Watching white people appease their racial guilt by begging for forgiveness from their black neighbours is unedifying. These quasi-religious shows of contrition will do little to solve injustice.
Why do I feel like throwing up when I watch a group of white people sitting on the ground with their hands up in the air dutifully repeating the commandments directed at them by a black preacher? After all, their chant ‘I will love my black neighbours the same as my white ones’ is an entirely unobjectionable affirmation of human justice. Still, there is something not right about the hijacking of Christian symbolism and ritual of atonement in order to make a political statement.
This is a grotesque performance of self-abasement masquerading as racial enlightenment. When I look at this theatre of white submission for the second time, I am reminded of that awful episode in Game of Thrones, featuring Cersei’s walk of atonement. Yet this is performance is unfolding not in the fantasy of world of The Game of Thrones but in Washington, DC in 2020!
There is, of course, a powerful case for challenging racist attitudes and practices in America. The outburst of anger and even of violence in response to the police’s execution of George Floyd is entirely understandable. I have no problem and, indeed, welcome protests against racial injustice. However, the current tendency towards the blanket association of white people with the possession of racial guilt is not only misplaced but also diverts attention from the real issues at stake.
Unfortunately, during the past decade, the narrative of white privilege has gained cultural ascendancy in the Anglo-American world. Though a product of academic culture, the concept of whiteness encourages people to embrace a form of quasi-religious guilt.
White people are exhorted to acknowledge their privilege and accept the fact that, in likelihood, they harbor racist thoughts. This approach encourages them to save themselves through unburdening themselves from their bad thoughts.
Though it is promoted as a serious social-science concept, whiteness is best understood as a quasi-religious precept. Whiteness transforms racial thinking into an unconscious act. This means that no light-skinned person can claim immunity from racism.
Indeed, those who protest that they’re not racist, or don’t even perceive themselves as white, are denounced for failing to come to terms with their white privilege. Whiteness is the equivalent of original sin, and until they undertake a ritual of ideological cleansing, they are deemed to be racist.
Over the past couple of decades, the concept of whiteness has migrated from academia into the mainstream. The result is the invention of a new form of white identity, endowed with negative moral characteristics and a sense of cultural inferiority. Whiteness is an inherited status, and, in this instance, the sins of the father are visited upon his children.
This point was clearly affirmed by Time Magazine this week, when it declared that “white people” have “inherited this house of white supremacy, built by their forebears and willed to them!” The word “inherited” is crucial here, for it indicates that the moral failing of being white afflicts all who possess light-coloured skin. Acknowledging your sin through casting away your inheritance is the first step towards personal redemption.
Begging for forgiveness
It’s not surprising to find video clips of white people kneeling in front of black people, begging for forgiveness. After all, the association of whiteness with sin has become widely promoted by sections of the media.
“White America, if you want to know who’s responsible for racism, look in the mirror” shouts Dahleen Glanton in the Chicago Tribune, before adding, “White people, you are the problem”.
When the moral devaluation of a guilty race is normalized, it is no surprise that many white people embrace a form of self-loathing that leads them to embrace quasi-religious forms of racial contrition.
The project of guilt-tripping white people for being white will do little to solve the problem of racial injustice. But, in any case, that’s not its real aim. Instead of serving as a tool of liberation, the religious crusade against whiteness actually allows sections of the cultural elite to consolidate their moral and political authority.
The people who promote the dogma of whiteness would rather see people kneeling and praying for forgiveness than having to answer the question of ‘what American society is about’.