Sei sulla pagina 1di 15

This article was downloaded by: [KSU Kent State University]

On: 23 July 2014, At: 20:23


Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered
office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
Journal of Moral Education
Publication details, including instructions for authors and
subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cjme20
In the name of morality: moral
responsibility, whiteness and social
justice education
Barbara Applebaum
a
a
Syracuse University
Published online: 15 Aug 2006.
To cite this article: Barbara Applebaum (2005) In the name of morality: moral responsibility,
whiteness and social justice education, Journal of Moral Education, 34:3, 277-290, DOI:
10.1080/03057240500206089
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03057240500206089
PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE
Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the
Content) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis,
our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to
the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions
and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors,
and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content
should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources
of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims,
proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever
or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or
arising out of the use of the Content.
This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any
substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,
systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms &
Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-
and-conditions
In the name of morality: moral
responsibility, whiteness and social
justice education
Barbara Applebaum
*
Syracuse University, USA
This paper argues that the traditional conception of moral responsibility authorizes and supports
denials of white complicity. First, what is meant by the traditional conception of moral
responsibility is delineated and the enabling and disenabling characteristics of this view are
highlighted. Then, three seemingly good, antiracist discourses that white students often engage in
are discussed the discourse of colour-blindness, the discourse of meritocracy and the discourse of
individual choice and analysed to show how they are all grounded in the traditional conception
of moral responsibility. The limitations of these discourses are drawn and how these discourses
work to conceal white complicity is established. Finally, implications for social justice education
are discussed.
It was my passion for correcting injustice that made it so difficult for me to
accept my white privilege. (Jane, student journal)
In a course on schooling and diversity, the topic for the week was different meanings
of racism. I asked my students, Who comes to your mind when you think of white
people who are complicit in sustaining racism? Most of my white students gave
examples of overtly prejudiced people or groups the Klu Klux Klan, the television
sitcom character Archie Bunker, someone they happened to know. Significantly,
they mentioned anyone except themselves. One student, however, meekly
responded, all of us. When challenged, this student explained that whereas racism
in the past was all about organizations like the Klu Klux Klan, Archie Bunker types
and Jim Crow laws, today racism is more subtle and often not seen by those who do
not have to experience it.
This opened up a heated exchange in which I attempted to explain the different
meanings of racism, accentuating what certain understandings of social injustice
they make available and what they keep hidden. Rather than being willing to engage
in the different meanings of racism and their implications, many of these
predominantly white students were obstinately focused on denying their complicity.
*Syracuse University, School of Education, 354 Huntington Hall, Syracuse, New York, 13244,
USA. Email: bappleba@syr.edu
Journal of Moral Education
Vol. 34, No. 3, September 2005, pp. 277290
ISSN 0305-7240 (print)/ISSN 1465-3877 (online)/05/030277-14
# 2005 Journal of Moral Education Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/03057240500206089
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

They were more concerned with proving how they were good antiracist whites than
they were in trying to understand how systemic oppression works and the possibility
that they might have a role in sustaining such systems. In his journal, a white student
wrote, In any situation you cannot be held responsible for something that you did
not do. Even on the smallest scale, if you dont think that youve done anything
wrong, then you will be reluctant to change or to try and examine the problem.
In their study of how white subjects perceive civil rights and equal opportunity,
Nancy Ditomaso and her colleagues (2003) attempt to demonstrate that one of the
ironic characteristics of white privilege is that white people do not have to think of
themselves as racist for racial inequality to be reproduced (p. 189). The intimated
irony underlying what these researchers found is not that blatant, overt racism can be
implemented without the perpetrators awareness, but rather that the subtle but lethal
types of covert racism can be maintained even when whites believe themselves to be
part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Indeed, it is my contention that it is
especially when white people believe themselves to be good and moral antiracist citizens
that they may be contributing to the perpetuation of systemic injustice.
Although what I will refer to as the traditional conception of moral responsibility
has many enabling features that ground such values as autonomy, respect for persons
and equality, such a conception of moral responsibility can also authorize denials of
complicity on the part of my white students. In what follows, I first describe what I
mean by the traditional conception of moral responsibility. This is not to imply that
any particular moral philosopher or theorist holds this view, but rather the point is to
emphasize that it is a view widely assumed by my students and that aspects of this
view are implied and tacitly supported in the many debates around the meaning of
moral responsibility taken up by moral theorists. These both enabling and
disenabling features of the traditional conception of moral responsibility are evident
in moral theorizing about moral responsibility, not so much in debates around what
it means to be a moral agent but, more conspicuously, in discussions around the
criteria that make one morally accountable for particular actions. Then I will turn to
three seemingly good, antiracist discourses that my white students engage in around
issues of difference and inequality the discourse of colour-blindness, the discourse
of meritocracy and the discourse of choice. I argue that the traditional conception of
moral responsibility authorizes these discourses and contributes to camouflaging
their limitations. By giving examples of how these discourses conceal systemic
oppression, hinder the development of cross-racial understanding, veil the relational
dimension of the social construction of race and promote a race to innocence, I
illustrate how such ostensibly moral discourses work to conceal the very complicity
that some social justice educators endeavour to expose.
The traditional conception of moral responsibility
While various ethical theories have been proposed and debated, there is a long
history in Western philosophical thought of a conception of moral responsibility that
forefronts, on the one hand, individual choice, fault and intentions, and, on the other
278 B. Applebaum
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

