Thursday, April 19, 2012

"The White Privilege Discourse is Missing an Important Element: Empathy and Compassion for the Oppressor"

This is one of a series of posts in honor of the late Joel Olson.

The research on white racial identity has evolved since coming to public prominence during the 1980's. At first, "Whiteness Studies" (as it was called at the time) was focused on the idea that White racial identity was a story of absence, typified by loss, and a parasitic relationship to blackness. This first wave was also derided by many conservatives, as well as more Left radical thinkers, as being merely a type of exploitative "white trash studies."

The anti-multiculturalism, dead white male crowd was hostile to any critical intervention that sought to highlight how questions of race and racial hierarchy were/are operative in American society. Forward thinking progressives and liberals were concerned that Whiteness Studies was simply another way of making white people central to conversations about racism. Consequently, Whiteness Studies did the work (however unintentional) of White Privilege even as it sought to problematize the concept.

Joel Olson was part of a second--or perhaps even third wave...depending on how one periodizes the genealogy--of scholars and students who worked to make a "critical" intervention against Whiteness. As a qualifier, "critical" is a much overused descriptor in academic writing. Oftentimes, critical is just a way of separating your own "original" contribution from those of other scholars. It has no real meaning beyond being an attention getter or flag that often signifies what are only minor differences in argument or content.

However, I would suggest that Critical Whiteness Studies was substantively different from earlier scholarship on the subject. The critical intervention here, a tradition I count myself part of, is that we now see Whiteness as not merely or only centered on absence. Rather, Whiteness has content, substance, and meaning. While Whiteness is still parasitic relative to blackness, it does have identifiable attributes, traits, contours, boundaries, characteristics, and substance.

In all, Whiteness is a type of property, privilege, normality, and invisibility. Whiteness is also something that its owners, and those who desire it, are deeply invested in protecting and maintaining. I would also add that Whiteness is a type of racial glue that masks and holds together other, often contentious and disparate identities, which white people as complex individuals possess.

Ultimately, the study of Whiteness, and the loose discipline we know as Critical Whiteness Studies, is about much more than white privilege. Yes, the latter is a foundational concept and useful entry point into the conversation for laypeople; white privilege is also a nice hook for those curious about what Whiteness means in American society on a day-to-day basis. But, it should be a beginning, and not an end, to the rigorous work that is exploring racial ideologies and their consequences for American society.

Psychology Today's "Between the Lines" is a column by Mikhail Lyubansky that explores the linkages between "race, culture, and community." Several of the pieces in that series have focused on White Privilege and how race continues to matter in "post-racial" America. The most recent entry is a nice complement to Joel Olson's work. There, Mikhail Lyubansky offers up a ten point list of what readers should know about White privilege.

Some of the suggestions are very useful for journeyman travelers (the idea that Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is helpful, yet is just a beginning, and that reading McIntosh does not make you an expert on these matters; White Privilege is not to be minimized as a "historical" phenomenon, it is about the present; and the roots of the White Privilege discourse must be acknowledged as springing forth from the likes of Du Bois, James Baldwin, Harold Cruse, Gloria Anzaldua and Theodore Allen).

Mikhail Lyubansky's other observations are more inside baseball: anti-racism activities by whites can actually be paternalistic and reproduce many of the same dynamics which these same well-meaning white folks ostensibly desire to unsettle; what to do with white anti-racist activists who are now the face of advocacy on these issues, as they ironically make money off of white racism?

In keeping with the idea that Critical Whiteness Studies should be centered on rigorous inquiry in the service of theory building as we strive to more accurately model how race, power, and social relationships interact, there are two points in Mikhail Lyubansky's essay that are problematic.

First, he suggests that:
8. Racial-minority privilege exists and serves an important function. I'm not saying that it is equivalent to white privilege — the power differential alone makes that impossible — but there is such a thing as racial-minority privilege. In marginalized spaces (also called counter spaces), this means that people of color generally have the privilege of speaking about race without having their point of view challenged solely on the basis of their racial identity or racial appearance.
Mikhail Lyubansky offers up a thorough qualification of this claim and how it relates to colorism in black and brown communities, as well as issues of intersectionality. However, I am more interested in the first principle: how can racial minorities (and this holds for gays and lesbians, and also women) have any type of "privilege," be it relative or absolute, in a society and set of social institutions which are prefaced on white superiority and white domination? For example, black and brown people may have what are problematically called "safe spaces" on colleges and universities. But, these "safe spaces" are prefaced on the idea that their voices are not heard or listened to elsewhere. Of symbolic and practical import, these "safe spaces" are often ghettoized in the Office of Multicultural Affairs or Diversity Relations.

