White Ignorance and Denial of Complicity

In her second chapter, Applebaum (Being White, Being Good) describes the problem she had helping her students connect to a sense of responsibility for white privilege. After teaching the class about white privilege using Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege” article, she had students comparing white privilege to affirmative action that benefits students of color, or to women getting free drinks at “lady’s night” in a local bar. Her students were not able to connect the idea of white privilege to their own complicity or responsibility for perpetuating racial injustice.

Applebaum then discusses the concept of white ignorance, a topic taken up by several critical race theorists to talk about the ability of those in power to deny the experiences of racism that people of color share, an ignorance that further benefits those in power. Thus, even though the concept of “ignorance” appears at first glance to be passive, a not knowing that is unintentional, critical race scholars link it to a willful exercise of power that further dis-empowers persons of color.

Towards the end of the chapter, Applebaum raises some problematic aspects of this discussion, namely, it sets up an indestructible position for those who claiming racism–because they can point to denials of racism as part of white ignorance and hence white complicity in racism, there is no way for whites to be innocent of the charges. This absolutizing of white guilt can become its own form of ideology, and not a helpful tool pedagogically. If one side can “never be wrong” in a debate, then the discourse shuts down.

Another aspect I found problematic is the notion that “white moral standing” is invariably ill-conceived. That is, whites learning about racism want to be able to “take off” their invisible knapsack of white privilege as a way to work towards innocence and goodness. Applebaum and others she cites describe the problems of whites wanting to be good. But underneath this critique seems to be a desire that whitesnot feel “good,” that is, the goal of such education is to make whites feel bad and guilty.

This is why the approach of Janet Helms and others who look at racial identity development have been so much more appealing to me: they recognize that persons need to have a positive sense of identity in order to live as whole, healthy individuals. This feeling “good” must not come at the expense of labeling others as bad or immoral or defective, which I believe is the concern about white innocence or moral standing–too often it has been constructed at the expense of the racialized Other who is suspected of being guilty. As someone deeply influenced by Protestant theology and the notion of original sin, I too doubt the innocence of individuals or societies, and I do not believe any particular group should be able to claim innocence. At the same time, I think for us to be able to learn and to grow, we need both a healthy sense of personal responsibility for the harms done to others in our society, as well as a positive view of oneself. More to come…

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