hand, rational deliberation and the possibility of transcending lifes contingencies in
order to achieve sufficient distance to deliberate about them objectively. Aristotle
(382323 BCE), perhaps one of the earliest philosophers to explicitly discuss moral
responsibility, conceives the capacity for rational and free decisions as the primary
characteristic of moral responsibility. Such rational and voluntary actions have two
distinctive features the control condition and the cognitive condition. For Aristotle
(350 BCE/1985), two types of excusing conditions undermine moral responsibility
coercion and ignorance. Regarding the former, for a person to be held morally
responsible for a particular action, the action must have originated in the agent and
not have been externally compelled. In terms of the latter condition, Aristotle
maintained that moral responsibility requires that the agent must have been aware of
what s/he was doing and intended to bring it about.
Such a conception of moral responsibility matches ordinary intuitions regarding
when agents are or are not morally responsible and demonstrates the tight
connection between moral responsibility and moral accountability. One can only
be attributed praise or blame if one is the origin of ones action (acts freely), knows
or can be expected to know what one is doing and acts out of relevant sorts of beliefs
and intentions (cognitive condition). One of the ways in which Aristotles
conception of moral responsibility can be understood is to say it is a merit-based
view of responsibility. According to this view, praise or blame is appropriate when
the agent merits or deserves moral responses. In this sense merit is intimately related
with moral responsibility.
Most contemporary philosophers have directed their attention to the first
condition as debates have generated around the question of free will and
determinism. If praise and blame involve merit, how can anyone be held morally
responsible if determinism is true? One line of thinking has been to focus on the
ability or inability to do otherwise (PAP, or principle of alternate possibilities). Harry
Frankfurt (1969), however, has moved this discussion in new directions when he
challenged PAP and argued for a sense of free will and control that has more to do
with internal psychological processes (and focuses on the cognitive condition)
rather than a reliance on the ability or inability to do otherwise. Frankfurt derived
a theory in which the source of control for actions emanates from the ability of one
to choose to act from some desires but not others. In this sense, ones actions
originate from ones real self and not something foreign to the person. There
are problems raised by Frankfurts theory (Watson, 1975; Fischer & Ravizza, 1998)
but two points remain constant throughout these discussions: 1) the focus has been
on individual accountability; and 2) the type of actions about which one could be
said to be responsible for were not the type of actions or inactions that are
exemplified in my classroom. (Questions about collective moral responsibility and
moral luck complicate this body of scholarship but are beyond the scope of this
essay.)
Moreover, all too often the understanding of subjectivity that is assumed in such
accounts of responsibility is a subject that deliberates without regard to its social
location, i.e., race, gender, sexual orientation, class and so on. For example, while he
Moral responsibility, whiteness and social justice education 279
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

