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Being White, Being Good focuses on white complicity and white complicity pedagogy. It examines the shifts in our conceptualization of the subject, language and moral responsibility that are required for understanding white complicity and draws out implications for social justice pedagogy.
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Being White, Being Good

Being White, Being Good
White Complicity,
White Moral Responsibility,
and Social Justice Pedagogy


A Di vi si on of
Lanham • Boulder • New York • Toronto • Plymouth, UK

Published by Lexington Books
A division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
A wholly owned subsidiary of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706
Estover Road, Plymouth PL6 7PY, United Kingdom
Copyright © 2010 by Lexington Books
Applebaum, Barbara. “White Privilege/White Complicity: Connecting ‘Benefiting
From’ to ‘Contributing To’” in Philosophy of Education, ed. Ronald David Glass,
292–300. Urbana, Illinois: Philosophy of Education Society, 2008.
Applebaum, Barbara. “White Ignorance and Denials of Complicity: On the
Possibility of Doing Philosophy in Good Faith” in The Center Must Not Hold: White
Women and the Whiteness of Philosophy, ed. George Yancey. Lanham, MD: Lexington
Books, forthcoming.
Applebaum, Barbara. “Engaging Student Disengagement: Resistance or
Disagreement?” in Philosophy of Education Society, ed. Barbara Stengel, 335–345.
Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society, 2007.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any
electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems,
without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote
passages in a review.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Applebaum, Barbara, 1953–
Being white, being good : white complicity, white moral responsibility, and social
justice pedagogy / Barbara Applebaum.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-7391-4491-6 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-7391-4493-0
1. Racism. 2. Whites. 3. Responsibility. I. Title.
HT1521.A67 2010

⬁ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of
American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for
Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.

Printed in the United States of America







White Ignorance and Denials of Complicity: Linking
“Benefiting From” to “Contributing To”



The Subject of White Complicity



The Epistemology of Complicity: The Discourse of Not
Knowing and Refusing to Know


Moral Responsibility and Complicity in Philosophical



Rearticulating White Moral Responsibility



White Complicity Pedagogy








About the Author




is “recognizing the good.” Although used in many ways, it can refer to the
acknowledgment of the good another has done for you. Hakarat hatov is not
merely an expression of thanks but also a demonstration of respect and value
of the person from whom one has received something important. It is to show
appreciation for being inspired, for being supported, for being helped.
If I were able to show my appreciation for all those colleagues and friends
who have directly and indirectly inspired me, the acknowledgments would
span and take the place of the entire book. Instead I will limit myself to just
thanking a few who have been especially supportive and central to helping me
complete this project.
A number of outstanding scholars have been especially influential in
shaping my thoughts on white complicity. If you see echoes of their insights
throughout the book, it is because they have been, as people and as scholars,
such an inspiration. Linda Martin Alcoff, Cris Mayo, Audrey Thompson and
George Yancy—my project stands on your profound shoulders. I would be
remiss if I did not acknowledge Dwight Boyd whose mentorship when I was
a graduate student many years ago opened doors for me both with his own
scholarship and with the scholarship he introduced me to. Dwight helped me
to understand that philosophy can be extremely personal.
Kenneth Strike—thank you for being my publishing mentor. Without your
sage advice, this book might never have gone to press. I am grateful to Sari
Knopp Biklen, my mentor and friend, who is not only a source of encouragement and intellectual stimulation but is a model of leadership for me. I also
am so fortunate to have a colleague like Emily Robertson. Emily, thank you
for being such an amazing listener, for your friendship and for our ongoing
conversations. Your critical, but always respectful, comments challenge me to
formulate my ideas more clearly. The Dean of the School of Education, Doug
Biklen, has been especially helpful in providing me with the sabbatical time to

think through this project. But more than that, his confidence in and support
of his faculty makes working at Syracuse University such a special experience.
I am grateful to Sally Sayles-Hannon, my research assistant, for her help in
proofreading and compiling the index for the book. I also want to thank the
Wege Foundation in Michigan for providing financial support for the typesetting of the manuscript.
Some sections of this book have been previously published. I am grateful
for permission to reprint them.
Most of all, I want to thank my family and my spouse for the faithful support they have given me in writing this book. Penina, Sara, Mordechai, Shani,
Jason and Liraz, you give me pride and much joy. Thank you for being the
people you are and for your patience during all the dinners to which I brought
the progress and frustrations of writing a book. Adiv, Amir, Natai and Thalia,
my grandchildren, thank you for making being a grandmother so much fun.
Nissan, my amazing and loving spouse, has tirelessly walked me through the
difficult work of writing. Thank you for always being there even when we are
hundreds of miles apart.





“YOU ARE GUILTY!!” ANDREW SCHAAP1 OPENS HIS ERUDITE ESSAY ON COLLECTIVE REsponsibility with the words that were pasted on signs across Germany after
World War II by the Allies in their efforts to denazify the German population.
Accompanying these words was a picture of one of the concentration camps
and an accusatory finger pointed at the viewer. As Schaap notes, this charge
was met with denials and moral resentment. Common responses to the charge
were: “We didn’t know” or (even if they did know) “We could not have done
anything anyway.” How can ordinary people be responsible for evil they did
not directly perpetrate, might not have known about or might not have been
able to affect even if they did know? Intention and causality, the hallmarks
of responsibility, were often conspicuously absent in the case of the ordinary
German people.
Why should the ordinary German, those who did not intend nor cause
harm, be responsible for the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime? After observing the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi administrator,
in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt2 coined the piercing concept “the banality of
evil” to suggest that evil is perpetrated not only by depraved and malevolent
monsters but also by regular people who uncritically follow orders and go
about their daily lives. According to Arendt, Eichmann, who helped the Nazis
carry out unthinkable crimes, did not seem to be a crazy fanatic but rather an
ordinary person who claims to have been simply doing his duty. In her writings subsequent to Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt distinguishes between guilt
and responsibility when she argues that in their support of the Nazi regime,
the German people were responsible although not all guilty.3 Arendt refuses
to equate being guilty with being responsible because she insists that the German people could not all be guilty for the evils of the Nazi regime. This would
stretch the meaning of responsibility to meaninglessness. Guilt, she intimates,
implies a direct causal connection to the harm. Moreover, as she puts it,


“Where all are guilty, nobody is.”4 While all Germans may not be guilty, however, they were responsible. The ordinary German was responsible by virtue
of the fact that s/he was a member of a political community that committed
atrocities even when s/he did not directly cause harm.
In The Question of German Guilt, Karl Jaspers5 upholds the guilt of the ordinary German for the atrocities of the Holocaust by distinguishing between
moral guilt and metaphysical guilt. The former, Jaspers argues, is exclusively
contingent on what one does or does not do, while the latter is based on who
one is. Guilt, we are told, does not have to be exclusively focused on what one
does or does not do in terms of directly causing the harm. Jaspers grounds
metaphysical guilt in the “solidarity among men as human beings that makes
each as responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially
for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge.”6
By introducing the notion of metaphysical guilt, Jaspers emphasizes a connection to evil that is centered not specifically on the actions one chooses to do
or not to do (and that directly bring about such evil) but rather emphasizes
the question, who does one choose to be? Jaspers attributes metaphysical guilt
to German “survivors”—those who chose to live rather than contest the Nazi
We survivors did not seek it. We did not go into the streets when our Jewish
friends were led away; we did not scream until we too were destroyed. We preferred to stay alive, on the feeble, if logical, ground that our death could not have
helped anyone. We are guilty of being alive.7

Despite their differences, both Arendt and Jaspers allude to the question of
complicity, the focal point of this book. Both assume that complicity involves
a choice of some sort that connects one to evil and, most significantly, that
one can choose not to be complicit. One’s moral standing depends on that
In the last several years, the notion of complicity has also been a recurrent
theme in critical theories of race and racism, as well as in feminist theory.
Questions about complicity have arisen in discussions around “internalized
racism” and, especially, in debates about whether victims of racism can be
implicated in their own oppression.8 Feminist theorists who have tried to understand how women can perpetuate their own oppression have also turned
their attention to questions of complicity.9
Recently, however, another type of complicity has appeared in the scholarship that focuses on the ways that the systemically privileged, rather than the
marginalized, are complicit in the perpetuation of systemic injustice. In the
field of critical whiteness studies, for instance, questions of complicity are
especially notable in the academic discourse around social justice education.



