I opened Twitter recently and saw 20+ notifications. Most of the time that means the new generation of white nationalist Twitter trolls are filling my feed with racist and anti-Semitic cartoons. It was the trolls, but this was different. They were celebrating my use of the word “anti-white” in a tweet. They saw it as a victory that a “mainstream conservative” was using this term that for so long has been their calling card.
They had a point. Until recently I would have been unlikely to use the term. Not because I didn’t believe some people harbored animosity towards whites, but because that was a fringe attitude removed from power, which represented little real threat. That is no longer the case. Progressive rhetoric on race has turned an ugly corner and the existence of “anti-white” attitudes can no longer be ignored.
In the past year, all of the following headlines have appeared, in well-read publications:
- The White Guy Problem
- White Men Must be Stopped: The Very Future of Mankind Depends on It
- I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People
- Ten Things White People Need To Stop Saying
- Dear White People: Here’s a List of Things We’d Wish You’d Stop Doing
What is new is the direct indictment of white people as a race. This happened through a strange rhetorical transformation over the past few years. At first, “white men are our greatest threat” postings tended to be ironic, a way of putting the racist shoe on the other foot. They were meant to show that blaming an entire race for the harmful actions of a few individuals is senseless.
Then the tenor changed. What started as irony turned into an actual belief that white people, specifically white men, are more dangerous and immoral than any other people. Loosely backed up by historical inequities and disparities in mass shootings, this position has begun to take a serious foothold.
Don’t Ask White People to Be More Tribal
Strikingly, this shift in rhetoric undermines what was once the core of anti-racist efforts. Treating people equally has given way to making all of us ambassadors for our race. This is a classic theme in critical race theory, that people of color carry a burden of representation that white people do not. But foisting the baggage of representation onto white people doesn’t solve that problem. It makes it worse.
White people are being asked—or pushed—to take stock of their whiteness and identify with it more. This is a remarkably bad idea. The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal. The result of this tribalism will not be a catharsis of white identity, improving equality for non-whites. It will be resentment towards being the only tribe not given the special treatment bestowed by victimhood.
A big part of the reason white Americans have been willing to go along with policies that are prejudicial on their face, such as affirmative action, is that they do not view themselves as a tribe. Given the inequality of resources favoring whites in our society, it is a good thing that white people view themselves as the ones without an accent. Should that change, white privilege (whatever one views that to be) will not be eviscerated—it will be entrenched.
The Tipping Point of Whiteness
All of this comes at a time when the last immigrants from the great wave of white immigration from 1850-1920 have died off. In the past, most whites identified with their European ethnicity: Irish, Italian, German, etc. As white people gravitate away from such identities, many see themselves as a neutral, “non racial” population. The Left criticizes this refusal to see themselves as “white,” but it is far preferable to the alternative: an American white population that views itself as a special-interest group.
The recurring, tired refrain that we should have a white history month if there is a black history month, or white student unions on campuses, is unintentionally being given new life by the Left. Celebrations or organizations of whiteness do not exist because we don’t need them. White people do not face the same kinds of systemic discrimination that people of color do. But progressives are doing a very good job of convincing white people that they do.
When parents of Virginia high school students complained about a white privilege video being shown to their kids, they rightfully noted that their kids were being singled out based on their race. The video featured a foot race in which people of color were burdened by impediments while the white people ran free. It was absolutely fair for them to interpret this as a message to their kids saying, “Your accomplishments are easier and less valuable than those of your peers of color.”
Many parents object to this method of teaching about race relations. While some white people, especially those in the academy and the arts, find the acceptance of privilege and its associated guilt liberating, many do not. Privilege theory is also not being offered as one of many ways to confront and consider racism; it is being offered as the central way. This was brilliantly explored in 2010 by the Midwestern Critical Whiteness Collective’s (MCWC’s) article in Harvard Education Review, “McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education Focus on White Privilege Undermines Anti Racism.”
Privilege Theory Is the Wrong Track
The McIntosh in question is Peggy McIntosh, whose 1988 essay “Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack” formed the foundation of privilege theory. The essay is mostly a list of ways in which white people receive better treatment in society. The MCWC describes McIntosh’s theory as a synecdoche because it has come to define the totality of education’s anti-racism efforts. It is meant to be the magic pill that clarifies things and sets us on the right course once consumed.
They found that many disadvantaged white students reject the notion of their grand privileges and resented the key confessional component of white privilege education. One case study involved an education student named John, from a small, non-diverse town. In his final essay for the class John explained his reaction to McIntosh: “I got the feeling from it that it was more about trying to make white males feel guilty for things they most likely had no control over. Being a white male I got a little worked up about the whole list since I don’t feel like I have anything to apologize for.”
John rolled his eyes at privilege theory. However, his teacher reported that other ways of exploring racism and multiculturalism such as films on race relations and historical texts broadened John’s empathy towards non-white people. John was able to reject confession while still becoming a better anti-racist educator. This made John’s teacher wonder whether confessional white privilege is the universally beneficial educational tool it is made out to be. The collective found that it is not.
In its blunt conclusion, the collective writes: “McIntosh’s conception of white privilege has been at the center of anti-racist thought and action in teacher education. We argue, however, that McIntosh’s ideas simplify white racial identity in dangerous ways. We also demonstrate that white privilege pedagogy demands confession, but that confession is a dead end. Finally, we propose that white supremacy needs to replace white privilege as the central concern of our anti-racist efforts.”
Abetting White Supremacy
When privilege theory took root in the 1990s, society roundly condemned the outward expression of racist attitudes. This is why the focus shifted to the ways in which white people were racist without even knowing it. Importantly, all white people were guilty of this form of racism. The act of confessing privilege became the means through which white people discovered this hidden racism.
