Some time ago, I took part in a political rally about the environment. A young activist approached me. We exchanged the usual greetings, and he asked me where I was from and what I thought of the rally. I told him about my country being exploited by multinational extractive companies, living in semi-feudalism and under the spell of re-foundational rhetorics. By the way, more or less the reality of any Latin American country at this moment. After listening to me carefully, he said: “On behalf of my country, I apologise because our privileges have made the countries of the global south, like yours, poor.” End of the story.
George Floyd’s killing triggered a reset of mind across the Atlantic. Amid the pandemic, young people in Bristol and London brought down statues of philanthropists, university founders and European philosophers linked to the slave trade. This movement also prompted the use of a new vocabulary to talk about racism.
A young generation of English and North American activists, including Otegha Uwagba, Reni Eddo-Lodge and June Sarpong, have used the concept of White Privilege to highlight the consequences of unchallenged racism. It becomes a system that provides broad opportunities for self-fulfilment for White People while keeping the population of colour in low-paying jobs, with low expectations of social mobility via education, and living in slums in major European capitals. Fertile ground for radicalisation, by the way.
The idea of White Privilege comes to shift the focus on people of colour towards the white population. If there is a system that is designed to give you advantages over others, why would you want to challenge it? If you benefit from the system, why feel guilty about profiting from it?
The reactions of the white population to this idea are divided between the extreme of those who vehemently reject it (KKK), and those who want to subvert the social order by calling for a social revolution in the name of race. In the middle are hundreds of thousand well-meaning white people who are more or less aware of racism in Europe without actively participating in the fight against it. Bystanders they are called. These people feel guilty every time the police publish reports about the increase in police incidents associated with racism, the representation of the imprisoned black population or people of colour living in poverty or social exclusion in rich countries.
The secular guilt that comes from being aware of White Privilege can give rise to simple mitigation practices or political correctness that all we know very well—for instance, not talking about racism, changing the subject when presented, laughing at jokes when it is mentioned in the news, or talking about your only black friend, your race token, when someone brings the subject.
The problem is that these practices leave the underlying question untouched: The reaction to privilege is not guilt but justice. Racism constitutes a form of the perpetuation of whiteness as the paradigm of what is good, beautiful and true. The point is that none of this has ever existed except through political domination and economic plundering of third world nations by the first. Through the centuries, racism has only justified the extermination of people in the name of a white minority that has known how to take advantage of the fruit of that exploitation. They are the rulers of the world; they are travelling to space, and, I am sure, they are creating a free-guilt planet for all those who do not want to hear about justice.