White Purity

No Title Required 3 (Robert Ryman, 2013)
No Title Required 3 (Robert Ryman, 2013)

Among oth­er things, white­ness is a kind of solip­sism. From right to left, whites con­sis­tent­ly and suc­cess­ful­ly reroute every polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion to their iden­ti­ty. The con­tent of this iden­ti­ty, unsur­pris­ing­ly, is left unex­am­ined and unde­fined. It is the false foun­da­tion of the pro­to­typ­i­cal­ly Amer­i­can mod­el of pseu­do-pol­i­tics.

The most insid­i­ous form of white pseu­do-pol­i­tics is white guilt. Whether it is as dan­ger­ous or as eth­i­cal­ly rep­re­hen­si­ble as the open racism of white suprema­cy is a mis­lead­ing ques­tion. Both rein­force the delu­sion of white­ness.

In a spec­u­la­tive screed called “The cen­ter has fall­en, and white nation­al­ism is fill­ing the vac­u­um,” white author Ned Resnikoff reports with alarm that “white mem­bers of the self-styled rad­i­cal left are clos­er than they know to right-wing white pop­ulism.” Con­sid­er­ing that right-wing white pop­ulists are proud­ly giv­ing Nazi salutes in pub­lic and claim Trump as their hero, that cer­tain­ly seems like a cause for con­cern.

But Resnikoff runs into a bit of trou­ble when he tries to go into detail about this dan­ger­ous “white left.” The prob­lem, as it turns out, is that not all of them are white. Jacobin Mag­a­zine, held up as the exem­plar of the white left, has as its found­ing edi­tor Bhaskar Sunkara – I’ve seen him in per­son, and he’s dark­er than me. Resnikoff also points to an approv­ing cita­tion by white nation­al­ist Chris Roberts of a Jacobin arti­cle writ­ten by Shu­ja Haider. I am fair­ly cer­tain that this oth­er Mr. Haider is not white, since I am in fact relat­ed to him.

These debates, flar­ing up con­stant­ly since Trump’s elec­tion, pro­vide whites with a per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to make the world revolve around them. On Twit­ter lib­er­al whites accuse crit­ics of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics of ignor­ing white priv­i­lege, while social­ist whites respond by point­ing out how many white peo­ple there are in Amer­i­ca.

In the mean­time, nobody knows what to do with the non-whites, like me, who attempt to inter­vene in the debate. So far the strat­e­gy of the lib­er­al whites has amount­ed to a glo­ri­fied form of stick­ing their fin­gers in their ears and shout­ing “I can’t hear you!” Whites on Twit­ter con­tin­ue to res­olute­ly accuse us of being white, while white acquain­tances point out that we are not. And so it turns back around, back to white peo­ple and their fan­tasies. We have tried, for some time, to ignore this and con­tin­ue to dis­cuss the sub­stan­tive issues. But white peo­ple make our lives even more dif­fi­cult when they claim to speak in our name. I can only con­clude that the strange phe­nom­e­non called white­ness pro­duces a very deep and tena­cious psy­chopathol­o­gy, and that it is time for us to attack it open­ly.


What Ned Resnikoff demon­strates is that white guilt has a dark side, which I pro­pose label­ing “white puri­ty.” It is a kind of ide­ol­o­gy of racial hygiene which embraces mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and diver­si­ty, but attempts to elim­i­nate unde­sir­able ele­ments from the white iden­ti­ty itself.

From the per­spec­tive of white puri­ty, there are good whites. They have col­lege degrees, lis­ten to NPR, and have many POC friends. But unfor­tu­nate­ly there also are bad whites. They’re bad because they prob­a­bly vot­ed for Don­ald Trump. But it gets worse. They lis­ten to coun­try music and eat fac­to­ry farmed meat. They are offen­sive­ly over­weight, and go to church instead of yoga on Sun­days. Most dis­gust­ing of all, they work in dirty man­u­al labor jobs and have a pet­ty fix­a­tion on mak­ing more mon­ey, unaware that at Har­vard an Eng­lish major of col­or is being forced to endure the trau­ma of read­ing Huck­le­ber­ry Finn.

The whole thing gets more com­pli­cat­ed because there are a few oth­er bad whites who shouldn’t be bad whites, like Mark Lil­la or Todd Gitlin. Despite their good edu­ca­tions and their incomes, they fail to embrace white puri­ty. Instead, they advo­cate return­ing to the white pol­i­tics of the 1930s and 1940s, when a benev­o­lent white pres­i­dent secured a wel­fare state for his fel­low whites.

As it turns out, these lapsed whites are actu­al­ly a god­send for the whole project of white puri­ty, because they serve to dis­cred­it any pos­si­ble ide­o­log­i­cal threat. All non-white crit­ics of white puri­ty can be dis­missed by loud­ly claim­ing that they are lit­tle more than lapsed whites in dis­guise. Whether you are black, Arab, Puer­to Rican, or Kore­an, you will need to be re-iden­ti­fied if you fail to play your role.