Here we find a claim about complicity that is addressed to all white people
regardless of and despite of their good intentions. What I refer to as “the white
complicity claim” maintains that white people, through the practices of whiteness and by benefiting from white privilege, contribute to the maintenance of
systemic racial injustice. However, the claim also implies responsibility in its
assumption that the failure to acknowledge such complicity will thwart whites
in their efforts to dismantle unjust racial systems and, more specifically, will
contribute to the perpetuation of racial injustice.10 Recognizing that one is
complicit, according to the claim, is a necessary (albeit not sufficient) condition of challenging systemic racial oppression. Most significantly, since the
white complicity claim presumes that racism is often perpetuated through
well-intended white people, being morally good may not facilitate and may
even frustrate the recognition of such responsibility.
What does it mean to claim that white people are complicit in the reproduction of racist systems despite their good intentions and even when they might
want to renounce the privileges they accrue because of their whiteness? How
can white people be responsible for their complicity if they cannot choose to
be not white? Even if white people are well intended, even if they consider
themselves to be paragons of anti-racism, how might they still be unwittingly
complicit in sustaining an unjust system they claim to want to dismantle?
What is of specific interest about white complicity is the claim that white
people can reproduce and maintain racist practices even when, and especially
when, they believe themselves to be morally good. Some feminist philosophers
have been acutely aware of this problem. Marilyn Frye queries, “Does being
white make it impossible for me to be a good person?”11 Similarly Linda Martin Alcoff asks
What is it to acknowledge one’s whiteness? . . . (is) it to acknowledge that one is
inherently tied to structures of domination and oppression, that one is irrevocably on the wrong side?12

I take an important cue from Fiona Probyn’s provocative assertion that “Complicity . . . is the starting point and the condition of ethics itself.”13 Thus, this
project not only explores the meaning of complicity presumed by the white
complicity claim, it also considers the notion of moral responsibility that is
attributable to white people in the context of such complicity.
This book will be of particular interest to those who practice and research
social justice pedagogy. White denials of complicity are particularly widespread in courses that teach about social justice. Not unlike the ordinary German who denied being guilty of complicity with Nazi crimes, white students
often conflate complicity with guilt, the guilt that arises from direct causality
to harm. Such notions of responsibility support and encourage denials of


complicity. White students believe that they are justified in denying their
complicity because they claim that they do not have any “bad intentions” or
any “causal connection” to the harms of systemic racism. Often white students
refuse to even engage with the possibility that they are complicit. Most white
students see themselves as good people and take the charge of complicity as a
serious affront to their moral being. They perceive their moral being as transcending their whiteness. Denials of complicity go deep and are maintained, as
will be demonstrated, by certain conceptions of responsibility.
Moreover, currently “white privilege pedagogy” is the prevailing approach
in social justice education, especially in schools of education across North
America. Yet the notion of privilege that is the focal point of such pedagogy,
as will be explained in Chapter 2, is extremely problematic.14 Instead, this
book advocates “white complicity pedagogy” that highlights and compensates
for some of the more problematic aspects of white privilege pedagogy. White
complicity pedagogy is premised on the belief that to teach systemically privileged students about systemic injustice, and especially in teaching them about
their privilege, one must first encourage them to be willing to contemplate
how they are complicit in sustaining the system even when they do not intend
to or are unaware that they do so. This means helping white students to understand that white moral standing is one of the ways that whites benefit from
the system. It also means linking such benefits to their complicity even when
such links might not be specifically causal ones.
Acknowledging that one is complicit, however, does not relieve one of
responsibility but rather, as Probyn insists, complicity is where responsibility
begins. If privileged social groups are to take responsibility for their role in the
perpetuation of systemic injustice and be able to form effective political coalitions with the marginalized, both understanding white complicity and the type
of white moral responsibility it entails require elucidation.
This book examines and elucidates the particular meaning of complicity
assumed by those who maintain the white complicity claim. My project, however, is not to “prove” that white people are complicit in systemic racial injustice. Instead I endeavor to elucidate what white complicity means when critical
scholars of race and racism refer to it. A key task of this book is to demarcate
some of the required moves that must be made in our conceptual landscape to
make white complicity visible—in particular, shifts in our conceptualization
of the subject, of language, and of moral responsibility.
More specifically, the main objectives of this book are to explain what scholars mean by white complicity, to explore the ethical and epistemological assumptions that white complicity entails, and to offer recommendations for
how white complicity can be taught. The primary question the book attempts
to take up is: What can it mean for white people “to be good” when they can



reproduce and maintain a racist system even when, and especially when, they
believe themselves to be good? In my attempt to answer this question I argue
that social justice pedagogy must shift its understanding of the subject, of language and of responsibility in ways that incorporate deconstructive and poststructural insights.
Traditional conceptions of moral responsibility, it will be shown, not only
fail to expose white complicity but also contribute to the normalization of
denials of complicity that protect systemic racism from being challenged.
One of the problems with traditional conceptions of moral responsibility is
the presumption that moral innocence is attainable. Because such notions of
responsibility center the question “what can I do?” rather than the question
“what needs to be done?” they can encourage moral solipsism, heroism and
white narcissism. I call for a rearticulated notion of moral responsibility that is
based on the works of Iris Marion Young and Judith Butler. This rearticulated
notion of moral responsibility does not focus on guilt but instead emphasizes
uncertainty, vulnerability and vigilance. Significantly, the rearticulated notion
of moral responsibility this book calls for does not function to make white
people feel better because it is grounded in the understanding that preserving
white moral innocence is impossible. Yet the arguments in this book also support the possibility for white people in the context of white complicity to act
in ethically responsible ways.
A superb illustration of the complexity of white moral agency and its
dangers is evident in Sara Ahmed’s discussion of her white students who so
consistently ask her, “but what can white people do?” Although such questions
on face value reflect white moral agency, Ahmed argues that such speech acts
reinscribe privilege rather than challenge injustice. Ahmed explains the solipsism implied in this question when she writes that
(t)o respond to accounts of institutional whiteness with the question “what can
white people do?” is not only to return to the place of the white subject, but it
is also to locate agency in this place. It is also to re-position the white subject
somewhere other than implicated in the critique.15

Such moral agency recenters the white subject as the authority who brings
about change and also assumes that the white subject can transcend the critique of whiteness that provokes the question being asked. Yet Ahmed also
insists that this question is not totally misguided,
. . . although it does re-center on white agency, as a hope premised on lack rather
than presence. . . . The impulse towards action is understandable and complicated: it can be both a defense against the “shock” of hearing about racism (and
the shock of the complicity revealed by the very “shock”); it can be an impulse



to reconciliation as a “re-covering” of the past (the desire to feel better); it can
be about making public one’s judgment (“what happened was wrong”); or it can
be an expression of solidarity (“I am with you”). But the question, in all of these
modes of utterance, can work to block hearing; in moving on from the present
towards the future, it can also move away from the object of critique, or place
the white subject “outside” that critique in the present of the hearing. In other
words, the desire to act, to move, or even to move on, can stop the message getting through.16

I read Ahmed as acknowledging that for white people to join in alliances with
the victims of racism to challenge systemic racial oppression white people have
to acknowledge their complicity. This means being vigilant about white moral
agency because such moral agency can ironically obstruct a genuine engagement with those who experience racial oppression.
Ahmed, for instance, cautions white people to examine their desire “to do
something” because it can also function to protect one’s moral innocence and
the social system on which such innocence is based. “If we want to know how
things can be different too quickly,” Ahmed cautions, “then we might not hear
anything at all.”17 This book is about the type of white moral responsibility that
is possible given the depths of white complicity.
Finally, I introduce “white complicity pedagogy” that is grounded in
this rearticulated notion of responsibility. I contend that white complicity
pedagogy can potentially increase the development of alliance identities by
facilitating the type of listening on the part of white students that can foster a
willingness on the part of the systemically marginalized to engage in dialogue
with white students.
In the remainder of this chapter, the white complicity claim will be examined in further detail. The white complicity claim has been articulated in at
least two ways in the scholarship. The first focuses exclusively on unconscious
attitudes and beliefs. While this approach has been enormously helpful in
understanding white complicity, a second approach that forefronts white
“ways of being” or the phenomenology of whiteness18 has drawn attention to
two practices that keep complicity hidden: systemic white ignorance and the
discourse of denials of complicity. Such white “ways of being” do not entail
whiteness as essence but instead point to habits of whiteness and whiteness as
performativity. Chapter 2 focuses on white ways of being by examining how
white ignorance and white denials of complicity that are socially sanctioned
conceal white complicity. Systematic white ignorance will be shown to be a
form of white knowledge that is upheld by denials of complicity.
One way that I have found to explain to white students how they are
complicit is to link systemic white ignorance and denials of complicity to the
type of benefits that protect their moral innocence. Students often want to



understand how they are implicated and ask especially about the link between
“benefiting from the system” and “contributing to the system.” Systemic white
ignorance makes denials of complicity seem justified and this, in turn, protects
white moral innocence, on the one hand, and shields unjust systems from
being interrogated, on the other. As long as white complicity is not acknowledged, I explain, the status quo remains beyond challenge. Yet my students still
struggle with their responsibility since the notion of responsibility they work
with forefronts causality, control, knowledge and/or intentions. Moreover,
they insist that in order to be responsible they must be able to transcend the
system that constitutes them as white.
To understand what notion of moral responsibility under complicity is
possible, first the notion of person that grounds the white complicity claim is
examined and then, second, how discourse works is addressed. Chapter 3 takes
up the conception of subjectivity that the white complicity claim presumes by
turning to the work of Judith Butler. The limitations of Butler’s conception
of the subject are also addressed. When, however, Butler’s ethical and critical
concerns are brought to the forefront, I argue, the critiques of her conception of the subject can be negotiated. Chapter 4 focuses on the conception of
discourse that helps to explain how seemingly moral utterances can function
as denials of complicity. To understand how denials of complicity work, one
must shift one’s epistemological framework from language as representation
to language as discourse.
Chapter 5 examines traditional conceptions of moral responsibility asking whether they are able to expose rather than hide white complicity. Many
accounts of complicity in the philosophical scholarship rely on a notion of
responsibility that emphasizes causality, knowledge, control, choice and/or intention. Such notions of responsibility, however, when applied to white ways
of being whose ethical relationship to systemic racism can be disputed not only
cannot capture how such ways of being are connected to the perpetuation of
structural injustice but also focus too much on whether guilt or blame is attributable to particular individuals. The consequence is that well-intentioned
white people are able to effortlessly let themselves off the hook since they can
honestly claim they did not intend to perform anything wrong, and they were
ignorant of or had no control over the wrongful outcome.
Chapter 6 begins with Iris Marion Young’s critique of liability models of
moral responsibility and considers her social connection model of responsibility. Some limitations of Young’s model are noted but I argue that Butler’s
recent work on responsibility can expand Young’s work and can help to flesh
out a notion of vigilance as a key feature of white moral agency that is always
on guard for white denials of complicity. Such a notion of responsibility also
underscores the importance of and possibility of collective action.


