Unhappy Confessions: The Temptation of Admitting to White Privilege
Claire A. Lockard
Admissions of white privilege and/or racism are common among white anti-racists
and others who want to combat their racism. In this article, I argue that because
such admissions are conscious attempts to address unconscious habits, they are
unhappy speech acts and contrary to their implied aims. Admissions of white
privilege or racism can be conceptualized as Foucauldian confessions that are
pleasurable to enact but ultimately reinforce white people’s feelings of goodness
and allow them to avoid addressing this racism. I ground my argument in Shannon
Sullivan’s analysis of white privilege and Sara Ahmed’s critique of confessions of
racism/privilege to show that in addition to doing no anti-racist work at the moment
of saying, these confessions actually reify white privilege deeper into the
unconscious and make it harder to address. Sullivan’s work, I conclude, offers white
people a more productive way forward than their unhappy performative
declarations of privilege. A white person’s understanding of her confessing habit
cannot break this habit, but it might orient her toward examining what sorts of anti-
racist moves do work.
In this paper, I put Sara Ahmed’s work on the non-performativity of
admissions of racial privilege into conversation with Shannon Sullivan’s work on
unconscious habits of racial privilege. I agree with Ahmed that admissions of
privilege or racism do not do the anti-racist work they intend and in fact extend rather than challenge white privilege.
I suggest that if we take
seriously Sullivan’s claim that white privilege operates as a set of unconscious
habits, we can understand this extension as the reification of racism and privilege
deeper into the unconscious. Given that admissions of racism actually reinforce
rather than challenge white privilege, my second aim in this paper is to ask why it is
so tempting to believe that these admissions of privilege do anti-racist work. I begin
by agreeing with Ahmed that admissions of racism or racial privilege are unhappy
performatives that is, they are speech acts that do not actually do the anti-racist
work they intend (Ahmed 2004).
I then argue that Sullivan’s vision of white privilege
as a set of unconscious habits can explain why these admissions don’t work
and in fact do negative work. These declarations can be thought of as Foucauldian
confessions; they make white people feel as though they have purified and
transformed their core selves, which is why they/we think the statements work to
combat racism or privilege.
I conclude by suggesting that a better understanding of
the unconscious habits of white privilege that tempt us toward confession can
actually offer white people a more productive way forward than our confessions
- RonPaulForums.com is an independent grassroots outfit not officially connected to Ron Paul but dedicated to his mission. For more information see our Mission Statement.