has revised his theory since its original conception, Rawls (1971) set out a process of
hypothetical moral deliberation as represented in his original position. Based on the
Kantian imperative to treat the other always as an end in itself and never solely as a
means, Rawls original position is a hypothetical situation in which rational
calculators would, under the veil of ignorance, not know contingent factors about
their concrete lives that would be morally irrelevant to their choice of moral
principles of justice. Information about ones race, sexual orientation or gender
would be abstracted and so rational deliberators would, in theory, choose principles
of social relations that they believe would be best for whatever social location anyone
would be positioned in.
Communitarians (for example, Sandel, 1981) have taken liberals, such as Rawls,
to task for assuming humanity to be rootless, atomistic and detached from society.
Instead, communitarians call for a conception of persons that is embedded or
situated in social relationships. Whether liberals have adequately met this charge is
an issue that will be not be addressed here. If, for the purposes of this discussion, we
refer to this loosely tied group of ideas around moral responsibility as the traditional
conception of moral responsibility, it is clear that the traditional conception both
takes discrete individuals as the primary unit of analysis and the definition of moral
responsibility is construed entirely from the perpetrators perspective. This is
significant because how we understand moral responsibility will greatly affect not
only what we perceive we are morally responsible for but also what we perceive as
morally wrong. For example, perceiving racial discrimination from a perpetrators
rather than a victims perspective has enormous ramifications.
In his discussion of antidiscrimination law, Alan David Freeman (1995) argues
that the causation requirement in law, along with a strong reliance on fault, serves to
draw attention away from the pattern of conditions that a victim perceives to be
associated with discrimination.
The concept of racial discrimination may be approached from the perspective of either
its victim or its perpetrator. From the victims perspective, racial discrimination
describes those conditions of actual social existence as a member of a perpetual
underclass. This perspective includes both the objective conditions of life (lack of jobs,
lack of money, lack of housing) and the consciousness associated with those objective
conditions (lack of choice and lack of human individuality in being forever perceived as
a member of a group rather than as an individual).
The perpetrator perspective sees racial discrimination not as conditions but as actions,
or series of actions, inflicted on the victim by the perpetrator. The focus is more on what
particular perpetrators have done or are doing to some victim than on the overall life
situation of the victim class. (p. 29)
Similarly, Charles R. Lawrence III (1987) emphasizes that the perpetrator
perspective, with its emphasis on intent, restricts discussions of discrimination and
obscures the collective dynamics of systemic racism. When moral responsibility is
perceived from the perpetrators perspective alone, what particular agents have
intentionally done or are doing to victims is emphasized and the victims perspective
is minimized. Moral responsibility from the perpetrators perspective is focused on
the individual source of fault and, thus, ones complicity in systemic webs of
280 B. Applebaum
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

oppression can be ignored. If one is not the direct cause, then one is not at fault and
bears no personal responsibility for the act. Taking a victims perspective, however,
is less focused on individual intention and more concerned with impact or outcomes
and, thus, more able to spotlight patterns of behaviour that one may only indirectly
or even unintentionally support.
In a 1996 Journal of Moral Education article, Dwight Boyd developed a critique of
the traditional conception of moral responsibility and the conception of personhood
it relies upon that differs from the communitarian critique of liberalism. Boyd argued
that contemporary approaches to moral education have focused on moral matters
from the point of view of neutral individuals and ignored morally relevant
relationships that are group-based, and into which individuals are thrown or
constituted. This is not a mere oversight, according to Boyd:
Exclusive concentration on the individual perspective on moral relationships does not
only focus our attention in directions not very helpful for the really serious moral
problems of our times. It does far worse. I want to suggest that it actively functions to
occlude recognition of our own subject position within the systemic oppressive
relationships between groups that we supposedly find morally problematic. In
particular, I submit that for those with the advantaged position within such
relationships it prevents us from seeing, acknowledging and struggling with how to
change our embeddedness in, and identification with the interests of, the group(s) that
contribute(s) to the oppression of another group (or groups). (Boyd, 1996, p. 28)
This individual perspective protects the privileged by underpinning a sense of moral
responsibility that works against the recognition of group-based moral problems and
by absolving the privileged individual when that recognition is brought out in the
open.
More recently, in his 2004 Kohlberg Memorial Lecture, Boyd reiterates this
provocative warning. The traditional conception of moral responsibility and, in
particular, the conception of the subject the liberal individual as Boyd calls it
upon which it is grounded, actively function to conceal group-based systemic harms
and protect the privileged by stopping at the boundaries of individual intention.
Boyd points to four characteristics of the liberal individual subject that together work
to hide privileged individuals complicity in systemic oppression. Those four
characteristics are:
1. Ontological uniqueness individuals are discrete and their boundaries do not
overlap in their interactions (2004, p. 9).
2. Symmetrical positioning all individuals are equal and all positions are
symmetrical.
3. Intentional rational agency all individuals share the same agentic potential
(p. 10) and agency is the result of rational choice. All action is predicated only
of individual subjective locations and only in so far as they engage in intentional
behaviour to effect some desired state in the world (p. 10).
4. Capacity for transcendence autonomy is perceived as being able to overcome
external constraints and entails the possibility of standing outside of any
existing contingencies (p. 10).
Moral responsibility, whiteness and social justice education 281
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

