Given the events of the past few months, it has probably been explained to you at least once that all people who are “white” and “white-adjacent” are allegedly complicit in “systemic racism.” This may have come as a surprise to you, operating under the assumption that you, like most people, don’t think too highly of racism, can’t recall having supported it, and don’t feel at all as though you are complicit in something you’re not only not participating in but are also completely against. Something about this whole “systemic” thing may seem off to you, and you deserve a chance to understand it before you’re forced to accept it and take up a “lifelong commitment” to social activism on its behalf.
Your confusion is warranted. Because you’re not racist—or, if you are, because you take real and concrete steps not to let it influence the people you interact with in society—it can be off-putting to be accused of complicity in a “system” you didn’t even know exists and certainly wouldn’t support if you did. Whether you felt like any soul-searching should possibly precede genuine skepticism or not, you’d be right to ask what this “system” is, how exactly you’re “complicit” in it, and where these ideas came from in the first place.
The last two of these questions are easy to answer. These ideas came from a branch of Critical Identity Theory called “whiteness studies.” You are “complicit” in a “system” of racism, according to scholars of whiteness studies because you enjoy the benefits of “whiteness” inherent in the system—even if you’re not white, so long as you still support it, hence “white-adjacent” complicity. If you are white, or “white-passing,” you enjoy these benefits automatically, whether you want them or not, no matter your social or economic standing, as a result of your whiteness or willingness to accept “white” culture. This is called “white privilege.” Enjoying access to the benefits of whiteness and white privilege allegedly leads all such people to tacitly conspire to keep these benefits, which critical whiteness scholars call “white complicity.” These ideas came from a relatively small but highly influential group of activist-scholars who genuinely think this way about the world and the people in it.
This “white complicity” is the relevant concept we need to comprehend to understand the present moment. This idea was developed in considerable depth in a moderately densely philosophical book from 2010, Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy, by Barbara Applebaum. In this book-length, defining treatment of the concept, Applebaum expands the usual definition of complicity from intentional participation in a crime to include everyone who benefits from any “oppressive system.” This passive “support,” defined as everything short of actively attempting to dismantle the oppressive system, is what Applebaum identifies by the term “white supremacy.” Her goal is to expand the concept of “white moral responsibility” far enough to induce all white and white-adjacent people to take up activism to unmake this system.
This dangerous idea is presently in the process of remaking the world, and probably not in a good way. To give you some idea of how ludicrous is Applebaum’s expansion of complicity, and thus moral responsibility, to impugn all white people (plus adjacencies, etc.), I’d like to offer an analogy that roughly follows her construction.
Imagine that you are walking beside a friend on the sidewalk along a road. You’re on the side farther away from the road, and you and your friend are having an animated conversation, so you’re not paying as much attention to your feet or your path as you could be. As it happens, you step on the back end of a broken bottle on the sidewalk, turn your ankle, trip, and fall—right into your friend. Your shoulder hits your friend hard, knocking her off her balance and into the street just as a car, which is going five miles per hour above the posted speed limit, is passing. It hits your friend and kills her on the spot.
To get at the weakness of Applebaum’s seemingly penetrating analysis, the surprisingly hard question we need to ask is this: Who is at fault? Who bears moral responsibility for your friend’s death?
Immediately, you’ll realize it was an accident. It was nobody’s fault, though you might blame yourself. Moreover, there are a ton of causes that someone who is looking for someone to blame might land upon, not least in their grief. You should have been paying more attention. So should your friend, so she wouldn’t have been knocked over when you tripped. She could have been walking on your opposite side, in fact, and she was the one who chose not to. Of course, you both could have decided to go for a walk at a different time, if only your boss didn’t make you come in at weird hours, making late morning the only convenient time for you and your friend to have met.
Besides, that stupid kid (as it turns out) shouldn’t have thrown the liquor bottle out of the car window last night and broken it in that fateful spot. In fact, he was only 17; he shouldn’t have been in possession of a liquor bottle at all. How’d he get hold of it anyway? The driver shouldn’t have been speeding, and the school nurse who had called her before she left her house didn’t need to scare her so much that she felt like she needed to be in a rush to pick up her sick child from the school. It was just an upset stomach, and she wouldn’t have been at the scene of the accident at the crucial time had the nurse been just a little more calm.
