Tuesday, August 18, 2009

White Guilt

Before I go any further I want to preface this piece by saying that this is an attempt to speak on subject that is notoriously complex and delicate. The creation of this blog originated from the legacy of truth speaking. When we speak our truth not only does it put us in a vulnerable position, but also holds us accountable to others and ourselves. Truth speaking is fluid and takes on many forms, but the type of truth speaking I am about to embark on is, for lack of a better word, scary. This is my perspective and deconstruction of white guilt. When I say we or us in relation to White people I am referring to a group of people who systemically benefit from privilege based on a social hierarchy that has been established since the creation of the United States. I can only hold myself responsible for any opinions expressed. Inevitably I am going to say something very un-PC, ignorant, or just misunderstood. What I can guarantee though is that a lot of thought is put into what I say and how I say it.

I wanted to write on White guilt because of a personal incident that happened to me last week that left me contemplating what it means to be White in this country (not like that’s a new thought to say the least). I was on my way home, slightly lost, so I pulled over into the entrance of what appeared to be an inactive parking lot. About ten seconds later I feel a car rear-end me. I was shocked. Not only had I literally just pulled over, but I had just received this car as a gift from my cousin who was going to donate it or else I never would have been able to afford it (believe me, I recognize how privileged I am). Because I have such a limited income I pay for the most basic insurance. Since I wasn’t hurt damage to the car is what crossed my mind. Then I looked into the side mirror to peak at the car that hit me. I saw two young, Black men, probably in their late 20’s emerging. “Fuck” was exactly what crossed my mind. Don’t ask me how my mind works. I still am trying to figure that out, because instantly my head went to issues of race and class privileges. In that instant I felt that no matter what happened, despite who’s fault it was or wasn’t, if we had to take this into legal hands I would most likely have the benefit of the doubt. A young White female up against two Black young men if you look at it from a historical perspective on how race works it was not looking good.

Not only was I conjuring up scenarios, but also I thought about how even though I don’t personally have a lot of money or hardly any, I come from an upper-middle class family. Even if I couldn’t afford damages done to the car most likely my parents would probably dish out even though they claim they wouldn’t. And if my parents wouldn’t loan me money I always have access based on my social positioning because of my skin color, class privileges and education level to loans, credit and jobs.

Okay, so this is what crossed my mind basically before I even got out of the car and within the next couple minutes after exiting.

I did not know what to do. Literally, I did not know. I had never been in a car accident before, except for one time when I was 16 or 17 someone hit my bumper right outside my Mom’s work. Nothing had happened and my Mom took care of the procedures. That was about seven years ago so when I found myself in this predicament last week I was stumped.

When I stepped out of my car (after making sure all of us were okay) we assessed the damages. His left light was smashed and the area around it damaged. Somehow my car didn’t even get a scratch. I didn’t even know technically who was at fault. Was it mine for pulling over at some random spot close to the entrance or his for not paying more careful attention to his surroundings? I didn’t want to come off as innocent and wanted to take responsibility, but wasn’t sure how. (Note this line because there is unintentional symbolism to it that I will address further on.) This young man, Marcus, was rightfully upset by the damage inflicted to his car, but did not address his anger towards me. He started saying, “Man, I don’t need this right now. I can’t believe this.” Shit. That’s what I thought. We started talking logistics. Did he have insurance? Yes, full coverage. Okay. Well, I didn’t have to worry as much because nothing happened to my car or me. For that reason I wasn’t sure what else to do. I apologized and explained that I didn’t know what the procedure is for a situation like this. I guess he didn’t either because neither of us thought about calling the police we simply exchanged names and numbers. Maybe that was subconsciously intentional, maybe not. I personally, try to keep the police out of my business as most of the time they’re up to no good and in this instance I didn’t want to be assigned the role as the victimized, innocent white girl and him labeled guilty.

I didn’t even know until after I got to my parent’s house that you are supposed to have a police report for a car accident, no matter how minor. In fact, most insurance policies won’t cover any damages without one. Then I felt worse. Did he think that I did that I didn’t suggest calling the police on purpose? What would happen if his insurance didn’t cover the damages? What if he couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket? I know I wouldn’t have been able to. If he did utilize his insurance his monthly fee would increase and he would be paying more anyway for an incident that was not entirely his fault. How much of what happened was my fault? Maybe I shouldn’t have pulled over right there, maybe I was in the wrong more so. These are thoughts that have been nagging at me since the accident. I thought about calling him and offering him some money. But, how much was appropriate? I don’t have a lot right now so $100 or $200 is the best I could do and that would be stretching it and most likely his damages cost A LOT more than that. But, even though I don’t have a lot of money I always have access to some money in some way. So, I’ll never be starving or homeless, so maybe I should have given him money.