But, as the past year has shown us, good old-fashioned white supremacy was not gone; it was simply driven underground. Not only was white supremacy still extant, it was going more or less unaddressed. The shift to the privilege model had an unintended consequence that is abetting white supremacy.
One can teach against white supremacy by encouraging students to treat everyone as equal, or at least as individuals not defined in important ways by their race. Privilege theory does not allow for this approach. It demands that differences be front and center and that we always consider a person’s race in considering him. This focus on “valuing differences” over “the colorblind model” unlocked the door to the white supremacist revival that today’s anti-white rhetoric has kicked open.
White Grievance On the Rise
It surprises many people that an increasing number of white Americans over the past decade believe whites face more discrimination than blacks. Obviously this feeling is inconsistent with economic data. Many have argued that a white fear of losing the dominant economic place in society is behind this belief. But what if the discrimination that white people are feeling and expressing is not primarily economic in nature?
This brings us back to John. What got him “worked up” about privilege theory was not that he’d have to compete for jobs with minorities. He was upset at having to confess guilt for events he had no control over. Many whites feel this way. Moreover, many resent the pedagogical transformations that their history and culture are undergoing. White historical figures once held in too high esteem have swung the other way into utter disrepute. Also, the histories of no other peoples are being held to these lofty standards.
Mohandas Gandhi’s racism, the Black Panthers’ vicious murders, and Santa Anna’s barbarism are understood within the context of their positive contributions. Increasingly, white Americans perceive that Columbus, Jefferson, Jackson, and many other core white historical figures are consistently brought down a peg in order to decentralize whiteness in history. This assault on their history has a deeper impact than many on the Left are aware of, or willing to admit.
Rise of the White Race Baiters
The combination of the confessional and universal aspects of white privilege and the reconstruction of white history has opened the door for white racial grievance-mongers. From 2014 to 2015, the number of active Klu Klux Klan chapters in the United States grew from 72 to 190, a massive increase for a group so closely associated with hatred. Along with these organized efforts, social media has given a dangerous new platform to white supremacists.
One of the key components to the success of this racism is the almost-daily parade of silly micro-aggressions and triggers, specifically on college campuses. Conservative media seize upon disputes over the cultural appropriation of taco night or banning hoopskirts as evidence that minority racial grievance has gotten unhinged.
In emerging white nationalist journals such as Radix, this constant drumbeat of attack against white insensitivity is viewed gravely. What results is a belief among a growing number of whites in the concepts of “white genocide” and “racial realism.”
Both “white genocide” and “racial realism” harken back to the worst elements of American racial history. The former reacts in horror to the races mixing sexually for fear of resulting offspring being impure. The latter pretends to take a cold, scientific look at demography to prove the superiority of the white race. Ideas of this ilk, until recently thought to be confined to a fringe dustbin, have taken on new life in our hyper-racialized society.
Young white men, reacting to social and educational constructs that paint them as the embodiment of historical evil, are fertile ground for white supremacists. They are very aware of the dichotomy between non-white culture, which must be valued at all times (even in the midst of terror attacks), and white culture, which must be criticized and devalued. They don’t like it.
Same Tactics, Different Sides
The result of these societal double standards is for many a desire to lash out against it. For every white college student who dutifully accepts his privilege, many more resent the idea and wish to fight it. The sharpest arrow in their quiver is to be offensive.
This desire to be offensive has given rise to the “alt right.” Supporters of this loosely assembled white nationalist movement understand a playful aspect to its use of slurs. But just as the Left shifted from using anti-white rhetoric as an ironic device to an actual indictment of white culture, so has the alt right come to believe much of its troubling rhetoric.
Do the alt right Twitter trolls really want Jews turned into lampshades, or believe blacks are apes? Many of their supporters say no, that such rhetoric is simply meant to shock the system. They feel oppressed by political correctness and they challenge it, in over-the-top, offensive ways.
If this seems familiar, it should. It is exactly the same approach taken by social justice warriors and purveyors of anti-white rhetoric. The shocking “White Men Are Bad” hot takes serve the same purpose. They are also meant to shock the system. Just as the alt right is willing to denigrate minorities to make plain what they view as racist speech codes, the Left is willing to denigrate straight, white men to make plain what they view as widespread systemic racism.
For both groups the central theme is identity. That theme quickly calcifies into attitudes too brittle to hold up serious discourse. In reducing all phenomena to a question of race, both the alt right and the progressive left ensure the dominance of racial resentment as the lynchpin of our society.
Let’s Find Another Way Forward
W.E.B. Du Bois was born just three years after the end of slavery, but was bullish on the prospects of equality, he writes in “The Souls of Black Folks.”
Work, culture, liberty,—all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic…
Modern progressives don’t talk about the “greater ideals of the American Republic.” Rather, those ideals have become suspect, empty words used to justify slavery and genocide. But for Du Bois, who was closer to slavery than any of us will ever be, this was not the case. The facile notion that some inherent evil of whiteness must be expunged is anathema to his entire vision of equality and reconciliation.
Put simply, our anti-racism efforts must be refocused away from guilt and confession and towards equality and eradicating irrational judgments based on race. Some on the Left will object, saying that racism is so systemic in society it must be purged before anyone can pretend to treat of others without taking race into account. Some on the Right will object, saying that everything from IQ tests to crime statistics prove something meaningful about the capabilities of individuals based on their race.
Both of these perspectives must be rejected. In their place, we must return to the goal of treating people as individuals, not as representatives of their race.