Finally, Chapter 7 describes how encouraging such vigilance can be a crucial element in white complicity pedagogy by contributing to the development
of alliance identities that collectively play a part in challenging the systems that
create and maintain social injustice.

While many scholars of color have eloquently written about white complicity,19 it is only recently that white academics within the area of critical whiteness studies have given this concept attention. The growth of critical whiteness
studies as an academic field provides a background for understanding the
place of white complicity in this scholarship. Critical whiteness studies has
developed as a result of a shift in understanding racism as exclusively a matter of overt practices involving prejudice or antipathy to an understanding of
racism as a system in which covert and subtle forms of institutional, cultural
and individual practices produce and reproduce racial injustice. Along with
this shift in the conceptualization of racism as a system rather than only an
attribute of individual people, there has been a general consensus about the
social construction of race as a category. As scientific evidence for race as a
biological concept has been shown to be lacking20 and that the meaning of race
not only varies geographically but also changes over time within particular
societies, research became focused on the ways in which the meaning of race
is constructed and reproduced via social institutions such as law, media and
To acknowledge that race is socially reproduced through social institutions is to underscore how such construction is hidden via the processes of
normalization. As a discursive construction that marks social differences,
race is a concept that involves the mutually constituted locations of groups
within a system of social relations in which one group is considered the norm
and other groups are evaluated as “different” or “deviant” on the basis of that
norm. As Martha Minow22 emphasizes, the norm from which “difference” is
demarcated is taken for granted and is invisible to those who benefit from it.
Given the invisibility of whiteness to white people, many critical theorists of
race and racism recognize that studies must be turned “from the racial object
to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and
imaginers; from the serving to the served.”23
An incident that took place during a panel discussion on a predominantly
white university campus, and of which I was a participant, illustrates how
whiteness is normalized and tends to be invisible to white people. Participants
on this panel were asked to address how they taught about race and racism in
their courses. Many white professors reported how their courses included sections on U.S. Antebellum slavery, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Brown vs.



Board of Education decision. For them, teaching about race and racism meant
teaching about the racialized “Other.” The invisibility of whiteness was conspicuous as white faculty equated race with the victims of racism and implicitly
assumed that whiteness is race-less. As one of the panelists of color explained,
this invisibility of whiteness to these white professors is implicated in the
persistence of systemic racial injustice. Moreover, she continued, as long as
racism can be attributed to “bad white people” and the violence and discrimination that victims of racism endure, then ordinary, often well-intentioned,
white people do not have to consider their complicity in the perpetuation of
systemic racism.
Critical whiteness studies begins with the acknowledgement that whiteness and its concomitant privileges tend to remain invisible to most white
people. In order to dislodge whiteness from its position of dominance,
whiteness must be studied in order to “make visible what is rendered invisible when viewed as the normative state of existence.”24 From this perspective, racism is essentially a white problem. Whiteness is mainly invisible to
those who benefit from it. For those who don’t, whiteness is often blatantly
and painfully ubiquitous. For white people then, it is impossible to gain an
understanding of systemic racism without naming whiteness and understanding how whiteness works.
While the definition of whiteness is difficult to pin down, there is widespread agreement that whiteness is a socially constructed category that is
normalized within a system of privilege so that it is taken for granted by those
who benefit from it.25 Ruth Frankenberg defines whiteness as
. . . a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second it is a “standpoint,” a place from which White people look at ourselves, at others, and at
society. Third, “Whiteness” refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually
unmarked and unnamed.26

Cheryl Harris27 suggests that whiteness is best understood as a form of property rights that is systemically protected by social institutions such as law.
Thus whiteness is not merely about skin color alone but involves a culturally,
socially, politically and institutionally produced and reproduced system of
institutional processes and individual practices.
A major area of study in critical whiteness studies involves white privilege.
Whiteness, as Barbara Flagg explains, is a “location of power, privilege, and
prestige.”28 Peggy McIntosh’s influential essay lists the social, political and
cultural advantages of being white in the United States. Her metaphor of
white privilege as an “invisible knapsack of unearned assets which I can count
on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious”29
is often cited in courses that teach about systemic injustice. McIntosh


maintains that without acknowledging the “colossal unseen dimensions”30
and the “silences and denials”31 surrounding white privilege, white people
cannot contribute to the eradication of racism and, in fact, contribute to its
maintenance. Whiteness benefits all those ascribed whiteness and it is white
people’s investment in whiteness that can obscure how white people even
with the best of intentions are implicated in sustaining a racially unjust system. It is the complicity of well-intentioned white people that is the central
focus of this book.
The concept of white complicity turns up in various manifestations in
the critical whiteness scholarship. There are at least two types of the white
complicity claim that should be discerned. First, white complicity is often
addressed as the product of unconscious negative attitudes and beliefs about
non-white people that infect all white people and has an effect on their practices. This is one way to explicate how well-meaning white people play a role
in the perpetuation of systemic racism. Barbara Trepagnier’s recent work is a
good example of this first approach to white complicity. Trepagnier refers to
“silent racism” and argues
No one is immune to the ideas that permeate the culture in which he or she is
raised. Silent racism . . . refers to the unspoken negative thoughts, emotions, and
assumptions about black Americans that dwell in the minds of white Americans,
including well-meaning whites that care about racial equality.32

Silent racism, according to Trepagnier, is not about some discrete individual’s
psychology but rather is a “cultural phenomenon.”33 It is silent in that these
beliefs and emotions are unspoken yet they fuel everyday racism and other
racist actions. Trepagnier underscores that all white people are not affected in
the same way, yet all white people are “infected.” White supremacy, according
to Trepagnier, “inhabits the minds of all white people.”34
Trepagnier studies the paradox in which racism in the United States remains an enduring social problem yet few white people perceive themselves as
“racist.” Her research is focused on well-intentioned white people who claim
to be “not racist” yet who are involved in acts of “everyday racism.” As an illustration of such silent racism, Trepagnier draws attention to an observation
commonly reported by Black women in academia that many white people
subtly express surprise when they encounter a Black person in a position of
authority. This, Trepagnier explains, is an excellent demonstration of the “silent, insidious racism” on the part of people who are not hateful and do not
intentionally want to marginalize. Such white people may even insist that they
are “not racist.”




Scholar and teacher educator Joyce E. King35 similarly refers to a type of
unconscious white racism that differs from outright racial bigotry. King refers
to such unconscious racism as “dysconscious racism” which she defines as
. . . a form of racism that tacitly accepts dominant White norms and privileges.
It is not the absence of consciousness but an impaired consciousness. Uncritical
ways of thinking about racial inequity accept certain culturally sanctioned assumptions, myths, and beliefs that justify the social and economic advantages
White people have as a result of subordinating others.36

Because of their miseducation, King argues that whites have a distorted view
of the reasons for racial inequality. Moreover, they unconsciously protect
these beliefs because they support their self-image from the pain of being
challenged. King emphasizes that dysconscious racism is not about hate or
animosity towards people of color. She demonstrates how such unintentional
and often unconscious racial beliefs are the predominant type of racism in
contemporary society in the United States.
Some Critical Race Theorists also highlight the role of unconscious negative racial attitudes in perpetuating systemic racial injustice. Charles Lawrence
III,37 for instance, argues against the presumption of purposeful intent that
is a condition of much anti-discrimination law. In order to seek redress for
discrimination, the litigant must show the perpetrator’s intent was to discriminate on the basis of race. This is counterproductive, Lawrence contends,
when the source of racism is more often not attributable to overt, blatant acts
of hate but instead attributable to unconscious negative attitudes and beliefs.
Individuals raised in a racist society absorb attitudes and stereotypes often
without even knowing. Such racism is deeply embedded in white people’s
psyches and influences behavior in subtle yet pernicious ways.
As an illustration of such unconscious racism, Lawrence recounts how
as a student in a predominantly white college, his white companion once
remarked, “I don’t think of you as a Negro.” As he contemplates the racist
overtones hidden by this seemingly benign compliment, Lawrence realizes
that its underlying presumption involves the belief that being considered a
Negro is to be considered less than human. Such “well-intentioned” racism is
deeply entrenched in the white unconscious. Unless the law is willing to expand its notion of discrimination to encompass these subtle ways that racism
functions, Lawrence contends, racism will not only continue to endure but the
legal system will also be complicit in its maintenance.
The work of psychologists Samuel Gaertner and Jack Dovidio38 is also based
on the acknowledgement of unconscious and unintentional racism that they
refer to as “aversive racism.” The characteristic feature of aversive racism is



the denial of personal prejudice and unconscious negative feelings and beliefs. White people who perceive themselves and want to continue to perceive
themselves as good liberal people possessing strong egalitarian values can still
be perpetuating racist systems. According to Gaertner and Dovidio, aversive
racists possess deep and unconscious negative feelings and beliefs about African-Americans although such attitudes and beliefs are not accompanied by
hatred or animosity. Instead of hatred, there is often a fear or uneasiness that
white people feel in the company of African-Americans which they attempt to
hide because to acknowledge such emotions would conflict with their egalitarian self-image.
In the field of philosophy, the best illustration of scholarship that equates
white complicity with unconscious negative racial attitudes and beliefs is to
be found in Larry May’s Sharing Responsibility.39 Building on the same discussions of German guilt that opened this chapter, May attempts to explain how
one can be linked to racially motivated harms that other people in one’s group
perpetrate. May wants to understand how can one be responsible for racially
motivated crimes if one did not do anything to directly cause the harm. May
argues that one is complicit if one contributes to the climate of racist attitudes
that supports the harmful act. Although only certain members of a group
might have directly perpetrated racial violence, May insists that “seemingly
innocent” group members are also partially responsible if they share racist
attitudes or if they fail to challenge these attitudes when exposed to them because in some deep sense they harbor such attitudes too.
While understanding white complicity through unconscious beliefs and attitudes has helped to expose the depth of white normativity in white psyches,
such an approach remains limited because it is wedded to an individualist
perspective that does not sufficiently appreciate how individuals are connected to larger social structures. Dwight Boyd40 critiques the conception of
persons, which he refers to as “the liberal individual,” that haunts May’s work.
Although May refers to individuals as members of groups, Boyd argues that
May still adheres to a notion of the subject that is presumed to be “ontologically unique” and “symmetrically positioned.” In other words, May presumes
that the subject is the center of consciousness and experience and distinct from
In addition, Boyd argues that May presupposes that, in terms of agency, all
subjects are positioned equally and that the potential of agency is to be located
in rational capacity. As Boyd explains,
From this kind of perspective, socially recognizable action can be predicated
only of individual subjective locations and only in so far as they engage in intentional behaviour to effect some desired state in the world.41




