A contribution to the critique of White Dudes

This morning, I deleted a couple of attempted comments on Steven’s recent post, in which it was objected that the post was hypocritical in stereotyping white dudes while speaking out against stereotypes, etc. The Girlfriend felt I should let them through as a perfect example of the point Steven was trying to make, but I didn’t want to give the impression that such cliches were even remotely acceptable as a contribution to dialogue on this site. Still, The Girlfriend has a point — that kind of reversal of liberal values is absolutely the kind of White Dude behavior that Steven and most of his commenters were so eager to castigate, and I think it’s worth analyzing what goes on in such remarks.

First, the White Dude presents White Dudes — or to put it differently, whoever the hegemonic group is in a given context (straights, cis-gendered people, etc.) — as one group among others. The gesture is one of radical equality. Each of us has his or her own particularities, and none of us should be disadvantaged because of that. That may sound nice in a certain way, but then we realize that the White Dude is having his cake and eating it too. He is positing his own particularity only to mandate that everyone should adopt a stance of suitable abstraction from that particularity. And lo and behold, it turns out that the White Dude is the best at abstracting out his particularity and embracing a universal human vision — because if he were to make a similar remark about [insert disadvantaged group], boy would they be pissed! Thankfully, the White Dude is there to offer his dispassionate, reasonsed response and offer guidance to the overly emotional minorities who insist on their particularity in an inappropriate way.

Paired with this imperative to abstract is a sense that such abstraction is the very definition of progress — and surely that progress has made great strides! Yet at this late date, it appears that maintaining that progress has become the White Dude’s burden. All these minorities keep insisting on their particularity in an inappropriate way, and even worse, they insist on the particularity of White Dudes in a way that the White Dude does not want to identify with. All this stereotyping threatens to derail our progress toward a colorblind society — a process that, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes naturally to someone who never actually “had” a “color” to begin with!

What is meant by stereotyping here? Is it stereotyping for an elderly black person to distrust white people until they’ve proven themselves trustworthy? I don’t think such a stance is based on any strong claim about the “nature” of white people. Rather, it’s grounded in their historical experience. It’s not as though there was a rich panoply of races represented among those who persecuted civil rights activists. It’s not simply a coincidence that Martin Luther King was killed by a white man, is it? Meanwhile, let’s say that a white person has a stereotype that black people are ignorant. It seems improbable to me that their experience would bear that out if they interacted with any substantial number of black people in their lives, but even if we granted that their experience totally demonstrated that — who is it, exactly, who has historically deprived black people of educational opportunities? To what social group did the people who made it a crime to teach a slave to read belong? What was the ethnic background of the people who fled from urban schools, effectively defunding them and dooming them to failure?

I’m constantly saying that racism isn’t symmetrical. A black person who distrusts whites or is cautious around them is being prudent. A white person who distrusts blacks is acting partly out of delusion (they see what they want to see, because their advantaged position in society means they can afford to be ignorant of blacks where blacks can’t afford to be ignorant of them) and partly in reaction to circumstances that the hegemonic white elites have imposed on the black community (isolation in inner city neighborhoods with inadequate economic development, etc.). If there is a sense in which black people can be “racist,” it’s a totally different kind of phenomenon from good old-fashioned white racism — as the cliche of “reverse racism” tacitly admits. After all, white people came up with the theory and practice of racism! People have always had ways of dividing themselves into in-groups and out-groups, often with some basis in physical characteristics or descent, but the contemporary idea of race was dreamed up by none other than White Dudes — and lo and behold, White Dudes turn out to be such a superior race that they actually come to seem like the normative humanity from which all the other races deviate.

And hence progress is to become more like a White Dude — to be able to abstract away from one’s particularity, to forget history, to get to the point where history doesn’t even happen anymore because the World Spirit has used the Invisible Hand to sort everyone out according to their just deserts. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world? Isn’t it a shameful thing to keep harping on particularity and history and the fact that power happens and it advantages some people and fucks over others?

