White Guilt and Privilege in Underground Airlines
Underground Airlines traverses many social and political climates, namely, the tension that exists between privileged whites and oppressed blacks. While Ben Winters’ novel is set in an imagined future where institutionalized slavery still thrives in the South, the novel points toward the systematic oppression that persists in our contemporary society. A complex issue that Underground Airlines subtly addresses is that of white guilt and how it relates to systematic oppression and privilege.
The issue of white guilt and privilege is recurring throughout Underground Airlines, and no white character is free from its influence, although many are unaware. Winters expertly addresses this issue through an array of interactions with different types of white characters. What is vital to take away from Winters’ novel is that while not all of his white characters are plainly racist or plainly guilty in a “white” way, all white characters within the novel benefit socially and politically from their white status. The benefit of whiteness is demonstrated with nuance. For example, Victor’s interaction with the white character Mr. Newell is drastically different from his interactions with Martha throughout the novel. Mr. Newell, assuming Victor is a servant to Martha, treats Victor as barely visible. He is a prop to Martha, as all other slaves are considered in the “Hard Four”, the states that, in this alternate timeline, still practice institutionalized slavery. But aside from blatant disrespect and “classic” racism, Mr. Newell’s interactions with Victor contain an important nuance.
When discussing the working conditions of the slaves in the cotton factories, Mr. Newell suddenly and persistently assures Victor of their standards. He says, “This is not the slavery of fifty or even ten years ago. People think about slavery, and they still think- still!- about the whips and the dogs and the spiky neck chains, all of that nasty business. But this is now” and “None of your cousins got a thing to complain about down here, son. And I mean it” (Winters 258). What is interesting in this scenario is Mr. Newell’s motives in his adamant support of the slavery of “now”. Why does he feel compelled to argue this point if he participates in institutionalized slavery and the oppression of black people like Victor? Winters intends to express that Mr. Newell does in fact understand the horrible reality of slavery, at least in some respect. He believes that the slavery of “now” is harmless, even good, and it is nothing like the “nasty business” of before. Mr. Newell is uncomfortable by Victor’s presence, and feels the need to account for his self, his business, and his position of power in the institution. He feels the need to assure Victor that the slaves working for him are happy and well-cared for, that this type of slavery is not like others. This scene shows both the factor of white guilt at play and the gruesome reality of the ignorance of privileged whites. The slavery being practiced by Mr. Newell’s company is not good, in any form or respect, and Mr. Newell would never subject himself to it. However, with the existing imbalance of power, Newell truly feels as if he is helping the slaves, as if he is thinking of nothing but their best interests.
Perhaps a clearer cut example of white guilt at play is the scene with Martha and Mama, where Martha is trying to procure a loan from Mama. Martha is stressed and uncomfortable through this entire scene, but not just because of a possible criminal element or safety matter. She is uncomfortable for being white. This is stated plainly after Mama explains how white people are responsible for the disappearance of Martha’s husband. The scene reads, “’I’m sorry.’ Martha closed her eyes. She was sorry she’d come here. She was sorry she was white” (Winters 146). Here Martha is sorry for being white because Mama has forced her to see and accept the complete responsibility that whites hold for institutionalized oppression. White guilt is not comparable to racism, as it is not racism and never will be. Rather, white guilt is Newell compulsively assuring Victor of the well-being of his “cousins” and Martha’s uncomfortable feelings when confronted with her own white privilege. Earlier in this scene, Mama says to Martha, “’Tricky age for us women, ain’t it? Different for white girls, I guess.’ Martha shrugged uncomfortably. ‘I guess’” (Winters 143). Martha is uncomfortable in this exchange because she has been forced to think, even if only for a few seconds, of her white privilege. Being a white thirty-two year old woman is very different from being a thirty-two year old black woman. However, to unpack these differences, Martha would have to address how her white upbringing and the associated opportunities have left her a much more socio-politically advantaged individual.
Winters’ exploration of white guilt and privilege is nuanced and realistic. By including a likable, morally sound white character like Martha, Winters is able to demonstrate how white privilege exists independent of a white person’s personal beliefs and behaviors. He demonstrates how it indiscriminately benefits both Martha, a single mother struggling to find her husband, and Mr. Newell, a man at the center of the inner workings of institutionalized slavery.