blog | werkgroep caraïbische letteren

Black privilege

by Brendan O’Neill

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for the Atlantic and the most celebrated author in the US right now, gets defensive when people ask him why he is so loved, worshipped in fact, by white liberals. He bristles, or says ‘I don’t know why white people read what I write’, or occasionally offers an explanation: it’s because he doesn’t sweeten the pill of American history, he says.

He shows white people a kind of respect by refusing to ‘soften the’, by which he means the history of their wickedness — of white supremacy, slavery, Jim Crow, and the original sin of the American Republic, the evil that still stains this land and which might stain it forever, in Coates’ increasingly nihilistic view, which, of course, is racism. This is what Coates writes about, and well-connected whites love it. They cannot get enough of it.

whitish / foto © Aart G. Broek – colourich

There they are at his talks and book launches, listening intently as he describes everything from being bumped into by a rude white woman to neighbourhood gentrification as acts of racism, or even white supremacy. In his new book, a collection of essays titled We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, he describes gentrification as a ‘storm’ that leads to ‘black people [being] swept away’.


Indeed, Coates’ obsession with whiteness ends up displacing black agency and autonomy — as the victim-oriented new politics of identity is wont to do — because in his ‘whiteness-as-talisman’ worldview, ‘those deemed white remain [America’s] primary actors’. So ironically — but logically, too, given that the politics of identity in its current incarnation is devoted largely to the diminution of the individual and the folding of him and her into victimised groups to which things happen, rather than the treatment of him or her as an individual who can make things happen — Coates’ anti-whiteness centres white people, makes them the adults of the story, gives them all the potential action — to observe themselves, correct themselves, better themselves — while blacks are mere ‘bodies’ for whom history is a violent act upon themselves rather than something they act upon. (Coates continually uses the term ‘black bodies’ to refer to black people.)


And this is where the new, post-Sixties politics of identity has taken us: far, far away from the old ideals of universal citizenship and the things that make them possible — belief in free will, the unfettering of autonomy, social trust and, yes, optimism in humanity — towards a constant cajoling of individuals to see themselves as wounded by history, determined by others’ attitudes, incapable of meaningful autonomy, and either as objects against which outrages are carried out or subjects who must self-flagellate forever over what they have allegedly done, or benefit from. Behold the new anti-humanism, in which self-pity or self-hatred are increasingly the only moral games in town. Take your pick: do you demean yourself with the brand of ‘victim’, or punish yourself with the brand of ‘beneficiary’?

Please, read the article here at the Spiked! website, december 2017.

Also see, on the same website, the interview with Jamaica born Jason D Hill

whitish / foto © Aart G. Broek – colourich

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