I wonder if there’s another reason for White Dude’s whininess, their continual fear of being rhetorically victimized by angry minorities — maybe deep down, they know that those minorities are right to be pissed off. Maybe their instinctive rhetorical ploy of passing themselves off as one identity group among others is a queasy recognition of the fact that they’re not just one group among others. They’re the hegemonic group, and that confers certain advantages that they’re not ready to give up. Indeed, even the very act of questioning the White Dude’s privilege is already a serious violation of that privilege insofar as it threatens to force them to actually think about the situation in concrete terms — hence the retreat into abstractions, where we’re all just isolated monads and history never happened. The very fact that this strategy is so widespread shows how attractive it is as an innoculation against self-reflection, how it mobilizes the sense of violation that follows from being questioned by one’s inferior and uses it to reinforce one’s superiority, on the inferior’s own terms. “That stupid bitch is the real sexist!” Anything you can do, White Dudes can do better.

Where it turns the corner — and here I think Christianity is a crucial reference — is when this very recognition of the illegitimacy of their status (what is sometimes called “liberal guilt”) becomes yet another tool for propping up that status. Yes, we don’t deserve what we have — but by recognizing that we don’t deserve it, don’t we somehow strangely come to deserve it? Wouldn’t you rather have a really open-minded, self-aware White Dude, one who really checks the shit out of his privilege, than an actual member of a minority group? It’s a double dip — you get all the progressive results, backed by the authority of a White Dude. The rabble won’t get upset or suspicious as long as there’s a nice comforting white pasty face on the poster. Let’s be realistic, right? I mean, yes, ideally we could have a more diverse elite class, but you know, back in the real world, we might as well really get something done instead of indulging ourselves on token gestures. I’m just sayin’.

This is how hegemony works, and the white community is awesome at it. They are infinitely flexible, infinitely adaptable. The only non-negotiable point is that white people have to be in charge, have to be the ultimate point of reference. Once that’s granted, they’re really easy to work with. Real professionals.

32 thoughts on “A contribution to the critique of White Dudes

  1. This is also why the movie Crash (the 2004 academy award winner, not the 1996 one) is such a terrible movie. And not surprisingly, created by a white dude.

  2. I forgot to add — when fighting against Bad White People (racists, sexists, etc.), the only answer is to side with the Good White People. Indeed, one begins to suspect that the cultivation of Bad White People is itself a strategy for maintaining hegemony!

  3. John Hartigan has an essay, “‘White Devils’ Talk Back: What Antiracists can Learn from Whites in Detroit”, in the anthology The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, that sorta makes the same point. It makes whites feel good to find racism to exist within other groups of whites (Southerners, poor and working class, etc and whatever), so we know we (the good whites) are not racists.
    I grew up in south Georgia, and when I went to grad school in up state New York, I was shocked how many of my white students came from towns that were almost entirely white. Many students talked about having one African American student in their high school, or not meeting a person of color until they were 10 or so. It was crazy to me, utterly crazy. However racist the south is, it is not racist like that. And yet all of these students felt that racism existed down south, rather than thinking that the racism of the south and the racism of the north just operated in different ways. Nope, their all white towns were somehow devoid of racism.

  4. In light of doing things *not* as they are “in the real world,” does this mean those who find themselves White should remove themselves altogether from the process of “really getting something done?”

    Anything more tempts inauthentic progress. Anything less, too much a part of “the real world,” with its obsession on results. “What industry needs is answers.”

  5. Similarly, I have always deeply appreciated Thandeka’s dismantling of the doctrine of original sin in relation to whiteness and its hegemonic perpetuation of racism. The “illegitimacy of our status”–having original sin–simply gives license to hope for something better to happen by an eschaton rather than actually doing something about it. In essence, original sin relegates politically liberal religious concern over race becomes an empty token gesture.

