“White Psychodrama” and the culture wars: A self-reinforcing cycle, going nowhere

“White Psychodrama” and the culture wars: A self-reinforcing cycle, going nowhere


The culture wars are, to quote Pat Buchanan, a struggle “for the soul of America,” and they’ve been consuming our political discourse for centuries. As Andrew Hartman writes, “the history of America, for better or worse, is largely a history of debates about the idea of America.” Are we a racist country? Should gay people be allowed to marry? What about gun control, abortion, transgender medicine, affirmative action, equal pay for women, book banning, deplatforming, cancel culture, safe spaces and so-called wokeness?

Fought on many fronts, the outcome of this war can have — to state the obvious — profound real-world consequences. Last year, there were 693 mass shootings that left 703 people dead and 2,842 injured, and a recent study found that overturning Roe v. Wade could cause a “21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths,” with this disproportionately affecting Black women. Children go through active shooter drills in school, and transgender people are sometimes denied the treatments prescribed by their doctors. Pay inequality makes being a single mother difficult, and the question which books our children are allowed to read could shape a whole generation’s understanding of the American project. The list goes on.

How, then, should one engage in the culture wars? What actions can one take to make a difference? Or is all of this really just a distraction? Is the best way to bring about real change in the world to sidestep the often-heated public squabbles over values and ideas?

These are among the central questions that Dr. Liam Kofi Bright, a professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics, addresses in his fascinating new paper “White Psychodrama.” Bright’s focus isn’t the culture wars in general, but the particular battle among white people over race relations in contemporary America.

To understand what’s going on here, Bright offers an insightful breakdown of the situation, which he conceptualizes as a cast of characters, on the one hand, and a narrative that gives rise to their disputes, on the other. Let’s begin with the characters:

First, you have the Repenters, who “see the group they identify with as having committed horrible crimes globally and domestically, and they are ever so aware of the ways in which present material conditions generate continued deprivation for black people alongside relative comfort for many white people.” As such, Repenters are wracked by “an overwhelming sense of guilt,” a hard-to-shake feeling that one is blameworthy for having benefited from historical injustices, and for continuing to benefit from the racist systems currently in place.

Repenters are wracked by “an overwhelming sense of guilt,” a hard-to-shake feeling that one is blameworthy for having benefited from historical injustices, and for continuing to benefit from racist systems.

To ease this guilt, Repenters might encourage their workplaces to openly celebrate diversity, make a point of following people of color on social media and supporting Black-owned local businesses. Some will seek guidance about proper racial etiquette from books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.” Through such “self-work,” by acknowledging their special position in society and trying to improve the world around them in small but meaningful ways, Repenters aim to foster “a positive self image” as someone on the right side of history, and hence not personally — or at least not actively — part of the problem.

Next, you have the Repressers. This group is keen on downplaying the importance of race in America. They advocate for a “colorblind” approach to understanding inequality, and are quick to dismiss those who single out skin pigmentation as “playing the race card.” Repressers worry that people are “too easily offended” over “mere” peccadillos like wearing Blackface at Halloween, and suggest that those who whine about such infractions fail to appreciate just how far America has come from the bad old days of slavery and Jim Crow.

Our country has made great progress with race relations, in this view, and we currently live in the most racially tolerant society ever. Sure, there may still be instances of racism here and there, but Repressers insist that these are individual rather than systemic in nature. Hence, talk of “white privilege” is overblown and only makes the problem worse by foregrounding racial identity. Repressers deal with the problem of guilt not by repenting for their whiteness but by repressing any discussion of race in the first place.

As you may have experienced first-hand, these two characters cannot stand to be in the same room together. They don’t get along, and never will. Imagine a “woke” progressive white person in the same room with Dennis Prager or Sam Harris. How long could this last before a shouting match erupts?

Yet there is a third character in the fight as well, an important supporting role played by well-educated nonwhites whom Bright dubs the “PoC intelligentsia.” As he describes the situation, not without amusement:

Of course the rest of us do not simply sit by and watch the whites duke it out amongst themselves. If nothing else they still have ownership of the stuff and a democratic majority, so most of us are dependent on them for making a living. How then have the PoC intelligentsia — people of colour sufficiently engaged in politics to be tapped into the white culture war and the historical narrative underpinning it — responded to the opportunities and challenges presented thereby? With a dexterous entrepreneurial spirit! Which is to say, by cashing in.

This “cashing in” is possible because both Repenters and Repressers draw from the PoC intelligentsia to support their perspectives. On the one hand, PoC intellectuals function as “bearers of black thinkers’ insight” who are willing to affirm the guilt-stricken worldview of Repenters. On the other, one finds a handful of prominent Black thinkers no less inclined “to give voice to an intelligent version of the Represser narrative.”

