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Taking the Blame

Should all white Australians be implicated in the actions of one?

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | March 20, 2019
Mark McGuire/Flickr
Mark McGuire/Flickr

In the aftermath of the massacre of 49 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white Australian man, many antiracists are rightly questioning why such an act occurred and what might have been done to prevent it. Stopping white nationalist terrorism and the chaotic populism that treats national identity as a zero-sum game, thereby fueling extremism in white-majority countries throughout the West, is one of the great challenges of the contemporary era. But there are better and worse ways to approach the problem.

Writing in Slate, Australian writer Rachel Withers argues the “shootings should implicate all white Australians.” She lists a litany of reasons why—from casual racism to xenophobic immigration policies—all of which stop far short of violence. “You might think that this is all too strong, that placing at least some of the blame on white Australia is a kind of self-centered masochism, that blaming a nation’s culture for the sins of a citizen is like blaming humanity for the crimes of one man,” she concludes. “But it’s better than the alternative, of saying ‘#notallAustralians’ and looking the other way, thinking, well, there’s nothing I can do.”

As others pointed out on Twitter, not only does such reasoning present a false dichotomy (why are there just two choices?), but such logic would necessarily implicate all Muslims in violent extremism, a position very few on the left would be willing to accept. Withers’s argument is indicative of a broader loss of rigor and consistency in progressive discourse when it comes to indicting “whiteness.” Given the historical reality of white racism and colonialism, and the hierarchies they imposed around the globe, this is as understandable as it is obviously counterproductive: standards must apply to everyone or no one at all. But it is not so much an exercise in masochism as narcissism to imagine oneself at the center of all that is wrong.

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