The ‘monstrous false innocence’ of white progressives

I’ve just come back from doing a writers’ workshop in Iowa City, and I also spent a week on holiday in Chicago. Whilst there, a number of things got under my skin.

For instance, in the gardens of beautiful houses, in rich white neighbourhoods, I repeatedly saw signs proclaiming: Women’s Rights are Human Rights; Black Lives Matter; Love is love; No hate here; and so on.

In the writing workshop, a young woman objected to a pervy sex scene in a fellow writer’s story. She seemed to think the scene endorsed sexually predatory behaviour.

Another writer, a white guy, was trying to write against racism. His African-American character was the nicest guy you’d ever meet – so nice, in fact, that he didn’t even react when another character told his white wife to abort their mixed-race baby!

In this workshop, we discussed what writers are, and aren’t, ‘allowed’ to write about. I mentioned Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016, where she asserted that writers should write about whatever they want, and to Hell with political correctness and concerns about cultural appropriation. This speech prompted Yassmin Abdel-Magied to protest by walking out of the room and writing to The Guardian – which, in turn, sparked debate about writer’s responsibilities. (Sonia Orchard contributed to this debate with her Overland article, ‘Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.’) Politely, tentatively, my classmates were unwilling to assert or defend any clear position on their role and responsibilities as writers.

All of these things made me mad – though I wasn’t really sure why, or at whom.

Towards the end of my stay, I caught a bus to see the Mississippi. On the way there, I saw endless billboards graphically protesting against abortion. Iowa had just passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in America. The weird thing is, this didn’t make me mad – it just made me scared.

All this time, my mind was mulling over an interview I’d read earlier this year in Time. This interview sees Eddie S. Glaude Jr. speak to the writer-director Jordan Peele about his Oscar-winning film Get Out. By directly addressing the relationship between ‘discomfort’ and the role of the artist, this interview really helped me understand my grumpiness – both in the US and in general.

For those who haven’t seen it, Get Out is a weird hybrid between social thriller and horror. It’s about privileged, apparently progressive whites who kidnap African Americans in order to – as they see it – implant their superior white minds into their captives’ superior black bodies. The film is very funny, very strange, and deeply discomforting.

In the interview, Glaude refers to novelist James Baldwin’s thoughts on ‘the fear of race’ and notes Baldwin’s claim that those who ‘insist on remaining in a state of innocence, long after that innocence is dead, turn into monsters.’ He suggests that the ‘monstrousness of white liberals comes into view in Get Out.’ 

Peele responds by saying that racism is powerful because it’s systemic, something that every individual is guilty of and subjected to. He says:

We have this association of the monsters of racism being a certain type. Being a Klan member. Being a Nazi. Being a vicious, outwardly violent, murderous police officer. They are the monsters, but in categorizing them as such, I think we often lose sight of the demon of racism. It is a systemic thing, and it’s something that we all have to deal with within ourselves. I am less scared of the person who calls me “nigger” than the person who is thinking it near me… I can identify someone who’s vocal, and therefore I can stay away from them… But when there’s silence, when there are people who are not in touch with their inner racism, that’s when the violent culprits find room to fester and grow. And that’s where all those checkpoints in systemic racism are allowed to flourish as well.

Here, Peele explains to me why the anti-abortionists’ billboards didn’t enrage me: I could see danger – a threat to my autonomy as a female – but it also meant I could react accordingly. I’d have been more scared had I sensed a threat without being able to locate its source.

It’s the notion of ‘monstrous false innocence’, however, that really helps me understand what bugged me in the US, and what bugs me about the crap that comes out of my own mouth, and swills around my own head. More importantly, this notion of ‘monstrous false innocence’ helps me look with a very cool eye upon my own fiction writing.

This interview made me see those garden signs as communicating, first and foremost, profound insincerity. Does planting a sign in your yard constitute a political action? Or is it simply a form of exhibitionism – of self-branding? Did those residents understand that, in order for others to have more economic, cultural and political power, they would have to have less? Would they, in reality, ever share their power, or would they defend their privilege to the end?

And what about me? Would I be willing to have less, so that others could have more – if push came to shove? And isn’t that, really, what it will take for me to share my good luck? A violent push? A violent shove? If so, from whom – and how?

West of Chicago, I found myself wandering a suburb full of boarded-up houses. The only people I saw were African American, and no one looked like they had any money. There weren’t signs in their front yards campaigning for equality and love. As I walked, I thought: If there isn’t hate here, there bloody well should be. I suddenly saw the grotesque perverseness and utter self-delusion of people calling for black equality whilst living in rich white ghettos. Weren’t those residents clearly enjoying the benefits of the very system that they – apparently – railed against? Weren’t they ‘falsely innocent’?

The notion of ‘monstrous false innocence’ also explained my stroppiness in the workshop.

