Why ‘feeling right’ on race is not—and has never been—enough
Almost 170 years ago, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to propel many progressive, elite white women toward abolitionist sympathies.
When President Abraham Lincoln, as is alleged, greeted the novel’s author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as “the little lady that started this big war,” the description was mostly hyperbole. Nevertheless, it would be no exaggeration to say that Stowe’s novel, published in 1852, both epitomized and codified the 19th-century sentimentalist idea that progressive white women’s feelings should be the ultimate compass for American morality—on race and more generally
In 1862, Harriet Beecher Stowe made feeling right on race easy, righteous and comfortable, all at once. We face the same trap today.
In the “Concluding Remarks” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe urges her readers—mostly Northern white women whose ostensibly delicate sensibilities had been shielded by their men from real knowledge about the brutality of slavery—to “feel right” about abolition, and all would be well. Leave the politics—the thinking and the doing—to others. Just feel right.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe paints an enslaved woman, Eliza, as a Black Madonna figure trying desperately to save her innocent baby. She paints an enslaved man, Tom, as a Black Christ figure who is willing if not happy to be slaughtered for love of those who enslaved him. And, of course, it should go without saying that Northern white women “feeling right” by Stowe’s injunction—crying indignant tears at her portrayal of Tom’s death, for example—was indeed preferable to the grotesque alternative (cheering, say, at his demise).
Yet it is essential to recognize that for Stowe’s readers, this low bar of “feeling right” still obscured and excused more than it revealed or demanded. After all, it was relatively easy for many Northern white women, even in 1852, to feel shock, sympathy and righteous anger about the fact that through the brutality of race-based slavery, those bad people down there in the American South could crucify a Black Christ figure.
For Harriet Beecher Stowe’s readers, this low bar of “feeling right” still obscured and excused more than it revealed or demanded.
But it would have been much harder for progressive white women in 1852 to acknowledge some far more complex and self-incriminating realities. For one, through the very existence of race-based slavery, the United States as a whole dehumanized all Black people in ways that flatly contradicted the nation’s stated ideals. Two, white Northern women’s own prosperity, like the prosperity of the country in which their husbands and fathers had done so well, was built on the backs and the blood of the enslaved. And three, there are individual Black people, just as there are individual white people, who are good, bad and indifferent; and this fact is entirely immaterial to the unequivocal evil of enslaving any human being.
By failing to acknowledge these crucial realities, Stowe made feeling right easy, righteous and comfortable, all at once. If she had made it harder—hard enough to struggle with rather than obfuscate the facts stated above—she probably would not have written the best-selling novel of the 19th century. And she probably would not have compelled as many white women to embrace the abolitionist cause.
In the mid-19th century, white American women were at the height of their seclusion in the domestic sphere. They did not typically hold jobs outside the home. They could not vote, and they did not run political institutions. In the rapidly industrializing North, women were newly seen as uniquely virtuous because the homes where women labored were increasingly seen as sacred havens apart from the sordid realities of business and production (rather than as the centers of agricultural production, as they had been in the 18th century).
In 1852, white women’s oversimplified progressivism on race was better than no progressivism on race at all.
Thus, Stowe’s insistence that a reader’s most effective contribution to abolition would be to feel right—notwithstanding the factual and moral oversimplifications that she created in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to induce that feeling—was probably more helpful than harmful on the whole. In 1852, white women’s self-exculpatory, oversimplified progressivism on race was better than no progressivism on race at all.
But in 2020, the oversimplified social narratives around race that make it easy for many progressive white women to feel right (not to mention the apparent continued consensus that progressive white women’s feelings are the point) are a real problem.
They are a problem because progressive white women are much more powerful than we were 170 years ago. We hold leadership positions in many sectors; moreover, unlike women of color, unlike self-professed conservative women and unlike men of any race or creed, we are uniquely privileged in that, in most spaces, we tend to be perceived as nonthreatening. Thus, our white privilege works in tandem with a perverse form of reverse gender privilege to affect our being engaged, more often than not, as racially innocent (as well as innocent more generally). This allows us to be heard through fewer ideological filters than is possible for individuals of any other group.
What do we do with our unique cultural power as it pertains to race and racism? Too often, many of us do exactly what Stowe asked her readers to do: emote in a well-meant attempt to show that we feel right, without thinking about whether we are entirely right.
Robin DiAngelo’s portrayal of Black people is just as reductive and dehumanizing as Stowe’s was 170 years ago
It is both easy and right, for example, to read Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 best seller White Fragility and feel shock, sympathy and discomfiting recognition of the casual exclusion and routine belittlement with which Black people are too often treated in predominantly white spaces. It is both easy and right to feel duty-bound to reflect on whether we, as individuals, treat Black people with the same presumptive decency and respect with which we treat fellow white people. And it is both easy and right to feel ashamed of any defensiveness or oversensitivity that we have evinced around discussing race with people of color because white people who are incapable of honest dialogue about race and racism are correctly perceived by people of color as impossible to trust.
It may be harder to recognize that DiAngelo’s portrayal of Black people is just as reductive and dehumanizing as Stowe’s was 170 years ago and that her conclusions are solely about white people’s feelings, just as Stowe’s were. For starters, there is astonishing anti-Black racism at work in DiAngelo’s lack of any remedy for the fact that white people tend to be seen as individuals, while Black people are too often viewed as a monolith, incapable of individual thought. DiAngelo does not encourage us to extend to individual Black people the same presumptive respect that we are afforded as white people. She encourages us instead to view white people as a monolith as well, incapable of (and, therefore, not responsible for) individual thought.
