to: philosophical and analytical writings
The Roots of White Self-Hatred
by William McGaughey
In the half century since the Civil Rights movement ended racial segregation in the southern states, the legacy of that movement has inspired a virulent “anti-racist” culture that attaches systemic guilt to the white race. Some of this stems from black militancy of a kind that flourished in the 1960s. My thesis, however, is that anti-racism in its current manifestation is more a “white thing” than a reflection of actual relations between black and white people. Most of the anti-racists are white. By and large, black people have moved on to normalized status within American society.
the White Privilege conference
The impetus for this discussion was the 12th annual White Privilege conference held in Bloomington, Minnesota, between April 13 and April 16, 2011. More that 1,500 persons from all parts of the country were expected to attend. Many of them were school teachers or students who were given credit for attending the conference. Individual registrations cost $315 ($365 after March 25th). The University of Colorado offered a graduate certificate in Diversity, Social Justice, and Inclusion for persons who took at least 12 credits in courses related to white privilege at $150 per credit.
Conference organizers enunciated several themes: For instance, the White Privilege conference (WPC) “is a conference that examines the challenging concepts of privilege and oppression.” WPC “is a conference built on the premise that the U.S. was started by white people, for white people.” “Whites need to acknowledge and work through the negative historical implications of ‘Whiteness’ and create for ourselves a transformed identity as White people committed to equity and social change.” White privilege “ is the other side of racism ... It is often easier to deplore racism and its effects than to take responsibility for the privileges some of us receive as a result of it.”
Examples of privilege were said by conference organizers to be able to assume that (1) “most of the people you or your children study in history classes and textbooks will be of the same race, gender, or sexual orientation as you are,” (2) “that your failures will not be attributed to your race, or your gender,” (3) that if you work hard and follow the rules, you will get what you deserve.” It is also (4) “success without other people being surprised, and without being held to a higher standard, (5) the ability to “go out in public without fear of being harassed or constantly worried about physical safety, (6) “not to have to think about your race, or your gender, or your sexual orientation, or disabilities, on a daily basis.”
theory replaces practice
A common theme of this new “anti-racist” culture is that racial problems are institutional. White people are caught in a web of group guilt no matter what they do. Individual behavior is irrelevant to the determination of racist identity. You can be a racist without even knowing it. Therefore, you need our services to eradicate this tendency within you; for we see a problem, even if you do not.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, the goal was to create a colorblind society. Individuals were to be judged by “the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King. This objective soon became not good enough. It was argued that because blacks had suffered decades or centuries of disadvantage, a special effort had to be made to bring them up to the level of whites. Affirmative-action and minority set-aside programs were the result. Whatever one might think of these, they at least retained some reference to race relations, present or past.
But then the theologians of anti-racism went to work. Inherent tendencies replaced actual ones. The problem with racism in America was no longer that black people were being lynched or being made to sit in the back of the bus. It was that America itself was racist. Racism was built into American society; it colored each aspect of our being. White people were so racist that they did not even realize it. They needed to be educated as to the finer points of their guilt.
The new doctrine held that attempting to create a colorblind society or individually disregarding a black person’s race was a form of denial. It merely pushed one’s racist tendencies underground. To overcome racism, one needed instead to become acutely aware of race in all situations. In particular, one needed to become aware of one’s own racist attitudes lurking behind innocent-seeming thoughts.
And what was racism? It was prejudice plus power. All people, black or white, might be prejudiced against persons of another race. But only white people had power. Therefore, only whites could be racists.
Enough said about what the fight against white racism has become. I would contend that it has little to do with the actual state of race relations today. Instead, it is a tool to achieve certain political objectives or, in particular instances, to support careers.
I would also contend, once again, that the theology of race, holding that white people are guilty of a racial Original Sin, is a system of beliefs held mainly by whites - and, I would add, by whites whose actual acquaintance with black people may be slim. Whites, not blacks, are the zealous defenders of this ideology. So let’s stop pretending that black people have much to do with it. This anti-racist cause is an issue for white people mainly.
a letter to the editor
At the time when the White Privilege conference was being held in Minnesota, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a black newspaper in the Twin Cities, criticizing the conference and its themes. The letter was published on April 21-27, 2011, under the heading, “‘White privilege’ an expression of White self-hatred.” Here is what the letter said:
“Born in the 1940s, I am old enough to remember the appeal made to White people by representatives of the Civil Rights Movement: Don’t be prejudiced. Don’t judge all Black people by the negative perceptions that you may have of individual Blacks.
But now, with events such as the ‘White Privilege Conference,’ we have the idea that White people as a group are privileged. [“White privilege: Its designed to kill you,” MSR, April 7]. They are ‘inherently’ or’ institutionally’ privileged. They are privileged even if, individually, they are sleeping under a bridge.