The danger is that such a focus on rational choice and intentions makes it
seem as if social location is a function of individual choices over time. Such a
notion of the subject obscures the ways in which whiteness gets constituted by
being performed.
Boyd unequivocally rejects the presumption underlying the conception
of the liberal individual that one’s agentic potential for rational choice and
intentionality involve a “capacity for transcendence.” Such transcendence assumes a sense of autonomy understood as the possibility to overcome external
constraints and “entails the possibility of standing outside of any existing social contingencies.”42 This understanding of the liberal individual is intricately
connected to the assumption of the human as the pinnacle of reason. Social
change, according to this notion of agency, is only possible to the extent that
one can stand outside of social systems to enable one to critique them. Given
Boyd’s argument, two questions arise. First, what does it mean that one cannot stand outside of social systems? And, second, even if one does not need to
completely stand outside of social systems to evaluate them, even if critique
is possible from within a system, what does May’s account with its emphasis
on individual choice and the role of attitudes ignore? We will take the latter
question first and address the former question only briefly here but will go in
more detail in subsequent chapters.
The problem with May’s account, according to Peg O’Connor,43 is that it
remains committed to the view “that people should only be judged morally
responsible for those things that are under our control.”44 This emphasis on
individual control overlooks and cannot account for the ways in which white
people perpetuate racism through unintentional habits of their everyday practices and that are more accurately intertwined with white ways of being. In addition, May assumes that it is possible for a person not to have racist attitudes
and become a good non-racist person. In doing so, he ignores that one can
perpetuate systemic racial injustice even through one’s seemingly moral acts.
Three features of May’s account underestimate the larger social structures
that connect individuals to systemic injustice. First, May reduces responsibility to having negative attitudes. It is often difficult to discern negative attitudes
when practices that the white complicity claim points to are ones that are done
with well-intentioned, not negative, attitudes or beliefs and are sanctioned
by society’s norms as “good.” Second, May’s approach explains how white
people are indirectly responsible for overt harm that other white people directly
perpetrate. This ignores the type of white complicity that involves practices
that white people themselves live out and that are connected to the systemic
privileges they experience. Finally, May presumes that white people can rid
themselves of such negative attitudes if only they want to and try hard enough.
In other words, May’s approach neglects the ways in which power circulates


through all white bodies in ways that make them directly complicit for contributing to the perpetuation of a system that they did not, as individuals, create.
Boyd and O’Connor allude to a second way that the white complicity claim
gets fleshed out in the scholarship that is not exclusively focused on unconscious negative attitudes and beliefs towards people who are not white. This
approach may or may not connect complicity with unconscious beliefs but is
specifically focused on practices and habits of whiteness and the consequences
of those practices and habits. Most significantly, this notion of white complicity is grounded in the belief that one cannot transcend the social system that
frames how one makes meaning of oneself and the social world within which
one is embedded.
Boyd offers perhaps one of the most useful metaphors to illustrate this
relationship between individual qua social groups and a system of racial oppression and privilege. Boyd argues that racism is sustained by “mob-like”
activity in which individuals are conceived qua members of a group similar to
mob membership in which the “will of the mob does not seem reducible to the
aggregate of the intentions of discrete mob members.”45 Boyd underscores the
relational dimension involved in the constitution of social groups.
One “finds oneself” in some particular social group as and insofar as one “finds”
the other in a particular contrasting social group. For example, I am “white”
insofar as others are deemed to be “black” (and other “colours”). (Further, I am
“masculine” insofar as others are deemed to be “feminine”; I am “heterosexual”
insofar as others are deemed to be “gay/lesbian,” etc.) In every case, the “others’’’
social group identification depends on the reciprocal relationship.46

And this is not a reciprocity of equality as one group is always established as
the norm from which other groups become “deviant.”
Such a conception of complicity implies that the white subject has no identity as white except in contrast to that which has been contingently constructed
as outside of its boundaries. Ruth Frankenberg succinctly articulates this although in terms of the “western self.” She contends
. . . the western self is itself produced as an effect of the western discursive production of its Others. This means that the western self and the non-western
Other are co-constructed as discursive products, both of whose “realness” stand
in extremely complex relationships to the production of knowledge, and to the
material violence to which “epistemic violence” is intimately linked.47

Boyd further explicates that there is a sense of “proxy agency” in which, “‘I’ am
unavoidably part of something that is doing something in me, for me, through
me, as me.”48



This second approach to white complicity can be found also in some of the
scholarship that addresses white privilege. Wildman and Davis, for instance,
contend that white supremacy is a system of oppression and privilege that all
white people benefit from. Therefore, all white people
. . . are racist in this use of the term, because we benefit from systemic white
privilege. Generally whites think of racism as voluntary, intentional conduct
done by horrible others. Whites spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves
and each other that we are not racist. A big step would be for whites to admit
that we are racist and then to consider what to do about it.49

If racism involves a system of group privilege that white people benefit from
and that simultaneously marginalizes people of color, such systemic privilege
is not something that white people can renounce at will. Even when white
people become aware of white privilege and want to disown it, the world
continues to reinscribe privilege. White privilege, thus, cannot be renounced
through individual volition.
In her discussion of white guilt by reason of privilege, Sandra Bartky
similarly describes white complicity as culpability that does not stem from any
particular individual act but is rather a product of something “far more global,
namely, the very structure of the social totality itself that positions some as
privileged, others as underprivileged.”50 White people perform and sustain
whiteness continuously, often without conscious intent, often by doing nothing out of the ordinary. Bartky explains that
. . . most white people in this country are complicit in an unjust system of race
relations that bestows unearned advantages on them while denying these advantages to racial Others. Complicity in this system is neither chosen nor, typically,
is it acknowledged, because there are both powerful ideological systems in place
that serve to reassure whites that the suffering of darker-skinned Others is not of
their doing and because the capacity of whites to live in denial of responsibility
is very highly developed.51

I emphasize that for those in systemically privileged locations white complicity is not easily recognized because there are “powerful ideological systems in
place that serve to reassure whites that the suffering of darker-skinned Others
is not of their doing.”52 Moreover, the invisibility of white complicity is invoked when it is acknowledged that it is a privilege of being white that white
people do not have to acknowledge their privilege because such privilege often
consists in “what does not typically happen to them.”53
Echoes of Boyd’s mob metaphor can be discerned when Bartky argues that
white complicity is not exclusively a matter of “doing” or “not doing” but



often a matter of just “being.” As she emphasizes, “On my view, I am guilty
by virtue of simply being who and what I am: a white woman, born into
an aspiring middle-class family in a racist and class-ridden society.”54 As I
have previously underscored, this is not to imply that such being relates to
an essentialist core but rather as will be discussed in Chapter 3 to contend
that being and doing are inseparable and that doing constitutes being. The
relevant point for now is that all white people are racist or complicit by virtue of benefiting from privileges that are not something they can voluntarily
Such benefits are related to what Marilyn Frye refers to as whiteliness.
Frye emphasizes the practices of whiteness in her discussion of “whiteliness”
as a form of white being in the world. Frye equates “whiteliness” to “being
masculine” as both masculinity and whiteliness are orientations towards
the world or as Frye puts it “a deeply ingrained way of being in the world.”56
Shannon Sullivan likewise focuses on white ways of being by linking white
privilege to unconscious habits that function invisibly in the way that whites
do things and what they say “without thinking.”57 As an illustration of such
habits of white privilege, Sullivan points to what she refers to as “white ontological expansiveness” or the tendency for white people “to act and think as
if all spaces—whether geographical, psychical, linguistic, economic, spiritual,
bodily or otherwise—are or should be available for them to move in and out
of as they wish.”58
One of the ways in which Sullivan’s approach differs from those that equate
white complicity merely with unconscious beliefs and attitudes is that Sullivan
acknowledges that white people can be complicit even when they attempt to
disrupt white privilege. For example, when a well-intentioned white person
makes a conscious effort to disrupt her habit of living in an all-white neighborhood, “the sheer fact that she is able to make a choice about which neighborhood in which she lives, is . . . an effect of the privilege she has because of her
race and economic class.”59 White ontological expansiveness involves, among
other things, an unconscious arrogance in which white people presume they
would be welcomed in all spaces. Moreover, privileged choice is that privilege
to choose which spaces one can inhabit. Anti-racist white action, Sullivan
insists, does not necessarily mean one has given up one’s privilege and, in
fact, can reinforce the very white privilege that the white anti-racist is trying
to disrupt.
Such arrogance is emphasized in Frye’s notion of whiteliness. Whiteliness,
like being masculine, involves a belief in one’s authority and in one’s own
experience as truth. In addition, whiteliness entails an unwillingness to be
challenged that is protected by perceived white moral goodness. White people
generally perceive themselves to be “morally good.”