That leads me to a whole other world of thoughts on class and economic privileges. No matter how little money I have I would never label myself poor, but rather broke, I do not come from a cycle of poverty. More than likely in the near future, in a couple of years, I will be middle class. My broke-ness is temporary and also voluntary because I chose to participate in an Americorps program.

Okay, back on track. I cannot help but think that this was ironically symbolic. I know that had a White dude rear-ended me I would have felt bad, but the guilt would never have come up. There is no doubt in my mind. Here I am an anti-racist activist, scholar, multi-racial feminist, all that jazz and it doesn’t mean shit. First of all, this guy that hits me does not know that. He has no clue of all the thoughts that I had. In so many ways it doesn’t even matter. I’m still a White body, my Whiteness posses’ power. In any general situation like this I’m still White, I’m still going to benefit. No we clearly did not go to court for this or get the police involved, but that is not the point. What I am trying to make of this whole situation is as a White person, particularly as an anti-racist activist, what can I do? Really, what can we do? How do we change a system? How do we make it more just? How do I, as a White person who chooses to fight against Whiteness navigate a system in which I benefit? This whole accident would have looked differently and felt differently to me had it been a White guy. We would have been on an even playing field.

So that is one really huge concept that emerged for me. Helplessness. Hopelessness. Defeat. How do I utilize my White body, my White voice, my White privilege? No, but REALLY? Oppressed people did not choose to be oppressed. I choose to go against Whiteness in the ways that I know how and I am still learning, but it will never be enough. Ever. No matter how much I “choose”. Every second of my life I will continue to benefit and no matter how much I try to push up against my Whiteness it will just laugh at me. I am still a part of the problem. I guess in some ways that hurts. It hurts me that I am hurting people I love and care about and innocent people that I have never met. By living and breathing I am imposing harm on others. By being I am therefore participating in a system. Point blank that sucks. It sucks. Although I can listen, learn, and see the struggles of others and understand it in an intellectual and humane way I will still never know. I will never feel, fully, the consequences of being.

I didn’t want to come off as innocent and wanted to take responsibility, but wasn’t sure how.

With all this guilt emerging I really had to look at White guilt that is so prevalent in our country. My particular favorite is when people get really defensive about being labeled a racist even if no one was insinuating that they were. (I always get amused by that one.) My mind went back to Janet Helms’ Stages of White Racial Identity Development that I was introduced to by Becky Thompson, my professor, white anti-racist activist and author, about five years ago when I was just learning about Whiteness. Now, I would consider myself to place between stage five or six (although feel free to comment if you think I am mistaken).

Stage 5: Immersion/Emersion: Actively seeking to redefine whiteness. Focus is on developing a positive white identity not based on assumed superiority, takes pride in active anti-racist stance. Needs support from other whites. (Side note: on developing a positive white identity not based on assumed superiority. How does the car accident work here? I wasn’t trying to imply superiority, but acknowledge reality. I want to explore this complexity further…thoughts anyone?)

Stage 6: Autonomy: Has internalized a positive white identity. Actively anti-racist, engaged in ongoing process of self-examination. Works effectively in multi-racial settings.

But Helms only addresses White guilt in stages two and three.

Stage 2: Disintegration: Awareness of racism and white privilege increase as result of new personal experiences. Feelings of guilt, shame, anger, denial, and withdrawal are common. May desire to take anti-racist action.

Stage 3: Reintegration: Feels pressured by other to “not notice” racism. Feeling of guilt and denial may change to fear and anger towards people of color, “blaming the victim,” for ex. Avoids the issue of racism, if possible.

I would argue, as a White person who feels comfortable in developing a White racial identity, that there is more fluidity to the stages-somewhat. However, I would not say that I am still at stage one.

Stage 1: Contact: Unaware of own “whiteness” and privilege. Sees racism as “individual acts of meanness” rather than as institutionalized system. Attitudes about people of color usually based on stereotypes.

