Applebaum-Helpful but Not Helpful

Having finishing Applebaum’s book Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy, I have decided her book is not as helpful to me as I thought at first, though in making this judgment my husband has said that it sounds extremely helpful.

First, her goal is to discuss the “white complicity claim” which she does not advocate clearly from the beginning, but by the end you know this is what her project has been about. This claim is that all whites are racist and complicitand therefore responsible for racism. She has a chapter entitled “The Subject of White Complicity,” by which she means to discuss the issue of subjectivity a la Judith Butler and Foucault, but disappointingly she never discusses the complex intersections of subjectivity that even whites may experience–the poor white, the gay white, the obese white, disabled white, the old white, etc. There are a number of oppressions possibly experienced by someone who also occupies the position of “white.” The fact that she never complicates her notion of white helps me understand some of the indignant responses she has received from her students.

Also, in her final chapter, she clearly identifies the project of racial identity theorists such as Beverly Daniel Tatum and Janet Helms as those who help persons work towards a positive racial identity, a project she briefly mentions before discrediting it to the effect of, “as if only…” a quick rejection of a valuable theory that has received much traction in  anti-racist organizations. Contrary to this approach, her white complicity claim restricts “whites” into the role of perpetual wrongdoer, ignorant, denying, and oppressive person. While lifting up the discursive nature of power from Foucault’s writings, she seems to leave “whites” within the pantopticon, in which every move they make is interpreted authoritatively as oppressive. There is no room left for alternative narratives or for the experiences of those whom she is trying to educate.

I came away with three clear realizations: 1) the initial affinity I felt towards the work of Beverly Daniel Tatum and Janet Helms in racial identity development for whites and people of color is still very strong. I am deeply indebted to the kind of hope they inspire in me to make a difference. 2) I do not want to use the work of poststructuralists in my project because of what I take to be a diffusion and confusion of the “subject.” While it held promise (and I still should spend time reading Butler’s work for myself), I ultimately think it is too abstracted from the material realities and bodies that an honest discussion of racism and white privilege must include. and 3) I love the notion of power being external to us as well as in us as described by Foucault, but Foucault and his followers can get to feel a bit oppressive in the sense of creating a dominant narrative that explains everything by way of power and does not allow room for alternative or competing narratives to co-exist.

Finally, this book left me feeling more convinced that I need to attend to the complicated legacies of classism as they have impacted racism, as the markers of class were erased entirely from her discussion of “whites” in general. Also, I do not think it is best to tell anyone that they can never be good. I do not think that is a helpful strategy for transformation.

I read an article by Eric Fair recently, a white military officer responsible for interrogating detainees at Abu Graib and Fallujah, who had written about his experiences publicly. After a stint in seminary, he has returned to Iraq to do the work he gets paid to do. But the constant harassment he received by e-mail and phone about the hell-bent nature of his soul did not sound like it helped him reconsider his role. It’s an agonizing article that details the complexity of what military personnel are faced with in war times, and it is painful to read the hate-mail he receives as a result of his acknowledged participation in using torture to try and elicit information from detainees. It is difficult to read about his role and what his existence looks like now as a result. His article does not ask for forgiveness or justify what he does, but it challenges my initial reactions to him and others in his position. I bring him up at the end of my dissatisfied reading of Being White, Being Good to say that not all whites are trying to defend themselves against charges of wrongdoing; not all insist on their innocence. I wonder if there are some cases in which perpetuation of suffering and injustice occurs because a person believes they have foreclosed on any chance of being good. Perhaps it is the preacher in me, but I cannot live without the conviction that redemption is possible. I believe it is possible for persons such as Eric Fair, and I believe it is possible for persons who are complicit in injustice both actively and unknowingly. There’s a message for all of us in that old hymn, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…”

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