The second problematic is as follows:
9. The privilege discourse is missing an important element:empathy and compassion for the oppressor. Social justice activist, Kit Miller (a White woman), observes that empathy has a hard time flowing upstream. Few are more starved for empathy than those who have structural power, because they are often dehumanized on the basis of having that power. How many of us, for example, see police officers as individual human beings motivated by the same universal human needs (e.g., love, acceptance, contribution, mutuality) as the rest of us? How about the politicians belonging to the political party you dislike most?

In the context of race relations, this means that there is not much empathy coming to white folks from across the racial divide. This, of course, is perfectly logical. It is certainly not the responsibility of the oppressed and marginalized to take care of the oppressor's emotional needs. Suggesting otherwise would be, at best, an egregious expression of white privilege. Yet, it is also true that those who oppress others (and certainly those who do not perpetrate oppression themselves but stand by while others do so) have likely themselves experienced oppression and are themselves harmed by their own actions or lack of thereof.
While it certainly impacts people of color disproportionately and more negatively, racism (and racial color-blindness) hurts everyone, even those who are part of the majority group...
It is often not obvious, but to maintain their status, those who are in power must justify their behavior to themselves and that requires a partial loss of their humanity.
Mikhail Lyubansky's take here is very defensive. He is desperately trylng to avoid the smear known as "reverse racism." However, when one proceeds from an anxiety about a specious and disengenous concept such as reverse racism, your argument is flawed from its inception. The idea that those with power are starved for empathy also strikes me as the worst type of feel good tripe that is offered up in a moment when some white folks feel aggrieved, or their feelings hurt, when the institutional and personal power afforded by Whiteness is called out and made transparent.

Perhaps, on a cognitive and philosophical level I am incapable of understanding Mikhail Lyubansky's version of "the love principle." Moreover, Mikhail Lyubansky's social justice take--that one needs to show empathy for those who are deeply invested in maintaining their disproportionate power and control over society to the disadvantage of people of color in mass--as Whiteness works to maximize the life chances of its owners, participants, and allies (to the detriment of others), is simply a bridge too far.

Am I being unfair in these critiques? Is my critical project being handicapped by an inability to both empathize and relate to the perilous anxieties and fears of those who we call "White" in America? What is your critical take on these conversations?


Grung_e_Gene said...

Perception is Reality. While Ranidans will sneer and declare try telling that to a lava flow, it's obvious that what I refer to is the persecution complex which has set up shop in the White christian male mind.

Reverse-Racism claims and cultivating the right-wing persecution syndrome is the reaction to tearing down of the Oppressors standard levers of power.

As the acceptability of out-right racism, bigotry, misogyny and oppression have waned, those who benefit from the system find alternative avenues of approach and new generations of tactics to maintain their privilege.

CNu said...

Some people still think "the oppressed" refers to black people--and that's perfect.

They're supposed to.

Improbable Joe said...

It seems to me that the underlying dynamic here is that there are only certain ways we're allowed to talk about people with privilege versus those without. We can single out the oppressed, we can ascribe things to "everyone," but we can NEVER single out the oppressor. When a black man commits a crime it is owned by all black people, when a white person commits a crime it is because all communities contain criminals, but criminal behavior can never be ascribed to whiteness. We can have tax increases for working class folks, tax increases for everyone, but never tax increases for rich people alone. When a liberal says something rude it is because liberals are bad people, when a conservative voices their fundamental bigotry "everyone does it," and at no point can we be allowed to say that conservatism itself is bigoted.

So, if you want empathy from the oppressor, you have to give it first or expect it not at all. You can't just demand it, that's not allowed.

CNu said...

Christian praxis is the most ruthless, ascetic, and demanding program of psychological development known to mankind.

Forget about compassion, the trick is one of forgiveness, and not for any magical-thinking superstitious reward in the non-existent great by-and-by, rather, sincere forgiveness frees up the emotional and psychological resources required for higher order cognition.

If you gonna really set about the deadly serious bidnis of overthrowing an utterly ruthless psychopathic parasite "oppressor", you damn well better have every single last midichlorian in your organism at your disposal...,

racism-chasing is quite literally the mind-killer that gobbles up midichlorians faster and more permanently than fear, anger, or hatred combined...,

Throcky said...

If an oppressor wants empathy from the oppressed, he should stop oppressing them. It's really that simple. The nerve of Lyubansky in suggesting that those who have been beaten, trampled, and spat upon must look up at their bullies with empathy and compassion. Not to mention, I believe Lyubansky is operating under the principle that empathy is the same as understanding, and thus racially oppressed people don't understand the world from the white perspective. Believe me, they do understand white people, but to understand is not to forgive.