But, because privilege is so embedded into being White it is easy to be unaware no matter what stage one falls at. I do not think that racial identity is a linear process as much as it is circular. Here is the fourth stage;

Stage 4: Pseudo-Independence: Abandoning beliefs in white superiority. Has an intellectual understanding of the unfairness of white privilege, recognizes personal responsibility for dismantling racism. May distance from other whites, and seek out relationships with people of color.

I think that among White people there is a lot of hesitation in addressing White guilt, even those with more advanced awareness and language around it. Many times it is the big elephant in the room where instead of people talking about it they talk around it. Let us be honest. Guilt is really representative of responsibility. To talk about the guilt that we feel we need to become accountable to our actions (even if unintentional) as well as history. Even if you did not participate in slavery. Despite the fact that your ancestors immigrated here after slavery. Got it?

So White people feel guilty, no doubt. But if given the space, the vocabulary, the knowledge to dialogue around this could we alter guilt into responsibility into growth into knowledge into action into progress? What if we let those feelings of guilt emerge and talk about it? Discuss it? Critique it? I’m not implying that we sit down and lament and have a cry fest feeling bad. But, truth is guilt does feel bad and not knowing how to take responsibility in order to reverse and change the system-not knowing what to do and how to do it does not feel that great either. Not knowing how to fix instead of be the problem is crappy.

So, I am saying we need to talk about White guilt. We need to talk about it with White people. We need to talk about it with people of color. It is a truth that we need to speak on. And it hurts. It’s hard. It’s scary. But, it’s problematic if we don’t. It’s going to leave White people feeling isolated from each other and from their responsibility. In my opinion it only results in more disconnect. We won’t come to any solutions or conclusions. I am not saying that there is an intentional resistance by any group or people out there keeping White people from talking. If anything I think that White people hinder themselves from engaging in these discussions. I know I almost did until I talked to Ladi about my hesitation. How would I sound? Would people judge me? She encouraged me to write, for myself, about this issue. I needed to hear that and I also needed to write. I needed to put this out there. So thank you Ladi for your patience and advice. For always holding the necessary space for me.

I want to comment on one last thought. I Googled images of slavery to put at top because the root of our guilt comes from slavery, although we should not forget about Native American genocide either. I was surprised how few of the pictures had White people in them, very few illustrated White participation. That struck me. How detached we are from our past. Who lynched Black men? Who tore families apart? Who allowed and at times facilitated their husbands rape of Black women? We did. When we learn/teach about slavery how do we fail to emphasis that? Slavery was not just an event in time. The actions of White people established a foundation that has influenced our past, present and future. It is okay to talk about that. It is okay to be ashamed of that. Vulnerability might be our only option and most valuable tool to destroy what we built.

I would really appreciate comments, thoughts and critique on this piece.


k. shea peters said...

Oh Leora there’s so much I want to comment on here. First of all, thank you for posting this piece. You know I have the same fears of you surrounding this issue, fears that almost kept me from writing on this blog at all. Even though it is scary and it is vulnerable, I’m glad you posted this because it makes me feel like I have permission to feel and analyze my white guilt without feeling bad or selfish for doing so.

Every second of my life I will continue to benefit and no matter how much I try to push up against my Whiteness it will just laugh at me. I am still a part of the problem. I guess in some ways that hurts. It hurts me that I am hurting people I love and care about and innocent people that I have never met. By living and breathing I am imposing harm on others. By being I am therefore participating in a system. Point blank that sucks. It sucks.

I feel you on this so strongly. I feel this when I walk into my work and I’m surrounded by 20 homeless Black women and children who are forced to listen to me because I’m labeled “Staff” and they’re labeled “Resident.” I feel this when I walk by a house still boarded up with a half-torn off roof because this government has still not fixed what it so horribly broke four years ago. No matter how “anti-racist” or “in solidarity” I work to be, it will never be enough and I will always be perpetuating the system in some way or another.

Guilt is really representative of responsibility. To talk about the guilt that we feel we need to become accountable to our actions (even if unintentional) as well as history…if given the space, the vocabulary, the knowledge to dialogue around this could we alter guilt into responsibility into growth into knowledge into action into progress? What if we let those feelings of guilt emerge and talk about it? Discuss it? Critique it? I’m not implying that we sit down and lament and have a cry fest feeling bad. But, truth is guilt does feel bad and not knowing how to take responsibility in order to reverse and change the system-not knowing what to do and how to do it does not feel that great either. Not knowing how to fix instead of be the problem is crappy.

