White dudes — am I right?

This morning, I posted a series of tweets mocking The New Atheism. It was probably inevitable, then, that I got embroiled in a long discussion with a white dude who was very concerned to clarify that they’re not all like that. And I’m sure they’re not — but I was instantly reminded of the many discussions of race where the white dudes in the room were in an absolute panic to make sure that the conversation could not move forward until everyone posited that they personally were totally innocent of racism.

And this response is natural, because every white dude is a unique snowflake. They cannot be lumped together with any group or trend. To the extent that a white dude is associated with a group or trend, he gets to define its meaning unilaterally — so for instance, The New Atheism is not intrinsically imperialist because he personally is not an imperialist. Every white dude is entitled to total self-definition, and anyone who perceives him differently from how he wants to be perceived is committing an injustice against his personhood. Isn’t the person who presumes a white dude is racist, for instance, perilously close to the logic of racism? After all, what is racism but the making of generalizations — and hence, can we conclude anything but that generalizations are inherently racist? If I made any generalization about black people, for instance, you’d be jumping down my throat! But here you are claiming that all white dudes tend to be defensive, and are you any better?

I want to tell you a little story. Once I was on a crowded train. I observed that there was a family scattered across several seats near me, some closer to the door and some more distant, and it so happened that they were getting off at the same stop as me. Out of politeness, I waited for all of them to get off the train before proceeding to the door myself, so that they could keep their group together. When I got up, I wound up stepping in front of a young black man. He became offended and pushed past me, accusing me of racism because I had let the white family go ahead of me but felt entitled to cut in front of him.

The white dude in me was crying out — I’m not a racist! I had a perfectly justifiable reason to do what I did! I didn’t even notice who was behind me when I got up! Yet there was something else there as well, something that had developed during my years of living in a diverse community in grad school, something that said: Let it go. If he sees me as an entitled white dude, that’s fair enough. I really do look like that. I get so many advantages from looking how I look that I should put up with it on those extremely rare occasions where it proves disadvantageous as well.

I don’t want to put myself forward as a hero or an example. All I want to suggest is that being a white dude might be a least partially curable. The first step is admitting that you have a problem.

52 thoughts on “White dudes — am I right?

  1. The “New Atheism” seems to be a placeholder for self promoting wind bag, which in the Venn diagram of human behaviors, overlaps extensively with the larger category of “white dudes”.

  2. I hold the thesis that we Americans are all subject to a “racialized” consciousness and are thus “racist.” We are racist in the same way that other societies are ethnocentric, a consciousness of difference that engages one in hierarchical power relations and affiliated behaviors. Hence, for me, the casual use of the term “racist” just indicates where someone is in the hierarchy and how the person uses that power. What is special about racist societies and consciousness as opposed to ethnocentric ones is just biologically-based outward appearance, the marker of hierarchical power difference. Racism is terrifyingly banal most of the time.

  3. p.s. I am in complete agreement with the phenomenon described, and it is something I try to overcome in all my ethics classes: students love to hear about how people do bad things and are quick to rush to judgment, but won’t turn the thought upon themselves. I have been concluding my classes with a bit of Nietzsche and Josiah Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty to address it as best I can.

  4. Perhaps this is a Puritan thing. In order to identify as one of the elect, chosen by Reason, one must always behave as if one were a member of the elect, and insist loudly and at every opportunity that one is Chosen.

    A more Catholic approach would be: ‘I confess, I am a sinner, and I am host to racist impulses, I pray that I am granted the strength to deny those impulses, and I beg forgiveness for those times when I fail.’

    Cognitive psychology seems to indicate that the latter view more closely accords with reality: humans raised in racist societies will exhibit racist behaviours (e.g. the example of ethnic-sounding names on CVs receiving fewer responses from employers than identical CVs with non ethnic names). This is not to excuse racism, but rather to highlight that it is more than the sum of individual racist acts, and that racism does not reside only in certain uniquely evil individuals, but rather exists in all of us.

  5. Similar dynamic’s at work whenever you seriously criticize the police. Somebody will inevitably argue, “Oh, but [so & so]’s a cop, and he’s not so bad.” Whereupon one feels nearly obliged to concede that No, not every particular police officer is a thug were it not for this banal fact beside the fucking point.

