Social Justice Usage
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, p. 121.
Complicity arises, according to Gardner, because I am not only responsible for my own actions (as a principal) but I am also responsible for how my actions causally contribute to your actions even when it appears as if I am not directly making a difference to the final outcome. If, for example, one lends a tool that picks locks to a thief who then uses it to rob a house, although the thief would have been able to enter the house by other means, one is still complicit in the theft because one makes “a difference to the difference that the principal makes.” The wrongdoing still comes “through me”—I am part of the chain of events that leads to the wrong. Both accomplices and principals bring wrongdoing into the world, but the place one is situated within the causal chain that leads to the wrong is different.
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 123–124.
The “Complicity Principle” emphasizes that one is accountable for what others do when one intentionally participates in a collective that causes the harm together. One is accountable for the harm we do together, independently of the actual difference an individual who intentionally participates in such group action makes. Participatory intention is intention to act as part of a group in collective action of agents who orient themselves around a joint project.
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, p. 140.
The white complicity claim maintains that all whites are complicit in systemic racial injustice and this claim sometimes takes the form of “all whites are racist.” When white complicity takes the latter configuration what is implied is not that all whites are racially prejudiced but rather that all whites participate in and, often unwittingly, maintain the racist system of which they are part and from which they benefit.
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. “Race Ignore-ance, Colortalk, and White Complicity: White Is… White Isn’t.” Educational Theory, 56(3), 345–362, p. 350.
Yet a focus on “intentional participation in collective action” cannot capture the type of complicity with which Bartky and Houston are concerned because white complicity involves participation without intention. In a post–Civil Rights era in which overt and vicious racism is denounced (at least publicly), subtle and often more insidious types of racism not only operate at a deeper, more systemic level but also work to sustain the system in invisible, naturalized ways. Iris Marion Young argues that social injustice is structural and is reproduced by the mutually supporting individual and institutional relations and practices that enable or constrain certain social groups’ actions while simultaneously privileging those of others. Such structural oppression refers to “the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms—in short, the normal processes of everyday life.”
New Discourses Commentary
Complicity is the idea of shared moral responsibility and even shared guilt for some kind of wrongdoing. This common-parlance understanding of the term extends even into the Social Justice literature, its Theory, its activism, and its ideological disposition without much direct modification. The usage of the term under the Theory of Critical Social Justice, however, is rather more expansive than we generally think of it. The examples above attempt to tell this story, beginning with something close to the common-parlance understanding and then showing how it expands, drawing from one of the most recognized Theorists of complicity in the Social Justice philosophy world, Barbara Applebaum.
In particular, Social Justice extends the idea of complicity out of the realm of contributory actions and into one of uncritical benefit from systems that oppress. This is in direct keeping with Social Justice’s critical disposition and expression as a critical theory. The notion of complicity is stretched in this way so that it can assign collective responsibility and guilt to entire identity groups for their participation in (consciously or unconsciously—see also, internalized dominance and anti-blackness) and benefit from structural advantage, systemic power, and/or privilege (these being close cousins well within the same genus of concepts). Specifically, members of Theoretically dominant identity groups—or, more accurately, people who occupy some positions of dominance in an intersectional analysis (i.e., basically everyone)—are Theorized to be complicit in, thus responsible for (and guilty of) the harms caused by those systems of power and the oppression they visit on marginalized and relatively oppressed groups/identities.
In application, it’s rarely made this complicated. Applebaum’s entire goal in her 2010 book Being White, Being Good is to stretch the notion of complicity far enough to define “white complicity,” the idea that all white (and white-adjacent) people are complicit in the maintenance and harms of systemic racism and white supremacy. (NB: She explicitly disclaims that she is doing this—accusing all white people of complicity in the racism attached to whiteness and white privilege with her concept of white complicity—in the introduction to the book and then dedicates hundreds of pages to doing it, which seems more like a philosophical dodge than anything else.) In particular, Applebaum provides a very comprehensive review of certain useful strands of the philosophical literature on complicity reaching back to post-Nazi analyses, including those of Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, and others, who raised the question of whether ordinary German citizens were complicit in the atrocities and genocide of the Nazi regime. The literature she cites is consistently problematized for being insufficiently expansive to include collective responsibility for contributing to and supporting systemic privilege.
Thus, under analyses like Applebaum’s, now fundamental to the thinking of Social Justice as an ideology, complicity with systemic social forces is something that the beneficiaries are considered culpable for. This might include complicity with racism and white supremacy (under the auspices of intersectionality, critical race Theory, and whiteness studies) or with sexism and patriarchy (under the auspices of feminism and gender studies) to name just two examples among many Theorized systems of structural power. The only possible way to deal effectively with the guilt of this complicity, as critical whiteness educator Robin DiAngelo instructs, is to “take action,” i.e., become an antiracism activist, which is deemed a lifelong commitment to an ongoing practice of self-reflection, self-critique, and social activism on the behalf of Social Justice (see also, critical consciousness and wokeness). This is in perfect keeping with the original assumptions of a Critical Theory (see also, Frankfurt School), which indicated that a Theory can only be a Critical Theory if it advocates and enables social activism according to the normative moral vision of the Critical Theory.
See also, white complicity
Anti-blackness; Antiracism; Colortalk; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Dominance; Feminism; Frankfurt School; Gender studies; Genocide; Identity; Ideology; Internalized dominance; Intersectionality; Marginalize; Nazi; Oppression; Patriarchy; Position; Power (systemic); Privilege; Problematize; Racism (systemic); Sexism (systemic); Social Justice; Structural; Theory; White; White adjacent; White complicity; White ignorance; White supremacy; Whiteness; Whiteness studies; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books. Kindle Edition, pp. 2–3.
In the field of critical whiteness studies, for instance, questions of complicity are especially notable in the academic discourse around social justice education. Here we find a claim about complicity that is addressed to all white people regardless of and despite of their good intentions.
What I refer to as “the white complicity claim” maintains that white people, through the practices of whiteness and by benefiting from white privilege, contribute to the maintenance of systemic racial injustice. However, the claim also implies responsibility in its assumption that the failure to acknowledge such complicity will thwart whites in their efforts to dismantle unjust racial systems and, more specifically, will contribute to the perpetuation of racial injustice.
Recognizing that one is complicit, according to the claim, is a necessary (albeit not sufficient) condition of challenging systemic racial oppression. Most significantly, since the white complicity claim presumes that racism is often perpetuated through well-intended white people, being morally good may not facilitate and may even frustrate the recognition of such responsibility….
What is of specific interest about white complicity is the claim that white people can reproduce and maintain racist practices even when, and especially when, they believe themselves to be morally good.
Revision date: 7/8/20