I think this is a really important statement and I haven't thought of guilt in terms of responsibility before. I think that helps a lot, too, with giving permission to talk about it, because so often I feel like discussing white guilt is just another way that whites bring the focus back to them rather than dealing with larger issues of racism within society and analyzing their own actions and the realities of their privilege within that society. Yet your describing another option where, without wallowing in our own self-pity, we find ways to discuss white guilt in a productive manner and make progress.

Is it making progress past the guilt, as in is white guilt something that must be overcome, or is that part of the problem w/how white guilt is viewed, that white people often try to shut out the guilt and “get over it” rather than working with it and making it a tool? Could white guilt be similar to grief, where it’s never something you get over, you always carry it with you, but you just find ways of finding power within it to work to your advantage? Is that how white guilt can operate, or does it just weigh us down and make it more difficult to act positively?

I feel like the best overall way to really comment on this and build on what you’ve started would be a response piece at some point, would you be open to that or would you rather discussion related to this topic stay within the comments section?

Leeooorahhhh said...

Kathleen, I just commented on your post-too funny! First, I am totally open to a response piece-go for it! To answer some of your questions. Well, first let me say I love how you connected guilt with grief. Yes, I think that guilt functions similar to grief-you never get over it. At least that I have experienced so far. It is always present and can contribute to our process of evolving as people. It also, for me at least, nags in away that tugs at your heart. It is that depth and darkness that persists with many unanswered questions.

I also think that grief is a great word to use when talking about Whites relation to our past, present and future. How can we not feel at some level, grief? We have failed so many children in the school system, imprisoned so many men and women, infiltrated drugs into communities tearing apart family structures. On a deeper level I think people DO feel grief although I think others would argue that that isn't possible since our actions persist. But,grief isn't a comfortable feeling to sit with or examine either. Overall in this country do we know how to mourn and deal with death. Because death is ultimately what we're trying to impose onto a people and a culture. Not just Black people or Black culture, but even in other countries with our capitalist and neoliberalist values and way of life that we solicit.

I really don't think, at least where I am right now, that White guilt is "overcome". We cannot NOT be oppressors. It would take much awareness and huge structural shifts to make it feasible for White guilt to be overcome, in my opinion.

I think White guilt in itself is not a tool, but can be channeled to reveal tools that are available. e.g. text & literature, dialogue, etc. The first stage is addressing the guilt and understanding what it is representative of. Why are people so defensive about being labeled racist? Because their bones know truth. You cannot hide injustice from the spiritual body. But maybe power and desire to possess power outweighs guilt and grief because then people have the power to suppress emotions that prohibit them from final attainment of power.

I think that guilt can weigh us down,definitely. But, we cannot let it. Because if guilt leads us to stagnancy then we are allowing ourselves to be controlled by the system itself. We are giving in to those who created and maintain the system instead of altering it and destroying it. We as White people need to dialogue around this concept. We also need to facilitate conversations for White people to examine their guilt. We need to talk with people of color to see how we can be allies. It needs to be an ever present discussion. We need to be able to examine,listen, learn, grow. Create a new cycle focused on progress and growth.

I hope that addresses all of your questions. Let me know if I missed something.

L. Jones said...

So lots of thoughts and queries....

And to start off, I want to put out there (just as I posed to you yesterday on the phone and as Kathleen mentioned) we should definitely do collaborate on a writing, either through responses or as a collective piece.

Here are my notes I jotted as I read through your piece a few times:

Maybe the thoughts on guilt should extend pass the dynamics of privilege and position of power and advantage, but more into how one operates, functions, thinks, and struggles with the other. Ummm like what role (specifically) does the other play in your guilt outside of the obvious one? Like the assumptions that seem to be brought up with your car incident- like why even the idea of offering money? What assumptions are being made, especially after he made known that he has full coverage in the want to part the situation with giving him money. Assumably, he will be able to cover his damages through his insurance (well if you both had done the police report and all lol).

Where I’m going with this is the yearn to take care of or over extending oneself to the other as another way in which the awareness of your social location as a white being plays into or operates around guilt. And how such placing of the other and yourself in this manner may further draw definitive lines of separation or otherness.

On another note, I had some questions about the different stages.
In stage 5, there’s the characteristic of one who actively seeks to redefine whiteness and it left me pondering exactly what that means/refers to. Like is it an internal defining or more one through action you think they’re referring to? And what does either look, feel, think like. What’s a redefinition of whiteness through antiracist work (Is it more than an awareness and struggle with guilt)? And what exactly is behind a positive white identity (is it merely the consciousness of ones social location)? Or exactly what does a fight against whiteness through white guilt entail?