This may all sound ridiculous, but it’s exactly the kind of reasoning that someone desperately searching to place blame might go through after something bad happens. It’s a desperate search for moral responsibility in a case where, in all likelihood, a judge would assign the ruling of it being a “no fault” accident. Sometimes they happen. For someone who is particularly aggrieved or tortured by the outcome, however, this kind of reasonable ruling might not be satisfying. Barbara Applebaum is one such person. Fault must lie somewhere. Indeed, it must lie everywhere.
If copied her, Applebaum’s reasoning on complicity and moral responsibility would begin by immediately asking about the implications all of the people involved, as listed above. A fair reading of Applebaum would suggest, however, that none of the people, listed above, is necessarily directly complicit in the death. Even if they are, however, this isn’t a satisfactory way to conceive of white moral responsibility because seemingly none of the people in this story benefited from the tragedy. Perhaps there’s still a moral lesson for them, but this is always true when tragedy or the potential for tragedy exists. That lesson is covered under a different moral rubric in the relevant Critical Social Justice ideology: “impact instead of intent.” Under such an analysis, every person mentioned above and many others are guilty contributors to the tragedy.
This isn’t Applebaum’s point, however. She wants to analyze the broader system that causes the problem, even if no individual person within that system has committed any identifiable wrongdoing. That is, her ambition is to outline systemic moral responsibility and to place culpability on the beneficiaries of the offending system. Thus, her quest for assigning moral responsibility within a systemic problem takes a different direction: asking who benefits from the circumstances that cause the problem, or that even allow it to occur. In this case, Applebaum’s analysis would ask who benefits from the various systems that led to your friend’s untimely and tragic death and would seek to assign moral responsibility—and to prescribe radical social activism against the system—to all such people.
So, who benefits here? One might be tempted to say that no one does. Your friend is dead. You’re grieving, along with her friends and family. The driver of the car is distraught, and her friends and family bear the brunt of it. Anyone else caught up in the story who caught wind of what happened might also feel guilt. Of course, some of them might deny it. Being able to deny complicity in a systemic harm is, for Applebaum, a culpable feature of privilege. On the other hand, some will never hear about the harm they contributed to, like the drunk kid who broke the bottle or the cafeteria workers who over-fried the okra that gave the driver’s kid a stomachache. That’s a privilege too, one that cannot be afforded to anyone directly impacted by the tragedy. Following Applebaum, these people may bear some moral responsibility for benefiting, in the sense of not having to suffer when a tragedy has occurred.
That still isn’t Applebaum’s point, though. Indeed, this would barely cover the first chapter of her analysis, wherein she establishes that no such analysis is adequate to the task of outlining “white complicity.” She would observe that there are actually many people who benefit directly from the system that led to—that created—this tragedy. They have systemic complicity in the “manslaughter,” or “murder” (if we’re following the same kind of hyperbole that names science and rationality a vestige of “white supremacy”).
To get to it, that kid couldn’t have broken that bottle if there wasn’t an entire society that supports the sale and consumption of alcohol, or that enables teenage recklessness, or that fails to police behavior or clean up streets with perfect responsiveness. People profited off of many aspects of that imperfect system, not least whoever sold the liquor, which means they benefited systemically from the circumstances that contributed to your friend’s death. In fact, everyone who purchased liquor within such a society is similarly complicit.
The manufacturer of the car the woman was driving would surely have profited from her buying it, and, in fact, the entire culture that supports and relies upon automobiles for transportation is implicated. They benefit from the freedom of movement and a more active economy, after all. The shoe manufacturers that made your walking shoes also profited, and everyone who contributed to that industry, the fitness industry, and just everyday people who felt like they benefited from having new shoes did so as well. Also complicit are the people who built the roads and the taxpayers who paid for them.
