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White Skin Privilege and Marxism?
Author’s Note: This article was originally composed as a response to an essay published on the International Socialist Organization (ISO) website. Unfortunately, they refused to publish my response:
We won’t publish your contribution on the white-skin privilege discussion in its current form. You grossly distort the SW article by Bill Mullen to suggest his purpose and effect in writing it, and SW’s in publishing it, was to defend white privilege, rather than to analyze racism in order to oppose it. No other contribution to this debate, including those that were quite critical, has accused SW of trying to bolster white privilege. We won’t print such a charge.
I responded by pointing out that if my “charge” was so off-base, they should be happy to print it so that one of their readers could then demonstrate how wrong I am. What does it say about the ISO that instead they simply refused to print my article and thereby denied their readers a chance to even consider its arguments? – Brian Kwoba
Bill Mullen in his essay “Is There A White Skin Privilege?” is to be thanked for initiating a debate that needs to be had more widely in progressive circles. He mistakenly argues against the usefulness of the concept of “white skin privilege.” Mullen is also mistaken in counter-posing Marxism to what he calls ‘privilege theory’. In reality, class struggle and racial privilege are complimentary and indispensable analytical tools for the social project of ending racism.
To many race-conscious people, the idea that white people, because of their race, receive a whole host of unearned advantages and privileges is obvious.
*When African-Americans apply for a job and get rejected solely because of their name, but a white person gets the job because his or her name sounds “normal,” that benefits the white person—even if it is a low-wage job for a corporate capitalist.
*When white people can get home loans where Black and Latino people cannot, that is an immediate benefit that white people receive—even if the loan is being made by corporate banksters who care only about profit.
*When I turn on the TV or go to the movies, most of the time it is white people who are featured as the heroes and protagonists, whereas people of color are usually tokens or props. This privileges whites, not materially—they paid the same ticket price I did—but psychologically and culturally because whites are made to feel more important, heroic, and self-determining than non-white people.
*Whiteness is considered “normal,” the ‘default’ race in the United States. Many white people aren’t even aware that they are white. In other words, white people don’t need to think (and stress) about race as much as people of color do.
Peggy McIntosh’s essay “Unpacking the Knapsack” illustrates more ways that white people are privileged because of their race. This is not to say that race is the only form of oppression. But all other things being equal (e.g. class, gender, etc.), white people ARE relatively privileged, solely because of their whiteness. And if you, as a white person, can’t or won’t acknowledge this, then you are participating in white denial.
White denial is something I have found that many white Marxists perpetuate in the form of arguments against white privilege, which conveniently allows them to escape feeling guilty or uncomfortable about the unearned advantages they receive for their whiteness. For example, Mullen contends that McIntosh’s article “makes ‘privilege’ a question not of fighting racism, but of feeling guilty about it.” But who feels guilty when they read McIntosh and consider the validity of white privilege? Hint: Not people of color. Here, Mullen’s un-racialized description of guilt reveals a white blindspot. It also reveals the white (and middle-class) privilege of racial conflict aversion. In fact, as Beverly Tatum has argued, white guilt is a natural and predictable early stage of white racial identity development, a painful but necessary step on the way towards overcoming the racism that becomes literally hard-wired into our brains as a result of our upbringing in a racist society.
At the same time, Mullen is correct in different sense when he argues against the idea that “all whites, no matter their class, benefit from the unequal distribution of social resources along racial lines.”
Under capitalism, working and poor whites are indeed exploited economically and do NOT benefit from the specific way that American capitalism has created and sustained the “white race” as a ruling class social control formation to prevent laboring-class solidarity.
But in my experience, most folks who discuss white privilege aren’t doing so in order to develop a more dialectical understanding of the relationship between race and the class struggle. I wish they were. But before castigating them, Mr. Mullen, you need to check the ways in which your denial of the advantages owing to whiteness only re-enforces the sense that you are privileged, including the privilege to remain oblivious to your white privilege.