  6. OK – but can you convey this at the Thanksgiving table? The White Dude’s point is succinct, but the response is a 10 minute monologue laden with academic jargon— this suggests that the White Dude has the benefit of hegemonic “common sense” on his side, where the respondent must first establish an alternative theoretical background in order to ground his opposite view. For that reason, I would be wary of assuming that the White Dude is always speaking in bad faith. If he is not simply clueless, he knows that there is an audience for whom his question is a reasonable one. Anger against the White Dude may well be justified, but this comes at the expense of educating the audience about your alternative theory of racism. On many sites, making this kind of White Dude point is prohibited on the grounds that it is a derail, which is to say that a lot of time and effort must be spent to refute it. But the reason that it takes so long is because it is an area of sharp difference between the anti-racist activist understanding of racism and the dominant one. Preventing the discussion also prevents an opportunity to contest the ideology of racist white culture. This may be deemed unnecessary and distracting in a community made up of activists who already have a good understanding of these points, which is why I raise the question of the Thanksgiving table. Your refutation may be perfectly good as a justification for why is it reasonable to delete White Dude comments from this website, but it fails to provide an angle of attack for actually contesting the ideology of the White Dude. It simply prevents him from expressing his views here, where he is not likely to convince anyone anyway. He will still express his views at the Thanksgiving table and other places, and your critique hasn’t helped us there.

  7. Mike, Who cares whether your uncle is convinced of something at the Thanksgiving table? Is this really a matter of changing the expressed personal opinions of individuals? I ask this sincerely.

  8. This isn’t about convincing my uncle (who in this case is actually my sister). In most cases, these kinds of debates take place in front of an audience, and the purpose of contesting someone’s ideas is to demonstrate to the audience that your ideas are defensible and they don’t leave you stuttering like a fool. This is useful because their moral intuitions are in your direction, and need to feel that they won’t look crazy. And White Dudes police the acceptable political viewpoints in their families, particularly those of women who are often more left leaning.

    But I’m not talking about dinner tables per se. My point is that your critique isn’t understandable outside of the narrow social justice blogosphere. It is fundamentally defensive, directed at those who agree with you and used to keep White Dudes out. Which is all well and good, but White Dudes trolling your blog is the tip of the iceberg—they may also found in dining rooms, workplaces, on Reddit, TV and in Congress. You haven’t contributed anything there. It suggests diminished expectations. We’ve successfully fought off another round of White Dude trolls, and our obscure corner of the blogosphere is safe again! But this not a very ambitious goal.

  9. Again, though, Mike — tell me why I should care about individual white people’s opinions. They could buy my critique 100%, but they’d still be, for example, living in a 100% white suburb. Everyone’s opinions about race could change instantly, simultaneously, and yet the bodies in jail cells would still be disproportionately black.

  10. This post is from heaven.

    I cannot tell you the amount of times I had to tell my white friends in high school, that racism isn’t stupid. There reasoning was something like this:

    1.racists are stupid
    2. I’m not stupid
    3. Therefore I’m not racist

    The way white dudes (and in
    My experience women) in Canada (I’m Canadian) deal with race has an extra loophole. When white people talk shit about aboriginals over here , and I call them out on their racism and classism, they respond by telling me about their aboriginal heritage. They evade the criticisms of angry coloured people,like myself by considering themselves “one of us”. One of them even told me about how much they love being a minority, and how they want to shout it from the rooftops! Ironically, they are unaware of the fact, that they can choose their identity with such ease, because they are middle-class white people,and are treated as such. Aboriginal heritage isn’t something that they have to carry around, but something ‘exotic’.

  11. Adam, I think Mike’s real concern is that your blog post has not radically changed the world and rid us of the evil of racism for ever. Shame on you.

  12. On a more serious note, I always find it strange when people ask me for ways to apply my ideas in their situation. They are, by definition, in the best position to understand what’s going on in their own situation — any ideas I throw out will necessarily still be abstractions that they have to work to make more concrete based on their own special knowledge and experience. In short, there’s no good reason to ask me what you should do. If you find my ideas helpful and interesting, then it’s your job to figure out how and where to apply them.

    Of course, this assumes that the request for application is sincere and not a passive-aggressive way of getting me to admit that what I’m saying is useless.

  13. I was under the mistaken impression that Adam would be interested in what I’m trying to say, but I see now that is not the case. I apologize for wasting everyone’s time.

