Is “white guilt” really real? Slavoj Žižek thinks so.
The Slovenian political philosopher (once dubbed “the most dangerous philosopher in the West” by the New Republic and “the Elvis of cultural theory” by The Chronicle of Higher Education) has written a communist manifesto, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, challenging contemporary interpretations of 9/11 and of the global financial meltdown of 2008. I won’t try to capture all the nuances of that ambitious and provocative work, but I will give you my version of its punch line: that only what Žižek calls “a dictatorship of the proletariat” can make up for the limitations and constitutive exclusions that inescapably define capitalism (and liberalism and socialism) in all of their various guises.
Far from being a threat to capitalism’s undeniable ubiquity and unchallenged global hegemony (as some Leftists attempt to interpret things), Žižek sees the current global recession as potentially clearing the way for even more ramped up capitalist hysteria/utopianism. He also frames it as the context/pretext for intensified tensions between “democracy” (as a political system) and “capitalism” (as an economic formation). What if “capitalism with Asian values” (i.e., the invisible hand of the free market tightly clasped with an iron fist of totalitarianism) proves to be a more efficient and effective way to capitalize on the fundamental logic of capitalism?
French historian Pierre Rosanvallon claims that Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith was, in effect, arguing for “the withering away of politics,” theorizing the emergence of a free market system that could potentially govern all of social life (rationally and fairly) without recourse to merely political concerns and considerations. Žižek’s critique of the complicities between and among liberalism, socialism, and capitalism similarly asks what we might gain from thinking long and hard about how particular understandings of the relationship between politics and economics get naturalized.
As part of his argument, Žižek rails against the pathetic hubris of “white guilt,” what he labels “an inverted form of clinging to one’s superiority.” Quoting from a section of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, a passage that Žižek describes as demonstrating Fanon’s “refusal to capitalize on the guilt of the colonizers,” Žižek demands that his readers inoculate themselves from the seductive sickness of “identity politics” in all of its “private” and non-universal forms (race, gender, sexuality, religion, and so on).
To be fair, this last point is little more than an aside for Žižek, a drive-by theoretical shooting along a tiny stretch of the much longer highway that eventually leads home to the Communist idea, but any real discussion of “white guilt” (and the ostensible implications thereof) would have to talk about Shelby Steele. For Steele, white guilt isn’t an aside. It is one of America’s central dilemmas. His book on the subject, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, argues that “white guilt is quite literally the same thing as black power,” the reduction of moral authority to a zero-sum game between blacks and whites wherein what was once the stigma of race becomes the neo-stigma of racism. The more guilty whites feel about race/racism, the more empowered blacks are to use accusations of racism (and invocations of America’s racist history) as a disciplining rod. Steele cautions against the lure of white guilt: for blacks, as a form of political capital; for whites, as a performance of social penance.
To hear Steele describe it, white guilt sounds like a metaphysical totality that overdetermines contemporary American life (and maybe not just the parts that have anything to do with racial issues). White guilt gets cast as the overarching organizing principle for race relations, but is that really true? Does white guilt explain the central dynamics of contemporary inter-racial exchanges and interactions?
In this version of things, “playing the race card” is political slang for attempting to exploit forms of white guilt. Affirmative Action gets dismissed as a policy predicated on a misguided effort to manage and minimize white guilt. But is “white guilt” really real? I mean, any more so than, say, what we might call middle-class guilt (vis-à-vis poor people)? Or heterosexual guilt (vis-à-vis homosexuals)? Or even, say, Christian guilt (vis-a-vis Muslims)? What manner of “guilt” is this? And does it make sense to offer it up as the analytical framework for our contemporary socio-racial moment?
Indeed, white guilt doesn’t seem to define the ethos behind the Tea Party push. Janeane Garofalo isn’t the only one who wants to characterize them as reactionary and racist, as anti-Obama simply because they’re anti-black. Self-professed Tea Partyers take offense to such accusations, and they also seem to display a decided lack of guilt about America’s racial history, a guilt-freedom that serves as one of the engines powering their political efforts. I would think that even though most Americans (and most white Americans) aren’t card carrying Tea Party types, they also aren’t particularly angst-filled about America’s racial history either. Few Americans are.
Maybe a powerful film or book can provoke a pang of sadness, humanizing the past in ways that are poignant and real. And I wouldn’t argue that white Americans never reflect on how or why under-represented minorities are so under-represented in elite spheres. But is it really accurate to claim that “white guilt” haunts the American psyche? Can we use that to explain anti-racist efforts anymore than we can use that aforementioned “heterosexual guilt” as the fundamental psychological drive behind the push to get rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military? In fact, people are increasingly willing to invoke bad genes or the “culture of poverty” (over and against America’s sordid racial history) to explain contemporary racial disparities in education and employment. That seems like a powerful anti-guilt move.
Most of Obama’s detractors might be extra careful about deploying their political rhetoric so that they don’t find themselves described as racist, bowing to some of the mandates of a politically corrected public sphere, but they have no qualms at all about attacking America’s first black president with all the gusto they can muster. They are trying to foment a revolution, and they don’t feel guilty about that, not one bit.
Of course, Steele was talking more about liberals than conservatives. Žižek was too. But I’m not sure that “white guilt” is as big a problem as these cultural critics make it out to be. Moreover, the election of President Obama might be ushering in an era of “white rage” that is more than giving “white guilt” a run for its money.