Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Neutrality of Culpability: Toward a Re-conceptualization of a “Post-Racial” America

Introductory Bio

Erec Smith is an assistant professor and writing center director for Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. At Drew University, his prior institution, he had administrative duties as a diversity officer and cabinet member. He has published on the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and writing center theory ("Writing Under the Bodhi Tree") and is interested in the intersection of spirituality, rhetoric and diversity. His 2008 novel, Creamy Nougat, explores the relationships of race, class and social status in a “post-racial” context. He is currently interested in community writing centers and works with Philadelphia’s Spells Writing Center (, putting on workshops for children and adults in the region.

Blog Entry

As a professor of rhetoric and composition, a writing center director, a former diversity officer, and a writer of a novel that I can comfortably define as “post-racial,” I have much to say about the presence and nature of diversity initiatives on college and university campuses. I have been pulled by a campus’ desire for unity in diversity and pushed by the same campus’ resistance to being “forced” to open its collective mind. I have seen the oppressor become the oppressed and vice versa. I have seen diversity activities backfire, making dominant and subordinate people more solidified in their roles.

Throughout all of this, I’ve noticed that in higher education, we seem to be focusing on the effects instead of the causes, the symptoms instead of the disease (this trend is clearly reflected in the fact that, on most campuses, the diversity officer is a glorified ombudsperson only called upon when something racist happens and not to celebrate or promote diversity). To help more of us in higher education move in a more corrective direction, first step would be to revise the term “post-racial” for a more accurate view of society. “Post-racial” is not to say that racism does not exist. Instead it acknowledges that racism exists, but the perpetrators are not members of a homogenous, easily identified cohort. I argue that in post-racial America, there is a “neutrality of culpability” that pits us all as identity-creating beings dealing with seemingly involuntary drives to essentialize. The monolithic issues of institutional and environmental racism should not be ignored but approached differently—by deducing generalizing modes of identity toward more specific moments of xenophobia (its construction, maintenance and benefits).

A fine example of approaching race through the phenomenon of identity construction is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity (2005). In a chapter titled “The Demands of Identity,” Appiah address “the not-uncontroversial assumption that differences of identity are, in various ways, prior to those of culture” (64). He initially uses the example of the Robbers Cave experiment, in which two groups of white, Protestant, middle-class boys were placed on a Robbers Cave State Park campsite in close proximity—but separate—from each other. After each group had a few days to bond, one group was told of the existence of the other group, and after challenging each other in competitive sports, “tempers flared and a violent enmity developed between the two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles (as they came to dub themselves)” (62).

The animosity between the two groups was alleviated only when the researchers who devised the experiment created “shared subordinate goals” for the two groups. The researchers staged a water and food shortage that caused both groups to have to work together to ensure survival (or, at least, comfortable living for the amount of time they were left on the campsite). After the Rattlers and Eagles cooperated for such an important cause, the demarcations between the groups were shattered (113): “We often treat cultural differentia as if they give rise to collective identities,” writes Appiah, but “what happened at Robbers Cave suggests we might think of it the other way around” (64), meaning seeing the trees for the forest, looking at individual performance, and focusing on a hierarchical relationship between groups. At this point, I would like to argue that Obama’s description of contemporary America, in his famous speech on race, strongly implies a definition of “post-racial” that echoes a neutrality of culpability.

In his “A More Perfect Union,” speech, the televised response to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for his unapologetically racist remarks against White America, Obama initially reiterates his familial and social background ( He states that he is “the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas,” and that he is “married to a Black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.” He goes on to say “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Obama describes himself as an example diversity personified and praises America for being the sole place where such a person could exist. But by setting up his comparison of White and Black racial issues he also promotes the idea of a neutrality of culpability (a phrase that I believe we should use instead of post-racial):

As imperfect as [Wright] may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened
my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children…. I can no more disown
him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can
my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this
world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on
the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic
stereotypes that made me cringe.

Obama’s implicit ad hominem tu quoque, a tactic often construed as a logical fallacy, is anything but fallacious in this context. Obama explicitly states here that, although Wright said some harsh and bigoted things, so did Obama’s own grandmother in his presence. However, both guilty parties, Obama argued, are a part of him (him being the embodiment of diversity and part of America, at large). If we agree with Obama’s statement, then our major goal in higher education must be commonality, since we apparently already have the best and worst of our society in common. Further, Obama articulates this paradox as his justification for seeking leadership of this country:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe
deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them
together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have
different stories, but we hold common hopes . . .