  6. The guilt mechanism is taught to white people early on, partially to teach us how to simultaneously pretend to be immune from the logic of racism while being introduced into the system of racism, teaching how its logic works. (As Thandeka taught in Learning to be White.)

  7. Ok, but I still don’t understand why you “should put up with it” when something like that happens, and I also don’t understand which problem you mean when you write “The first step is admitting you have a problem.”

  8. Good on you for brushing it off. It’s funny that so many people seem to think that we’ve evolved out of our tribalist instincts; this is simply not the case.

  9. I know your mind is already blown, but there was also a time when I was hanging out with a group of gay men and one clearly thought I was gay — and I just let it go, because it didn’t seem to make any difference.

  10. No, there’s an obvious difference. The commonality is that I don’t think everything has to come to a screeching halt when people see me differently from how I intend to be seen.

  11. This post reminds me of what I believe Adam has called his most re-tweeted Twitter post ever. The responses statements like these seem to generate would certainly seem to support his point.

  12. i can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something off about this – it feels too subjective somehow. i mean, if what’s at issue here is the white guy’s defensiveness, then why is not being bothered by being falsely called out as racist any different or better than actually being racist and not being bothered by being accurately called out on it? non-defensiveness isn’t really a virtue. i think we’re actually seeing a lot of this in society right now – where people are reacting to covert attempts to change their minds through guilt/shame going 180 in the opposite direction, and saying “well, f*ck it, actually i am a racist, so what? i won’t be pushed around.” again, i’m not completely sure where i’m going with this, but this discussion makes me think “if i thought black people were stupid and talked funny, but i actively (and i mean actively) supported societal policies rationally calculated to bring about full equality of all human beings, then what am i? am i a racist? and if my actions are equitable and non-discriminatory, why do i care if i personally look down on members of (real or imagined) groups to which i don’t belong?”

  13. My intention was not to highlight my Zen-like calm in the face of the accusation. I was irritated, certainly, but I chose not to confront him about it. I don’t think that a moment of frustration in response to what, on the face of it, seemed like an instance of racial preference — I did, after all, objectively allow several white people to go in front of me and only cut in when a black person came along; that is what factually happened even if my motivations were totally pure — was the time to have a heart-to-heart with him about how not all white people are racist. In fact, I think that confronting him and forcing him to acknowledge my pure intentions would have come across as asserting my superiority — I know you have places to go, but you need to drop everything because a white man is offended!

    So anyway, the whole point of the example was supposed to be that it’s not about my personal feelings or motivations. I won’t claim never to have had a racist thought or to have rigorously purged myself of all unconscious racist attitudes. My entire childhood was spent coping with totalitarian demands that I police my every thought and motivation, so I’m not going to go in for that kind of thing now. It’s interesting, though, that that’s where people seem to jump to in response to my story.

  14. Adam is giving an excellent response to this. Perhaps I could add another angle in order to respond to Maarten and Anon.

    Becoming defensive about perceived racism in fact reinforces racist power structures in most common and everyday cases. In fact, its the most common mistake to make from a practical standpoint too.

  15. I’m just trying to find out the reasoning behind assuming white people are racist as such, and somehow calling a white person who says he isn’t racist a hypocrite. What makes white people ‘objectively’ racist? I think that one can critize the disparity between what someone does and what he says, but not between what he says and what he is. You are in no legitimate position to define what he is.

    As for me, I think that a class division has been confused with a racial division, and that we should strive to unravel this confusion. I don’t see how an apologetic strategy can contribute to this. In fact, I think it will only perpetuate and confirm the old relations, the old division (I think Christopher D. Rodkey said a similar thing, correct me if I’m wrong).

  16. And by the way, I don’t think that it would have been necessary to hold the man up for long with explanations and justifications – a simple “Fuck you” would have sufficed. Explain to me how that would reinforce racist power structures.

  17. Maarten,

    I don’t believe anyone here is claiming, as you say, that “white people are racist as such.” In fact, your reaction to Adam is precisely what his post is trying to avoid by explaining why one should not react in the way that you are. The best line of his on this point was “Every white dude is entitled to total self-definition, and anyone who perceives him differently from how he wants to be perceived is committing an injustice against his personhood.”

    If we allow only a person’s own story to define who that person is, regardless of the truth, then we in fact allow whoever has the most most power to make their self-perceptions a de facto reality. If you cannot see why that is a problem, and see what I’m implying and how it relates to the discussion at hand, then I don’t think further discussion would be productive.

    Class is relevant, but isn’t the issue here.

  18. The base reality is first recognizing that as a white educated man the current system in whatever western country i find myself is one structured to my advantage. The flip side is that the vast majority of humanity- and the majority in my own society who do not tick all three of those boxes- are those that exist at disavantage to the structures that advantage, both explicity and implicitly. That is the starting point for being a self-reflexive white dude. Perhaps the way forward is – via Vattimo and Vattimo & Zabala is ‘hermeneutic white dudeness’- recognizing that white dudeness exists without any metaphysical underpinnings or support. In short – “the death of the white dude” resulting in weak white dudeness- an on-going self-weakening…

  19. Jason, I am confused. Didn’t you say at the top of the comments that “we Americans are all subject to a “racialized” consciousness and are thus “racist.”? This is what I want to fight, and I am criticizing Adam because his humble acceptance of white privilege reaffirms this racialised consciousness just as much as the defensiveness of the white dude does.

    “If we allow only a person’s own story to define who that person is, regardless of the truth, then we in fact allow whoever has the most most power to make their self-perceptions a de facto reality.” But the word truth in this sentence is a bit problematic, isn’t it? Why do you get to decide what the truth is of who someone is? As I already said, I think you can and should criticize the difference between what someone does and what he says, but not between what he says and what he (in your ‘objective’ opinion) is.

    As for why class is connected to this issue, I’ll put it simply. “Brown-skinned” is a property of race, but “stupid” and “criminal” are properties of class. When the idea of class struggle is erased, foreclosed, these properties of class become properties of race. This is because the “American Dream”-logic of equal opportunities cannot otherwise explain why a large part of the black race in America is stuck in poverty.

  20. Adam, I dare you to explain to me why publicly cursing out a black man would play into racist power structures! I would even go so far as to say that racism is only overcome when there is no difference between publicly cursing out a black man and publicly cursing out a white man.

  21. Well sadly, because of unemployment, I could continue this all day, but I don’t want to spam you. I just get frustrated when I feel like people are missing the point of what I’m saying, or when they make evasions instead of responding to the content of what I’m saying. But I respect you and your blog so I’ll just continue writing on racism on my own blog.

  22. If racism is to be overcome in the US context, racial minorities will have been entitled to overshoot the mark of “equality” for quite a few years. Otherwise “no difference” is your personal ahistorical pipe dream.

  23. AK is wrong, cz what does he care whether the traveling whites are a family or a group, just proceed to the exit according to the seat plan/order, the failure of doing so brings all kinds of arbitrariness, and the black guy is right to be offended
    maybe it’s his traditional upbringing respecting the family ties, and once he does give his respects to that, he inadvertently offends the black guy, who maybe shouldnt be offended in the first place, but any explanations and excuses would have offended him even more, i guess
    though telling him “fuck you i would have did the same to the white guy or woman” is just reinforcement of the existing racist attitudes, when not saying anything, apologizing and letting it go is not any that better, it would seem like paternalist-condescending

  24. AK is not wrong. Living in a racist society involves the stepping on of toes, very rarely white ones. Try and deal with your share of the pain with dignity.

  25. any other than the white race people, i first wrote “minority” race, but that felt not right, want i guess not some kind of compensation for the past and present injustices displayed through displays of the “white guilt”, which seem like degrading for the both sides involved, but true equality which is possible just following the rules, of politeness, individually to the person one interacts with, and the common laws, in every possible situation, which should work for all the same without exceptions, anything arbitrary favoring or disfavoring them would be perceived rude and reinforcing racism imo
    but AK is right ridiculing the white guys who demand the highly individualized treatment of them as unique, one and only, snowflakes, and feel entitled to be treated not as a part of a group, grant that right to others as well, then one can be perfectly sure in that right himself

  26. It seems like this thread assumes that for the privileged white man there are two ways of handling the sort of situation Adam describes. One can accept the reality of pervasive racism that the offended black man likely knows all too well, acknowledge the legitimacy of his reaction, and let it go. Or, one can take offense and vociferously argue that the black man has made an unjust and reckless judgment based on broad generalizations about white people in a manner itself reminiscent of racism (“Fuck you!”).

    I don’t mean to suggest that Adam is denying the existence of other possibilities because he doesn’t deal with them in his critique of white dudeness, simply that it’s odd the discussion his post has prompted stubbornly remains locked in that binary opposition even when considering further alternatives could be helpful.

    My best friend lives in Harlem in a conspicuously gentrifying area and I’ve had similar experiences of an awkward misunderstanding leading a stranger to accuse me of racism, some of them more CYE-ish than others. I think the best approach here–and I don’t claim to have always had the courage and/or the presence of mind to take it–is to immediately recognize that regardless of whether or not there was any racist intent in my actions, racism is real and fucked up and if this person just thinks they’ve been on the receiving end of the latest in a long personal history of racist offenses then I owe them some kind of explanation and an acknowledgement that their response is understandable. The point here is not to exonerate my pure white snowflake soul but to spare the offended party the melange of bitter feelings they’re likely to carry with them if I fail to give them reasons to think they might be mistaken in their reading of my behavior.

    I suppose I’m just curious why, in Adam’s case, it wouldn’t have been better to simply take a moment to stop outside the train and say, “Yeah, I get how that looked bad. I’m sorry man, I honestly didn’t see you.” It seems like “letting it go” is, in a way, confessing to a crime you didn’t commit as a way of acknowledging the overarching truth that racist shit like that happens all the time. But doesn’t this also have the effect of adding one more racist slight to what may well be a long personal history of racist injustice? Wouldn’t the young man be happier to go on with this rest of his day having had a conversation with an apologetic liberal white dude rather than carrying the burden of anger over what he believes to have been an authentic act of racism?

  27. Will, I think this is a helpful new direction. I was serious when I said I wasn’t holding myself up as a hero — I was thinking more that what I did was like 5-10% better than the “defensive white dude” reaction.

  28. “The white dude in me was crying out — I’m not a racist! I had a perfectly justifiable reason to do what I did! I didn’t even notice who was behind me when I got up! Yet there was something else there as well, something that had developed during my years of living in a diverse community in grad school, something that said: Let it go. If he sees me as an entitled white dude, that’s fair enough. I really do look like that.”

    I appreciate the Stalinist show trial logic of all of this. You are guilty even though you are factually innocent. The new standard is that if you are accused of racism, you must admit to it. Insisting on your innocence is a sign that you are unwilling to sacrifice your reputation to the cause. Even if it’s not true, being branded a racist serves the greater cause, and your unwillingness to play the role required of you is the worst betrayal, evidence in itself of secret racism.

  29. Comparing the random misattribution of one’s views or motives to a show trial tells us all we need to know about the white man’s plight.

  30. Mike,

    Yes, that is one of the better critiques of the line of thinking discussed here. I presumed that all of us we aware of this problem, but it is good to bring it into the open. It’s one of the principal tortured logics of academia: always be PC and sacrifice yourself to PCness, else you are the Other, the uneducated, the bigot, the plebe. There is something to conservative critiques of academia, and this is much of it–when the logic gets out of hand and ceases being a practical solution to a problem, e.g., racial injustice.

  31. Ambzone, please explicate. For my part,I note that the current contributors are aware of most if not all of the practical and theoretical intricacies of the problem: is there something being overlooked?

  32. Jason, I’m actually referring here to Zizek’s discussion of Bukharin’s trial — my point goes beyond just worrying about political correctness run amok. You have to read Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism to get the whole picture, but Zizek says that the irrationality of the trials points to the betrayal of the revolution, and that forced confessions of guilt were obtained to conceal the true guilt of this betrayal.

    We should ask what betrayal is concealed in all these heroic confessions of racism. An attempt to breathe life into a long-dead civil rights movement, maybe? Whatever it is, I feel like Adam’s approach only covers up this deadlock, and that he should know better.

  33. i find it pretty ironic that the “privilege” framework, afaict, was cooked up to acknowledge that bias can happen, and its effects can persist even in the absence of outright, conscious prejudice by individual members of the dominant race/class (shout out to martin!). and yet, white people seem to by and large think it is still an assault on their self-conception of themselves. They get the vapors about “PCness” because someone dares to suggest that even if they don’t consciously seek to separate themselves from marginalized groups (race, class, ethnicity, gender, etc), they do so at least structurally, and perhaps unconsciously.

    Well, as a white cisgendered male i feel it my duty to say:

    fuck you, you ignorant bougie cracker assholes.

    fuck you.

