 was followed three years later by Occupy Wall Street, a movement that resurrected the most radical forms of democratic idealism that activists had pursued in the sixties.
The Black Lives Matter movement began to crystallize two years later, following the death of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was shot while walking to his father’s house, followed by the acquittal of the white gunman, George Zimmerman. These events put back into play, at least for me, some of the feelings of shame and guilt unleashed by television coverage of racist Southerners attacking peaceful civil rights marchers in the sixties.
Public demonstrations weren’t the only way youthful supporters of Black Lives Matter responded. To my surprise, techniques of public introspection I had first encountered in my Quaker anti-war group began to reappear, sometimes in connection with a demonstration, but also on college campuses, in public reckonings with white racism and social justice.
I had felt the New Left of the sixties had doomed itself once it switched from trying to build a broad movement focused on the interests that students shared with Black civil rights activists and anti-war Vietnam veterans, and moved instead toward a smaller, more violent movement based on rage at racialized capitalism, and a furious sense of shame that anti-colonial revolutionaries abroad were bearing the brunt of American imperialism.
One could certainly argue that the new techniques and methods embraced by anti-racist activists and social justice administrators on college campuses have already proven to be politically productive, in this moment, in this new American context, as witnessed in the massive popular protests in support of Black Lives Matter across the United States in the late spring and summer of 2020.
Still, for me, the question arose again: How much shame and guilt should a movement for social justice be trying deliberately to cultivate? And where had these new techniques and methods come from?
Looking for answers led me to the work of Peggy McIntosh – arguably the most consequential social scientist and white activist working on social justice pedagogy in the last two generations.
Last year marked the publication of the first book by McIntosh, a collection of her most important articles. For many years, she has operated in relative obscurity as an educational researcher and organizer based at the Wellesley College Centers for Women. Yet in two short papers first published in 1988 and 1989, McIntosh almost single handedly changed how faculty and administrators in American universities approach, and try to uproot, ‘white privilege’ – a term she invented.
As the Black sociologist Michael Eric Dyson has said, ‘It is rare that one gets the chance to meet or read in one’s lifetime the originator of a new way of thinking or believing in the world of ideas’. Not only that: McIntosh herself helped design what most college social justice administrators regard as best practices for confronting white privilege among students and teachers. She did much of this work in collaboration with her colleagues at the National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project on Inclusive Curriculum, which she helped to found in 1986.
To use one of Michel Foucault’s terms of art, in this way McIntosh invented not only a new term, but a new ‘discursive practice’ – a concrete set of rules for organizing and producing anti-racist beliefs and practices among teachers and students.
Despite the remarkable reach of her work, McIntosh on the page is plain-spoken and modest, her mode of address confessional. ‘My method is testimonial more than analytical’, she says. ‘My ideas are based on what I have observed’.
Elizabeth Vance Means (her maiden name) was born in 1934 and grew up in the tri-state area around New York City. After several formative years at a Quaker boarding school – ‘I am grateful’, she has said, ‘for the Quaker education that influenced the methods of the SEED project’ – she attended Radcliffe, and then Harvard, where she got a PhD in English for a dissertation on Emily Dickinson.
In her book, McIntosh traces her intellectual pedigree to Emerson, Whitman, and John Dewey. In the papers that describe her pedagogical methods, she makes clear how she personally strives to embody personal integrity and an abiding commitment to equality and social justice. True to the democratic idealism of her ancestors, she has propagated a vaulting vision of America as a multiracial democracy yet to be achieved.
McIntosh’s base at Wellesley has been the college’s Centers for Women. Its mission (to quote its current web site) is ‘to advance gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing through high-quality research, theory, and action programs’. McIntosh’s focus at the Centers has been on pedagogical methods and curriculum. By the time her first paper on white privilege appeared in 1988, the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum was already up and running.
In that first paper published by the Wellesley Centers for Women, but quickly circulated more widely in a shorter form under the title White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, McIntosh recounts her evolution from a radical feminist primarily concerned with teaching educators how to include women in the curriculum. In the course of working collaboratively on that project with Black feminists, she explains, she became convinced that she, as a white woman, was herself unwittingly part of the larger social justice problems she hoped to help college teachers address.
In feminist consciousness-raising groups, she had previously learned about what the participants called ‘male privilege’, the way that many avowedly progressive men, otherwise perfectly nice people, took for granted the ways they could, for example, dominate a public meeting. (As I recall, men adept at throwing around the theories of Marx, Freud and Marcuse were especially good at monopolizing conversations on the left in those days).