The perspective of the liberal individual that forefronts rational choice, individual
intentions and a capacity for transcendence not only does not accommodate group-
based harms of systemic oppression but also works to conceal the complicity of
individuals in the perpetuation of systemic injustice. But how does this translate into
everyday life?
My predominantly white students seem to remain steadfastly entrenched in the
traditional conception of moral responsibility and its concomitant reliance on the
concept of the liberal individual. I suggest that this encourages and authorizes their
denials of complicity and I submit that it does so in two ways. First, because my
white students believe they are taking a moral position (they have morality on their
side) that is culturally sanctioned, they are less likely to be open to challenges to their
views. Second, the notion of moral responsibility that they adhere to and the
understanding of the subject it is grounded in allow them to continue to ignore their
own social locatedness and its relationship to the perpetuation of systems of social
injustice, intention notwithstanding.
In order to illustrate this claim I turn to three common, seemingly good antiracist
discourses that my white students engage in around issues of difference and
inequality the discourse of colour-blindness, the discourse of meritocracy and the
discourse of individual choice. I will briefly explain how the traditional conception of
moral responsibility authorizes these discourses and then demonstrate how such
ostensibly moral, antiracist discourses conspire to camouflage the very complicity
that some social justice educators endeavour to expose.
The discourse of colour-blindness
1
I treat all my students the same black, white, green or purple. I dont see their skin
colour.
According to the traditional conception of moral responsibility, this is a moral
stance. The underlying assumption, most cogently expressed in Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr.s (1986) dream that his children will not be judged by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character is appealing because, ideally, race should not
be a disparaging factor in the way people are treated. Each person should be treated
as an individual. Ignoring colour, thus, is like ignoring bias and from this
perspective colour-blindness is a moral stance because people of colour are not
treated differently. In fact, from this perspective, colour-consciousness becomes a
manifestation of racism and taboo.
The colour-blind perspective is the point of view in which racial group
membership is considered irrelevant to the ways that individuals are treated.
While in many everyday situations it seems plausible to believe that people of colour
would not want to be treated differently because of the colour of their skin, colour-
blindness is not always antiracist and may sometimes perpetuate racism. The
discourse of colour-blindness stems in great part from an assumption that one can
transcend ones social contingencies and that ones social location not only does
not matter, but also should not matter in moral deliberations. Recent studies
282 B. Applebaum
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

(Schofield, 1997; Lewis, 2001; Bonilla-Silva, 2003a, 2003b; Pollock, 2004) have
shown, however, that not only is the colour-blind perspective not always inherently
good, but such a framework may even be hazardous to the achievement of social
justice.
First, colour-blindness obscures the positive cultural contributions of race to
individual identity and, as Charles Taylor (1992) so poignantly argues, ignores a
potential vital need for recognition. Amanda Lewis (2001) ethnographic study of
the hidden curriculum in a progressive school that prides itself on its colour-blind
ideology demonstrates how teachers who downplayed the salience of race also
limited the type of multicultural curriculum they implemented in their class,
especially when there were only a few students of colour under their tutelage. In
addition, many parents of the student in this school contested what little
multicultural curriculum was incorporated with the justification, We should all be
Americans, Talking about race is divisive, or Im so tired of Martin Luther King!
(Lewis, 2001, p. 788).
Second, colour-blindness not only ignores the positive contributions of racialized
groups, but also ignores or denies the systemic harms that people of colour
experience. In a world where race still matters, refusing to take race into
consideration results in the dismissal of systemic oppression. As Audrey
Thompson (1999) succinctly puts it,
In a multicultural and racist society, whites refusal to acknowledge color will
sometimes mean refusing to recognize the obstacles facing people of color or to see
that, depending on the context, different ethnic and racial groups may have distinct
needs and interests. (p. 143)
For example, at the outset of her study, Lewis (2001) was warned by some of the
teachers to ignore some of the complaints of racism that she might hear from one of
the students of colour. One teacher told Lewis, You should know one thing. We
have one mixed-race child Shes dealing with a lot of fourth-grade girl stuff but
she tends to play the race card a lot (p. 785). Another teacher contended
that there was no racism in her classes. She admitted to sometimes hearing
certain remarks but these were more just kid put-downs than slurs with racist
intentions.
Yet when Lewis spoke to this girls mother, the racist complaints could not be so
effortlessly glossed over. As the teachers and principal routinely interpreted these
taunts as race-neutral fourth-grade girl stuff, the mother made clear that the
victims grades began to suffer and her school experience deteriorated significantly.
That the colour-blind perspective can obscure the systemic harms people of
colour experience is clearly illustrated in a study by Jennifer Pierce (2003) with
regard to attitudes around affirmative action in a predominantly white law firm.
Pierce documents how a belief in colour-blindness and a focus on individual acts,
rather than on the social pattern they form, prevented white middle-class attorneys
from understanding why affirmative action policies in their law firm were not
effective. Pierce contrasts the narratives of the few AfricanAmerican attorneys who
were hired under affirmative action policies but then subsequently left the firm, with
Moral responsibility, whiteness and social justice education 283
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