The woman who disapproved of the pervy sex scene seemed to be primarily focussed on herself – on asserting power over the text, its writer and the class. She was telling us that Who She Was and What She Valued was morally superior. Initially, the class submitted, because to do otherwise – in the context that she’d created – was to admit some sort of degeneracy. But I challenged her, because the discomfort that fictional scene provoked came from the fact that it rang true: the writer was doing his job; instead of being ‘falsely innocent’ about the nature of sexuality, he was confronting it.

Peele notes that when words like ‘racist’ get weaponised – used as an insult to shut people up – we become unable to acknowledge our own racism. This made me think of my classmate, with his angelic African-American character. This writer was so scared of being labelled a racist by others, and thus so unable to confront his own racism, that he had, ironically, produced a profoundly racist text –a text where a black character was grossly dehumanised in order to serve a white man’s agenda.

Peele’s film tackles racism in a much more sophisticated way by, as he says, observing the connection between subtle, ‘not hurtful’ racism, and the worst racism ‘of violence and slavery and abduction.’ By linking the covert racism of denialist progressives to more violent and obvious forms, his film gives us a proxy means to discuss all forms of racism, including our own.

Peele’s thoughts really help me clarify the responsibility of writers and readers alike: to have the courage and honesty to see where the muck is – both within and without ourselves – and to wade straight into it. For me, ‘the mucky terrain’ lies in understanding how the privileges I enjoy as an educated, middle-class, white female relate to others’ lack thereof.

What’s the solution? ‘Self-awareness’?

Entire university departments, and endless publications, seem dedicated to ‘white self-awareness.’ As does much of progressive political discourse. In Iowa City, at a café, I watched a white academic meet with her student – a young Asian guy. She spent their entire meeting talking about her awareness of her whiteness and her privilege. She spoke with the loud, clear voice of the exhibitionist, turning everyone in the café into her captive audience. The room cringed, not only because it felt like we were watching someone masturbate in public, but because the silenced student couldn’t have gotten any help with his work. The obvious power disparity between them meant he just had to sit there, shut up, and smile with gratitude.

The discourse of morally superior ‘self-awareness,’ one that this article obviously perpetuates – what could be more ‘morally superior’ than ‘calling out’ the moral superiority of others!? – seems to be the prime means through which individuals, and institutions, manage to create, live within, and spread, the ‘monstrous false innocence’ that Gaude and Peele warn against:

The beauty of art and the beauty of story [is that they] are society’s ways of encouraging empathy. Take Get Out as an example. There is a lot that can be accomplished by expressing the fears within the African-American experience. There’s a lot that can be accomplished by white people experiencing those fears.

… Every artist who puts their truth out there means to provoke conversation or to provoke emotion. They are already doing something that is promoting empathy… The division in this country comes from a lack of empathy. It comes from a denial of one another’s experiences.

Clearly, you cannot create something that provokes true empathy from the comfy position of ‘monstrous false innocence’. The question, for me, for writers – and for everyone – is how that ‘monstrous false innocence’ can be destroyed.

HC Gildfind

HC Gildfind is the author of the short story collection The Worry Front, published by Margret River Press in 2018.

More by HC Gildfind ›

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  1. I think this article is great. It shines light on the way progressive culture operates in a time when middle and upper class people take on the identity of a progressive in order to make up for the massive advantages the system they live in offers them. Shines light on hypocrisy.

  2. Excellent article, but I think you sell yourself short by relating what you’re saying to Lionel Shriver’s talk. Beneath her bland point of “writers should say what they want” was a seam of reactionary, dogwhistle politics that’s backed up by the attitudes to be found in her recent fiction.

      1. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your thoughts, Laurence, Jacinda and Jasmine. Shriver’s a funny one, and reminds of Germaine Greer in a way: they have brilliant brains and write and talk about complex and important issues, but also have some sort of a need to attract attention at any cost by saying outrageous things. I don’t know enough about Shriver to comment on her politics – and I didn’t reference her because I ‘agree’ with the speech she gave, but because of the reaction it provoked (ie a debate on what writers are ‘allowed’ to write). With the whole ‘PC’ debate it seems, to me, that it’s the debate itself that is very important, rather than ‘taking a position’ for or against it: when people ‘take a position’ (on anything) the conversation stops… maybe that’s the difference between an argument and a conversation…??

  3. I agree with this, it’s like there’s a PC code of policy for white people to follow but it’s not flexible or responsive to real-life situations where direct action is needed. Conversations around race and sexual violence are dominated by party lines instead of real, open-hearted, uncomfortable, sad, angry truth.

  4. A superb article, sharply observed. Thank you! When the fear of being called ‘racist’ stops even well-meaning white people from having necessary conversations, we realise that we are all trapped. Racism isn’t something that people of colour need to be ‘rescued’ from: it is a system that everybody needs to destroy from the inside. Here’s to the destruction of more false innocence!

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