McIntosh thought of herself as a nice person. Naturally, she was taken aback by the possibility that she, too, perhaps was enjoying the benefits of another kind of unearned advantage – namely, ‘white privilege’.
As a first step to examining her own complicity with racial injustice, McIntosh, as she recounts in this paper, began ‘to work on myself… by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life’.
Her solitary meditations, almost Cartesian in their rigor, over time produced a list of 26 privileges she came to realize that she enjoyed. (Item number one: ‘I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time’). Enumerating the privileges, she reports, made them real to her. Reviewing her list, she could now see that ‘many doors open for certain people through no virtue of their own’. Realizing that ‘my moral condition is not what I had been led to believe’, she confessed to her readers that she, in fact, had enjoyed a large number of unearned benefits simply by being a white person inhabiting a profoundly racist society.
This mode of confessional introspection stands at the heart of the discursive practices McIntosh has pioneered. Working through SEED, McIntosh and her colleagues began to train other white educators to recognize their white privilege. Facilitators learned how to use her original papers as a prompt, inviting each white teacher within the group to compile a personal list of their white privileges – and then to share it publicly with the group. The group process, modeled in part on the ‘consciousness raising’ practiced by some feminist groups in the sixties and seventies, is aimed at a kind of collective, critical conversion: everyone in the group should emerge, as McIntosh did from her own introspective epiphany, with a new awareness that anyone who is white enjoys privileges that are unearned.
In clarifying her discursive practices around how best to enable teachers and students to address white privilege, McIntosh feels a need in her papers and her book to keep circling back to an emphatic disclaimer, a disavowal that indeed prefaces most of the confessional anti-racist public events that I’ve recently attended.
‘My work’, McIntosh asserts, ‘is not about blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a “nice person”’. On the contrary, she insists, her work is only about ‘observing, realizing, thinking systematically and personally about circumstances beyond one’s control.’
In her incisive study of Political Emotions, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum draws a useful conceptual distinction between guilt and shame, terms that McIntosh seems to use interchangeably. ‘In guilt’, Nussbaum writes, ‘one typically acknowledges that one has done (or intended) something wrong. In shame, one acknowledges that one is something inferior, falling short of some desired ideal’. A natural outcome of guilt, Nussbaum further suggests, ‘is apology and reparation; the natural reflex of shame is hiding’.
McIntosh, in her papers on white privilege, describes the transformation she underwent as a result of her solitary meditations. Realizing the unearned advantages in life she enjoyed, she found herself wrestling with an entirely new moral challenge: ‘The question is, “Having described white privilege, what will I do to end it?”‘ She emerged a new woman: indeed, circumstances that at first appeared ‘beyond one’s control’ in fact she now could see are not.
In other words, through a process of self-examination, McIntosh had turned an apparently structural problem into a personal, moral responsibility.
In her writings, to the best of my knowledge, McIntosh only once addresses the possibility that shame and guilt may unintentionally result from her methods. That is in a paper commissioned by a group of anti-racist activists who wrote seeking her advice, specifically asking her ‘whether I could do anything about the guilt of white people on learning about white privilege’.
In her response, McIntosh doesn’t challenge the observation that white people often feel guilty on learning about white privilege. Instead, she argues that this ‘mysterious and powerful way for people to go much further than before’ will ultimately lead people not only to a new understanding of themselves, but also to an improved way of life, in which white converts will choose to ‘organize projects, invest time and money, read, write letters and emails, intervene, spread the word, campaign, work with others against injustice, and try to influence policy’. (University teachers of course have a unique potential power to change the curriculum.)
In effect, McIntosh now implicitly argues that the kind of guilt her methods sometimes produce is a good thing – precisely because it is politically productive. It can become a powerful personal spur for making amends, by taking action that will foster equity, inclusiveness and social justice.
Most of the secondary literature on white privilege simply takes for granted McIntosh’s authority on the topic. She’s a winning prose stylist, and it’s impossible to doubt her good faith and democratic idealism.
Still, it is surprising how little scrutiny of her methods one finds in the scholarly literature. (Sifting through some of it, I felt that education researchers, like scholars in other social science fields like psychology, too often fail even to consider whether their results can be reproduced using similar methods, especially by other researchers who haven’t been socially primed to confirm the results.)
A significant exception is a short paper written by seven members of the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective and published in 2013 in the Harvard Educational Review.
They begin by describing the kind of white privilege pedagogy that has evolved nationally in accordance with the principles developed by McIntosh and the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum. All of the authors seem to have had firsthand experience with such seminars, either as participants or as facilitators. All of them confess to being socially primed to accept the SEED Project’s preferred methods. And this makes their paper especially interesting.