Am I the only one who sees the irony? Prejudice trumps fact.
I think this is more an expression of White self-hatred than of actual relationships between Black and White people. Whites alienated from society project upon themselves the stereotype of Black disadvantage. They can simultaneously be salving their own wound and, as a noble class, be ‘helping’ Blacks.
Black people can decide if they want this kind of help. For my part, I am a White man who is proud of the White race. I want to build it up, not tear it down. I would welcome as a kindred spirit the Black man who is proud of the Black race and wants it to thrive.”
You can see where I am going with this argument. White “privilege” is a concept resulting from racial self-hatred. It is hatred of the white race by whites. This is nothing new. There are blacks who hate the black race, Jews who hate the Jewish people, and every other kind of group self-hatred. However, it is still an anomaly that deserves an explanation.
The normal inclination would be to love oneself or love one’s group. Why do many white people hate “whiteness” or white people as a group? Do they hate themselves; or am I missing something?
Being a white man who does not hate the white race, I can only speculate as to the motivation of my fellow whites who are obsessed with fighting white racism. Is this because they think it is a serious problem in our society. Are blacks still being persecuted? Then why not focus on actual instances of persecution?
What does racial slavery have to do with anything any more? This practice ended 145 years ago. There are more recent kinds of abuse that need to be addressed. Such agitation might actually do some good. To complain about the extinct institution of slavery is like beating a dead horse.
No, white self-hatred may be related to one’s individual sense of self-identity. If a white person hates white people as a group, I would suspect that he or she does not fully identify with being white. Physically I am white, the person might say, but spiritually I am not. There is something about me which is not white. This kind of whiteness is representative of something other than skin color. Maybe it has to do with the so-called “white society”. It says: I am alienated from white society. I am not part of the majority population or the society’s power structure.
Rebellious teenagers are often alienated from society. They are “special” in some way. For instance, they are a minority among their peers. The person may be a female in a “man’s world”, or a gay or lesbian in a society that is predominately straight. In that case, it would be natural to identify with a persecuted minority rather than with the majority population.
a stereotype of victimhood
In American history, the archetype of the persecuted minority is the black person. Other persecuted types see themselves as being similar to them. “Blackness” therefore becomes a metaphor for persecution. If I feel persecuted, I do not think of myself as being white. I am instead like the protesting blacks being hosed by Bull Connor and his crew, or like Martin Luther King sitting in jail and writing letters filled with lofty ideas. I am despised and persecuted now, but future generations may regard me as a hero.
We are dealing, then, with a stereotype of black disadvantage and persecution which has been created over the past half century by relentless repetition. Books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” have been made into a Hollywood film which was later run and rerun on television. Videotape of black protestors in the south being beaten back by vicious dogs or water cannon are engrained, through repetition, into the national consciousness. This is the branding process at work in the television age. If an image or theme is repeated endlessly without contradiction it becomes a stereotype that is believed.
As in the case of Jews herded into Nazi death camps, the southern black of the Civil Rights era, and now black people generally, has become synonymous with victimhood. You will not find anyone today who sympathizes with Bull Connor or, at least, is willing to admit it. This is just a fact. Everyone agrees that blacks are legitimate victims. And once that victimhood is established, it can be used by other groups that are alienated within American society and see themselves as victims.
“Women” were the first group. Even if women are not numerically a minority within the population, they can be considered disadvantaged in a society controlled by men. Therefore, their situation could be considered similar to that of black people protesting against segregation in the south. And so the women’s movement of the 1970s followed the Civil Rights movement of a decade earlier. The Civil Rights movement legitimized these women’s movement. Feminists therefore had an interest in perpetuating the stereotype of black disadvantage.
After feminism came the gay rights movement for gays and lesbians. They were struggling against homophobic persecution in straight society. Then there was the American Indian movement, seeking to redress historic injustices. Disabled people, too, faced discrimination in a society dominated by able-bodied people. Immigrants, especially those who had entered the United States illegally from Latin America, were persecuted by the INS. All these different groups were victims of discrimination or persecution in a society controlled by other types of people. Their political expressions were clones of the black Civil Rights movement.
As such movements continued to develop, increased emphasis fell upon the types of people who oppressed them. The people who oppressed blacks were primarily white people. The people who oppressed women were men. The people who oppressed gays and lesbians were straight people, especially fundamentalist Christians. The oppressors were considered to be “bigots”. Bigots were narrow-minded, uneducated sorts of persons who were incapable of understanding the situation of someone unlike themselves. They were lower-class losers. They were a type of person to be ridiculed and reviled.