  14. In reality, Mike was asking Adam to come to his Thansgiving dinner and convince his sister that she’s as much a White Dude as a White Dude can be and to stop being such. When Adam refused, Mike insisted that he was trying to start up a fruitful conversation which Adam somehow misconstrued but he’s not going to continue the conversation because Adam was too rude in rejecting Mike’s invitation. What Mike really wanted was for Adam to follow Mike around for the rest of his life and checking the White Dude privilege of everyone Mike enounters, then perhaps climb upon a cross and die for Mike’s sins so that Mike must be eternally indebted to the White Dude Sacrifice to end all White Dude-isms. Or something like that. Adam, shame on you for asking the great Privilege Checker to take that cup away from you!

  15. You seem to pull this move a lot, Christopher — piling onto someone when they’ve already decided not to pursue the conversation further. It’s not necessary or helpful, and I wish you would stop.

  16. This is an excellent post, and I’m very grateful for its attention to particularity and history. I suppose that my question might be phrased, “Who is this White Dude?” Furthermore, who is he speaking to? The historian David Hollinger has suggested – using, say, a 2007 Pew Report that claimed that over one-third of the black population of the United States even doubts that there is a single “black population,” and the increasing institutional need to break down categories like “Asian-Americans” to get at really marginalized groups (e.g., Cambodians not Japanese) – that we are moving into post-ethnicity.

    This doesn’t mean that ethnicity doesn’t matter (it does), but rather, when speaking about a person, it isn’t clear that “the most important thing about them [is] their descent community.” So, for Hollinger, what might be as important about Obama as his Kenyan father and white mother is that he is the son of an immigrant father, and much more likely, within the black population, to be middle-class and identifiably middle-class. Furthermore, the White Dude’s white privilege might have to be balanced by a struggle with what Wendell Berry has called the “rhetorically conjured stereotype of the hick or hillbilly or redneck” and some sort of diminished socioeconomic capacity.

    I agree that the White Dude is still much, much, much more likely to be problematic because he is, as you say, “infinitely flexible, infinitely adaptable.” But, post-ethnicity means that increasingly members of many different ethnic groups and races can switch from “particularity” to “suitable abstraction from that particularity,” even if the flexibility and adaptability is still bounded. And that switching can be at times convenient. Let’s say that, as an Asian-American, I claim that I have been discriminated against by my working-class, semi-rural white students. I can say with some justification that this is because of stereotypes that they hold that are connected with an actual history of discrimination by whites against Asian-Americans in the United States. On the other hand, if I find my working-class, semi-rural white students to be ignorant and unsophisticated, it might be because I – here, a poor instructor – am refusing to reflect on the sources of my own privilege: that Asian immigrants like my parents were much more likely to be skilled laborers whose privileged children had socioeconomic, especially educational, advantages over working-class, semi-rural white students.

    It isn’t impossible that certain black Americans – most likely the children of immigrants, might also be able to conveniently switch like that.

    So, I wonder if – while your targeting of the White Dude is justified – the real question is that of post-ethnicity. Sorry if I’ve missed the point or unnecessarily muddied the waters.

  17. Sure. I’m reminded of Nathan Glazer’s 1993 “Is Assimilation Dead?” Glazer notes that African Americans (and Native Americans) were always left out of the discourse about assimilation, Americanization, cultural pluralism, etc., which focused on “new” Americans of European descent. Even presently, says Glazer, African Americans remain “apart” – see, for instance, intermarriage rates and residential patterns. On the other hand, “For Hispanics and Asian Americans, marked in various degrees by race, it is in large measure a matter of choice, their choice, just how they will define their place in American society.” (Of course, these groups also show higher intermarriage rates.)

    And even African Americans have some of these “choices,” albeit to a lesser extent. One supposes that black immigrants and their descendants have a bit more of these “choices” regarding “particularity” and “abstraction” than the descendants of slaves.

    I guess the question is whether we can associate this “choice” with “becoming white.” Thanks.

  18. I guess “subordinate role” is a better way of saying what I’m thinking about in terms of removing one’s self from the position of being part of the group, leadership or otherwise, who decides what counts as results, the “elite class” you mentioned as part of the ideal (at least, the ideal as projected by the particular respondent you’re satirizing at that stage). If there are to be roles at all within a group in charge, being subordinate and listening and waiting in patience is denying one’s vanity to know better than those people who don’t get how things are.