They start by describing how the SEED method works. Although specifics vary from place to place, SEED seminars typically start with an emphatic statement that the process is not about blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a nice person. After a period of quiet introspection, participants then typically ‘engage in practices such as serial testimonies, dropping notes with written privileges into backpacks, or forming a group in the middle of the room, and stepping forward as privileges are read aloud’. Throughout, participants are instructed to listen, rather than talk back or even express opinions, as McIntosh advises that ‘opinions invite argumentation’. Sometimes the group’s progress is monitored ‘through a test of sorts that asks white people to document how white privilege operates in their lives and if they are willing to repudiate that privilege’.
Following a suggestion from the sociologist Cynthia Levine-Rasky, the authors from the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective in their paper interpret the process they underwent as a ritual confession. As in some frankly religious contexts, a ritual confession involves an exhortation by a facilitator, a period of silence and introspection, followed by a general confession said together by all present. At the close of the ritual, a general absolution is offered by the facilitator.
‘Much of the drama in research on white future teachers’, the authors remark, ‘is created by the question of whether they will, or will not, confess their privilege’.
As described by the members of the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective, all the participants in the SEED seminars faced a classic double bind. The premise that one benefits from a structural privilege is prima facie as unfalsifiable as the premise of original sin. Indeed, if the privilege at issue is truly systemic, then everyone white by definition must be implicated, even if, predictably, they may well be unconscious, to start, of their unearned advantages in life.
But the claim is also self-verifying – because if someone protests that they feel that they in fact lack such unearned advantages, then this merely confirms that this person is still unconscious, and perhaps even comfortable, in their complicity with an unjust system.
In a SEED seminar, people who resist ‘might be asked again, be given another chance to confess’. But as the members of the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective write, if participants ‘continue their resistance, then they have shown their true, racist selves’.
Of course, the teachers participating in SEED seminars varied greatly in their backgrounds and political views. In the Midwest, some teachers were Republicans, and sometimes quite conservative. On a New York City campus, however, the participants are more likely to be overwhelmingly liberal or radical.
But I will confess that even someone like myself may feel put in a bind. If I am unwilling to join in the ritual confessions of others, I fall silent instead. But even then, the effect is chilling. After all, to be perceived as a racist in this public setting would be shameful. For any avowed friend of creating a multiracial democracy, it would be a clear sign that one has fallen short of a professed ideal.
For some participants, the SEED seminars clearly do inspire, and reinforce, social justice activism, just as Peggy McIntosh had hoped. But for others whose stories the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective recount, the SEED seminar produced neither activism nor a deeper understanding of white supremacy or of how Black Lives Matter; instead, the workshops produced anger and resentment – however quietly endured. (Apparent group conversions obtained under perceived duress also invite constant suspicion that the agreement was insincere, which can produce redoubled efforts to secure confessions from participants).
It’s not surprising perhaps that some participants in a workshop on white privilege will feel shame as well as guilt, and anger as well as resentment. The problem is that anger is politically volatile; and that emotions like the resentment of those who feel shamed may paradoxically, and inadvertently, even undermine the capacity of some individuals to experience or express a feeling of inclusive compassion – ostensibly one goal of McIntosh’s methods, and an unfortunate dynamic that Nussbaum explores in some detail in her work on Political Emotions.
Obviously, both shame and guilt can play a powerful and arguably indispensable role in the progress of human civilization toward more peaceful and cooperative forms of coexistence.
The wild anti-puritanism some of us advocated in the late sixties facilitated not only what Marcuse praised as ‘polymorphous perversity’, but also, I believe, the spread of deliberately offensive forms of popular culture, as epitomized by the behavior of ‘shock jocks’ on radio, and also the frank misogyny and racist opinions expressed by America’s duly elected forty-fifth President, Donald J. Trump.
Freud, despite his qualms about surplus guilt, thought cultivating a sense of conscience was essential, not just in the psychic life of healthy human beings, but in the coordination of society in terms of shared ethical practices and laws enforced, if necessary, by an institutionalized system of justice.
Marx, as it happens, had views on shame almost as complicated as those of Freud.
In an early letter written in 1843 to his friend Arnold Ruge, Marx praises in no uncertain terms the liberatory potential of shame. ‘Shame’, he tells Ruge, ‘is already revolution of a kind… Shame is a kind of anger which is turned inward. And if a whole nation really experienced a sense of shame, it would be like a lion, crouching ready to spring’. And of course it’s probably true: if all white Americans felt shame at how Black people are systematically stigmatized in our society, then we would probably be living in a better world.