For me (without the guilt of course) a fight against whiteness is within my resistance and understanding of the fabricated images, history, narratives, messages, constructions, etc through words, self-love, teaching, learning, growing, protesting...

What’s it for you? And you too Kathleen...well if any of this even makes sense. Just my scribbled notes and own understanding of what I just read. Call me so we can chat! Peace and great great writing Leora. I know how much it took for you produce this writing and I am proud of you for doing so!

Heather L. Ash said...

I am just going to put this out there. Part of the problem (on all sides) with racism is that we still see people as their racial identity first - most times based on skin color. You, sitting in that car, having a near existential crisis over a little fender bender when clearly no one was hurt: did it ever occur to you that they might not identify themselves as "black" or "African-American" that maybe they were British or from the Caribbean or Indian or anything else? And what if they are privileged "people of color?" What if you assuming that they couldn't afford to pay for the damages is a form of racism - based on the assumption that because they are "black" that they haven't been put into or worked their way into a life situation that makes them able to handle this. Maybe when he said, "Oh man, I don't need this right now" he wasn't referring to the money. Maybe it was bad timing because he was trying to get somewhere by a certain time or maybe this car just had special meaning to him. I mean, I can see that it is a sort of cultural pendulum swing to take on the responsibility of how white culture has put racial minorities down in the worst and most horrible ways and feel all the guilt and act in positive ways on that guilt. But I think that we should be careful that we don't get so lost in our guilt that make assumptions about a person based on their skin color and how we automatically perceive their race based on that information. I think it is giving in to racial stereotypes just as much to assume that a person of color DIDN'T grow up with privilege just as much as it is to assume a white person did. And that is just as much a potential "perceived" form of racism as anything. If you called and asked offered money, you might even offend him if he thought you were doing it because you are white and privileged and he guessed (correctly) that he was black and underprivileged.

And to be honest, on a personal level, it really pisses me off when you say that by "living and breathing you are imposing harm on others. By being I am therefore participating in a system." The systems we have in place still have a TON of problems and issues that need addressing and fixing when it comes to treating people with equality. But the truth is, no matter how many regulations or laws you put into effect, if people don't do the work on a personal level, society is never going to be completely rid of ignorant, harmful, unfair treatment based on religion, gender, race, age, etc, etc, etc, ETC!!!!!

It doesn't mean that I don't applaud your battle, and that it isn't a worthy cause to fight it, but I think there is an argument for racism when we hate our very existence or feel guilty about it because we are white or black or asian or whatever.

Before I moved to Boston, I had never really seen much in the way of homeless people. But now I see sooooo many of them on a daily basis and my experience is that there are just as many white ones as black ones. More men than women. More adults than children. More 30 - 50 aged people than older. Never seen someone I could classify as Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern - but that is not to say they don't exist. So, maybe I need to take a more active role in ending poverty for those less fortunate, but maybe I just need to help others who are less fortunate regardless of their ethnic identity because hunger, homelessness, and poverty don't seem to discriminate in my experience.

Heather L. Ash said...

And, to continue....

I think that it is worthwhile to recognize that there is a large faction of people that do discriminate based on these exterior attributes and that our society HAS been built upon the oppression imposed by one ethnic category over several others. I think that it is also paramount that we recognize that by still defining people by these ethnic categories: black, white, etc, - even in the spirit of focusing our resources and attention for a certain group's benefit - we are still boxing people in. We are still defining them and confining them to particular initial situation: "You are white? Oh, you are privileged. You will have it easy." "You are black? Oh, you are oppressed and underprivileged. You have a lot to overcome." How about we raise our children to see ethnicity as something to celebrate, a historically rich aspect of ourselves that offers us uniqueness and how about we DON'T tell children that because they are this color or that that they have a responsibility to do this or be that or that it will be harder for them to do this or be that? What if we raise our children to know (not believe, but know) that no matter which road they have to take to do it - because the effort of the struggle is ALWAYS individual in the long run - that they can do whatever they want, be whomever they want to be? Maybe if we raise children that all possibilities are possible then they won't grow up feeling defeated to begin with whether they were raised with privilege or advantage or raised in poverty and all odds against them. (Sssshhh, don't tell them the odds, let them just beat them!)