Repressers admit there may still be instances of racism here and there, but insist that these are individual rather than systemic in nature. Hence, talk of “white privilege” is overblown, and only makes the problem worse.

The mainstream media (including Fox News), which are largely white-owned, will eagerly prop up the voices of PoC intellectuals in each camp, and indeed “a vital part of Repenter strategy for alleviating guilt [is] that they listen to such voices.” “Repressers are not as tied to this strategy,” Bright notes, “but if one is troubled by accusations of racism … the fact that black thinkers agree with your perspective will be salient and interesting.”

Here we have the cast of characters in the American culture war over race. But there’s a twist: despite the obvious differences between Repenters and Repressers, these characters actually have a lot in common. For example, they both accept that the ideal that we should aim for is a racially egalitarian society in which, to borrow Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal words, people should “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

They also concur that America is far from this ideal today. They will generally acknowledge facts such as that the median net worth of Black households in 2019 was $24,100, compared to $188,200 for white families, Black people still greatly outnumber white people in U.S. prisons, and the unemployment rate for Black people is nearly twice as high as for white people. Hence, both characters agree that while America should be egalitarian, it is in fact far from this: There’s a glaring mismatch between reality and ideal, and that’s a problem.

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The defining difference between these two groups is how they react to this problem. As alluded to above, Repenters react by feeling guilty and trying to assuage this feeling through attitudinal shifts and everyday acts. In contrast, Repressers react by trying to avoid the question of race altogether by suppressing talk of racial differences, which they disparage as “identity politics.”

Yet in both cases the dual strategies of assuaging and avoiding are ultimately aimed at one thing: relieving the cognitive dissonance produced by the aforementioned mismatch, which is why Bright labels this a “psychodrama.” As he writes:

Repenters and Repressers are engaged in a fundamental conflict, but it is a conflict over how to psychologically manage the results of living in a materially deeply unequal society, not a conflict about how or whether to reduce that material inequality.

This leads to one of the most important points of Bright’s article: Even though both characters affirm the ideal of racial egalitarianism, both are invested in perpetuating the status quo — as are, to a lesser degree, the PoC intellectuals, who personally profit off the endless white psychodrama. It’s one thing for Repenters to put a “Black Lives Matter” sign on their front lawns after a white police officer kills an unarmed Black person, but quite another to, say, support “defunding” police departments. After all, Bright notes, defunding the police “could actually upset the ability of the police to perform the social function of protecting their lives and property.”

Meanwhile, Repressers will respond to such incidents by looking for any reason at all to minimize the role of race. They will insist, for example, that the police officer is just one bad apple in the orchard. The problem isn’t the police, but some particular police, which makes calling for police departments to be defunded completely absurd. Don’t blame the institution for the actions of single individuals!

Both sides affirm the ideal of racial egalitarianism, but in fact both are invested in perpetuating the status quo — as are, to a lesser degree, the PoC intellectuals who profit off endless white psychodrama.

The result of all this is that nothing changes. Neither Repressers nor Repenters are keen on the sort of fundamental, systemic renovations of America’s social, political and economic infrastructure needed to actually solve the problem — to fix the mismatch between reality and ideal. As Bright makes the point, neither side’s strategies “involve surrendering white wealth and are thus relatively advantageous to white elites when compared to seriously redistributive policies that might actually advance the material welfare of black people.”

In a phrase, the culture war over race tends to resist rather than promote change. It’s a psychodrama among whites that both feeds off and sustains the status quo of material disadvantages, inequalities, and injustices experienced by people of color.

So how does one break free of this cycle? One possibility begins with this question: Did you in any way feel seen while reading the profiles of Repenters and Repressers? Was it uncomfortable? As Bright observes, while “none of the above characters are entirely unsympathetic, … in so far as one sees oneself in them it is probably with a profound sense of unease.”

Speaking for myself, yes. I have at times fit the Repenter stereotype. I’ve gone out of my way to signal, both to myself and others, that my concern for racial equality and justice is deeply held, genuine and passionate. I’ve preferentially shopped at Black-owned stores, tried to amplify PoC voices on social media and elsewhere, and included a “BLM” hashtag on my Twitter profile. In the most minimal sense, I’ve “done my part” to “not be a part of the problem,” and in the process I felt a little better about myself as a white person.

