American actress Rosanna Arquette has declared her undying shame to the world on social media. It had nothing to do with her excessive earnings or being a gilded member of the Hollywood elite or anything else you normally associate with publicity seeking film stars. Instead, she made a fulsome apology on Twitter for the one thing that no one remotely rational cares about: the colour of her skin.
‘I’m sorry I was born white and privileged’ she said. ‘It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.’
There are so many levels of absurdity to the philosophy of white privilege, that it’s hard to know where to start with this tweet. For starters, the idea that you should feel guilty for an accident of birth, a mere matter of genetic predisposition and family history, is intellectually baseless. It’s a bit like apologising for being male or tall or blond. It destroys the whole notion of guilt, which revolves around personal responsibility, individual choice and autonomy. Guilt normally stems from the belief that your standards of conduct have gone awry and violated deeply held moral convictions. But what conviction does being white betray? How is whiteness a matter of personal responsibility?
Arquette would doubtless answer that white civilisation is founded on a painful legacy of racism, oppression, colonialism and slavery and that the western (in her view white) world is forever drenched in guilt. Of course, this simplistic, post-colonial, self flagellating narrative has been around for a long time. For devotees of identity politics, white society is suffused with privilege, power and status – the very things that are used to oppress racial and ethnic minorities. It’s why white people are told to ‘check your privilege’. But not only does it ignore the many white faces that have been at the forefront of campaigns for racial, sexual and political equality, it also ignores the cavalcade of white thinkers and artists who have striven for universal ideals and advanced human societies.
It’s true that the legacy of western slavery was terrible and caused untold waves of human misery. But this is not the whole story. For within white societies, there were those who dedicated their lives and political careers to abolition, sensing that slavery was a betrayal of Christian values.
The notion of inherited guilt makes no sense either. 21st century Britons are no more responsible for the slave trade than modern Italians are for the legacy of the Roman Empire. The endless apologies and hand wringing for things done centuries ago should come to an end. In any case, slavery should not solely be a matter for western remorse. Throughout history, non white societies were part of the slave trade that killed millions of people, an inconvenient truth which is airbrushed out of the discussion.
Those like Arquette who subscribe to white privilege seek to reduce human identity to something boring and monocausal. No longer is an individual’s identity multifaceted and complex, the result of an interplay of factors that span psychology, economics, culture and biology. Instead, who a person is has been condensed to skin colour, a matter of inheritance over which they have no control. And there is no get out clause here. Either you are a permanent victim or a tarnished oppressor who must forever atone for your sins. Privilege warriors cannot envision a society based on racial harmony and integration. Their playground is an adversarial one in which victim status is weaponised and used to attack those with power and influence. As a result, you get ubiquitous culture warriors who are ready to denounce anyone they deem to be offensive. The silencing of debate and the closing of the mind are natural consequences.
We all know that Rosanna Arquette has an abundance of privilege, influence and wealth. But these things have come from years of effort and hard work, as is the case with many members of the professional elite. No one cares about Arquette being white, and that is how it should stay.