    Is this where the reference to Christianity ties into it? That is, going back to the other thread, what does it mean to die upon a Cross one shares with others also dying, and then come back into a world with all these problems now newly understood, problems many of which sustained through one’s prior and continuous participation in the hegemony that, itself, also redefines that Cross? If the appeal the White Dude makes to liberal tolerance is meaningful and sincere, then the practice of liberal tolerance in those situations is not to simply offer one’s perspective, the usual perspective of this or that form of life is sinful or degrading, but to start listening to other perspectives.

    What if this is a problem in the notion of how people come to hear about liberal tolerance, or tolerating alternative viewpoints, since these emphases on sharing or being a voice or giving one’s opinion amidst others or having the right to free speech focus on the specific activity of talking, opening up, being active, putting it out there? Having already become accustomed to being the dominant voice at the table, the White Dude is inclined to the practice of being another voice. But if the shift in emphasis is on listening, becoming passive, becoming receiver, diminishing one’s right to dominate altogether, becoming an audience—to lurk for as long as possible—then the problem of the White Dude seems more easily solved, since even bad faith attempts at practicing listening still pushes someone unused to the practice into quietude little by little.

    Maybe one benefit of this approach is that we subvert the idea of having there be an elite class of voices capable of accurately stating what it’s like, of there being someone in charge at all. If the entire political activity consists of studying the silence of another, we’re even in a better position to hear what is said by the thoroughly inhuman, from trees to frogs to Toxoplasma.

  19. Adam, I am a white male (let’s get this out of the way). In a sense I understand some of your responses to Mike. For example that it shouldn’t have to be you who provides a method of explaining to his sister (or in my case my cousin) the jist of your original post on White-Dudism. I also understand that it was nearly a 50/50 chance that Mike was being passive-aggressive in a sense of trying to provoke you to make your post seem useless. As a matter of fact I use this tactic quite often on racist white people to show them their views are flawed, to say the least. However because I am literally in the situation (as I’m sure many White Allies or whatever word you want to use instead of Ally are) that Mike is. If we agree that we cannot presuppose that Mike is indeed white, then I think it would at least be a decent thing to do on your behalf to direct him somewhere where he can find what he’s looking for. Perhaps you aren’t a blogger or writer who ‘simplifies anti-racist theory for dinner table talk.’ It is your every right to not want to or have to. However I don’t think that it is beyond your ability or social network to direct Mike to a blog or a scholarly article or even a podcast that would elucidate methods of conveying your theories to people who are not well versed in their foundations.

    We can’t completely remove the aspect of personality out of this whole issue. Personality is shaped by the environment and therefore impacted by privilege for White people, sure. However even among them there are different personalities. White allies exist and based on their personality (assuming they have no immediately obvious gains by becoming an ally) they may have come to understand your way of thinking (or do their best at it since they aren’t a minority and 100% understanding would be impossible and ignorant to claim). There are a lot of white people that are ‘on the fence’ out there and indeed it is an aspect of their privilege to be on the fence, I understand that very well. However those are also the people that can potentially become allies. And here is the kicker, I don’t know about Mike, but in my scenario here is a white guy trying to find resources to educate other white people on the subject. Surely you cannot expect me to indulge in an infinite regress of white anti-racism theory and research because you or anyone else doesn’t feel they should have to help. It seems only right that on this subject a white man learns from the very people (minorities) who are most negatively affected by this hegemony? People of colour should not have to educate whites, I agree with that. But is it so wrong and arrogant of me to ask for some help if I myself want to educate another white person?

    How about this, I write my understanding of your and other anti-racist theories in a way I would attempt to convey them at the dinner table. I post it here or in a similar electronic environment, and I ask to see what you guys think about it? To that degree I would have done the work you refuse to have any part in, and all that would be left is to weigh in on how accurate and effective that work is.

    If you choose to delete my post or reply in a manner that could be considered rude or dismissive, I will be discouraged in my pursuit, but I won’t think any less of you or your blog entries. I find them very elucidating to my own understanding of anti-racism.

  20. I wouldn’t be comfortable allowing you to do a guest-post, since we’ve only just met, but I could link to something you wrote elsewhere. I still find the focus on convincing others to be unconvincing, however.

Comments are closed.