Modern Slave Owners

I appreciate this piece in The New York Times Magazine: White Debt by Eula Biss.

I don’t entirely agree with it; I don’t think it goes far enough; I don’t think it has the analogy quite right. But I appreciate it because it articulates some of my thoughts well, and it’s enabled me to articulate my own analogy.

From “White Debt”:

Hearing the term ‘‘white supremacist’’ in the wake of that shooting had given me another occasion to wonder whether white supremacists are any more dangerous than regular white people, who tend to enjoy supremacy without believing in it.

That’s it, innit. We are quite happy with the status quo because we’re all right. We don’t want our lives to be any rougher. (“We” being white people in the upper and middle classes.) We don’t really know where to begin with combatting mind-blowing inequalities around the world, so we plod on. We donate to charity sometimes. Then we plod on.

We are the lucky ones at the front of the train in Snowpiercer.

We are the lucky ones on the space station in Elysium.

We have clean water, beautiful spaces, lovely food, great opportunities for learning and growth and careers, access to health resources that often reduce pain/suffering, and we may even look more conventionally attractive (which helps with opening so many doors in life) because we can afford to fix our teeth, fix our hair, eat well, wear fashionable clothes.

Being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it. Without thinking, I would say that believing I am white doesn’t cost me anything, that it’s pure profit, but I suspect that isn’t true. I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life.

And here… is where my opinion differs from the author’s. I don’t see it as “debt,” I don’t see it as “costing me … my moral life.” I think it’s bigger and more immediate than that. Our privilege comes back to bite us in the butt all the time. And we’re so stupid, we don’t do enough about it.

We are the slave owners at the front of the train in Snowpiercer, living the good life and ignoring the humans – who we keep in squalor – at the back of the train. We are the lucky ones on the space station in Elysium, living the good life and ignoring the humans – who we keep in squalor – back down on the planet. And we expect that keeping those humans in a second-rate existence won’t ever affect us.

We are modern slave owners, pretending like it’s all OK that people who live in far shittier conditions than us make our clothes and build our iPhones. And we think that’s not gonna bite us.

There was that time my mum was threatened at knife-point, in a shopping centre car park. She screamed and the man ran away. But why was he threatening her with a knife? Because he was happy with his lot, comfortably paying off a mortgage on a nice little place in a nice little suburb, with a couple of happy kids and happy partner at home? Because he has the support that he needs in life, to get by?

It’s all our faults that he threatened my mum with that knife. If that man had the same white, middle-class, stable, comfortable upbringing that we had; if he had gone to a private school and university; if he had support and options and opportunities, what are the chances he’d be robbing someone at knife-point today?

Then there are the kids who have horrific childhoods, raised in a state of fear and violence, come to Australia and are outcasts – don’t speak the language, don’t have any support, don’t have any money or opportunities. They face heavy racism and classism, in every direction. Then, the upper and middle classes are shocked if these kids come into their beautiful neighbourhoods and try to steal a car. That scum, they say. Those animals. Deport them. 

It’s all our faults that these kids try to steal cars. We passively (by not giving a damn) or actively (by voting for people who reduce foreign aid and reduce support services) make their lives shit, and then expect them to suffer invisibly and in silence.

Then there are the hundreds of thousands of people, all around the country, who by fuck are annoyed whenever they see a refugee story on the news, or a family of migrants in their local shopping centre, because those people are taking their jobs, and those people are probably claiming welfare, and Why the fuck should our taxes go to them, when we can hardly even pay our bills – when we don’t have shit. And so the hundreds of thousands of people vote for the Liberal (conservative) party or One Nation or Family First, because those politicians promise things like: We won’t let them come in to our country and take your jobs. And then the Liberal party or One Nation or Family First gets voted in, and some people in the upper and middle classes say: Oh, what?! You are so short-sighted, you want fossil fuels and to privatise essential services and to ban refugees/migrants! 

It’s all our faults that people vote for politicians who are short-sighted and lack wisdom.

It’s all our faults that terrorism happens. Whether the person is mentally ill, or has been messed-up and isolated and radicalised, or comes from a country where they have nothing. That’s all on us.

It’s all our faults that fake news became a thing. “The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.”

The health and happiness and fortune of our [household/street/town/city/country/world] is only as healthy and happy and fortunate as the unhealthiest and unhappiest and least fortunate among us.

It’s not going to make our lives more shit by redistributing some of our middle- and upper-class wealth. We have to lift everybody up. It will make our lives better too.

The best thing we’ve got in place is tax, and look at our attitude towards that! A little bit of our money is redistributed to help the unhealthiest/unhappiest/poorest, and we get stingy and mean, and try desperately to avoid paying it. We hate it, we resent it. How dare my hard-earned money go off to dole-bludgers and welfare cheats and no-good druggies and hobos. 

How dare I be forced to share my money with people who weren’t born into a nice white middle-class family like me. 

We’re so stupid.

We should re-name tax. We should love tax. We should have an opt-in public leaderboard showing which people offer to pay MORE tax than they have to. We should have a public leaderboard showing which companies avoid paying tax, and which companies offer to pay more tax than they have to. We should have a government website celebrating the work of tax – showing what it’s paying for, and who it’s helping. (All of us.)

We should lift up our slaves and give them money and opportunities and rights and their freedom.


Guilty white people try to save other people who don’t want or need to be saved, they make grandiose, empty gestures, they sling blame, they police the speech of other white people and they dedicate themselves to the fruitless project of their own exoneration.

What can I say to that?

This blog post is a small empty gesture?


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