  34. I don’t think I was guilty of taking a consciously or unconsciously racist action in the story. I literally did not see him until he pushed past me. I’m not “confessing” to anything by remaining silent and letting it go — I’m allowing that my action could appear that way to someone who doesn’t know me or my motivations. If I were less socially awkward, I doubtless would have simply said, “Sorry, I didn’t see you.” But I am socially awkward, and at the time (several years ago), I was even moreso. Further, I have a history of needing to get angry before I’ll allow myself to confront someone, so simply letting it go really was, in practical terms, for me at that moment in my development as a person, the only alternative other than getting mad and indignant about it. Hopefully I’ve matured since then.

    It’s ridiculous, though, that everyone thinks that the salient fact is that I was wrongfully accused, rather than that this young man had had a lifetime of experiences that made his reading of the situation plausible.

  35. Adam, I interpreted you in the way you describe way and agree with the emphasis being ridiculous. Aside, not being socially awkward myself, I probably would have done the same thing depending on the context because a confrontation is unlikely to be beneficial for either party.

    I think some of the other responses might be doing a disservice. That is, in an actual concrete situation, what Zizek said about this or that is not likely to make a *practical* difference to anyone. I think that the conversation has become too intellectual, which distances its participants from actual action. The emphasis on a practical course of action is why I liked the post, especially since it acknowledged implicitly (and now explicitly) the resources of the person in question to respond rather than some intellectual piety. Yet all this theorizing cannot be that helpful for an individual (as opposed to societal or organizational judgements), and I see too much theorizing and not enough practical action among intellectuals.

    I mentioned political correctness, because too often that is a shadow-play at dealing with these issues and not the real sensitivity it should be. Also, I meant the invocation of political correctness as an concrete and easily understandable case of what Mike might have been talking about: people will be politically correct and throw good people under the bus while doing so in a way that does not even aid whatever group was intended. Its the appearance of prejudice that must be avoided, not actually committing it, for the sake of a marginal group that the politically correct individual may not in fact care about. This is an example of an intellectual piety run amok, but there’s nothing wrong with PCness per se.

  36. You’re a complete riot in this thread Jason. I’d advise googling “concern trolling” but I fear you’d pass through your screen Videodrome-style.

  37. If I were less socially awkward, I doubtless would have simply said, “Sorry, I didn’t see you.”
    i think people don’t see my point, due to my poor english i guess, really it should have been improved by now, sorry, but i think this response is what i think is wrong, as if like if AK saw the black guy before inadvertently cutting him out he would have let him go first to the exit as if the guy was a pregnant woman or a child, that is kind of like condescending, no? even i, a woman, would feel a bit if not offended then not pleased by that sign of courtesy bc i am able bodied and can look after me just fine, it would look like singling me out, etc. so there is no need for that from the black guy’s perspective too, imo, he just took offense cz he hasn’t been observing them closely and didnt realize that all the white people AK let go first was one group, and it looked like AK cut in front of him bc of his race, so if AK just said after the misunderstanding has occurred “sorry i didnt mean any offense, i thought these people were a family and let them go first together” could have been maybe enough, maybe the black guy would have realized he was wrong to assume the worst things about others, so apologizing or simply explaining yourself for what really happened could have been better and polite than to leave without any explanations, as Will says, looking like you just don’t bother with it, even though you dont think that yourself of course and letting him continue to feel hurt, to think about you as a generic racist white guy, as if like saying to the black guy you are right to be hurt and entitled to think everybody is racist due to the whole course of history, as if like taking the blame etc. that indeed seems, like, a bit paternalist and condescending, imo
    the simple and better solution yet is if the passengers would just go to the exit according to the seat order, as i say common rules for everybody, then there wouldn’t have arisen any such misunderstanding in the first place
    and so with every possible situation where this kind of racially charged imaginary or real offenses/misunderstandings might occur, all is needed is to just follow the common rules and laws for everybody

  38. Ambzone,

    Feel free to disentagle the equation “counter-point” = “concern troll” whenever you would like. Also, respond to the issues or ignore them, but don’t counter-troll to a perceived trolling. Personally, I think noting counter-points is one way to progress a conversation, to point out problems down the road of conversation and to deal with them as the next step. However, I’ve also pointed out that conversation only gets us so far, and I meant to support Adam’s initial decision.

    Eye of the beholder, Ambzone.

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