The Disturbing ‘Veil’ and “Double-Vision” of the Naïve White Liberal Anti-Racist Gaze
In the Odyssey, ancient Odysseus and his men accomplished yet another great feat of survival, blinding the one-eyed Cyclops to escape from his cave. One wonders today about the blinded single-eye of the good-natured, white liberal democrat: a view that sees itself as rabidly pro-justice, freedom, democracy, and the rest of the ideals that descend from the Western Enlightenment (made by and for white European men in the 18th century).
And, yet, this strange creature has a split double vision from its one eye. It ‘feels’ the dual threat of both Trumpian, right-wing, anti-democratic authoritarianism and the diverse social movements and protests against anti-Black racism leading to the tearing down of statues and what the right and left alike calls ‘cancel culture’ or the right asserts as the ‘indoctrination of the left.’
Is it fated for someone in a position of power to feel threatened at all times? If we turn to W. E. B. Du Bois’s ingenious insights on the ‘veil’ and ‘double-consciousness’ of being Black in America, one can think of another, inverted ‘veil’ and ‘double-consciousness’ of this blinded white liberal view today. The blinding strike of our historical present has led to a split within a single vision that lies beneath a kind of veil.
One can say the white liberal, democratic, maybe even progressive socialist and leftist view sees the world from within a veil that is not lifted. On the one hand, they see themselves through the eyes of two other groups: they claim how horrifying and vile white nationalism, supremacy, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and mostly anti-Black and other anti-Indigenous and POC, for example hatred of Latinx and Asians, are. They say in a silent voice of rage and hatred, a mixture of shame, guilt, and revulsion, that ‘we cannot be one of them,’ and that ‘the legacy of slavery and colonialism is not ours,’ as the philosopher Shannon Sullivan noted in her trenchant critique of white liberalism. The good-natured ones call those evil barbarians who espouse biological racism today the abhorrent ‘other,’ while reserving for themselves some sense of decency in claiming ‘we are different.’
But then, on the other hand, they see the other group of BIPOC facing multi-generational and daily humiliation, violence, and death: torrents of waves where past, present, and future co-mingle, at once stemming from both systematic and systemic racism that derive from and transcend white nationalists, the KKK, and Neo-Nazis. For this oppression permeates every institution and aspect of American society. Why not? Does it not come down to a fascination with ‘whiteness’ for those who live it and critique it? To them, the white liberal says, ‘I cannot possibly understand what it’s like to endure that racial oppression of non-whites,’ and ‘I want to speak out from within my silence but words escape me, and I relapse back into the silence I inhabit within the veil.’ Therefore, ‘I am in this world but not of it’ to quote the Gospel.
What can we learn from this split vision of positing and negating when it comes to two other groups that the white liberal tries to see and understand apart from itself? White supremacy is decried but also distanced so far to the point of paralyzing inaction while BIPOC suffer and die everywhere. They suffer at the hands of everyday white civilians, the militarized police, the heartless state, and the avarice corporations and their environmentally damaging atrocities, the terror continues. BIPOC, as the ‘other’, witness their suffering pornographically fetishized in white liberal discourse, but only to have this suffering doubled when the old discourse of the ‘free exchange of ideas,’ ‘tolerance of differing perspectives in a civil manner’ kicks in again. That old stalwart thinking quickly returns to diagnose the evil disease of ‘cancellation culture’ and ‘indoctrination of dogmatic intolerance’ in the ‘new religion’ of anti-racism, for example BLM.
What are we to make of this twenty-first century wounded Cyclops? The creature retains privilege as in the original myth since everything was provided for them, and they don’t have to work for what they have inherited. And that is called the utter, unfathomable, historical accident of either being born ‘white’ or ‘white enough to pass’ as such. If Marx analyzed the commodity, no one to this day has comparably or sufficiently analyzed ‘whiteness’ or ‘white passing.’
The self-denying person who says they are not reduced to biological ‘whiteness’ is the ultimate white liberal, democrat anti-racist. And this occurs across generations in our historical present, across the different generations who think they inhabit one single time-line. Here we find white supremacy and white privilege in a blind coexistence as it relates to the problem of time and therefore historical time. No whiteness exists apart from white supremacy. Color-blindness is privilege. So the blinded, fractured Cyclops does not see that problem.
They must consume everything that crosses their path in this split, double-vision, not even a double consciousness that is forever ‘irreconcilable’ for Black people as Du Bois said nearly 120 years ago and one can attribute to other POC today, albeit in intersectional terms. But this ruptured one-eyed giant called ‘white anti-racist liberalism’ doesn’t live in a cave, because there is no inside or outside distinction in the world of an eternal racism.
In some respect the veil – -as an illusion of real self-consciousness because one is always seeing oneself in relation to and different from the other — is itself the ultimate blind spot: the veil doesn’t exist at all. Rather, white supremacy becomes the mirror’s taint called ‘white liberalism’ and the objects that appear in the mirror are dialectically exchanged in the stasis of a perpetual motion: the white liberal must say I am not a ‘white supremacist’ while also failing to see the impossibility of pure connection with BIPOC because white liberals have the privilege of whiteness, and hence an-other type of ‘supremacy’ we are trying to name here.
This schizophrenic four-fold vision of identity and difference in the self-consciousness of the white liberal needs a new name: to be the same and different from white supremacy and same and different from BIPOC oppressed groups means one is never fully synthesized in two different ways. One can say that the ultimate giant, whose ideas shaped the white modern world to an extent like no other of his time, namely the imperialist Hegel, knew this well and suffered from it in the phantasm of truth called his ‘system and philosophy of world history.’
The dead bodies and skeletons slayed by systemic racism over colonialist centuries doom us to atrophy and entropy. At some point, this wounded creature will also perish on the lands they neither built nor own, and hopefully leaving a new world created not by the privileged gods but by a diverse, more humble humanity. We can call it the world after ‘Floyd.’
Rajesh Sampath is currently Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Justice, Rights, and Social Change at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He completed his PhD at the University of California, Irvine in the humanities with a concentration in modern continental European philosophies of history and critical theory at the Critical Theory Institute. He studied under the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction. His areas of specialization center on the philosophy of history, historical time, and epochal shifts.