The archetypal bigot was, again, a white person who wanted to keep black people down. White men held the levers of power in U.S. society. Therefore, what would be considered America’s “mainstream” society could be called a “white society”. Whites created and controlled it. That meant that anyone with a grievance against this society would see a white face. Whites became synonymous with oppression.
the racial wimp
The surprising fact is that no champions of white people stepped forth from this white power structure to defend people with the same race or skin color as themselves. Maybe they, too, bought into the stereotype of black oppression and the heroic struggle to overcome it. Maybe the “white leaders” remained silent for other reasons. In any event, the mythology of the black Civil Rights movement continued to develop unchallenged. White people, especially the men, began to be seen as wimps who would simply roll over and play dead when confronted with racial accusations.
Who could respect this type of person? Certainly not white women. When presented with the image of weakness, most people go with the winner. White women tuned into Oprah while turning their backs on those, especially men, who tried to defend their white race. Such people became despised as weaklings who had every advantage to succeed but who now whined about black people challenging their position. They were despicable whiners and complainers who were, in a word, “privileged”. Women or blacks had to work three times as hard to get as far as these privileged but weak white men, it was said.
One of the sternest critics of the white race I know is a white woman who had a racial epiphany in St. Louis forty years ago when a black-male veteran of Vietnam went into a tirade against her well-intentioned attempt to join the civil rights movement. She was asked about why she was there. As the woman herself tells the story: “My answer showed all the ignorance of race in America of which a 21 year old is capable. A black man my own age, tall, wiry, ex-GI just back from Vietnam, fairly danced over to me, his fury and impatience bristling from every pore. He bent down and looked me in the face, saying, ‘I will rip your arm off and beat you with the bloody stump, you racist bitch!’”
“Of course, being an ignorant so-and-so,” she continued, “at that time I could not untangle how I was so racist, or how I somehow represented all white people, but I knew that furious man was right-- intellectually. For the rest of my life I have been grateful to Frank S., for that was his name, for pointing out, forcefully enough so that I could not ignore it, my shortcomings as a member of our jointly held human race. Thank you Mr. S., for your compassion. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
However extreme, this incident does tend to explain part of the appeal that blackness has for white people. The black man is filled with passion. He is courageous. Your typical milquetoast white man would never dare say anything as forceful and direct as what Frank said.
White people often talk about rebellion against an unjust society but it was blacks, during the late 1960s, who actually rioted and burned down large sections of our major cities. The spectacle of rioting blacks created a sense of fear in the white population; and fear mellowed into respect. Some white women may also be personally aroused by this kind of rough behavior.
Yes, there are white men who are able and perhaps willing to show their mettle and resolve with respect to race. But why should they? For a political or corporate leader to say “I am proud of being white” would invite nearly universal criticism. Ten persons would attack for every one who heeded such an appeal. Successful people generally do not commit career suicide.
As a result, it is the poor, unsuccessful whites who embrace the cause of white advancement. That, in turn, reinforces the idea that apologists for the white race are unsuccessful people. They are “losers” who back a doomed cause. The winners, in contrast, ignore sympathy for their own kind racially and look out for Number One.
There has therefore come to be in our society an unspoken but real contempt for white people, especially the men, because they are supposed to have all the advantages but in fact have none.
As the minority population increases, this type of person is destined to lose. The corporate marketing people, recognizing demographic trends, target their flattering messages to minorities. The white man is a has-been. Either he accepts that fact gracefully or he is seen as whiner whose contemptible weakness is exposed in his complaining.
the white identity and consciousness
Again I come back to the question of how America’s white people - its majority population - would so solidly hate and despise being white. Why is anti-racism enshrined as a civic religion in America? The white anti-racists would, of course, deny that they hate white people. They would say they hate only white racists. They would also deny that they hate themselves. And perhaps they are right. They do not hate themselves because they do not identify with being white.
How so? People have several identities. I may be a white person and I may also be someone alienated from “white” society. It’s quite possible to identify more with the latter, in which case I would not be hating myself if I went on a crusade against white racism. The particular negative experiences that I have while living in a largely white society may outweigh my general sense of being white. Everyone is abandoning the ship of the white race. No one cares about it. The white identity is something safe to kick.
White people have never been a militant group. The consciousness of being white has arisen mainly in reaction to the consciousness of blacks and others who are not white. Slavery, for instance, was not an institution of racial oppression so much as it was a way that certain people in the past made money. It was economic oppression whose practice, of course, continues to this day. But since slavery is dead and is universally reviled, it attracts critics while criticism of the economic exploiters who operate today on Wall Street and elsewhere is largely ineffective.
institutions that promote anti-racism
One should also recognize the power of historical mythology. Organizers of the White Privilege Conference claimed that white privilege means that “most of the people you or your children study in history classes and textbooks will be of the same race, gender, or sexual orientation as you are.” What world are they talking about?