This “analysis,” which mirrors Applebaum’s regarding white people, could go ever on and on until complicity is identified in everyone who ever benefited, currently benefits, or ever stands to benefit from some imaginary “liquor culture,” “car culture,” police and “police culture,” “fitness culture,” “taxpayer culture,” Western civilization, capitalism, and on and on and on. In other words, everyone in the entire society is complicit. All of these and everyone are complicit in your friend’s death. That’s the systemic understanding of how your friend died, and the only remedy for this moral wrong is to take up (mostly symbolic) activism to try to tear down all of these systems and the society that allows them at the most fundamental level.
Under this modification of Applebaum’s analysis—one in which racial group identity has been removed to enable moral clarity—everyone is complicit in your friend’s death. In fact, this is necessarily the case in every death. The only available “solution” is for everyone to constantly recognize their complicity in everything bad that happens, acknowledge that whole system creates and is the problem, and thus that everybody who benefits from it, even by living within it, bears moral responsibility for it. Because no system can be perfect, our only option is to constantly “acknowledge” our complicity and constantly try to “do better,” unless all harmful systems themselves can be unmade and replaced with something completely different and, ideally, perfect.
Following Applebaum, who, along with other critical scholars of whiteness, names the complicit as “racists” and “white supremacists,” every person who participates in, benefits from, and “supports” any culture that enables a tragedy like the one described above is therefore a murderer, or at least manslaughterer. We are all the killers of your friend and of countless other people who die in traffic accidents, as a result of consuming alcohol, and literally every other bad thing you can imagine.
That genuinely sounds insane (because it is), but to make the case that this is what Applebaum means by “white complicity,” all you have to do is put the race back into the picture and trace her analysis directly. Once you do, every white, white-adjacent, etc., person who benefits from “whiteness” and who isn’t constantly and actively working to dismantle the system that creates and enables it is a white supremacist (someone who isn’t working to dismantle the system in which whiteness has “dominance”) and a racist (someone who benefits from the existence of racial discrimination, prejudice, etc., of any kind). That’s Applebaum’s central thesis in a nutshell, and it is upon precisely this bizarre foundation that Robin DiAngelo’s concept of “white fragility” is built.
Though it seems like the point of this discussion is to discredit Applebaum’s concept of “white complicity,” and by extension much of the “whiteness studies” that relies upon it (including “white fragility”), it is not. It is achieved, of course, but there’s a bigger point lurking here. That more general observation is that systemic thinking is itself the problem.
As we see here, systemic thinking, in the way that critical activist-scholars think of it not only does not but cannot clarify the problems it hopes to solve. In fact, it hopelessly muddles them, making them impossible to understand and impossible to do anything about except through symbolic contrition, feeling bad for one’s participation, however distant, for a “system” that sometimes produces bad results. This is true for systemic car culture, systemic liquor culture, and systemic racism.
Put straight, the concept of “systemic racism” is, generally speaking, a bad one. It does not add clarity; it obscures it. It does not foster healthy relationships or conversations about race; it produces the opposite. It does not encourage personal growth or “doing better”; it induces unnecessary guilt, shame, and moral confusion. It does not encourage genuine responsibility; it displaces it.
While there is much space to have meaningful conversations and debates around individual racism, racist attitudes, discrimination, ham-fisted policy that results in discrimination (what’s left of institutional racism), and even “cultural racism” and “epistemic injustice,” none of this is served by introducing “systemic racism” as a concept. It only muddies the waters and invites us to confusion and unjustified overreactions.
There are far better ways to assign moral responsibility for problems that arise in our world than by blowing them out to vague, pervasive, ubiquitous systems that can barely be defined and that hide genuine contributions to our problems in systemic fog. These better approaches aren’t actually new, even if they’ve mostly been forgotten and could still stand to see some improvements. Treating people as individuals, weighing intentions and the scope of knowledge of consequences that could potentially occur as a reasonable person would see them, recognizing that sometimes the judgment is no fault, and accepting responsibility for the sometimes complicated and difficult circumstances of life on a personal level are all reasonable alternatives to “systemic” thinking.
So, take heart: you’re hardly more of a racist because of accusations of “white complicity” in “systemic racism” than you are a murderer or manslaughterer because car accidents sometimes happen and you live in a society where people drive cars. Figuring out moral responsibility is sometimes hard, but there’s no need to make it unnecessarily harder by falling prey to bad Theory.