Whitely people generally consider themselves to be benevolent and good-willed,
fair, honest and ethical. The judge, preacher, peacemaker, martyr, socialist,
professional, moral majority, liberal, radical, conservative, working men and
women—nobody admits to being prejudiced, everybody has earned every cent
they ever had, doesn’t take sides, doesn’t hate anybody, and always votes for the
person they think best qualified for the job, regardless of the candidate’s race, sex,
religion or national origin, maybe even regardless of their sexual preferences.60

Whiteliness involves the ways in which whiteness is performatively enacted. A
conviction in regard to one’s moral innocence or goodness is a characteristic
of being whitely.
When the moral agency that one would call upon to raise awareness of such
complicity conspires to camouflage the very complicity that needs to be exposed, white complicity becomes extremely problematic. In effect, whiteness
becomes reinscribed and recentered in the very practices that attempt to work
against social injustice. In his analysis of Lou Ann Johnson, the main character
in the popular movie Dangerous Minds (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), Henry
Giroux61 provides a provocative example of this type of complicity. Johnson
is depicted as an idealistic white teacher who is grappling with the challenge
of academically motivating her “delinquent” students. Amidst a backdrop of
the urban realities that construct these students as objects to be feared and as
“rejects from hell,” Johnson enters the story as “a good-hearted, well-meaning
educator thrust into the classroom of ‘at-risk’ kids like a lamb led to the
slaughter.”62 The film presents Johnson as pedagogically triumphant—indeed,
she becomes “their light.” Ironically, Johnson’s very good-heartedness and her
good intentions prevent her from actually hearing what her students are telling
her about what their lives are all about.
More specifically, a theme running throughout Johnson’s pedagogy is
“choice.” She tells her students that they have many choices in their lives and
maintains that “choice” is the most powerful word in the English language.
One grammar lesson begins with the sentence “I choose to die” and Johnson
repeatedly insists that there are no victims in her classroom. While her good
intentions may be to awaken her students’ sense of agency and responsibility,
the effect is to trivialize what choice means for her students. In effect, Johnson
dismisses her students’ real-life struggles by projecting the range of choice that
she, a white middle-class woman, enjoys onto their lives, assuming that all they
have to do is choose to work harder. Underlying this implicit “blame the victim” maneuver is a refusal to interrogate any complicity that Johnson herself
might have in perpetuating a system of oppression that constructs the day-today reality of her students. Instead, she is allowed to think of herself as a savior, as doing something good for them. This heroic self-conception obscures
Johnson’s inability to recognize the restrictions of choice that circumscribe


her students’ lives. Such evasions of complicity do not result simply from
personal and individual shortcomings; instead, they are grounded in powerful
ideological structures that ensure that “nice” white people, those who have no
prejudice or intention to harm, are innocent of any responsibility in sustaining
systems that constitute and marginalize “Others.”
White benevolence paradoxically provides an important site to search for
signs of complicity that is obscured by white moral sensibilities. White benevolence often comes with implicit requisite demands, as Damien Riggs points
out.63 Riggs recounts how his white friend responded to a powerful quote on
Riggs’ refrigerator. The quote, by Lilla Watson, an Indigenous scholar, states,
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have
come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let’s work together.”
Riggs’ white friend remarked quite indignantly, “Well, she’s a rude bitch!”
When Riggs asked what she meant, his friend said, “It was very ungrateful
for the author to refuse help. Comments like that not only offend the people
who want to help but will discourage them from helping in the future.” In this
illustration it becomes clear that the cost of a white person’s benevolence is
the silencing of the Other who might not find the white person’s benevolence
helpful and who may even believe that it usurps the Other’s agency.
Whitely moral sensibilities often obscure complicity in other ways. In his
study of “racism without racists,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva64 explains how white
people use the ideology of color-ignorance in ways that maintain systemic
racial injustice without themselves appearing racist. In fact, the ideology of
color-ignorance, the belief that race no longer matters in the United States and
that racial inequality will disappear if we just stop referring to race, is often
perceived by white people as a moral virtue. Amanda Lewis65 explicates how
color-ignorance is coded as moral and she demonstrates how the ideology of
color-ignorance exists alongside color-conscious practices in schools in the
United States. This refusal to take notice of color when color clearly matters
consequently prevents racist patterns of practices from being recognized and
Lewis66 also contends that the discourse of color-ignorance encourages
white people to dismiss what people of color are telling them through accusations such as “they are just playing the race card.” In other words, if one believes it is a moral virtue not to take notice of color, then when color is relevant
one will not have to notice it. One can, furthermore, dismiss what the victims
of racism are saying as bringing in race where it does not belong. In his discussion of denials of white complicity, Tim Wise67 suggests that “whatever ‘card’
claims of racism may prove to be for the black and brown, the denial card is far
and away the trump, and whites play it regularly.” White denials of complicity are an illustration of whitely ways of being. In other words, the claim that



people of color “play the race card” is in itself a card being played—the white
denial card. White denials of complicity will subsequently be taken up in more
detail in the next chapter. Lewis adds that discourse that white people employ
to protect their privilege from interrogation is often not conscious. White
people instead seem to be saying just what they “believed to be true.”68
Things become even more complex and thorny. Even when white people acknowledge their complicity, their white confessionals or public selfdisclosures can serve to reinscribe privilege and offer redemption from complicity. Paraphrasing Foucault who equates confession with “whatever it is
most difficult to tell,”69 Robyn Wescott70 argues that making one’s whiteness
visible is often like confession and that revealing what is “most difficult to tell”
is rather like asking for penance. Judith Butler expresses a similar point when
she writes,
(T)aking account of race is thus equated with a reduction of the critic to a racial
position. This willful act of self-reduction is sanctified as public self-declaration, and this culminates, paradoxically, in the production of the saintly white
person, the responsible white person, the politically accountable white subject.
In the place of a thoroughgoing analysis of race or racialization, we witness—obscenely, yet another self-glorification in which whiteness is equated with moral

Confessions of whiteness, therefore, constitute a form of pleasurable relief
because what has produced the discomfort of learning about complicity is
removed and one is purged of wrongdoing.
Thus, even the morality of the critic of whiteness must be interrogated for
whitely ways. In her discussion of the declarations that white critics of whiteness pronounce, Sara Ahmed72 explains how such utterances do something
other than what they claim to do. Ahmed is not saying that in their declarations of whiteness, white people do not mean what they say. Instead, her point
is that such assertions do not do what they say. For instance, in declaring “I am
racist” or “I am complicit,” the white critic of whiteness actually implies the
opposite: “I am not racist” or “I am not complicit.” Somewhat like the person
who declares “I am modest” is clearly not a modest person, Ahmed cautions
the white critic of whiteness that the assertion that “I am a bad white” can
indirectly entail that “I am really a good white.” Fiona Probyn contends that
“a white studying whiteness trying not to reinscribe whiteness” is a paradox.73
Whiteness is not only the object of the white critic’s inquiry but also the subject and the obstacle to his/her project, especially when it obstructs the difficult
task of being skeptical of the need to “have arrived somewhere.”
What should be noticeably clear is that white privilege is something white
people tend to assert even as they seek to challenge it. Fiona Probyn makes a


piercing observation about the prevailing focus in critical whiteness studies
on unmasking whiteness, unveiling, and then proclaiming “and now I see.”
In her discussion of the “shocks of revelation,” she hopes that “it isn’t just
these shocks that keep the patient alive.”74 “Noble” declarations of whiteness,
Probyn insists, must be probed for their desires for purity. Ahmed similarly
cautions that the social conditions are not yet in place for white people to
think that they can be non-racist75 and she insists, “We need to consider the
intimacy between privilege and the work we do, even in the work we do on
Does this imply that whites cannot be ethically responsible when it comes
to race and racism? It will be the aim of this book to refute such a conclusion.
In fact, it will be argued that the white complicity claim does not reject the
possibility of whites working to challenge racism. Instead, the white complicity claim calls for a specific type of vigilance that recognizes the dangers of
presuming that one can transcend racist systems when one attempts to work
to challenge racist systems. Ahmed hints at such a notion of vigilance when
she notes,
Surely the commitment to being against racism has “done things” and continues to “do things.” What we might remember is that to be against something
is precisely not to be in a position of transcendence: to be against something is,
after all, to be in an intimate relations with that which one is against. To be anti
“this” or anti “that” only makes sense if “this” or “that” exists. The messy work
of ‘againstness’ might even help remind us that the work of critique does not
mean the transcendence of the object of our critique; indeed, critique might even
be dependent on non-transcendence.77