Indeed, to the con­ster­na­tion of good whites, not every non-white is on board with white puri­ty. Many are, to be sure, because the secret real­i­ty which white puri­ty hopes to obscure is that non-whites are just as capa­ble of a diver­si­ty of opin­ions and per­spec­tives as whites are. For white puri­ty to suc­ceed, non-whites have to be roman­ti­cized as noble vic­tims. When they fail to fit into this cat­e­go­ry, white puri­ty seems to lack a prop­er foun­da­tion.

Fredrik deBoer asks, “Does it mat­ter to Resnikoff that the most acid cri­tiques of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics I know of have come from writ­ers of col­or?” It is a ques­tion that keeps many whites awake at night. But for the rest of us the rea­sons are obvi­ous. Because we have expe­ri­enced racism from well-behaved and well-edu­cat­ed lib­er­als as often as from the red­necks they despise; because we have nev­er ben­e­fit­ted from the con­de­scend­ing and patron­iz­ing atti­tudes of white mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists; because we rec­og­nize in the afflu­ent lib­er­al hatred of the white poor the same depraved social Dar­win­ism that in less pub­lic moments is direct­ed against us.


“Metaphor is nev­er inno­cent,” Jacques Der­ri­da remarked. “It ori­ents research and fix­es results.” The pri­mor­dial metaphor for white­ness is the knap­sack, intro­duced by white author Peg­gy McIn­tosh in her influ­en­tial arti­cle “White Priv­i­lege: Unpack­ing the Invis­i­ble Knap­sack.”

Of course, McIn­tosh was not the first to try to describe the con­se­quences of white­ness. W.E.B. Du Bois famous­ly wrote of the legal and social advan­tages grant­ed to whites in Black Recon­struc­tion:

It must be remem­bered that the white group of labor­ers, while they received a low wage, were com­pen­sat­ed in part by a sort of pub­lic and psy­cho­log­i­cal wage. They were giv­en pub­lic def­er­ence and titles of cour­tesy because they were white. They were admit­ted freely with all class­es of white peo­ple to pub­lic func­tions, pub­lic parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, depen­dent on their votes, treat­ed them with such lenien­cy as to encour­age law­less­ness. Their vote select­ed pub­lic offi­cials, and while this had small effect upon the eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion, it had great effect upon their per­son­al treat­ment and the def­er­ence shown them. White school­hous­es were the best in the com­mu­ni­ty, and con­spic­u­ous­ly placed, and they cost any­where from twice to ten times as much per capi­ta as the col­ored schools. The news­pa­pers spe­cial­ized on news that flat­tered the poor whites and almost utter­ly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.

How­ev­er, McIntosh’s arti­cle oper­at­ed at a very dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter from Du Bois’s his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of the class com­po­si­tion of the post­bel­lum Unit­ed States. It is like­ly that McIn­tosh wrote with the best of inten­tions, aim­ing to reduce bar­bar­ic behav­iors among whites. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the effect of her arti­cle has been to pro­vide whites with new and seem­ing­ly pro­gres­sive ways of cen­ter­ing pol­i­tics on the white iden­ti­ty.

This is because McIn­tosh refers through­out her arti­cle, inter­change­ably, to “my race,” “my racial group,” and “my skin col­or.” The first “white priv­i­lege” she names is: “I can if I wish arrange to be in the com­pa­ny of peo­ple of my race most of the time.” Anoth­er is that she can “go into a music shop and count on find­ing the music of my race rep­re­sent­ed.”

We will set aside what appears to be a lack of famil­iar­i­ty with the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music. What is sig­nif­i­cant is the equa­tion of skin col­or, the cat­e­go­ry of “race,” and dis­crete group­ings of human beings.

With this equa­tion, white guilt repro­duces the found­ing fic­tion of race: that there is a bio­log­i­cal foun­da­tion, expressed in phys­i­cal phe­no­types, for sep­a­rate groups of human beings which have sep­a­rate cul­tures and forms of life.

This idea of race is a delu­sion, one which nev­er­the­less has a “real” mate­r­i­al effect. The “white race” is a more spe­cif­ic for­ma­tion – a polit­i­cal struc­ture of recent inven­tion.

But the metaphor of the knap­sack serves to obscure the real­i­ty of white­ness. McIn­tosh writes: “White priv­i­lege is like an invis­i­ble weight­less knap­sack of spe­cial pro­vi­sions, maps, pass­ports, code­books, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

The knap­sack is car­ried by an indi­vid­ual nav­i­gat­ing the open social field. It con­tains tools which enable the indi­vid­ual to nav­i­gate this field with greater effec­tive­ness than those whose knap­sacks are com­par­a­tive­ly emp­ty. The resources con­tained in the knap­sack con­sti­tute white­ness as priv­i­lege, because the knap­sack is car­ried by an indi­vid­ual who belongs to the white iden­ti­ty.

