There’s a strange, profoundly contemporary form of behavior that says a lot about our continuing problems with race and the deeply anxious, neurotic ways in which we’re confronting those problems: the ritualistic practice of white self-indictment.
On the Internet, white people have taken to acknowledging their own white privilege, and thus their own complicity in white supremacy. This behavior is undertaken, with eminent sincerity, in an effort to confront the abundant racial inequality in contemporary America. But like so much else in our society, the practice has ultimately worked not to undermine structural racism — the putative aim — but merely to deepen the self-regard of the educated white elite.
Last month, the New York Times published an essay by George Yancy — an African American philosophy professor at Emory University whose work considers race, racism and whiteness in American life — enjoining white readers to consider their place within a racist system, “to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist.” Only by doing that work, he argues, can you feel “a form of love that enables you to see the role that you play (even despite your anti-racist actions) in a system that continues to value black lives on the cheap.”
In other words, the first step toward solving the problem is acknowledging that there is one.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s a trap within his request: public self-indictment is impossible. Which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate Yancy’s attempt to address white complicity in white supremacy — I agree completely with the basic claim that we live in a system rife with racial inequality and white privilege. In saying that self-indictment is impossible, I don’t mean that it’s an unfair thing to ask of white people. I mean that if genuine contrition and meaningful apology are the purpose of self-criticism — for complicity in white supremacy or anything else — then the practice is a paradox because the very performance of self-indictment, in this context, functions as a form of self-congratulation.