But his 1843 letter doesn’t express Marx’s mature views. In his later works, Marx focused neither on shame, nor on guilt, but on interest, and on the way that self-interest could be transformed into a shared collective interest in certain situations. One setting Marx had in mind was the modern factory, where workers collaborated in close quarters, and could be helped by organizers to see how social problems rooted in capitalist institutions had to be addressed, not by individuals, however enlightened their moral consciousness, but by concerted social forces – that is, individuals organized collectively.
The goal was not to feel shame or guilt. It was to destroy institutionalized patterns of domination and prejudice, epitomized for Marx by capitalist exploitation.
Marx’s appeal to the motive force of collective interest poses again the question I have been mulling over in this piece: how much shame and collective guilt should a movement for social justice try deliberately to cultivate?
There is no easy answer to that question, though some scholarly evidence and my own experience suggests ritual confessions can be counter-productive, or worse.
Let me be clear: I believe that most societies, including our own, have been based on the work, inequitably distributed, of nomads, settlers, farmers, slaves, serfs, or wage slaves; most of them have also been based on treating aliens, women, and racially-marked subalterns as lacking what many people today would consider basic human rights. As the critical theorist Walter Benjamin once remarked, ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.
Still, I myself seriously doubt that we will ever build a democratic majority to support the sweeping changes that America needs primarily out of resentment, shame, and a visceral anger at our own country, our nation’s culture, and the series of human, all-too-human social and economic forms that preceded it.
Meanwhile, the United States faces a renewed and essential effort to eliminate the many racial inequities still being produced by many of our core institutions and their current policies.
A long struggle lies ahead. And whatever our race or ethnicity, and whatever unearned advantages we may have inherited in life, those of us who share with McIntosh the ideal of turning America into a multiracial republic of equals will need all the compassion and all the allies we can muster, if we are to organize the kind of concerted political force that we will need, if we are to prevail democratically.
Notes on sources
‘We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television’. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Alexis C. Madrigal, ‘When the Revolution was Televised’, The Atlantic, April 1, 2018.
‘Stifling anguish of responsibility’, Richard Howard’s translation of ‘l’angoisse close de la responsabilite’, in Michel Foucault, Folie et deraison: Histoire de la folie a l’age Classique (Plon, Paris, 1961), p. 504 (in the 1972 Gallimard reprint).
Peggy McIntosh’s life and work are laid out with disarming modesty and admirable clarity in her book, On Privilege, Fraudulence, and Teaching as Learning: Selected Essays, 1981-2019 (Routledge, New York, 2020). A short interview with her appears in Joshua Rothman, ‘The Origins of “Privilege”‘, The New Yorker, May 12, 2014.
The research of the members of the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective is summarized in Timothy J. Lensmire, Shannon K. McManimon, Jessica Dockter Tierney, Mary E. Lee-Nichols, Zachary A. Casey, Audrey Lensmire, and Bryan M. Davis, ‘McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism’, Harvard Education Review, Vol. 83, No. 3, Fall 2013, pp 410-431. See also Cynthia Levine-Rasky, ‘Framing Whiteness: Working Through the Tensions in Introducing Whiteness to Educators’, Race Ethnicity and Education, 3 (3), 2000, pp 271-292.
The literature on the pernicious, sometimes lethal consequences of confessions and public conversions obtained under duress is extensive, and includes important historical studies of the Marrano Jews, the Moscow Show Trials, and the self-criticism sessions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution – which had their roots in practices imported into China by Christian missionaries, practices that in the Sixties influenced some radical activists in America to undertake similar rituals of shared thought reform. See also Rochelle Terman, ‘The Positive Side of Negative Identity: Stigma and Deviance in Backlash Movements’, in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, first published September 9, 2020 – a preview of her forthcoming book Backlash: Defiance, Human Rights, and the Politics of Shame.
My views have also doubtless been informed by own personal experiences in the past three years participating in public processes that have been run similarly to a SEED seminar. The most memorable and fraught occurred in the summer of 2019, when students attending the New York State Summer Writers Institute organized a public reckoning with the faculty. This occurred after my colleague and friend William Kennedy, the novelist, had read a passage from his 2011 novel Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, in which one of Bill’s characters, a demented and confused old man, uses the n-word in a bar in downtown Albany, New York, in 1968 – and nearly gets punched out by a Black bartender.
Published 12 March 2021
Original in English
First published by Public Seminar, 11 March 2021
Contributed by Public Seminar © James Miller / Public Seminar / EurozinePDF/PRINT
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