If the knap­sack of priv­i­leges is car­ried by an indi­vid­ual already iden­ti­fi­able as white, then white­ness must nec­es­sar­i­ly be under­stood as a bio­log­i­cal trait. The false­ness of this notion is evi­dent: the peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly described as white have a wide and com­plex range of genet­ic lin­eages, many of which were pre­vi­ous­ly con­sid­ered to be sep­a­rate “races” of their own (the well-doc­u­ment­ed though fre­quent­ly for­got­ten racial­iza­tion of Slavs, Ital­ians, the Irish, etc).

We might con­clude that there has only been a minor error of descrip­tion: in real­i­ty, white­ness itself is con­sti­tut­ed by the con­tents of the knap­sack. The con­sti­tu­tion of white­ness as iden­ti­ty and its con­sti­tu­tion as priv­i­lege are simul­ta­ne­ous: the knapsack’s pro­vi­sions con­fer not only advan­tages but also iden­ti­ty upon its bear­er.

But how do we know, then, that the con­tent of the iden­ti­ty con­ferred has some­thing to do with “white­ness”? Sure­ly, in addi­tion to the spe­cif­ic items con­fer­ring a priv­i­lege, one would find in any knap­sack of iden­ti­ty an infin­i­ty of arbi­trary details: hair length, gait, dietary pref­er­ence, com­put­er skills, etc. That is, in order to describe an individual’s iden­ti­ty, the knap­sack would have to con­tain every­thing con­sti­tut­ing the this-ness of that par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­ual. It would offer us no insight as to the orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple which con­sti­tutes these traits as some­thing which can be called “white.” There would be no way to dis­tin­guish “white” char­ac­ter­is­tics from human ones, Penn­syl­van­ian ones, or heavy met­al ones.

This is the fail­ure of lib­er­al thought. A polit­i­cal for­ma­tion such as white­ness can­not be explained by start­ing with an individual’s iden­ti­ty – the reduc­tion of pol­i­tics to the psy­chol­o­gy of the self. The start­ing point will have to be the social struc­ture and its con­sti­tu­tive rela­tions, with­in which indi­vid­u­als are com­posed. And it is too often for­got­ten that decades before McIntosh’s knap­sack, the term “white priv­i­lege” orig­i­nat­ed with such a the­o­ry.


The the­o­ry of “white-skin priv­i­lege” was advanced by mem­bers of an ear­ly anti-revi­sion­ist split-off from the Com­mu­nist Par­ty USA (the Pro­vi­sion­al Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee), and would come to have an enor­mous influ­ence on the New Left and the New Com­mu­nist Move­ment. A series of essays by Theodore Allen and Noel Ignatiev, col­lect­ed as the pam­phlet White Blindspot, offered the ini­tial for­mu­la­tion. Ignatiev and Allen’s argu­ment was that the lega­cy of slav­ery was the impo­si­tion of white suprema­cy by the rul­ing class, as an instru­ment of class divi­sion. But this was a polit­i­cal the­o­ry, not a cul­tur­al or moral one, and it held that “white chau­vin­ism” was actu­al­ly detri­men­tal to the white work­ing class, pre­vent­ing uni­ty with black work­ers. So fight­ing against white suprema­cy was in fact a cen­tral part of a polit­i­cal pro­gram that favored the self-orga­ni­za­tion of all work­ers. Ignatiev’s ini­tial entry is worth quot­ing at length:

The end­ing of white suprema­cy is not sole­ly a demand of the Negro peo­ple, sep­a­rate from the class demands of the entire work­ing class. It can­not be left to the Negro peo­ple to fight it alone, while the white work­ers “sym­pa­thize with their fight,” “sup­port it,” “reject racist slan­ders” etc. but actu­al­ly fight for their “own” demands.

The ide­ol­o­gy of white chau­vin­ism is bour­geois poi­son aimed pri­mar­i­ly at the white work­ers, uti­lized as a weapon by the rul­ing class to sub­ju­gate black and white work­ers. It has its mate­r­i­al base in the prac­tice of white suprema­cy, which is a crime not mere­ly against non-whites but against the entire pro­le­tari­at. There­fore, its elim­i­na­tion cer­tain­ly qual­i­fies as one of the class demands of the entire work­ing class. In fact, con­sid­er­ing the role that this vile prac­tice has his­tor­i­cal­ly played in hold­ing back the strug­gle of the Amer­i­can work­ing class, the fight against white suprema­cy becomes the cen­tral imme­di­ate task of the entire work­ing class. 