the explanations that the white lawyers gave for why the AfricanAmerican lawyers
were not retained.
The white attorneys maintained that the African-American lawyers left the firm
because they found a better job and/or because they just didnt fit in. Those who
left, however, point to endless, everyday systemic patterns of bias that they
experienced working for the firm. While the white lawyers did not deny that these
incidents occurred, they saw them more as isolated acts that had no racist intention.
Indeed, the discourse of colour-blindness infused their speech and served to
exonerate them from racist practices. Pierce explains that what looked individual
and isolated to members of a privileged group will often be experienced as part of
the web of systemic oppression from the perspective of the marginalized (p. 211).
This helps to explain, according to Pierce, why the white attorneys that she
interviewed believed that they were innocent of racism.
In another study, Janet Ward Schofield (1997), who investigates the many
negative consequences of the colour-blind ideology in a school, finds that the
suspension rates for students of colour were four times as high as for the white
students. However, because the administrators claimed they did not notice colour,
the discrepancy in suspension rates was never raised as an issue for investigation.
When the discrepancy was brought to the attention of faculty, some mentioned that
because they did not focus on the race of a child, the discrepancy was something they
never noticed. Moreover, when students of colour lodged complaints, the teachers
would dismiss the complaint stressing how discrimination was impossible because
they never noticed race. Thus, the colour-blind perspective of the school was
instrumental in preventing the examination of a possible racist policy.
Third, in so far as the colour-blind framework obscures the dominant norms that
pervade social interactions and institutions, it sustains the invisibility of such
dominant norms. An AfricanAmerican father once told Beverly Tatum (2003), I
hear teachers say all the time, Im not prejudiced. I dont notice differences and I
treat these children all the same and what I want to know is the same as what?
The colour-blind approach ignores the contemporary social reality of racism and
obscures not only the race of the victims of racism but also dispenses with the need
to interrogate whiteness as the invisible norm by which others are marginalized.
In fact, the assumption that one can be colour-blind and transcend social
contingencies is a privilege that only the experiences of the dominant group confirm.
Research indicates that many white students have given little or no thought to what it
means to be white (Frankenberg, 1993; Delpit, 1995; McIntosh, 1997; McIntyre,
1997; Levine-Rasky, 2000; Sleeter, 2001; Hytten & Warren, 2003). My white
students can give an autobiography of their lives and their race hardly ever, if at all,
factors into how they explain their achievements. Being white means rarely or never
having to think about it. In the United States, for example, the police do not profile
white people because of their race, yet young black males experience or live under
the expectation that they could experience such discrimination on a daily basis. Such
taken for granted privileges lead white people to believe that race can be ignored. In
contrast, when I ask my students of colour to recount their autobiographies, their
284 B. Applebaum
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

racial identities permeate their experiences and help to explain the obstacles that
they have had to overcome to achieve their successes.
If the perspective of the liberal individual entails that people be seen and treated
as an individual and if in everyday experiences it is predominantly white people
who enjoy this privilege, then taking up this perspective can give rise to ignoring the
vast majority of subtle, unintentional and often unconscious racist practices that are
pervasive in North American society today.
The discourse of colour-blindness presupposes a world composed of atomistic
individuals whose actions are outside of and apart from the social and historical
contingencies from which they are constructed and, therefore, that race can be
ignored. In a world where some people are not treated as individuals, either overtly or
covertly, to perceive the individual without consideration of ones social group
location functions to hide systemic oppression, to keep whiteness invisible and to
obscure the complicity of whites in sustaining social injustice. Rather than being the
opposite of racism, colour-blindness has become a new form of subtle racism that
masquerades as a moral stance (Carr, 1997).
The discourse of meritocracy
If they deserve it, they should get it.
According to the traditional conception of moral responsibility, this is a moral
stance. Colour-blind racial ideology works with the discourse of meritocracy to
support negative stereotypes rather than to challenge them. Meritocracy assumes
that ones social location can and should be ignored. The colour-blind framework
makes it more likely that white students will see the opportunity structure as open
and institutions as impartial or objective in their function. Everyone has the
opportunity to succeed, one of my students argued. Similarly, one of the informants
in a study of university students by Melanie Bush (2004), comments, People choose
their own fate. If youre white, green, blue, whatever colour your eyes are or the
texture of your hair, your intelligence and hard work makes or breaks you (p. 60).
Bound by a colour-blind mentality, such students often end up explaining inequality
by either blaming the individual or his/her subordinate group and its cultural
characteristics for the resultant lower economic and academic achievement (Ryan,
1971).
The conception of subjectivity that supports the belief in meritocracy also
supports arguments against affirmative action. An argument my white students often
proffer to justify the charge of reverse discrimination goes something like this:
Look I am all for civil rights but why should I have to suffer for the sins of other white
people who were racist? I am only second generation in this country and so my family
never even owned slaves. I didnt have anything to do with that stuff and now I am
being made to pay for those atrocities. Its not fair.
These same white students often add that black beneficiaries of affirmative action
are not even actual victims and they require, as in law, that such supposed victims
prove the legitimacy of their victim status.
Moral responsibility, whiteness and social justice education 285
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

