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.