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White Privilege, Psychoanalytic Ethics, and the Limitations of Political Silence

D Hook


The moral and philosophical interrogation of white privilege remains an imperative in post-apartheid South Africa. Whereas the critique of whiteness involves both philosophical and psychological scrutiny, subsequent calls for white political silence and withdrawal have yet to be subjected to adequate psychological analysis. This paper offers such an analysis by questioning, firstly, the idea of appropriate emotions for white South Africans (shame, guilt, regret), posing instead the problems of mimed affect and neurotic goodness. White approaches to guilt-alleviation and political passivity are queried, secondly, via the claim that such agendas lead all too easily to types of white exceptionalism and condescension, respectively. The ethical problems of political silence and withdrawal – implied superiority, non-participation and an unequal ‘rights of silence’ – provide a third area of questioning. The paper ends by introducing the Lacanian ideas of subjective destitution and identification with the symptom. These concepts throw a critical light on disavowals of white privilege and provide a novel means of thinking how white narcissism might be relinquished.