These arguments gain their force on the grounds of a conception of self that
ignores ones current social group location. The ability to deny the presence and
power of current everyday racism and the undeserved benefits that some groups
accrue at the expense of others is premised on the ability to see oneself as an
individual and not to see oneself as white. To see oneself as white and to
interrogate what that means would undermine the appeal of the innocent victim
upon which arguments about reverse discrimination are based. Moreover, once
subjects are not conceived as devoid of their social group location, systemic patterns
of oppression become more apparent and the current victim status of people of
colour today becomes undeniable.
The discourse of meritocracy functions to marginalize certain groups of people by
allowing whites to direct attention away from their own privilege and to ignore larger
patterns of racial injustice. The assumption that people get ahead as a result of
individual effort or merit conceals how social, economic and cultural privileges
facilitate the success of some groups of people but not others. Moreover, it allows the
privileged to see themselves as innocent bystanders rather than participants in a
system that creates, maintains and reproduces social injustice. Finally, if one believes
that everyones life outcomes are a result of individual merit, then it is easy to
conclude that those who fail to achieve have only themselves to blame. In this way,
the discourse of meritocracy contributes to the constitution of certain groups of
people as Other.
The discourse of individual choice
If I didnt intend it, I shouldnt be responsible.
According to the traditional conception of moral responsibility, this is a moral
stance. One way in which the relational dimension of race is obscured by the
traditional conception of moral responsibility involves the discourse of individual
choice. Peggy McIntosh alludes to this when she notes that, as a white person, I
was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her
individual moral will. (1997, p. 292). When whites assume that moral responsibility
hinges only on what one chooses to do, the relationship between their own lives and
the lives of blacks and other non-whites can be ignored. Let me give an illustration.
In their ethnographic study about how whiteness gets reified in courses that
teach about social justice, Kathy Hytten and John Warren (2003) record the
reflections of one of their subjects, Phillip, who in recounting his efforts to remove
the confederate flag from use by the rebel mascot of his former (high) school, tells
how he and his black high school friend worked together to collect hundreds of
protest signatures to present to the principal. Phillip is clearly aware how moral
praise was differentially distributed to him and his friend. Hytten and Warren quote
from Phillips journal,
As word of the petition spread, articles began to appear in the school and local papers.
Many people regarded me as deserving praise. Few said the same about my friend. I, it
seems, was treated as an individual, as a particular person engaging in specific acts
286 B. Applebaum
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

meant to help others. My friend was regarded more as another underprivileged black
kid spending more time rebelling against authority than taking care of his grades, getting
a job, and so on. (p. 87)
The important insight that Phillip offers involves a new way in which he interprets
this event. Phillip was always aware of the racist ways in which his friend was
treated. What he understands now after having taken a course on race and social
injustice is the ways in which he was privileged in this situation. As Hytten and
Warren explain,
Through reconsidering this personal experience, Phillip uncovers what he calls the
interlocking oppressions of active, visible forms, as well as invisible, embedded ones.
He offers, prior to this reflection, I had failed to note that the racism in this experience
came not just in the guise of individual acts of negative regard of my friend, but also in
widespread and unthinking positive reaction to me. (p. 87)
This narrative poignantly illustrates Peter McLarens contention that, White
identity serves implicitly as the positive mirror image to the explicit negative
identities imposed upon non-whites (1999, p. 43). But it also demonstrates that a
focus on individual choice functions to obscure the full understanding of how
systemic privilege contributes to the marginalization of Others.
To focus primarily on individual choice allows one to ignore how race is relational,
how racial identity gets constructed and how one might be implicated in that
construction, regardless of ones good intentions.
Conclusion
Stuart Hall (1990) defines ideology as a narrative that frames how we understand
and make sense of our material and social existence. Ideologies are collective
property (Lewis, 2001, p. 800) that work most effectively when they appear
natural and one is least aware of them. If ideologies are widely available chains of
meaning, stories, or narratives (p. 800), it would be essential to interrogate those
ideologies that hide but also support social inequality. Moreover, because these
ideologies are culturally sanctioned and can be taken for granted, they impede
critical interrogation. When these ideologies are supported by a moral common
sense, they become even more difficult to critique.
It is important for social justice educators to acknowledge that what one thinks is
morally good might be what keeps one from seeing systemic injustice and ones role
in sustaining it. This is not to imply that whites should not want to be good, but
rather that they must know that the ways they think are morally good may be
working to obscure systemic injustice. I am calling for the need to rearticulate moral
responsibility and moral agency in a way that moves the focus from a spotlight on the
subject to an emphasis on relationships between social groups and from attending to
individual intentions to considering outcomes that expose and conform with unjust
social patterns. In addition, I offer two preliminary suggestions about the
characteristics that would guide this re-articulation project vigilance and
uncertainty. White people must always be open to the subtle ways they can be
Moral responsibility, whiteness and social justice education 287
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