For DiAngelo, a white person who feels right is one who knows she feels wrong and can never feel right and then does exactly nothing, materially or otherwise, to improve the conditions of any Black person or community, while ceding the interpretation of her own feelings to DiAngelo. Thus, DiAngelo remains eternally relevant because nothing ever has improved (so, the civil rights work of many Black leaders and others over the past 170 years has been for naught) or ever will improve (so, white progressives feeling right is not a means to an end for people of color but an end in itself for white progressives).
For DiAngelo, a white person who feels right is one who knows she feels wrong and can never feel right and then does exactly nothing, materially or otherwise, to improve the conditions of any Black person or community.
It is both easy and right, for another example, to feel right—that is, to feel utter horror—about the ghastly murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and about the deaths of other Black Americans killed by police officers. It is both easy and right to feel enraged that the murder of an unarmed Black citizen happened in America in 2020, as three other police officers looked on. It is both easy and right to feel outraged that police brutality still—for a variety of reasons, all of which have their roots in past or present racism—falls disproportionately on Black people.
It may be harder to recognize that the few young people (many of them white) who disrupted peaceful protests with violence and destruction wound up harming the same economically fragile Black communities that are most affected by police brutality. It may be harder still to receive the complicatedperspectives of people with real understanding of and stakes in those economically fragile Black communities in which many progressive white women do not intimately know anyone. Perspectives from those communities may be harder to receive because they draw on more than one idea (and more than one feeling) at the same time.
There is pride in the protesters of all races peacefully exercising their constitutional rights to draw attention to the evil of racist injustice. There is also heartbrokenness at the looting and burning of their communities. And there is outrage at criminals of all races capitalizing on an opportunity for a prosperous evening on the job, at the expense of people in neighborhoods that were already suffering from high levels of property crime and violence. Indeed, they were suffering long before a lot of progressive white women were shown one oversimplified strand of a complex and harrowing reality, and accepted the idea that feeling right about that one oversimplified strand somehow constitutes broad solidarity.
I understand how tempting it is to focus on feeling right with respect to matters of race and racism. After all, that is what we have been told to do for the past 170 years.
Now, I am by most measures a progressive white woman myself—demographically (I am white), ideologically (I am a registered Democrat with Jesuit-inspired political ideals) and culturally (I like fair trade coffee and know all the words to “Hamilton”). So I understand how tempting it is to focus on feeling right with respect to matters of race and racism. After all, that is what we have been told to do for the past 170 years by the supposedly progressive white women who addressed us as contemporaries from positions of alleged moral authority.
It is just that, through nothing intrinsic to me as a person and purely because of the demographic cards I have been dealt, it is probably easier for me than it is for many women who are otherwise like me to see that feeling right is not an accurate barometer for either thinking right or doing right.
I grew up in a white, interfaith household (my dad grew up Catholic and working class, and my mom grew up Jewish and middle class) in one of the most socioeconomically and racially diverse zip codes in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. I am married to a Black first-generation Liberian-American man, who grew up in the poorest municipality in the State of Ohio, where the residents are almost all Black. Today he and I are raising Black, Catholic, Jewish sons in another one of the most socioeconomically and racially diverse zip codes in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Our neighborhood has many synagogues; our sons attended day care at one of them.
We chose the mixed-race spaces where our family lives because we want our sons to experience as little as possible the twin racisms of second-class citizenship and explicit tokenization.
My husband and I tend to avoid the kinds of isolated, white working-class spaces where we might run into the wrong MAGA-hat-wearing white man. But we are just as deliberate about avoiding the kinds of self-consciously leftist spaces where we will surely encounter many Robin DiAngelo knock-offs. These self-righteously radical white women often betray a pride so brittle it borders on discomfort when they share spaces with working-class Black people; and welcome interracial families like ours with a voyeuristic enthusiasm that might seem flattering if it were not so insidious. They also use other progressive white women’s well-meant desire to feel right in their attempt to co-opt us into helping them create a fraudulent moral high ground on race. This supposed high ground entails treating Black people with the soft-pedaled racism of sugar-coated condescension.
We chose the mixed-race spaces where our family lives, worships and learns quite intentionally because we want our sons to experience as little as possible in early childhood the twin racisms of second-class citizenship (sadly, still the rule in many less-than-progressive spaces) and explicit tokenization (equally sadly, now the rule in many ostensibly progressive ones). We chose our family’s Catholic parish specifically because the mostly white parishioners welcomed us with no trace of the hesitance we had experienced in some other majority white parishes; nor did they patronize us.
We chose our sons’ diverse Catholic school specifically because it was the only school we visited that we believed could give our Black boys both a solid education and a fighting chance to be children rather than objects of either regressive white fear or faux-progressive white patronization. My husband and I feel extremely grateful for this parish and school because we know how dishearteningly rare such spaces are, both within the church and outside of it.
Hence, the many human experiences shaping my own only-in-America story have given me a rare vantage point from which to notice what happens when white progressives’ conversations about race and racism are not anchored in the complicated facts of others’ historical or present realities, the rigors of theology or the imperatives of civic service. Without embedded challenges like these to the primacy of white progressives’ feelings, such conversations can become profoundly counterproductive.
They can become so counterproductive because by replacing the subconsciously racist bias of white fragility with the emotional masochism of feeling right about white fragility, we are doing nothing to mitigate the blatant racism embodied in brutal policemen, wanton racial profilers, under-resourced schools or inadequate housing. Moreover, we are codifying and expanding upon the devious racism of sycophantic patronization perpetrated by Robin DiAngelo, making it even less likely that Black people in mixed-race spaces will be treated with the same respect given to white people—that is, with full acknowledgement of their complex humanity, moral agency and intrinsic equality.
This is why, 170 years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is long past time for progressive white women (and men) to stop worrying about feeling right and start worrying about thinking right and doing right instead.