In this way, Mullen’s position falsely counter-poses critically engaging racism individually vs. doing so systemically, as if you can either do the first (via ‘white privilege’ analysis) or the second (via Marxism), but not both. To be fair, many white privilege-oriented antiracism efforts do not engage in mass protests for systemic change, and thus reveal a blindspot of their own in relation to class struggles.
Ultimately, Mullen concludes by arguing that “Marxism remains the best tool for analyzing racism, sexism and other forms of oppression…because it understands that capitalism is the main engine of oppression and social division.” Yet some forms of oppression, such as the oppression of women, predate capitalism by thousands of years. Those like Mullen who argue that capitalism is the source of all oppression are denying the specific and autonomous logic of certain forms of oppression, dogmatically repeating a belief that (in this case) conveniently absolves men of our complicity in the oppression of women.
To be clear: I am NOT arguing that autonomous oppression-based analysis is superior and the class struggle is secondary. However, if Marxism or ‘socialism from below’ is the movement for worldwide proletarian revolution to overthrow capitalism and oppression, and if it remains mostly the defensively-guarded ‘private property’ of white men (with a Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky lineage idolized as The Real Marxist Tradition), then it will continue to be a dogma by definition for two reasons:
1) People of color are the overwhelming majority of the world’s population.
2) White saviors—“Marxist” or not—never have and never will liberate us.
As Selma James argued in her groundbreaking, ‘intersectional Marxist’ essay Sex, Race, and Class,
in order for the working class to unite in spite of the divisions which are inherent in its very structure—factory versus plantation versus home versus schools—those at the lowest levels of the [race and gender] hierarchy must themselves find the key to their weakness, must themselves find the strategy which will attack that point and shatter it, must themselves find their own modes of struggle.
So if we are to move beyond the dogmas of the White Male Left, we must take care to recognize how much our very conception of “working class” has been dominated and distorted by this particular segment at the top of the gendered and apartheid-like racial hierarchies within the class.
A final weakness of Mullen’s case is that his inability (or unwillingness) to look internally at his own privilege is replicated in his lack of suggestions for how organizations can change their internal practices to attack racism and white supremacy more forcefully. To this end, people of color have historically made antiracist demands on majority-white organizations such as:
1. Prioritize recruiting, training, and developing leadership with more people of color. If a “progressive” organization supports affirmative action at a public policy level as a necessary corrective for centuries of white supremacy, then why not practice it internally? White activists in multiracial organizations can combat white supremacy actively by supporting members of color to lead meetings more often, sit on leadership bodies in greater proportion, direct the organization’s outreach to communities of color, etc.
2. Develop an educational plan that deepens the historical and practical understanding of white supremacy and white privilege among ALL members of the group. This would entail reading, discussing, and critiquing literature by folks like CLR James, Beverly Tatum, bell hooks, Tim Wise, and others. One does not need to agree with everything they say in order to learn deep truths from these antiracists.
3. Don’t stop with race. As human beings of color, we have more identities than just our race, and may also be oppressed (or privileged!) on the basis of our gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and so on.
A century ago, the most prominent Black leader in the American Socialist Party was Hubert Harrison. He organized the first multiracial branch in New York City and started building stimulating support for socialism in the Black community. Pretty soon, he left the organization because of his frustration with their ‘white race first’ attitude toward the “Negro Question.” A few years later, on the way to becoming the “father of Harlem radicalism,” he sounded a warning to his former comrades in an open letter that could have been written to any number of white progressive organizations today:
…even now, if you should send anyone up here (black or white) to put the cause of Karl Marx, freed from admixture of rancor and hatred for the Negro’s own defensive racial propaganda, you may find that it will have as good a chance of gaining adherents as any other political creed. But until you change your tactics…your case among us will be hopeless indeed.
Brian Kwoba is a PhD student at Oxford University researching the “father of Harlem radicalism” Hubert Harrison. He can be reached at brian (dot) kwoba (at) pmb (dot) ox (dot) ac (dot) uk.