Weird Beard said...

yah, those were the two points that had me thinking WTF as I was reading it too. Like a lopsided wheel. It's strange, because those arguments of 'safe spaces' seem to be the first line of defensive drivel that I hear coming out of people's mouths after hearing about systemic oppression. Some whiny snot-nosed brat says 'but if I went to a basketball court in Harlem, I would be laughed at because I'm white'. Perhaps there is the mitigation in their statement by claiming 'safer' space, but because that particular excuse is so commonly over exploited in the white defensive mind, I think if it is to be posited, it needs to be handled with much more care than the author gave it. The empathy part seemed to be asking a lot as well. That just feels like white guilt begging for a bandaid. I certainly wouldn't include those two in my top ten things.

CNu said...

The reality is that since the advent of WMD's, the oppressor need no longer compromise with the oppressed, at all.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is a white thang at play here..We don't always have answers for what white folks do.

.Razor said...

Reading that put me in mind of a theological thread where Jesus though undergoing the worst form of misunderstanding while being crucified on a cross,offered up the statement, "God forgive them, for they know not what they do"

As you probably know,I believe that he meant that they didn't know who they were kiilling, the One who would later be sitting on the White Throne taking names and kicking butt where anything less than an ETERNAL LIFE SENTENCE is like getting Probation. That if they had a real inking of what their particular judgment might entail they would have surely have been a lot nicer to him rather than treating him like an uppity nigger that had to learn a lesson.

Perhaps a lighter version of the same lines might involve turning the other cheek and politely offer

Razor said...

cheek to help extinguish the indignant anger being unleashed upon the oppressed poor head that ultimately Miss Annie or Massa Joe might come to their God senses or perhaps before they kill me or permanently scar me.

In all seriousness apart from a cathartic confession of guilt do I see a therapeutic thable moment.

Anonymous said...

If we do take the religious stance here, I think the most merciful thing to do for the oppressor is to punish him in this life so that he doesn't face the torment in the next.

If we avoid the religious question, then all we're left with is one group that has the power, and one group that doesn't. Empathy can only get in the way of seeing what's really at stake hear: Power. The white man's soul can (quite literally) go to hell. Maybe if it dehumanizes itself enough it will end up eating itself alive and make everybody's job much easier.

CNu said...

You don't have the wherewithal to punish the oppressor in this life, but he has the wherewithal to exterminate you.

Empathy and compassion have nothing whatsoever to do with clearheadedness and higher cognitive function.

50% of children under the age of 18 in America are black/brown. Either figure out how to sincerely forgive, assimilate, become highly productive and move forward, or, reap the inevitable long term consequences of failure to do the same.

It really is as simple as that.

Anonymous said...

It really is a matter of self-sufficiency. Expecting the oppressor to welcome you with open arms was wishful thinking.

Analyzing and deconstructing Whiteness and institutional racism is all fine and well if we're to understand the condition of America today, but lets be real: they're not going to listen.

If the racism is institutional, we should simply build and improve our own institutions and attain tangible power and control over our lives. Short of violence, property damage (Which the Civil Rights covers), or that race war we keep hearing about, there's little they could do to impede us.

Humorously, they may warm up to integration when we don't need them to like us.

CNu said...


bears repeating: If the racism is institutional, we should simply build and improve our own institutions and attain tangible power and control over our lives. Short of violence, property damage (Which the Civil Rights covers), or that race war we keep hearing about, there's little they could do to impede us.

Improbable Joe said...

Damn I'm glad I'm an atheist.

2up2down2furious said...

Lyubansky is so far off base on that particular point it isn't even funny. Anyone who has organized seriously knows that, far from giving some sort of "racial-minority privilege", radical spaces and progressive reproduce white supremacy unless they carefully and vigilantly check themselves, and provide opportunities for people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, etc. to present their concerns and build power within the group.

The especially strange thing about Lyubansky's article is that in a previous point he mentions criticism of Tim Wise by some on the Black left, criticism which presents a case that white people working for racial justice are (perhaps ironically) afforded more space, more respect, and more paying jobs/opportunities to speak than leftist people of color. It would seem like Lyubansky's concept of "racial minority privilege" ignores the arguments he cites elsewhere in the same brief article.

Anonymous said...

(White, cis-gendered, bisexual female)

I neither expect nor deserve the forgiveness or empathy of POC. That strikes me as being the highest form of arrogance. Should I grant empathy to men for my sexual assault? (Whether I choose to forgive is my own business, but by no means do I OWE it to anyone!)