part of the problem, even when (and I want to emphasize especially when) they are
passionately involved in antiracist activism.
The students who take my course on schooling and diversity profess a fervent
interest in the ways that schools can contribute to social justice. Yet when an
AfricanAmerican student, new to our programme, walked into class clearly irate
and disturbed because, as he explained, a peer in the hall asked him whether he was
pursuing a Masters degree in this department, the predominantly white students
were perplexed how this could anger him so. When he explained that his anger
stemmed from the fact that he was not asked whether he was a doctoral student
(which he was) or even just a graduate student, the white students focused on the
intentions of the peer in the hall rather than the interlocking effects of systemic
racism that this student of colour endures. They insisted that this was just an
innocent question and that he should not be so sensitive. Not only could my
white students not understand what all the fuss was about but also, according to
their sense of moral responsibility, they did not conceive the white student who
asked the question in any way culpable. In essence, their sense of moral
responsibility contributed to the perpetuation of the very same systemic racism that
so upset the student of colour because it discouraged the white students from
asking the type of questions that would make visible the dynamics of systemic
oppression and the possible role they might play in perpetuating it. When moral
responsibility is primarily dependent upon fault, causality and accountability, on the
one hand, and on assumptions that one can perceive oneself and others as standing
outside of social, economic and historical contingencies, on the other, systemic
oppression may be more difficult to discern and denials of complicity may be
encouraged.
By naming and acknowledging how traditional conceptions of moral responsibility
conspire to hide the mechanisms of whiteness, we can begin to develop different
ways for understanding how dominant group members are all involved in the dirty
process of racializing others (Hurtado, 1999). But any re-articulation of moral
responsibility must highlight vigilance and uncertainty. Vigilance does not imply
moral paralysis instead what I am suggesting is that we hold on to a certain
tentativeness about our moral judgements concerning racism and keep them open to
critique, especially from marginalized perspectives. As Audrey Thompson so
astutely maintains,
Progressive whites must interrogate the very ways of being good for the moral
framing that gives whites credit for being anti-racist is parasitic on the racism that it is
meant to challenge. (2003, p. 7)
Note
1. It should be noted that the term colour-blindness, while sometimes meant as a virtue, has
become a pejorative term in much of the literature that critiques such a perspective. In as
much as this attitude has acquired a critically negative character, I believe it is offensive and
presumes ablest norms. I suggest that the term color ignore-ance be substituted. However, in
288 B. Applebaum
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

