‘Herd Invisibility:’ The Contrived ‘Innocence’ of Individual White People
A Connection Between Collective Behavior and Individual Responsibility
Much has been written about the collective behavior of white people and the elaboration of privilege. Often, this writing emphasizes group behavior, implying (if not stating outright) that individual white people are not responsible due to an insidious tendency for the group to privilege and protect itself. This stance, though accurate and realistic, fails to include the individual behaviors of white people and the agency that they might develop if they allowed themselves the truth about their own behaviors.
Race theorists often argue that white people, as individuals, use defensive mechanisms to hide their privilege. Some theorists also stop short of an accurate perception of the individual. This stance allows that privileged (white) individual to toss the problem of racism onto the group, which typically leads to shirking individual responsibility. As a result, this herd mentality approach only encompasses one aspect of racism: collective racism. It allows those individual white people to render their individual privilege invisible by blaming ‘society’ such that this crucial aspect of individuality is never addressed.
In an important work on ‘herd invisibility,’ L. Taylor Phillips and Brian Lowery emphasize that ‘privilege is not inherently invisible….Whites use cloaking strategies to address the discomfort associated with naked privilege.’ (https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/herd-invisibility-psychology-racial-privilege.) This assertion is not new and, in fact, is elaborated upon in detail by critical race theorists such as Robin DiAngelo’s more recent publication, White Fragility.
However, DiAngelo specifically refers to discussions about race as collective behaviors. In her discussion about the ‘good/bad binary,’ for example, she states that a suggestion that whites are ‘racist’ is received by them as a ‘blow — a kind of character assassination…obscures the structural nature of racism and makes it difficult for us to see or understand.” (72–3) She refers to the concept of ‘habitus’ as proposed by Bourdieu, a sociologist who focused on the negotiation of power between social groups in the larger society, in which he states that socialization results in predictable responses to challenge (of one’s power); that is, that white people respond to social cues based on this socialization. (DiAngelo, 101) However, even though collective behaviors exist and are extremely relevant, an emphasis on collective behaviors only is a form of coddling, of ‘easing white people’ into a reality that, admittedly, nobody would want to admit. Yet, it is still a form of coddling individual white people.
“[C]onsiderable work is done by individuals and society to cloak racial privilege…Herd invisibility can emerge from the aggregate of individual actions, protecting the innocence and privileges of all members of the group.” Phillips and Lowery, “Herd Invisibility: The Psychology of Racial Privilege”
Though a stance that explores the socialized nature of power and the collective regard for maintaining it is accurate, it fails to account thoroughly for individuality and the ways in which individual white people choose to maintain their power. Phillips and Lowery, on the other hand, state that “individual actors, motivated to maintain either positive self-regard (innocence motive) or privileges associated with their group’s dominant status (maintenance motive), will engage in behaviors to cloak their privilege. As a result, invisibility emerges at the societal level and can thus protect both the privileges and the innocence of individual privileged actors — even when they do not individually engage in these protective actions.”
This point is important because it shows the ways in which some individuals do the work for others AND because it implies that individual white people can make true anti-racist choices. However, in order to do so, they must acknowledge unearned benefit; that is, that in a presumptively equal society, what they have (and continue to acquire) often likely belongs to somebody else. As Lowery asserts, “considerable work is done by individuals and society to cloak racial privilege but that even those without such motivation benefit from herd invisibility…Herd invisibility can emerge from the aggregate of individual actions, protecting the innocence and privileges of all members of the group.”
The notion that collective behavior and structural inequity are the only forms of white supremacy functions as a form of coddling and simply serves the dictates of white fragility. In fact, individual white people choose to promote white people (sometimes even in the context of subpar performance), choose to fill out disability forms more often for white people, choose to give awards and other forms of acknowledgement to white people, choose to put only white ‘leaders’ portraits in hospitals, choose to vote for their economic interests — and this is only a sampling of items, behaviors I have personally witnessed. These behaviors are choices of the individual where alternative choices would have undercut white privilege and the profound lack of merit which attends it, thus functioning as truly anti-racist.
Discussions which sideline individual responsibility in favor of emphasizing social/herd advantage are another variant of white privilege: once again, it allows white people as individuals to perceive themselves as non-racist while tossing the ‘blame’ onto some vague blob of white supremacy somewhere ‘out there.’ It is yet another way that individual white people shirk responsibility. Herd and group behaviors rely critically on each separate member behaving in certain ways, and to focus only on the group behavior renders invisible the fact that each white person has a responsibility to perceive their own (unearned) advantage. Further, after perceiving this advantage, there is responsibility to act upon it: to ask what true anti-racist action may mean for that individual.
Phillips and Lowery emphasize the bottom line: a refusal to admit individual advantage “frames inequity for others and hides the existence of advantage…As long as the cover of innocence is provided, individuals can pursue advantages freely.” In this statement, they provide basic insight into the operative nature of collective behavior: ultimately, it relies on each individual choosing not to see so that he/she/they can keep unearned advantage.
“Whites’ experience of innocence is paid for by minorities.” Phillips and Lowery
Ultimately, white supremacy is a socialized system supported by individuals. The notion that white supremacy is only the result of group behaviors is just as misled as the notion that only individuals control it. White supremacy is both a socialized system and a system which relies on each individual making the same immoral choices versus anti-racist ones. Placing racism only into the category of ‘collective’ without regard to individual behavior is yet another form of white privileging.
As Phillips an Lowery note, “Whites’ experience of innocence is paid for by minorities.” This fact points to one reality: that white people as a group AND as individuals have a moral responsibility to actively operate against their strong tendencies to scapegoat others as a substitute for what should be their own moral actions.