The 8 White Identities by Barnor Hesse

The 8 White Identities

by [Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science, and Sociology] Barnor Hesse

There is a regime of whiteness, and there are action-oriented white identities. People who identify with whiteness are one of these. It’s about time we build an ethnography of whiteness, since white people have been the ones writing about governing Others.

  1. White Supremacist; Clearly marked white society that preserves, names, and values white superiority.
  2. White Voyeurism; Wouldn’t challenge a white supremacist; desires non-whiteness because it’s interesting, pleasurable; seeks to control the consumption and appropriation of non-whiteness; fascination with culture (ex: consuming Black culture without the burden of Blackness)
  3. White Privilege; May critique supremacy, but a deep investment in questions of fairness/equality under the normalization of whiteness and the white rule; sworn goal of ‘diversity’
  4. White Benefit; Sympathetic to a set of issues but only privately; won’t speak/act in solidarity publicly because benefiting through whiteness in public (some POC are in this category as well)
  5. White Confessional; Some exposure of whiteness takes place, but as a way of being accountable to POC after; seek validation from POC
  6. White Critical; Take on board critiques of whiteness and invest in exposing/marking the white regime; refuses to be complicit with the regime; whiteness speaking back to whiteness.
  7. White Traitor; Actively refuses complicity; names what’s going on; intention is to subvert white authority and tell the truth at whatever cost; need them to dismantle institutions.
  8. White Abolitionist; Changing institutions, dismantling whiteness, and not allowing whiteness to reassert itself.

I find a number of things in Barnor Hesse’s “The 8 White Identities” highly relevant and important.

First among them is Professor Hesse’s focus on “action-oriented identities.” This take on identity stands in remarkably sharp contrast to the typical (oxymoronic “white anti-racist”) understanding of identity politics. Hesse’s schema focuses almost exclusively on what people actually do, rather than on what people say they do, which should be, like, critical thinking 101 but isn’t because most people are intentionally (mis-)educated out of the ability to think critically by a white supremacist and actively genocidal system of forced schooling.

This point of “action-oriented identities” is actively relevant to rolequeer conversations right now, as this excerpt from Thinking Rolequeer: Stepping Outside the Charmed Circle makes clear:

[The concept of] kyriarchical positionality is about identity, whereas [Gayle Rubin’s] Charmed Circle is about actions. To think about and criticize power and powerful structures effectively, we must first deeply internalize the difference between these two things [identities and actions] and apply them both at the same time in any analysis of a given situation. This two-pronged approach is important because, for starters, “power” is not merely some abstract idea, but the application of force placed in time and space.

Most current discourse about sex and power has been totally overwhelmed by these ultimately unhelpful questions: Are you what you do? Are you only what you do? More crudely: Are you gay because you have gay sex? Or are you having gay sex because you are gay? Is it a choice? Or were you born that way? While politically expedient, I believe these questions dissecting the justifications for a given act are derailing distractions from the real issue: in what ways do our identities or actions threaten the ability of The Powers That Be to define our boundaries on our behalf?

Rolequeerness is a mental tool (that is, it is an idea) enabling us to more easily merge the two interrogatory approaches outlined in intersectional feminist analysis (kyriarchy, queer theory, etc.) described above in order to help us focus on actions whose impacts actually undermine power.

(Emphasis added.)

Another key point in Hesse’s schema is the way it implicit widens the scope of what is considered “complicity” with white supremacy by virtue of gradating such identities on a spectrum rather than a simple dichotomy of “racist” and “not racist.” Hesse makes this explicit in his description of “White Confessional” where he describes the point of action as one where “Some exposure of whiteness takes place, but as a way of being accountable to POC after,” which I read to mean after complicity in white supremacy has caused harm.

This point of placing complicit actions at a precise moment in time is something I heavily elaborated on in my essay, “Complicity in Abuse: 101-level information social justice hobbyists are dangerously ignorant of,” such as in this excerpt:

One way to understand awareness of complicity more fully is by contrasting it with a related and equally misunderstood idea: “being accountable.” Frustratingly, “accountability” has become an all but meaningless buzzword for social justice hobbyists (that is, people who engage in what I call “pop social justice”), such as those on Tumblr.

In the pitiable Internet social justice filter bubble where you may currently be having most of these conversations, “being accountable” means publicly accepting responsibility for some abusive or otherwise oppressive behavior. It’s also used to mean acknowledging a privilege (such as “male” or “white”) through a rigidly prescribed set of social rituals. Importantly, this “accepting accountability for” is definitionally something one does after one commits some abusive act or claims some oppressor identity. This is in sharp contrast to “awareness of complicity,” which is definitionally something we are trying to do to prevent abusive or oppressive behavior from existing in the first place as much as possible.