this paper that attempts to critique the more virtue-oriented use of colour-blindness, I retain
the term as originally used in that literature.
References
Aristotle (1985) The nicomachean ethics (trans. T. Irwin) (Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing
Co.).
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003a) Racism without being racist: color-blind racism and the persistence of racial
inequality in the United States (Lanham, MD, Roman and Littlefield).
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003b) New racism, color-blind racism, and the future of whiteness in
America, in: A. W. Doane & E. Bonilla-Silva (Eds) White out: the continuing significance of
racism (New York, Routledge), 271284.
Boyd, D. (1996) A question of adequate aims, Journal of Moral Education, 25(1), 2129.
Boyd, D. (2004) The legacies of liberalism and oppressive relations: facing a dilemma for the
subject of moral education, Journal of Moral Education, 33(1), 122.
Bush, M. E.L. (2004) Breaking the code of good intentions: everyday forms of whiteness (Lanham, MD,
Rowman & Littlefield).
Carr, L. (1997) Color-blind racism (Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage).
Delpit, L. (1995) Other peoples children: cultural conflict in the classroom (New York, New Press).
Ditomaso, N., Parks-Yancy, R. & Post, C. (2003) White views of civil rights: color blindness and
equal opportunity, in: A. A. Doane & E. Bonilla-Silva (Eds) White out: the continuing
significance of racism (New York, Routledge), 189198.
Fischer, J. M. & Ravizza, M. (1998) Responsibility and control: an essay on moral responsibility
(Cambridge, MA, Cambridge University Press).
Frankenberg, R. (1993) White women, race matters: the social construction of whiteness (Minneapolis
MN, University of Minnesota Press).
Frankfurt, H. G. (1969) Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility, Journal of Philosophy, 45,
829839.
Freeman, A. D. (1995) Legitimizing racial discrimination through antidiscrimination law: a
critical review of supreme court doctrine, in: K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller
& K. Thomas (Eds) Critical race theory: the key writings that formed the movement (New York,
The New Press), 2946.
Hall, S. (1990) The whites of their eyes: racist ideologies and the media, in: M. Alvarado
& J. O. Thompson (Eds) The media reader (London, British Film Institute), 723.
Hurtado, A. (1999) The tricksters play: whiteness in the subordination and liberation process, in:
R. D. Torres, L. F. Miro n & J. X. Inda (Eds) Race, identity, citizenship: a reader (Malden,
MA, Blackwell), 229236.
Hytten, K. & Warren, J. (2003) Engaging whiteness: how racial power gets reified in education,
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 6589.
King, M. L., Jr. (1986) I have a dream, in: James Melvin Washington (Ed.) A testament of hope: the
essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (San Francisco, CA, Harper & Row).
Lawrence III, C. R. (1987) The id, the ego, and equal protection: reckoning with unconscious
racism, Stanford Law Review, 39, 317388.
Levine-Rasky, C. (2000) The practice of whiteness and teacher candidates, International Studies in
Sociology of Education, 10(3), 263284.
Lewis, A. (2001) There is no race in the schoolyard: color-blind ideology in an (almost) all-white
school, American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 781811.
McIntosh, P. (1997) White privilege and male privilege: a personal account of coming to see
correspondences through work in womens studies, in: R. Delgado & J. Stefancic (Eds)
Critical white studies: looking behind the mirror (Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press),
291300.
Moral responsibility, whiteness and social justice education 289
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4

McIntyre, A. (1997) Making meaning of whiteness (Albany, NY, State University of New York
Press).
McLaren, P. (1999) Unthinking whiteness, rethinking democracy: critical citizenship in
gringolandia, in: C. Clark & J. ODonnell (Eds) Becoming and unbecoming white: owning
and disowning a racial identity (Westport, CT, Bergen and Garvey), 1055.
Pierce, J. L. (2003) Racing for innocence: whiteness, corporate culture, and the backlash against
affirmative action, in: A. W. Doane & E. Bonilla-Silva (Eds) White out: the continuing
significance of racism (New York, Routledge), 199214.
Pollock, M. (2004) Colormute: race talk dilemmas in an American school (Princeton, NJ,
Princeton University Press).
Rawls, J. (1972) A theory of justice (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press).
Ryan, W. (1972) Blaming the victim (New York, Pantheon Books).
Sandel, M. (1981) Liberalism and the limits of justice (Cambridge, MA, Cambridge University
Press).
Schofield, J. W. (1997) Causes and consequences of the colorblind perspective, in: J. Banks
& C. McGee Banks (Eds) Multicultural education: issues and perspectives (3rd edn) (Needham
Heights, MA, Allyn & Bacon), 251271.
Sleeter, C. E. (2001) Preparing teachers for culturally diverse schools: research and the
overwhelming presence of whiteness, Journal of Teacher Education, 52(2), 94106.
Tatum, B. (2003) Interview for Race: the power of an illusion, produced by California Newsreel.
Available online at http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-04.htm
(accessed 18 April 2005).
Taylor, C. (1992) Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition: an essay (Commentary by A.
Gutmann, Ed.) (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press).
Thompson, A. (1999) Colortalk: whiteness and off white, Educational Studies, 30(2), 141160.
Thompson, A. (2003) Tiffany, friend of people of color: white investments in anti-racism,
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 729.
Watson, G. (1975) Free agency, Journal of Philosophy, 72, 205220.
290 B. Applebaum
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
K
S
U

K
e
n
t

S
t
a
t
e

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y
]

a
t

2
0
:
2
3

2
3

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
4