#ItsOkayToBeWhite has recently been trending on Twitter. While apparently posted initially in reference to the skin tone of Korean pop stars, the hashtag has swiftly and predictably become another cudgel for partisan invective. Among progressive pundits, it is seen as an example of white privilege run amok and of the implicit racism that ignores the suffering of minorities. For those on the right, the reaction to the hashtag has revealed the pervasiveness of anti-white sentiment on the left that celebrates the decline of white America. To most of us in between, the debate reflects our balkanized moment, a reminder of how palpably absurd public discourse has become.
The #ItsOkayToBeWhite row highlights one of the most poorly discussed issues driving political polarization in the west: the meaning of white identity in the twenty-first century.
White identity gets a pretty bad rap. According to Wikipedia, the term whiteness alludes to the structures that produce white privilege and perpetuate systemic racism. British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge defines whiteness as a “political ideology that is concerned with maintaining power through domination and exclusion.” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes whiteness as the “organizing principle” used to justify historical and ongoing oppression: even claiming that the need to be white may be responsible for the impending destruction of the natural environment. American novelist Danzy Senna thinks of whiteness as a disease, a “condition” that might be “contagious.” The common thread here is that white identity is harmful in ways that other identities are not, a harm that can be attributed to the original sin of colonization and the disproportionate amount of power still held by whites in society. This identity comes with baggage.
But there is reason to reject this uncharitable appraisal. Humanists of all political leanings ought to recoil from attaching any meaning to an immutable and unchosen trait. Although I share many of the Social Justice left’s concerns about racial inequality, the progressive narrative on race has major blind spots. By adhering to a set of reflexive assumptions, this narrative leads otherwise careful analysts to stoke racial tribalism and misread the problems faced by Americans. The assumptions involved are threefold:
1) White identity is racist.
2) The success of minority groups is dependent on the amount of racism in society.
3) Whites maintain a system of white privilege at the expense of minorities.
Is White Identity Racist?
In her 2019 book White Identity Politics, Ashley Jardina argues that white resistance to changing demographics and shifting racial power dynamics helps explain the wave of right-wing populism in the west. Since the 1990s, the proportion of white Americans who identify with their race has roughly doubled, while the percentage of immigrants in the country has increased and political polarization has catapulted to new heights. Demographics and identity—not political and economic developments—form the context of our culture war.
Although Jardina is explicitly progressive, some of her central findings cast doubt on the notion that “white identity is inherently racist,” to quote Robin DiAngelo. Jardina draws a distinction between racial solidarity—warmth towards one’s own racial group; racial consciousness—political mobilization around one’s racial group; and racial resentment—negative associations with other racial groups.
Jardina found that white racial solidarity was not correlated with racial resentment or prejudice, which implies that a stronger white identity is not an accurate predictor of racist attitudes. Warmth towards an in-group is not the same as hatred of an out-group. There is even some evidence to suggest the opposite: that people who are comfortable in their own skin tend to be more open to diversity and change. However, Jardina still appears to believe, seemingly against her own evidence, that “the desire of white people to protect their group,” while it “isn’t the same as racial prejudice,” in effect “helps maintain a system of racism.” But if a desire to protect one’s group isn’t the same as racial prejudice, how does it help maintain a system of racism? This remains unanswered.
Is the Success of Minority Groups Dependent on the Amount of Racism in Society?
America’s history of racial oppression might lead us to believe that the progress of specific minorities depends on the degree to which they are socially accepted by white majorities. Yet there is reason to doubt that assumption.
If the success of minorities were contingent on the extent to which racism is persistent in society, we would expect to see a clear socioeconomic dividing line between whites and groups who have been historically marginalized. Yet in terms of household income, both Indians and East Asians outperform whites by a significant margin, and no one would argue that their success is a result of having experienced less racism than whites. South African Americans earn almost double the national average; Native Americans from the Chickasaw Nation make twice as much as Apache, but there is no reason to think that racism plays any role in these outcomes. In the specific case of black Americans, historical periods characterized by more racism yielded greater economic progress than those with less. Black men’s median income quintupled between 1939 and 1960, while Jim Crow was in full sway. As Thomas Sowell’s research has shown, disparities between ethnic groups are the norm, rather than the exception, independent of how much racism there is.
