Responsible Beyond Debt: A Response to Eula Biss’s White Debt

by Allie Lundblad

Eula Biss published “White Debt: reckoning with what is owed – and what can never be repaid – for racial privilege” in the New York Times Magazine on December, 2015. Some members of the Constructive Theologies Project are bringing their own perspective to critically engage with this essay. The following is Allie Lundblad’s response to Biss’ article.


Responsible Beyond Debt: A Response to Eula Biss’s White Debt

We white people are “moral debtors who act as material creditors,” says Eula Biss in her recent essay “White Debt.”[1] The essay weaves together anecdotes and personal reflection with quotes from Nietzsche, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, all structured around language of cost, loan, debt and guilt. Biss likens the debt of white people to that of student debt or a mortgage, for certainly white people do not earn all that we have – wealth, privilege in the eyes of the law, access to resources of various kinds – though we like to pretend that we do. That pretense becomes harder to hold, then, in the face of our guilt.

In the face of this pretense, this illusion, Biss says, guilt can act “as a prod, a goad, an impetus to action.” Speaking of guilt as a kind of debt itself, Biss reflects that “if debt can be repaid incrementally, resulting eventually in ownership, perhaps so can guilt.” In the next line she asks and answers, “What is the condition of white life? We are moral debtors who act as material creditors.”

“Moral debtors who act as material creditors.” With this line, Biss names the absurdity of the relation of white people to resources, goods, power and to other people themselves. We are in debt, and yet we continue to take as if it is others who are indebted to us. We take as if people of color owe us a favor. We take as if we’re earning what we have, without an inkling that we might owe anything to anyone at all or that we owe to others what we take.

What do we take? Biss names banks that make bad loans and police who “like Nietszche’s creditors, act out their power on black bodies,” but the language of debt can stretch much further. Inasmuch as having power is linked to a scarcity of resources, we white people are in debt.  We might speak of the way that job opportunities get passed from white person to white person or the way that white students have better access to better funded schools because our cities remain segregated along racial and class lines. These are the powers and privileges that white people buy on a borrowed dime, all while under the illusion that we are simply taking what is owed us. This is true not only of wealth – though certainly it is true of wealth – but also of other resources that give power to white people at the expense of people of color again and again and again.[2]

Throughout the article, Biss has developed a concept of guilt as intimately related to debt, drawing on Nietszche’s claims that guilt grew out of material debt, and that guilt makes what one has a bit more questionable, a bit less enjoyable, thus undermining the power of the guilty. For Biss, this is “what makes guilt potentially redemptive.” It makes the illusions of whiteness harder to hold, harder to enjoy. Guilt becomes a reminder of material debt, a reminder with moral power.

Yet this concept of guilt, perhaps the strongest piece of Biss’s argument, becomes confused the moment that Biss describes guilt as a “moral debt” and suggests that such moral debt can be repaid. Speaking of white people as “moral debtors” obscures the fact that much of the debt owed by white people is in fact material; we are material debtors. To speak of moral debt in the face of such material inequality circumvents the fact that material changes must be made. In such a situation, relieving white guilt is a much less pressing problem than paying up, relieving the material inequality that whiteness has created.

At the same time, the language of “moral debt” and the focus on guilt does little to clarify the damage done by whiteness in ways that are not primarily or necessarily material, where the harm of racism begins with the interpersonal, the relational. Biss notes the way that whiteness distorts relationships, giving it blame for preventing the creation of community, for being “the wedge driven between me and my neighbors, between me and other mothers, between me and other workers.” On the other hand, she recognizes that white guilt itself frequently drives white people into deeply unhealthy ways of relating to people of color, but says that she’s not sure “any of that is worse than what white people do in denial.”

Fortunately, these are not the only options. White people need not relate to people of color or to each other in ways that either deny the dynamics of race or are driven by white guilt. Both allow unjust racial dynamics to define our relationships, the first because we cannot change what we will not see and the second because our guilt too often blinds us to everything but race, including the people in front of us.

Likewise, to speak of the relational harm of racism in terms of debt not only allows racial dynamics to define the possibilities for our relationships, but it also fundamentally mischaracterizes them.  To speak of the creation of better relationships as paying off a debt assumes that we know what other people need from us and that we can give it to them the way we pay off a credit card, at a distance and in discreet amounts. It suggests that there might come a time when our debt has been paid off and we can live free from any knowledge of or responsibility for — any debt to — each other.

A vision of justice and of healthy community that is based on ideas of debt and ideas of guilt as well cannot move beyond the negative, cannot get us much further than the general injunction to not be racist. At least, that is the case when visions of just communities are based on ideas of guilt and debt alone.

 But guilt as a concept has a broader, richer history than the Nietszchean interpretation alone. In my tradition, the Christian tradition as I’ve experienced it within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), guilt comes embedded within a larger vision of life, community, and moral integrity. We experience guilt as the disruption of right relationships with God and with neighbor; we know it in moments when we fail to live in to our best visions of what it means to love and to care for each other. And in those moments we are met by a grace that both keeps us humble and keeps us going.

At least, that’s how it works in theory. In practice, it seems that naming what is wrong comes much more easily to the Christian mind than envisioning what might be more right, more like justice, more like love. I am struck, as I write, by how much commonality there is between those Christians whose sole focus is avoiding sin — and making sure that everyone else avoids it too — and those white people who can’t think much beyond avoiding “being racist” as they relate to people of color and to themselves. Both quickly constitute failures of relationship, failures of community, failures of neighborliness.  It is impossible to see or to celebrate another human being when we are frantically trying to prove our own goodness.

Still, there are resources within the tradition that might open our imaginations to even greater goals than ridding ourselves of debt. There are concepts like guilt and grace, there are stories of a Samaritan who stops to help a Jew he’s never met and of a God who identifies completely with those that others would rather ignore, and there is the suggestion – the commandment – that our ability to be in relationship well might in the end be the thing that matters.  And along with all that, there are failures, mistakes, bad advice, and a record of debts that we cannot now repay but must certainly now claim and learn from.

[1] Biss’s essay “White Debt: Reckoning with what is owed – and what can never be repaid – for racial privilege” can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/magazine/white-debt.html?_r=1

[2] For a good discussion of the way that white wealth perpetuates various racial inequalities even beyond the effects of intentional discrimination, see Daria Roithmayr, Reproducing Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2014).

Allie is a chaplain resident at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Downtown Chicago and a minster at First Baptist Church of Chicago

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