As this lan­guage was tak­en up by the New Left, how­ev­er, it went through con­sid­er­able ide­o­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions. The man­i­festo “You Don’t Need a Weath­er­man to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” cir­cu­lat­ed at the tur­bu­lent Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety con­fer­ence of 1969, pro­posed a pol­i­tics cen­tered on white guilt rather than pro­le­tar­i­an uni­ty. The Weath­er Under­ground used the lan­guage of “priv­i­lege” to reject the white work­ing class as a force for rev­o­lu­tion­ary change, instead asso­ci­at­ing polit­i­cal strug­gle with van­guard groups like them­selves, who attacked their own priv­i­lege by adopt­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary lifestyle. What this amount­ed to was the self-fla­gel­la­tion (with explo­sives) of white rad­i­cals, who sub­sti­tut­ed them­selves for the mass­es and nar­cis­sis­ti­cal­ly cen­tered atten­tion on them­selves instead of the black and Third World move­ments they claimed to be sup­port­ing – reduc­ing those move­ments to a roman­tic fan­ta­sy of vio­lent insur­rec­tion. In oth­er words, the project of black auton­o­my and self-lib­er­a­tion – which implied the over­all self-lib­er­a­tion of the poor and the work­ing class – was effec­tive­ly dis­abled by the Weath­er Underground’s skin analy­sis.

Ignatiev ruth­less­ly attacked the Weath­er­man prob­lem­at­ic in a paper called “With­out a Sci­ence of Nav­i­ga­tion We Can­not Sail in Stormy Seas,” which is today a jar­ring dis­cov­ery:

White suprema­cy is the real secret of the rule of the bour­geoisie and the hid­den cause behind the fail­ure of the labor move­ment in this coun­try. White-skin priv­i­leges serve only the bour­geoisie, and pre­cise­ly for that rea­son they will not let us escape them, but instead pur­sue us with them through every hour of our life, no mat­ter where we go. They are poi­son bait. To sug­gest that the accep­tance of white-skin priv­i­lege is in the inter­ests of white work­ers is equiv­a­lent to sug­gest­ing that swal­low­ing the worm with the hook in it is in the inter­ests of the fish. To argue that repu­di­at­ing these priv­i­leges is a “sac­ri­fice” is to argue that the fish is mak­ing a sac­ri­fice when it leaps from the water, flips its tail, shakes its head furi­ous­ly in every direc­tion and throws the barbed offer­ing.

Today’s priv­i­lege pol­i­tics can­not pos­si­bly per­mit a posi­tion of this kind. We are instead left with end­less vari­a­tions on the Weath­er­man posi­tion, though with­out the appeals to armed strug­gle, bank rob­beries, and Lenin’s the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism.


White lib­er­als are sug­gest­ing that a new wave of “pro-white” social­ists have arisen to defend the “white work­ing class.” This is non­sense. Black rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies through­out Amer­i­can his­to­ry have argued that the project of eman­ci­pa­tion requires over­com­ing the divi­sive log­ic of iden­ti­ty. Although he char­ac­ter­ized the mate­r­i­al advan­tages of white­ness as a “psy­cho­log­i­cal wage,” W.E.B. Du Bois did not reduce white­ness to an effect of indi­vid­ual psy­chol­o­gy. In fact, imme­di­ate­ly pre­ced­ing the pas­sage on the psy­cho­log­i­cal wage, Du Bois wrote:

The the­o­ry of race was sup­ple­ment­ed by a care­ful­ly planned and slow­ly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black work­ers that there prob­a­bly are not today in the world two groups of work­ers with prac­ti­cal­ly iden­ti­cal inter­ests who hate and fear each oth­er so deeply and per­sis­tent­ly and who are kept so far apart that nei­ther sees any­thing of com­mon inter­est.

If today lib­er­al whites refuse to rec­og­nize this com­mon inter­est, and eschew the social­ist pro­gram that Du Bois vig­or­ous­ly endorsed, we will remain locked with­in the orig­i­nal sin of white­ness: the alliance of poor whites, aban­doned by North­ern elites, with the regres­sive and reac­tionary pow­er of white cap­i­tal.

“Cap­i­tal­ism can­not reform itself,” Du Bois wrote. “It is doomed to self-destruc­tion. No uni­ver­sal self­ish­ness can bring social good to all.” Unlike today’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist lib­er­als, DuBois did not mere­ly seek a more diverse rul­ing class. He rec­og­nized that inequal­i­ty would per­sist as long as cap­i­tal­ism per­se­vered. There has only ever been one alter­na­tive to white­ness and its barbed offer­ings: the mul­tira­cial alliance of the work­ing class against white suprema­cy and pri­vate prop­er­ty.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).