Yes, in the 19th Century, the history books were full of stories about George Washington and Barbara Fritchie; but this is the 21st Century. History textbooks today tell the stories of Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King. Slavery and racial discrimination are never far from the lesson plan. The People’s History of the United States, emphasizing protest movements by disadvantaged groups, is the model of what young Americans of all races study today. While 19th Century Americans thought of George Washington as a national leader rather than a white man, today’s heroes of history assume explicitly racial roles.
It may be that we do not study our national leaders, prominent business leaders, or others associated with the power structure of American society because this is a society in decline. Sixty years ago, when I was a boy, the United States was ascendant in the world. We naturally wanted to learn about the people who made America such a great country. Thomas Edison was one of them. Abraham Lincoln was another. Today, however, the story of America’s greatness is no longer compelling. The Civil Rights movement triumphed politically so people will want to identify more with it. People want to go with the winner. They want to be on the right side of history.
One should realize, too, that American society is a society built on social and economic competition. Our educational system contains an implied promise that individuals who complete the full set of courses and receive a degree will be more successful in a career than those who do not. We go to school not for the sake of learning but to join a higher class in society. Unfortunately for believers in this system, going to college does not guarantee socio-economic success. There are many college graduates with mediocre jobs and large student loans needing to be repaid.
I call these people “educated proletarians”. They are people with aspirations to social position who have fallen behind in the career competition. Many such persons embrace the anti-racist cause. They do not identity with white society because this society has let them down. Instead, they identify with others who, like themselves, find themselves on the fringes of society, economically and socially marginalized. The black race is stereotypically disadvantaged. Therefore, these marginalized white persons see themselves as being like blacks. That part of their self-identity outweighs skin color.
At the same time, since they have graduated from college, these educated proletarians see themselves as being culturally or morally superior to others in society, regardless of economic achievement. They have a certain nobility. Aristocrats are not money-grubbing, self-seeking types but persons who, if enlightened, have sympathy for those in the lower classes. White people who help downtrodden blacks fit that role. They are superior by virtue of being in a position to help others even if they themselves need help.
This idea of helping others is also embedded in the Christian religion. To be saved, one must die to self and be born to a higher cause. Christians believe that all men are sinners needing salvation at the hands of the church. The church depends on donations to support itself financially. This is a precarious situation. If men did not believe in a higher cause than themselves, donations to the church might dwindle or cease.
Therefore, it is useful to create a sense of guilt in people. In today’s world, it is useful to create a sense of racial guilt. The church has positioned itself as a champion of social justice. People, especially whites, who feel personally unworthy will be more inclined to donate to the church. The money will be going to a higher cause than themselves. The fight against white racism also makes the church more relevant to today’s world. However, this is a shepherd leading its flock over a cliff.
Another bulwark of the anti-racist cause is higher education. Its situation, too, is financially precarious. If young people ceased to believe that a college degree was the ticket to career success, they or their parents might decide it was not worth the $30,000 to $40,000 per year to take college courses. Again, it helps to create a sense of guilt. White students, still in the majority, need to feel uneasy about being put into competition with persons of other races.
The concept of “white privilege” does the trick. It tells young white people that they are essentially privileged, which means that whatever they have now was not due to their own merit or achievement but to an inherent advantage that they have in being white. They should know they are weak and their racial advantages will soon cease.
Therefore, they need to take whiteness courses to learn about this hidden threat and become more able to cope with the multiracial, multicultural society that will emerge in the future. The sense of white fear and guilt weakens the self-defenses that people would normally have as consumers of educational services.
In summary, the fight against white racism in a society that has emphatically outlawed racial discrimination is directed mainly by elite institutions such as religion and higher education which stand to gain something institutionally by embracing this cause.
The cause is also embraced by the society’s economic institutions because of anti-discrimination laws. Employers who fear being sued for racial (or gender) discrimination will take upon themselves the burden of policing their employees for behavior that might result in costly lawsuits. The politicians who passed these laws escape the responsibility for enforcing what essentially amounts to controlling people’s personal attitudes and thoughts. Others are required to do the dirty work.
I say, once again, that the discussion of race today may have little to do with actual relations among persons of different races. The struggle against white racism is now taking place mainly among white people. It is legitimate for dissenting whites now to organize to advance their interests as a group even as it is legitimate for black people and others to organize. Whites alone should decide the question of white identity. There are also, of course, identity interests that people of all races, being human, have together.
Political correctness represents George Orwell’s dire predictions come true. The demonization and refusal to discuss that characterizes today’s “discussion” of race is deeply demoralizing. This type of discussion does little to aid black advancement but is instead characteristic of a society in decline.
Whites, as well as blacks and other people, need to free themselves from the influence of predatory institutions (educational and religious) which destroy their racial self-pride to gain power, influence and wealth. To get at the ideological rot behind the anti-racist orthodoxy would be a sound first step toward national recovery. If individuals can cast off imposed guilt and think well of themselves, the society itself will become healthy.
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