Black Americans have a unique history of oppression in the US, which impacts their present economic and social outcomes. But the volume of racism in society—whether overt or systemic—won’t tell us much in itself about the achievement of any given ethnic group. Yet this non-fact is often presented as though it requires no explanation and dissenters are sharply dismissed as reactionaries or racists. This presumes that minorities can only get as far as white people will allow them to, which might come as a surprise to the millions of people of color who, through self-determination and grit, have built comfortable lives for themselves in the US.
Do Whites Maintain a System of White Privilege at the Expense of Minorities?
But even if white identity is not inherently racist and the amount of racism in society does not determine group outcomes, don’t whites benefit from a system of white privilege, which is maintained through their unconscious in-group bias?
Leaving aside the facts that the Implicit Association Test does not predict real world discrimination and that anti-bias training doesn’t work, the idea that living in a white majority society confers privileges upon white-passing individuals is a banality. In that sense, white privilege is obviously real. But the more dubious assumption is that whites are actively working to maintain their privilege at the expense of minorities: either consciously through overt discrimination or unconsciously through tropes and stereotypes. Equally dubious is the idea that, if whites were only to undertake the collective spiritual work of acknowledging their privilege and the political work of advocating for anti-racist structural and cultural changes, the racial gaps we see in the world would eventually dissipate and black Americans would be better off.
This doesn’t make sense. If the theory of white privilege were true, we would expect that a higher population share of whites would coincide with a greater degree of racial inequality, since group solidarity among larger proportions of whites would necessarily lead to the exclusion of non-whites—as has historically been the case. But, as Eric Kaufmann shows in Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, no such direct relationship exists. The income gap between whites and blacks is independent of a region or country’s white population share. White privilege, therefore, cannot be exclusively perpetuated by whites. Black policemen shoot black suspects at higher rates than white policemen; minority job recruiters are just as likely as whites to discriminate against other minorities; people of color commit hate crimes at least as often as whites; people of all groups are more likely to support white political candidates. This suggests that white privilege is maintained through a complex system of interactions between groups, rather than a hegemony imposed from above by whites. Insisting that whites should be the only group responsible for addressing racial inequality is a form of racial narcissism and cultural imperialism that, paradoxically, denies agency to people of color.
The decentering of whiteness and white identity is a sign of moral progress. Up until the recent past, the idea that being white was an intrinsic part of being an American citizen went largely unquestioned. Whiteness was a source of moral authority and this excused the persecution of non-whites for centuries. As African-American writer Shelby Steele, who grew up in segregated Chicago, puts it, “if a white man came upon a black man anywhere in the world then the black man would have to carry the white man’s bags.” Whiteness represented nobility, while blackness was considered reprobate. The reaction to this asymmetric history lives on in our culture and politics. “The world is white no longer,” James Baldwin wrote in 1953, “and it will never be white again.”
But now that whiteness is no longer the baseline of American life, and the principle of white supremacy has been rendered illegitimate, what is the next step toward living in a cooperative multi-ethnic society, in which we regard each other as human beings, unconfined by the limits of our respective identities? This is the question that progressive activists are loathe to ask, for to do so is to admit that, as ugly as our history has been, a significant amount of progress has been made on the racial front. Merely suggesting that our racial problems are not the same as they were in 1962, and thus require a different approach, can provoke vicious backlash, just ask Coleman Hughes.
The solution to racial and political tribalism appears obvious, yet is immensely difficult to put into practice: recognize white identity as an ethnic identity like any other, rather than a source of specialness or a scourge to be eradicated. Political extremists on both sides of the spectrum evoke whiteness for their own purposes. The far-left evokes the implacable force of white supremacy, against which they wage war in pursuit of social justice; while the far-right is galvanized by the degradation of white identity in the media and academia, which vindicates their own identitarian crusade. If we invested less meaning into white identity, radicals of all stripes would soon run out of steam.
The modern cultural left is, in many ways, a reaction to the historical valorization of whiteness. But perhaps it encourages more toxic expressions of white identity by rendering white identity taboo. White shame and white pride may be two sides of the same coin, one justifying the existence of the other. In a country in which whites will soon be a minority, it may not be a good idea to tolerate the radical left’s anti-white sentiments. Equating white identity with the bloody history of white supremacy may be reinforcing the far-right populism against which the left is fighting.
If we are serious about addressing racial inequality, rather than engaging in moral exhibitionism, we need to have a more nuanced conversation about the relationship between whiteness, racism and inequality, lest we risk alienating potential allies and fueling the racial antipathies that have characterized so much of our history. If, as Baldwin preaches, history is a nightmare from which we can’t awaken, it will take more than good intentions to arouse us from our collective slumber.