I guess you could say I’ve become an activist on behalf of your right not to have to be an activist. –Mike Nayna, documentary filmmaker
Here’s a pretty simple truth that keeps getting harder to believe: you don’t have to be an activist—not for a cause, not for a party, not for anything. Perhaps least of all for your—or anyone’s—identity. Today, white people are increasingly being forced into recognizing themselves as an identity group and are being pushed into a call to activism by a divisive slogan that’s currently spreading like wildfire: white silence is violence.
It’s fair to say this needs both an explanation and some unpacking. The explanation is a little easier. The world seems completely bent right now on forcing everyone to become an activist whether they want to or not. This comes from a variety of places, including the old feminist slogan “the personal is political” and even a branch of thought called Critical Theory that was, until recently, quite obscure. “The personal is political” is obvious in the ways it makes everything—the personal—about politics. Critical Theory, however, is less well-known, but the key relevant idea that developed under its umbrella is complicity.
Critical Theory arose, in the best part of its history, to try to explain how it was that the fascist regimes of the early twentieth century arose and gained power. To be perfectly clear, the reader should know that Critical Theory actually arose specifically to try and explain why communist Utopias hadn’t come to power in their place, and they ultimately blamed free, liberal societies for allowing and enabling the conditions that led to fascist takeovers. What they believed is that everyday, ordinary people are far more complicit in the evils that lead to fascist horrors than they understand, and they wanted to expose and change that problem.
Critical Theory has evolved a great deal since the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, when that kind of exploration was both necessary and novel, and rather than gaining perspective on the issue, they have gone the other way. One of the most famous Critical Theorists, Herbert Marcuse, even remarked in a television interview in 1977 that much of what happened in the name of Critical Theory had become dangerously anti-intellectual. Marcuse, it should be noted, was also famous for his idea that being tolerant of the intolerant is a form of complicity with intolerance (and “fascism”), and he advocated a kind of “discriminating” or “repressive tolerance” that answers “intolerant” speech with violence, if necessary, so he’s not totally off the hook here, despite this.
Nevertheless, in 2010, a little known “critical whiteness” educator named Barbara Applebaum published a highly influential book called Being White, Being Good with the primary purpose of laying out how all white people benefit from being white in a “racist” and “white-dominant” society, and therefore all white people are necessarily complicit in “racism,” “white supremacy,” and all the attendant harms of those evils, real and imaginary (when in their genuine, not weirdly abstract definitions).
Applebaum’s book is dense and philosophical and tortures both logic and history into confessing that, yes, all white people must be complicit in white supremacy. She calls this problem “white complicity” and makes a sustained case that all white people are always caught up in it, no matter what they do, so long as “white dominance” is maintained in the system.
Complicity implies moral responsibility. That is, in fact, what complicity means. Applebaum’s objective was to stretch the idea of moral responsibility for what she calls “racism” far from just being an active accomplice or accessory to it. In fact, she explicitly says this understanding of complicity is far too narrow.
She argues even that a very passive or disinterested approach—merely staying silent or neutral while evil takes place around you—is also insufficient. She built her view by extending one that had been outlined by earlier Critical Theorists and other thinkers, including Hannah Arendt most famously, who called the phenomenon “the banality of evil.” Arendt’s work has been pressed into the service of many progressive Critical activists since to claim that when white people aren’t actively opposing some evil they identify in the world, they are tacitly supporting it.
Applebaum argued that any definition of complicity that is sufficient must encompass the extreme position that anyone who “benefits” from evil, however indirectly, is complicit in it and thus bears moral responsibility for it. It is in this extreme understanding of complicity and moral responsibility that the jarring slogan “white silence is violence” has its roots.
Her case begins with the standard Critical Race Theory assumption that “racism is the ordinary state of affairs in our societies” and then works to establish that everybody who isn’t actively fighting this evil (on the Critical Race Theory terms) necessarily supports it. Neutrality is specifically twisted into a form of support for racism and even white supremacy. One could make a cogent case that this might make sense under the real, overt, and rampant racism and white supremacy of decades and centuries past, of course, but that’s not what we face in the current age, so it isn’t what Applebaum or other “critical whiteness” and “Critical Race Theory” scholar-activists mean. They have very specialized technical definitions that most people wouldn’t recognize and that were invented specifically to push these extremist views.
Applebaum also helps prescribe the answer to this problem of moral responsibility, with her prescription matching that of most other “critical whiteness” and “Critical Race Theory” advocates: all people who benefit from white privilege must take up a lifelong commitment to vigorous “anti-racism” activism that’s outlined on their Critical Race Theory terms. Anything short of this full commitment to their terms is defined as white complicity, which confers moral responsibility for all of the harms and evils of racism past and present and thus can constitute a firing offense now that these views are mainsteaming.
Of note, the people who benefit from white privilege includes all white people and all non-white people who are “white adjacent” or who “act white” and thus also benefit from it. More than that, no matter how much “anti-racism” activism white people do, unless the system is fundamentally torn down and remade without “white dominance,” they remain complicit and thus morally responsible to keep doing more activism. (This feature of “anti-racism” activism therefore bears unmistakable similarities to cult indoctrination programs.)
So, we can now come to the unpacking. Is it true that “white silence is violence”? The answer is obviously, “well, it could be, depending on the circumstances, but overwhelmingly not.” The facts of the matter are that racism is still present in our societies, but they’ve also never been lower and less likely to determine the fates of people effected by them than in all of history—with the unintended consequences of the present hyper-intense focus on race and racism excepted from this claim. Though ridiculously (and I mean that literally) incendiary to say so, this fact also applies to police and policing, though it is increasingly clear that some reforms and changes on this front are undeniably necessary. In other words, not only is white silence not violence here, to the degree that it’s even white complicity, it’s complicity in something that, while imperfect, is very close to the least bad it’s ever been in the history of our societies. It isn’t morally wrong to tell the truth about this.
The only question that remains is why the slogan reads “white silence is violence.” This actually requires more unpacking than I have space for here, but the short answers are two. First, in this extreme view of complicity, if violence arises in any way in a “system,” say by police use of force, then being “complicit” by not vigorously and fighting it on every level, as outlined by a specific program with very narrow and authoritarian terms, is fraudulently billed as tantamount to engaging in that violence yourself. (Thanks, Herbert Marcuse.) This is plainly preposterous and just a means of playing upon people’s guilt in a manipulative way.
Second, in the ideological worldview from which this slogan arises, “violence” is not merely understood literally but through “lived experience” of the “realities” of racism, which means the stories Critical Race Theory tells about it. Thus, this “violence” is frequently a claim that something makes someone feel bad, scared, or exhausted, so long as the relevant “systemic power dynamics” are involved. This can even extend to the ways that “power dynamics” and “systems of racism” produce different outcomes for different identity groups.
When this extreme and poor interpretation of “violence,” which is almost impossible to square with reality, is combined with this extreme interpretation of “complicity,” you can arrive at a slogan like “white silence is violence.” Obviously, that slogan would have carried far more weight in 1960, or especially 1860, than it does in 2020, but we’re allowed to live in the now without being called to repent for that.
In conclusion, “white silence” isn’t really violence in almost any realistic sense; it’s mostly just an attempt at compelled speech. The slogan “white silence is violence” is therefore best understood as an emotional manipulation by people who want you to understand the world in their particular way and to push their particular form of activism, which most of them directly benefit from, no matter what the costs to the rest of us. You don’t have to feel bullied by it, and you don’t have to be an activist, especially not on someone else’s extremely exaggerated terms.