Even when white people think they are beyond race, race “sticks to us, or we
become ‘us’ as an effect of how it sticks.”78 Ahmed exhorts whites to learn to
live with this “stickiness” because it is the only way to effectively deal with
According to white complicity in the second sense, being a good white is
part of the problem rather than the solution to systemic racism. But then what
can white moral responsibility consist of? This book addresses this crucial
question. Traditional notions of moral responsibility that emphasize intentions and/or causal connections to harm tend to obscure white complicity
rather than bring it to light. Moreover, such notions of responsibility encourage denials of complicity such as “I’ve never abused or insulted a black person”
or “My parents came here thirty years ago from Croatia: my forebears were
peasants not slaveowners.”79 As utterances, such statements might be true but
they can also function as distancing strategies so that white people do not have




to consider the subtle ways (subtle for white people) they are perpetuating a
racist system and shielding the system from challenge.
One of the key points of the white complicity claim in the second sense
described above is that it is problematic for white people to think that they can
somehow stand outside of social contingencies. As Audrey Thompson cautions, “There is no such thing as racial innocence; there is only racial responsibility or irresponsibility.”80 This book takes seriously this second version of
the white complicity claim because it encourages white people to grapple with
racism perpetuated in the name of morality and with the best of intentions.
Yet is there a model of moral responsibility that can reveal rather than conceal
such white complicity? This question cannot be adequately addressed until we
examine the conception of the subject that grounds the second version of the
white complicity claim. Also required is an understanding of how discourse
functions in our social world. First, however, we will take a closer look at
the white complicity claim by examining two aspects of the claim that are illuminated when we complicate the notion of white privilege: systemic white
ignorance and denials of complicity. With the connection between white ignorance and denials of complicity in mind, we can find a preliminary, although
inadequate, way of explaining to students how “benefiting from a system” is
connected to “contributing to its maintenance and perpetuation.”
Three caveats before I continue. First, although systemic racism will provide the primary framework for the arguments subsequently developed, it is
clear that racism is not the only type of social injustice nor does it stand alone.
How and whether this framework of complicity can work for other axes of
oppression is a question for future research. A second and related point is that
although white complicity cannot but focus on whiteness, the dangers of using
essentialist categories are acknowledged. While not claiming to circumvent
these dangers, I invite feedback as to how this notion of complicity can be
modified given the multiple ways that our identities intersect and especially
the ways in which individuals can be simultaneously both systemically privileged and oppressed. Finally, in many parts of the paper I will use third-person
pronouns to refer to white people even though I myself am white. The concern I have with using “we” is that it might imply that the arguments being
advanced are exclusively addressed to white people. Although I use “they” or
“them” to refer to white people, as a white person I include myself in everything I say here.

1. Andrew Schaap, “Guilty Subjects and Political Responsibility: Arendt, Jaspers and
the Resonance of the ‘German Question’ in Politics of Reconciliation,” Political
Studies 49, no. 4 (2001): 749–766. (Schaap is following Karl Jaspers in noting these



2. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Viking Press, 1964). Also see
her “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” in her Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 17–48.
3. Arendt does not argue that all Germans are equally responsible. See her “Collective Responsibility” in her Responsibility and Judgment, 147–158, and “Organized
Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” in Collective Responsibility: Decades of Debate
in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, ed. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman (Savage,
Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991), 273–284.
4. Hannah Arendt, “Collective Responsibility,” 147.
5. Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood,
6. Ibid., 32.
7. Ibid., 72.
8. See, for example, Mark McPhail, “(Re) Constructing the Color Line: Complicity
and Black Conservativism,” Communication Theory 7, no. 2 (1997): 162–175; Mae
G. Henderson, “The Stories of O(Dessa): Stories of Complicity and Resistance,” in
Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, ed. Elizabeth
Abel, Barbara Christian and Helen Moglen (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1997), 285–306.
9. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, translated by H. M. Parshley (New York:
Penguin, 1949/1972); Sandra Lee Bartky, “On Psychological Oppression,” in her
Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (New
York: Routledge, 1990), 22–31; Susan James, “Complicity and Slavery in The Second Sex,” in The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Claudia Card
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 149–167.
10. Jenny Gordon, “Inadvertent Complicity: Colorblindness in Teacher Education,”
Educational Studies: A Journal of the American Educational Studies Association 38,
no. 2 (2005): 135–153.
11. Marilyn Frye, “On Being White: Thinking Toward a Feminist Understanding of
Race and Race Supremacy,” in her The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory
(Trumansburg, New York: Crossing Press, 1983), 113.
12. Linda Martin Alcoff, “What Should White People Do?” Hypatia 13, no. 3 (1998):
13. Fiona Probyn, “Playing Chicken at the Intersection: The White Critic in/of Critical Whiteness Studies,” Borderlands 13, no. 2 (2004) http://www.borderlandsejour
nal.adelaide.edu.au/vol3no2_2004/probyn_playing.htm (accessed July 19, 2009).
14. For some criticisms of white privilege pedagogy see Rosa Hernández Sheets, “Advancing the Field or Taking Center Stage: The White Movement in Multicultural
Education,” Educational Researcher 29, no. 9 (2000): 15–21; Maulana Karenga,
“Whiteness Studies: Deceptive or Welcome Discourse?” Interview, Black Issues in
Higher Education 16, no. 6 (May 13, 1999): 26; Sonia Kruks, “Simone de Beauvoir
and the Politics of Privilege,” Hypatia 20, no. 1 (2005): 178–205; Zeus Leonardo,
“The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the Discourse of ‘White Privilege’,” Educational
Philosophy and Theory, 36, no. 2 (2004): 137–152.




15. Sara Ahmed, “The Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2
(2007): 164–165.
16. Sara Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of AntiRacism,” borderlands e-journal 3, no. 2 (2004) http://www.borderlands.net.au/
vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm (accessed July 19, 2009).
17. Ibid.
18. Sara Ahmed, “The Phenomenology of Whiteness.”
19. See David R. Roediger, ed., Black Writers on What It Means to Be White (New
York: Schocken Books, 1998); Charles W. Mills, “White Right: The Idea of a Herrenvolk Ethics,” in his Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1998), 139–166; W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
(Boston: Bedford Books, 1920); bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation
(Boston: South End Press, 1992); Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folk (New
York: A.A. Knopf, 1969); and Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and
the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).
20. Richard C. Lewontin, “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Evolutionary
Biology 6 (1972): 381–398; also see Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House:
Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) for
an excellent review of the literature.
21. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the
1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1987).
22. Martha Minow, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).
23. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 90.
24. Hazel V. Carby, “The Multicultural Wars,” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina
Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 193.
25. Nelson M. Rodriguez, “Emptying the Content of Whiteness: Toward an Understanding of the Relation between Whiteness and Pedagogy,” in White Reign:
Deploying Whiteness in America, ed. Joe L. Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg, Nelson
M. Rodriguez, and Ronald E. Chennault (New York: MacMillan, 2000), 31–62;
Howard Winant, “Behind Blue Eyes: Whiteness and Contemporary U.S. Racial
Politics,” in Off White: Readings on Race, Power, and Society, Michelle Fine, Lois
Weis, L. C. Powell and L. M. Wong (New York: Routledge, 1991), 40–53; David R.
Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working
Class (New York: Verso, 1991).
26. Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 1.
27. Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993):
28. Barbara Flagg, “Foreword: Whiteness as Metaprivilege,” Washington University
Journal of Law and Policy 18 (2005): 1.
29. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of
Coming to See Correspondences Between Work and Women’s Studies,” in Critical









White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 291.
Ibid., 295.
Barbara Trepagnier, Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the
Racial Divide (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 15.
Ibid., 6.
Joyce E. King, “Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity and Miseducation,” in
Critical White Studies, 128–132.
Ibid., 128.
Charles Lawrence III, “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with
Unconscious Racism,” Stanford Law Review 39, no. 2 (1987): 317–388.
S. L. Gaertner and J.F. Dovidio, “The Aversive Form of Racism,” in Prejudice, Discrimination and Racism: Theory and Research, ed. J.F. Dovidio and S.L. Gaertner
(Orlando, FL: Academic Press), 61–89.
Larry May, Sharing Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Dwight Boyd, “The Legacies of Liberalism and Oppressive Relations: Facing a
Dilemma for the Subject of Moral Education,” Journal of Moral Education 33, no.
1 (2004): 3–22.
Ibid., 10.
Peg O’Connor, Oppression and Responsibility: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Social
Practices and Moral Theory (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).
Larry May, Sharing Responsibility, 44.
Dwight Boyd, “The Legacies of Liberalism,” 13. Also see Dwight Boyd, “The Place
of Locating Onself(Ves)/Myself(Ves) in Doing Philosophy of Education,” Philosophy of Education 1997, Susan Laird, ed. (Urbana, Illinois: Philosophy of Education
Society, 1998): 1–19.
Ibid., 16.
Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, 16–17.
Dwight Boyd, “The Place of Locating,” 17.
Stephanie M. Wildman with Adrienne D. Davis, “Language and Silence: Making
Systems of Privilege Visible,” in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, ed. Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Rosie Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman,
Madeline L. Peters and Ximena Zuniga (New York: Routledge, 2000), 56.
Sandra Lee Bartky, “In Defense of Guilt,” in her “Sympathy and Solidarity”: And
Other Essays (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 135–136.
Sandra Lee Bartky, “Race, Complicity, and Culpable Ignorance,” in “Sympathy
and Solidarity,” 154.
Ibid., 154.
Ibid., (emphasis added).
Ibid., 142.



55. Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Carol
Brunson Phillips and Louise Derman-Sparks, Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism:
A Developmental Approach (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); Harlon
L. Dalton, Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites (New
York: Doubleday, 1995).
56. Marilyn Frye, “White Woman Feminist,” in her Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism
1976–1992 (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press), 151.
57. Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege
(Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2006), 4.
58. Ibid., 10.
59. Ibid.
60. Marilyn Frye, “White Woman Feminist,” 154.
61. Henry Giroux, “Race, Pedagogy, and Whiteness in Dangerous Minds,” Cineaste 22,
no. 4 (1997): 46–49.
62. Ibid., 47.
63. Damien Riggs, “Benevolence and the Management of Stake: On Being ‘Good
White People’,” Philament 4 (2004) http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/publications/
philament/issue4_Critique_Riggs.htm (accessed July 19, 2009).
64. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield,
65. Amanda E. Lewis, “There is No ‘Race’ in the Schoolyard: Colorblind Ideology in
An (Almost) All White School,” American Educational Research Journal 38, no. 4
(2001): 781-812.
66. Amanda E. Lewis, “Whiteness Studies: Past Research and Future Directions,”
African American Research Perspectives 8, no. 1 (2002): 1–16.
67. Tim Wise, “What Kind of Card is Race? The Absurdity (and Consistency) of White
Denial,” http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10157 (accessed
July 19, 2009).
68. Lewis, “Whiteness Studies,” 9.
69. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage
Books, 1978/1990), 59.
70. Robyn Westcott, “Witnessing Whiteness: Articulating Race and the ‘Politics of
Style’,” borderlands e-journal 3, no. 2, (2004) http://www.borderlands.net.au/
vol3no2_2004/westcott_witnessing.htm (accessed July 19, 2009).
71. Judith Butler, “Collected and Fractured: Response to Identities” in Identities, ed.
K.A. Appiah and H.L. Gates (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995),
72. Sara Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness.”
73. Fiona Probyn, “Playing Chicken at the Intersection.”
74. Ibid.
75. Sara Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness.”
76. Ibid.





Sandra Lee Bartky, “Race, Complicity,” 141.
Audrey Thompson, “Not the Color Purple: Black Feminist Lessons for Educational Caring,” Harvard Educational Review 68, no. 4 (1998): 524.




White Ignorance
and Denials of Complicity
Linking “Benefiting From”
to “Contributing To”
white privilege. As Sandra Bartky puts it,


. . . most people in this country are complicit in an unjust system of race relations
that bestows unearned advantages on them while denying these advantages to
racial Others.1

Those who take such a position envision racism as a system of group privilege
that white people benefit from and that simultaneously marginalizes people of
color. Racism so understood entails that all white people are racist or complicit
by virtue of benefiting from these privileges even though these privileges are
not something they can voluntarily renounce.2
After what I thought was a passionately engaged discussion of Peggy
McIntosh’s3 essay on white privilege, one of my white students asked, “I understand that I get these benefits and that other people don’t. I also understand
that I get these benefits whether I am aware of it or not. How does that make
me complicit in systemic racism?” We had just discussed how white privilege
consists not only in the ability to walk through stores freely but also how privilege involves presumptions of white moral integrity when one is not followed.
Such privilege, I explained, was contingent upon the co-construction of Black
as morally suspect. I pointed to Lisa Delpit’s4 classic article, “The Silenced Dialogue,” in which she demonstrates how unstated white norms in the classroom
privilege white students and more easily constitute them “as good students”
while those who do not conform to those norms are more readily labeled as
“problem students.”
The white student’s question also followed our discussion of Phillip, the
student in Kathy Hytten and John Warren’s5 study who recounts his efforts to
have the confederate flag removed from the mascot of his former high school.
Phillip’s Black high school friend joined him in these efforts. Yet while both

he and his partner were equally active in this undertaking, people responded
to and interpreted their endeavors very differently. Although Phillip was regarded as an individual who was engaged in laudable ethical work, his friend
was considered as “another underprivileged black kid spending more time
rebelling against authority than taking care of his grades, getting a job, and so
on.”6 Phillip notes that prior to taking a course in diversity, he was aware that
his friend was being treated in racist ways.
What he learns about this situation after taking the course, however, is
that in this incident there were not only active, visible forms of oppression
manifested but invisible ones as well. He offers, “prior to this reflection, I had
failed to note that the racism in this experience came not just in the guise of
individual acts of negative regard to my friend, but also in widespread and
unthinking positive reaction to me.”7 My point in emphasizing Phillip’s experience to the class was to complicate their understanding of white privilege
and to underscore how systemic privilege protects white moral standing. In
this way, I believed I could make it clear to my students how whites, sometimes
without their volition, are implicated in the marginalization of Others.
Yet my student continued to demand explanations that would clarify why
he was personally responsible for contributing to racism, especially since he
insisted that he would want to renounce these privileges if he could. My white
student’s asking “Why am I responsible?” is a demand for a causal explanation that would elucidate why he is implicated in the maintenance of systemic
racial injustice. It is a demand to know “why should I be blamed?” Given the
conception of responsibility he has available to him that is connected to blame
and fault, this does not seem like an unreasonable demand. Nevertheless, such
conceptions of responsibility are not only inadequate to explain the type of
white complicity that involves white ways of being but also can work to hide
such complicity and make it impossible to consider.
In fact, my attempt to explain the link between “benefiting from” and
“contributing to” that will subsequently be described was my effort at trying to provide my student with a causal link. In spite of this explanation, my
student continued to resist any notion of responsibility in the sense of fault.
What I realized is that what was needed was not a causal explanation between
the individual and the system but a new conception of responsibility that did
not rely so heavily on blame and causality.
Alternative notions of responsibility will be examined in subsequent chapters. In this chapter, I share my attempts to explain to my students how
“benefiting from” is connected to “contributing to” because this explanation
highlights the complex nature of systemic privilege. In order to make the link, I
first had to challenge my students’ simplistic understandings of white privilege
and introduce a more complex notion of “benefit” that can account for the



deep ways that white privilege is embedded in white ways of being and white
moral sensibilities. With a more complex conception of systemic privilege and
benefit, I believed I would be better equipped to move to a discussion of two
manifestations of systemic white privilege that work hand in hand to protect
white moral status and that shield systems of racial injustice from critique. The
first of these manifestations of privilege is systemic white ignorance while the
second involves white denials of privilege.

Currently, the leading approach in institutions of higher education across
North America to teaching white students about their role in systemic racial
injustice is “white privilege pedagogy.” Although this approach has the advantage of exposing white students to the unrecognized benefits of whiteness,
white privilege pedagogy has a number of serious shortcomings that require
examination. I focus on the use of Peggy McIntosh’s8 essay because, although
other scholars have published books and essays on white privilege, her essay
has been enormously influential and has become a classic text in teaching
about white privilege.
First of all, white privilege pedagogy often leads to a very superficial and
simplistic analysis of privilege. White students who are first exposed to the
idea that they have privilege (if they are not overtly resisting the idea that they
have privilege) often perceive privilege as something individualistic, not systemic, and, thus, are able to ignore its relational dimension. McIntosh’s claim
that white privilege “confers dominance” clearly suggests the systemic aspect
of privilege and also its relational effect but this aspect of her essay is often
ignored or underemphasized in white privilege pedagogy.
That white people are not being followed around in stores because of their
assumed moral standing, for example, is not only about the being able to walk
through a store freely. Privilege also consists in the presumption of white
moral integrity that is, in the larger picture, contingent upon the co-construction of Black as morally suspect. As Cynthia Kaufman succinctly explains,
The image of the black thief helps stabilize the image of the average good citizen
(who of course is coded as white). When I walk into a store and the clerks look
at me with respect and assume that I am not going to steal anything, the trust
that I receive is at least partially built upon the foundation of my distance from
the image of the savage. When an African American walks into the store that
unconscious material comes into play in the opposite way.9

White privilege protects and supports white moral standing and this protective shield depends on there being an “abject other” that constitutes white as
“good.” Whites, thus, benefit from white privilege in a very deep way. As Zeus
White Ignorance and Denials of Complicity


Leonardo10 remarks, all whites are responsible for white dominance since their
“very being depends on it.”11
When I first began teaching about white privilege, I would ask my students
to come up with three examples of how privilege in the sense that McIntosh articulates works on our own campus. Among the responses I received for what I
thought was an exercise in recognizing dominant group privilege were:
On Thursday night, females get free drinks in the bars while males have to pay
all the time.
Females get taken out on dates and the men pay for them.
Students who work in the dining hall get free food.
Blacks and other minorities get athletic scholarship and affirmative action benefits.

Not only did these white students fail to appreciate the relational aspect discussed above but they also entirely missed the systemic nature of dominant
group privilege. Moreover, because of their individualistic focus they were
also able to equate the benefits of affirmative action with the benefits of white
privilege. “Whites as victim” discourse appears as a reasonable claim when
white privilege is understood in individualist terms instead of relationally,
collectively and macroscopically.12 Such simplistic analyses of white privilege
overlook the conditions that produce it.
The second line of critique of white privilege pedagogy targets how simplistic
analyses of white privilege encourage naïve solutions in regard to having such
privilege. It is not uncommon to hear white students claim that the remedy for
racial injustice is just to ensure that all people have the privileges that white people
enjoy. Laudable as this response initially seems (and, as I have been arguing, its
laudability is part of its problem), it functions to relieve white students of considering any direct complicity they have in sustaining systems of racial oppression.
Such solutions protect them from considering the unconscious habits and character traits that are manifestations of privileged experience and disregard how
privilege is connected to one’s very being constituted as white.
Privilege is not only a matter of receiving benefits but also consists in ways
of being in the world. Sara Ahmed13 discusses the phenomenology of whiteness that she illustrates by pointing to the tendency of white people to “take
back the center” often without realizing it. Adrienne Rich makes a similar observation when she describes what she calls “white solipsism” or the penchant
of whites “to speak, imagine and think as if whiteness described the world.”14
Shannon Sullivan15 exemplifies white privilege as unconscious habits of whiteness when she highlights “white racial expansiveness” or the tendency of
whites to think and act as if all spaces are or should be at their disposal, as they
desire. These are all systemically privileged ways of being in the world.



McIntosh, quite correctly I believe, alludes to these negative ways of white
being when she distinguishes between positive privileges that everyone should
have and negative privileges that none should.
We were given the cultural permission not to hear voices of people of other
races, or to tepid cultural tolerance for hearing or acting on such voices . . . 16

Some benefits of white privilege, McIntosh emphasizes, authorize white people to be ignorant, oblivious and arrogant sometimes without realizing that that
is what they are doing. Yet white students (and teachers) so often overlook or
de-emphasize this section of McIntosh’s essay.
The “knapsack metaphor” particularly promotes this selective reading of
McIntosh’s essay. When the knapsack frames how one understands privilege,
the implication is that privilege can be taken off or disowned at will and that
there is a nonracial subject that will emerge if only one can divest oneself of
white privilege. White students often walk away from reading McIntosh’s
article thinking that all there is to being anti-racist is “taking off the knapsack” without acknowledging that privilege is often ascribed even when one
is not aware of it and even when one refuses it. The knapsack metaphor not
only severely overlooks the unconscious habits and character traits17 that are
manifestations of privileged experiences but also allows white students to take
no notice of privileged discourses of denial. In other words, white privilege
pedagogy frequently ignores how the experience of systemic white privilege is
constitutive of what it means to be white and how it infuses white moral ways
of being.
Furthermore, white privilege pedagogy encourages a focus on white confessionals. Since white privilege pedagogy has developed based on the premise of
the invisibility of white privilege, its prime objective is raising personal awareness of privilege. This leads to an individualistic psychologizing of privilege
that white students assume can redeem them from complicity. The emphasis
on personal awareness, therefore, overshadows the need for understanding
and challenging the system of power that supports white privilege. White
students often assume that responsibility begins and ends with the awareness
of privilege. By admitting to or confessing privilege, however, white students
are actually able to avoid owning up to their complicity in systemic racism. As
Cynthia Levine-Rasky18 argues,
If the formula “education is transformation” drives a pedagogy inspired by liberalism, the mere hearing of white privilege may perform an educative function
emancipating whites from participation in systems of domination. When learning about white privilege fulfills this redemptive function, the exercise becomes
a confessional.19

White Ignorance and Denials of Complicity


Confessions of privilege, according to Levine-Rasky, serve as a “redemptive
outlet” through which white students are able to perceive themselves as “good
whites” in comparison to those “bad whites” who do not acknowledge privilege.
Similarly, by acknowledging their privilege white students might be led to
believe that they have “arrived” and that they do not have to worry anymore
about how they are implicated in systemic racial injustice. The assumption is
“that confessing to the inner working of whiteness in their lives would redeem
them from their complicity with racism.”20 Levine-Rasky further explains why
this is so problematic.
Emphases on white privilege often portray white social actors as author of social
relations rather than inequitably interdependent upon the racialization of others
through unjust social and historical processes. Teacher candidates may inhabit
a whiteness normalized through its obliviousness to its effects, but they are also
inscribed in the racist practices and discourses and history of their institutions
and of the dominant culture in general. The contexts in which educators live
and work are also white-dominated and the narratives they draw from to explain
problems such as educational inequality are derived from this larger context.21

When white privilege is understood as a knapsack that one can take off at will,
white students may too easily believe that by just confessing white privilege
they are off the moral hook.
White privilege pedagogy fails to encourage white students to understand
that “white domination is never settled once and for all; it is constantly reestablished and reconstructed by whites from all walks of life.”22 While white
privilege pedagogy acknowledges how good white people, who profess to be
lovers of justice, perpetuate racism, it does not go far enough. The knapsack
metaphor implies that privilege is separate from the constitution of white
being and encourages the belief that once divested from privilege the white
student is transformed to non-racist. The metaphor of the knapsack does not
bring to attention the ways in which power works through white bodies and
white discourses and that whites have to be continually vigilant of the ways in
which whiteness preserves its invisibility.
Zeus Leonardo expands this critique of white privilege pedagogy when he
advocates that white privilege must be studied not from a personal perspective but from the perspective of white supremacy because it is “the condition
of white supremacy that makes white privilege possible.”23 Leonardo draws
attention to the passivity assumed in white privilege pedagogy by responding
to a seemingly innocent comment made by James Joseph Scheurich, a white
educational researcher who has published many articles on whiteness and
his own struggles to become aware of it. Scheurich equated white privilege
to walking down the street and having money put in one’s pocket without



one’s knowledge. Leonardo explains that this description of white privilege
minimizes the active role that whites play in maintaining the system of racial
oppression. “If money is being placed in white pockets,” Leonardo wants to
know, “who places it there?”24
Leonardo concedes that the description of white privilege that Scheurich
works with has been of some value because it both encapsulates unearned
privilege and also white people’s obliviousness about it. He insists, however,
that it is also dangerous because it
downplay(s) the active role of whites who take resources from people of color all
over the world, appropriate their labor, and construct policies that deny minorities full participation in society.25

White people do not only benefit from having money put in their pockets,
Leonardo argues, they also take resources from people of color. Failing to pay
attention to these processes perpetuates white innocence.
One of the ways that whites actively perpetuate systemic injustice is when
they are privileged in ways that give them permission to be ignorant, oblivious,
arrogant and destructive. Such negative white privilege is often manifested in
discursive practices that deny complicity and that profess white innocence. To
ignore such privilege is to disregard the injustice that good white people are
perpetrating now, in the present and continually. White privilege pedagogy,
thus, ironically works to protect white innocence rather than challenge white
Ladelle McWhorter (although, like Leonardo, does not mean to be totally
dismissive) wonders whether Whiteness Studies that focuses on white privilege “seeks not so much to destabilize race and end white supremacy as to find
ways of being white (or of ceasing to be white) that purify individuals of racial
complicity or guilt, that the movement is more about innocence than about
justice or transformation.”26 To be critical of white supremacy, as Leonardo
contends, involves being less concerned about “the issue of unearned advantages, of the state of being dominant, and more around the direct processes
that secure domination and the privileges associated with it.”27
One of the consequences of white privilege pedagogy, as Leonardo takes
pains to emphasize, is that my white students resist understanding the link
between privileges that benefit white people and how such benefits sustain
systems of oppression. It should come as no surprise that white students often assume that the remedy for having privilege is “giving it up” as if, like a
knapsack, one can take up and take off systemic privilege at will when theorists
and researchers have demonstrated not only that privilege is bestowed despite
attempts by white people to denounce it28 but also that privilege is deeply embedded in white ways of being.
White Ignorance and Denials of Complicity


When my students read McIntosh’s article, they often come away understanding privilege as a sort of material gain and even psychological advantage.
The term “privilege” pulls in this direction. But what they often fail to comprehend, although McIntosh clearly mentions this in her essay, is how white privilege also involves protecting a type of moral certainty, arrogance and innocence.
My white students often remain trapped in an individualistic conceptualization of the benefits of white privilege and do not recognize such benefits’ relational, collective and macroscopic29 dimensions. To help them to understand
how benefits need to be understood macroscopically, it is helpful to draw their
attention to two ways that the meaning of harm can be determined. These
different ways of understanding harm can be applied to understand different
ways of comprehending benefits.
Surveys continue to find that there are large differences between the views of
white and Black Americans on key measures of race relations in the United States
such that in general whites minimize the effects of racism existing today.30 One
of the reasons that can explain why white people tend to minimize the effects
of racism is, of course, that they do not have to experience the harms of racism.
But even when the stories of such harms are made available, they still may be
dismissed because harm is being perceived from the perpetrator’s perspective.
Critical Race Theorist Alan David Freeman31 distinguishes between harm determined from the perspective of the victim and the perspective of the perpetrator.
Understanding harm from the victim’s perspective involves searching for
those conditions of actual social existence as a member of a perpetual underclass
. . . (and) include both the objective conditions of life . . . and the consciousness
associated with those objective conditions . . . .32

Understanding harm from the victim’s perspective involves more than just
asking an individual victim what “harm” consists of. It involves understanding
harm from the viewpoint of an unjust system.
Discrimination from the perpetrator’s perspective, in contrast, is understood individualistically, not as systemic conditions but as individual actions,
or series of actions, inflicted on the victim by the perpetrator. The focus is
on individual fault and causality, on what particular perpetrators have done or
are doing to some victims rather than on the overall life situation of the victim
While there are dangers in using the term “victims” to describe the viewpoint of those who are marginalized, the central point to emphasize is that just
as the harms of racism must be understood from a systemic viewpoint, so too
the benefits of racism must be perceived not individualistically but systemically.
In other words, the emphasis is on the objective consequences of such benefits
and how such benefits function systemically. Only with this expanded notion of



benefit can white students begin to appreciate how deeply white privilege is
embedded in white ways of being and how white privilege functions systemically. Privilege is not only a matter of receiving benefits but also consists in
traits of character or a certain outlook about the world and how people move
around in the world that is sanctioned by dominant norms and work to keep
systemic injustice in place.
With this expanded notion of privilege, harms and benefits, I move on to
two manifestations of white privilege that require emphasis.

Privilege . . . gives whites a way to not know that does not even fully recognize
the extent to which they do not know that race matters or that their agency is
closely connected with their status.34

Cris Mayo’s provocative but discerning quote highlights the connection
between privilege, ignorance and denials of complicity. It is Charles Mills,
however, who has drawn special attention to the epistemology of ignorance35
and, in particular, the dynamics of white ignorance. Mills’ work is guided by
the question, “How are white people able to consistently do the wrong thing
while thinking that they are doing the right thing?”36
In his oft-cited book, The Racial Contract, Mills argues that a Racial Contract underwrites the modern Social Contract. The Racial Contract is a covert
agreement or set of meta-agreements between white people to create and
maintain a subperson class of non-whites. The purpose of the Racial Contract
is to “secur(e) the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and
maint(ain) the subordination of nonwhites.”37 To achieve this purpose, there
is a need to perpetuate ignorance and to misinterpret the world as it really is.
The Racial Contract is an agreement to not know and an assurance that this will
count as a true version of reality by those who benefit from the account. That
such ignorance is socially sanctioned is of extreme significance. Mills refers to
such lack of knowledge as an “inverted epistemology” and contends it is an
officially sanction