I also think that even the name of this category, “White Confessional,” is important to this point. It locates white guilt by metaphorical coordinates in the dominant moral belief system of religion by its name: Confession. Despite whatever honest intent may have birthed this peculiar social ritual, it has been undeniably perverted into an act of abusive complicity and is now used as a psychological bludgeon by the majority of “social justice activists.” In my “Complicity in Abuse” essay, I quote Andrea Smith on this point:

It’s also important to understand the purpose of these rigidly prescribed social rituals, because they are one way many people are complicit in abuse. The rituals that activism hobbyists perform together was perhaps best summarized by Andrea Smith in her essay, The Problem with Privilege:

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege.  These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.”  It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.  It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege.   It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege.  Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.    The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral.  For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness.  The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.   Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.

By performing the confession ritual Smith describes happening in these workshops, people who fancy themselves “social justice activists” engage in a transaction that temporarily trades whatever systemic power they may have had outside of the workshop’s context (such as the ability to command more cultural and social attention as a result of their whiteness, or to more forcefully direct community governance processes as a result of their maleness, etc.) in exchange for some social accolades (such as acceptance to the workshop space, friendships with the workshop participants, and public recognition from those who already command respect) within the workshop context.

This is a fundamentally corrupt, and corrupting, process.

(Emphasis in original.)

Last (for now) but not least, I also think Hesse’s naming of a category “White Traitor,” especially as it’s distinct from “White Abolitionist” but nevertheless paired with it (we “need them [traitors] to dismantle institutions”), is important. To be blunt, you can not be a traitor to a cause or institution that you have never supported. A traitor is a turncoat or, depending on your point of view, perhaps a whistleblower. These difficult identities is where acts of (social justice) “allyship” really take place; “allyship” is not present in the guilt-projecting “confessionals” of in-actionable social capitalism wrapped in the flag of identity politics.

This point of traitorous identities also inherently defines a certain relationship that crosses the line between the personal and the political, the individual and the institutional. That relationship is also inherently dangerous, because it actively threatens powerful people, institutions, and political forces. Tumblr user alexispointy succinctly described traitorous white race relations like this:

if you want to really be a useful white race traitor, you gotta refuse the privileges granted to you and interfere with the privileges granted to others for being white. at the very least, use your white privilege to help serve the immediate needs of poc if you can’t be assed to sacrifice the comforts of your white life.

In numerous essays, unquietpirate also discusses “traitorous” relationships in the contexts of both race and gender. In this post, she brings it back around to how (intentionally?) ineffective most of what’s called “social justice” really is, and why the idea of a “rolequeer politic of action” is both so useful and threatening, but is not actually new at all:

Arguably, the most effective thing that a person with privilege can do to dismantle oppression culture is to treat the marginalized people they love respectfully, put their needs first, and do everything possible to make their lives easier, so that those peoples’ intimate understanding of how oppression works and how to resist it can come to the fore — rather than be further buried under the crushing weight of just having to deal with oppression in every situation and relationship in their life every minute of every goddamn day.

This is ultimately the reason why rolequeerness is so important. The radical act I’m describing is basically “submission” — but the key is that it’s about submitting to someone who is less powerful than you. The traditionalist notion of power relations is that we submit to people because they are more powerful than us, but that’s backwards.

Radical people of color and other marginalized folks have been talking about this fairly common sense thing since the 60s and probably long before: the idea that “allies” exist to support a movement in the ways they are asked to, not to run it; that ”allyship” is about putting your privilege into the service of a movement that seeks to dismantle the institution that privileges you. That’s giving your power over to someone for the express purpose of empowering them to hurt you. That’s a submissive relationship to power.


One of the reasons that contemporary pop social justice folks are so bad at achieving their own stated goals is because they fail to understand that allyship is submission — and most of the entitled, domist folks in that scene couldn’t submit to save their lives, even the ones who identify as “submissive” in a BDSM context. See also: The number of people who got all excited about “rolequeer” as a cool, edgy new identity option — but wigged out about the part of my post that described rolequeers as “submissive as fuck.”

“I want to say I’m rolequeer, but I don’t want that to mean people think I’m submissive! Eew!” is what I heard when I read those posts. And, to me, it just smacked of some heterosexual hipster who’s taking a Gender Studies class and wants to identify as “queer” but not “get mistaken for a fag.”

Turns out that if you want to ally with people less powerful than you, then you might get “mistaken” for being one of them. And if that assumption that you’re a traitor to your privileged class is a mistake, you’re probably “being an ally” for the wrong reasons.

So, as we’ve said before, this is just some of what we’re trying to talk about when we say that “rolequeer means a traitorous relationship to one’s own placement in a privileged position.”