This neutrality of culpability is also illustrated in Diane Goodman’s book Promoting Diversity and Social Justice (2001). Goodman lists several types of oppression (sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc), their corresponding dominant groups (males, whites, heterosexuals, etc) and subordinate groups (females, people of color, homosexuals, etc). She does this in order to show how one person can embody both a dominant and subordinate membership but, for one reason or another, tends to embrace just one. She writes:

We all have multiple social identities that, depending on the social category,
may place us in either a dominant or subordinate group, on different sides of
the power dynamic. I, like most others, am part of both advantaged and
disadvantaged groups. For example, I am a woman and a Jew and therefore am part
of the subordinate group in sexism and anti-Semitism. Yet, I am also White,
heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, and in my middle-adult years, which
makes me a member of several dominant groups as well. Our particular
constellation of social identities shapes our experiences and our sense of self.
Goodman is careful not to dismiss people’s reasons for embracing one group identity over the other, but she does want to point out the idea that some dominant group members double as subordinate group members. Her purpose, consistent with Obama’s personal observations and Appiah’s academic observations, is to expose the arbitrary nature of group identities in a way that does not alienate them but brings them together in their paradoxical human tendency to categorize for the sake of security and—voluntarily or involuntarily—power.

The point is that we are all constructions and abstractions. This realization may lend some insight into how we see others who we’ve constructed as different from our constructed selves. This is not to say that racism does not exist and does not affect our lives, but a neutrality of culpability may alleviate “diversity fatigue” among traditionally oppressive and oppressed groups and re-construct diversity studies in the future. If we understand race as a symptom of illusive demarcations of judger/judged—thus acknowledging each other as both judger and judged—we can more easily embrace the commonalities we already have as human beings. I am confident in saying that if people in higher education really want to improve diversity relations, they will broach the subject by exploring the social construction of group position.


Cat Up North said...

This is an interesting post, but I wonder if the writer will animate the word "power" in the consideration of the multiple identities we all experience? That is, I agree (as Black feminist theory poses) our identities intersect, and can put us into dominant/subordinate simultaneously. But this experience doesn't tell us much about the uneven distribution of power. Why the entrenched wage difference between white women and white men, for example? How does that observation relate to the mechanics of getting people to a place where we can "all work together" in "neutral culpability?" As Shanto Iyengar wrote, "Is Anyone Responsible?" If so, don't those responsible people who are dominant/non-dominant (and with access to resource distribution power) have a different job to do than those of us who are co-constructed with dominant and non-dominant identities, but do not have re-distributive power?

Erec said...

The neutrality of culpability is about our approach to discrimination. I believe it will help us make the very important distinction between modes of unequal power distribution and xenophobia (too many people conflate the two in civil rights discourse and American cultural studies, in general).
Institutional discrimination often happens unbeknownst to those in power. I’m reminded of one of Delpit’s characteristics of the culture of power: those with it are least aware that they have it.

The people with power have the responsibility to “even things out” because they have the power, not necessarily because they are culpable.

The neutrality of culpability says to those privileged groups, “Hey, we’re not blaming you, but you have to admit things need to be fixed. Since you have the power to move things in a more egalitarian direction, why don’t you do so?”

Whether those with power take the opportunity to “even things out” or ignore the call is another issue, but an issue that can be better approached via a neutrality of culpability. Such an approach is more conducive to the conversations necessary to move things in the right direction, a direction in which those in power are not expected to prescribe solutions but converse and collaborate with themselves and others to reach solution.

I can return to Appiah in The Ethics of Identity, who writes, “I prefer to see human rights as a language for deliberation, or argument, or some other form of conversation. And it is conversation, not mere conversion, that we should seek; we must be open to the prospect of gaining insight from our interlocutors.” (For those with psychoanalytic sensibilities: It is unfortunate that Appiah uses the term “interlocutor” which once denoted the master of ceremony in a minstrel show, but please focus on the more official meaning of the term: someone who participates in a conversation).

The neutrality of culpability is a necessary first step and, by no means, the last.

Cat Up North said...

Thanks for the reply. My next question is, what rhetorical strategies do you suggest for telling those with power (and those who share identifications with the powerful) that "racial/gender/sexual/etc. inequity is not their fault, but since you have power, you need to help change it." In my experience, there are too few people in power/linked to power who are able to hear that without still feeling like they are being "blamed for stuff their ancestors did." OR, others dismiss the claim that they have any responsibility: one need not fix something that she/he did not personally break. OR, they appreciate not being blamed, but don't see a need to change things because it's not clear how it would benefit them.
I ask these questions in all earnestness, and would love some more tactics. I've been working on re-framing questions of discrimination and inequity, and (as to be expected) have uneven results, but want to keep on pushing.

Helen Fox said...

I think the trick is to discuss how the behavior of power-holders in the past continues to privilege certain identity groups in the present (whether or not that privilege is welcomed). I have used Ira Katznelson's book, "When Affirmative Action Was White," for example, to show how many New Deal policies deliberately advantaged whites at the expense of people of color. I assign a chapter to each small group of students, asking them to discuss what the author's main argument was, what new or striking, important, strange, or troubling facts they found, and what are some implications of his argument for compensatory policies today. Also, the film, "Banished," about ethnic cleansing of blacks from some U.S. towns in the last century and the resistance of current residents to efforts of blacks to find old gravesites and move relatives' remains really speaks to some initially resistant students. In other words, move the discussion away from "I'm not personally responsible for the past" to "Here's how actions in the past still affect people today -- economically, socially, and especially (in "Banished") emotionally.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA