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.
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.