That counts for something. But the crucial point is that none of these actions address the underlying root causes of the reality-ideal mismatch. As Bright told me by email, “it is certainly worth investing some of your time in doing something to ameliorate things where they are hurting you or those around you.” But when such efforts take the place of working toward real change, they are not nearly as commendable as they might feel to people like me. “Please don’t pretend that you doing” such things, Bright continues,

is really in my interests. The psychological and communal work of coping with a sense of guilt and unease is something yinz will have to work out for yourselves; but it should be done in tandem with, rather than in lieu of, work to redistribute resources and control to the multi-racial proletariat.

Hence, a practical upshot of Bright’s paper is that by seeing oneself in the characterological mirrors that he holds up to our faces, white people, in particular, can begin to extricate themselves from the never-ending, status-quo-perpetuating psychodrama of the culture wars. After all, as Bright notes, “earnestly trying to win the culture war in the sense of achieving victory for either Repenter or Represser is a fool’s errand; if those are the teams then the only winning move is not to play.”

Bright argues that “earnestly trying to win the culture war … is a fool’s errand.” If Repenters and Repressers are the competing teams, “the only winning move is not to play.”

Fortunately, though, these are not the only teams. Bright points to yet another archetype that he identifies with himself, the ironically detached narrator of the drama (to paraphrase his words). He calls this fourth character the Non-Aligned person, a term borrowed from the Cold War, during which countries not formally allied with the Western or Eastern blocs were part of the “non-aligned movement.”

Unlike Repenters, Repressers, and the PoC intelligentsia, Non-Aligned persons resist getting swept up in the white psychodrama over race relations in America. They understand that the culture wars cannot be won, are perpetuated by the “racialised psychopathology” that they simultaneously generate and hence are nothing more than a distraction from what really matters.

The Non-Aligned person thus aims “to act in such a way that they can earnestly see themselves as sensibly working towards the eradication of the material inequalities between racial groups.” Their goal is to secure “the physical and cultural conditions necessary for nonwhite people to enjoy republican freedom.”

What might this look like in practice? One example might be putting the police under community control, an idea advocated by the Black Panther Party 50 years ago, perhaps with the ultimate aim of abolishing the police force altogether.

Another draws from the work of Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, a philosopher at Georgetown University. In his recent book “Reconsidering Reparations,” Táíwò examines how anthropogenic climate change will disproportionately affect PoC and the global South. “Climate change,” he writes, “threatens to turn existing forms of injustice into overdrive at every scale of human life,” and hence “our response to [the] climate crisis will deeply determine the possibilities for justice (and injustice) in what remains of this century — and if we survive to the next.” Táíwò continues:

It is not that every aspect of today’s global racial empire is rooted in the impacts of climate change. But every aspect of tomorrow’s global racial empire will be. Climate change is set not just to redistribute social advantages, but to do so in a way that compounds and locks in the distributional injustices we’ve inherited from history. If we don’t intervene powerfully, it will reverse the gains toward justice that our ancestors fought so bitterly for, ushering in an era of what the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights calls “climate apartheid.”

Táíwò thus argues that we should address the impending climate catastrophe through a sort of “forward looking vision of reparations, concerned with what sort of world we can make together,” quoting Bright. This approach “very much mirrors the concerns of the Non-Aligned person,” as it focuses on changes to the fundamental, underlying conditions — social, political and economic — that may be required to achieve racial equality and justice in the future, in a world increasingly turned upside-down by massive flooding, mega-droughts, wildfires, sea-level rise, famines, biodiversity loss and other climate-related disasters.

I find this very compelling: There is, it seems, simply no way to resolve the mismatch between reality and ideal without addressing the fact that, as Táíwò notes, climate change will exacerbate and reinforce the underlying causes of present-day problems. But achieving this end will require radical shifts in the racial power dynamics that currently exist. It will require overturning what Charles Mills famously called “white supremacy,” or “the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today,” which would mean white people giving up their accumulated wealth to achieve racial egalitarianism, not just within America but the world more generally.

Are Repenters and Repressers willing to do this? No, which is precisely why the Non-Aligned person does not engage in their bickering but, instead, uses what resources they have to investigate alternative solutions focused on reshaping global systems themselves, rather than on tweaking particular components of the system currently in place — the very system responsible for the endless series of culture-war flashpoints that Repenters and Repressers, along with the PoC intelligentsia, are constantly fighting about.

If you’re tired of the culture wars over race, the best way to end them may not be — paradoxical as this may sound at first — to try and “win” them. The take-home message of Bright’s illuminating discussion is that we need to build a Non-Aligned movement. At the very least, he writes, “it is imperative that we cease investing our psychic energy in the white bourgeoisie’s culture war. It will never get better, and only makes us worse.”

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from Émile P. Torres on philosophy and the future


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Jorge Oliveira

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