Personal Is Political / Race/Ethnicity

White Guilt

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of white guilt, or, feelings of intense shame over having been born white. It’s just not something I feel. It makes me angry when it is projected onto me by other white people, and I don’t internalize it. I’m aware that this monologue is influenced by white privilege, as I can recall a conversation with a woman from Pakistan, in which she described feeling ashamed of her skin colour because she was being raised on white pop culture and ached to look like Madonna. And she isn’t the first person of colour who has ever spoken or written about similar feelings of identity-envy. I have confidence (but I take no pride in the fact) that, in the world I live in, she won’t be the last, either. But I’m also aware that while I didn’t consent to be born white, it’s nothing to be viscerally ashamed of (any more than any other ethnicity ought to inspire similar feelings). Contrary to the doctrine of white guilt, my skin colour doesn’t make me a bad person. Nobody’s skin colour is the litmus test for quality of character. Only their actions reveal what kind of a person they are.

More about the world I live in for a moment, as this seems like the perfect opportunity to jump into that topic: I was born and raised in Canada, a country that asserts itself as a “mosaic model” of multi-culturalism (but really, fails miserably at accomplishing this on any scale beyond the mere presence of many cultures in ghetto-like neighborhoods across the country). The neighborhood I grew up in as a child was dominated by the presence of white people, as were the schools I attended until we moved into a different city. As we were always taught in school about the theoretical model of multi-cultural Canada (right after being required to sing the national anthem first thing in the morning, as well as reciting the lord’s prayer at least once daily), I always had a child-like curiosity that, over the years, matured into a genuine interest about other cultures around the world (and within my own). And a few years ago, when I finally felt like I had arrived at a cultural pillar I have been searching for all my life, I started to realize how and why I have always felt alienated by white-dominated spaces and marginalized from white-dominated communities like the one I had found. I just don’t believe I think like many other white people I have encountered over the years. I neither act consistently from that privilege-centered identity, nor internalize a self-hatred stemming from the same place.

Take my grandparents for instance. From what I know of them, they are all landed immigrants, and they descend from all across Europe. I’ve mentioned in a previous entry, that one of my grandparents was a teenager in Denmark during the occupation. Surely, needing to learn German as a survival skill, has done some things to the way this man’s brain operates. But he also spent a great deal of time and effort during my childhood, trying to make me believe that I am somehow a Viking because I have Danish blood. I really never understood how this mindset lays the foundation for uninterrogated racism until I realized he exhibits bigoted behaviour all the time. As a result, when I spotted a t-shirt a couple years ago that said “Viking World Tour” that looked like a metal concert tour, I had a titter and reported straight to the internet to find it. I started laughing out loud when I found a website that sold it called “Pillaged Village”. And I ordered this stupid t-shirt, despite being uncertain about whether this website was safe enough to punch a credit card number into and hit the button that sends my information.

Then I started to think about where it would ever be appropriate or safe to wear this t-shirt, with the understanding that people who see it will have a titter over it just like I did. I quickly realized that this is impossible, because the t-shirt doesn’t express why I think it’s witty. It doesn’t tell people the story of my grandfather trying to convince me that I’m a Viking, and how this shirt throws it back in his face with a thick icing of sarcasm. In fact, it doesn’t throw it back in his face, either, because he won’t ever see it, and if he did, he wouldn’t think I was joking. When I received an email asking me for all of my information again, including the size I ordered, I never answered it. I had realized that there would never be a place in the world that I could wear that t-shirt. And that’s because a) I’m white, b) it’s making fun of cultural imperialism and attempted genocide, and c) it’s just not funny. This can be understood as an act of privilege-checking. That’s something I do all the time, which is a conscious operation I choose to regularly engage in, even if it makes my life marginally more difficult to live. It means I’m taking part in stopping the cycle of oppression on the individual scale.

Then there’s my paternal grandmother. She is very proud of being British, and also would have been a teenager during World War II. I don’t know whether she remained in the UK during that time, or she had already left. She just doesn’t talk about it (to me, anyway). My entire family was in her home the night the news broke about Princess Diana’s death, and she became very upset about it. She literally became hostile if anyone spoke while the news broadcast went over all the details that were known at the time, and demanded silence as the details were repeated over and over and over again that night. This is something I’ll never understand, and I don’t know if anyone else in the family really understood either. We all just accepted that this was her response to the loss, as we tried to move on with our own lives. But something else started going on in my own head, that placed limits on what things I could say while I was in her presence (and, as it later turned out, in my parents’ presence too).

Because Canada is still a British colony, and that fact has influenced a number of significant historical events and post-colonial relationships in this country. But I didn’t dare suggest that Canada abolish this relationship with Britain and formally become an independent country with its own system of government (rather than a duplicate of theirs with a representative of the Queen at the top of the pyramid), because this would get my grandmother very angry and hostile. In addition to that, an implied taboo was established against speaking about how colonialism continues to impact the First Nations to this day (such as in the creation of the Indian Act or Indian residential schools) or the presence of the Canadian military in global conflicts, just to name a couple of specific problems caused by this Master/slave relationship between our two nations. I feel a profound sense of having lost my right to speak in yet another aspect of my relationship to my blood relatives.

What I know about my maternal grandparents is even less (especially my grandmother, because she died when I was young and I didn’t know her). This is particularly significant in light of rampant alcoholism on that side of my family, which I have probably already written about in one or more journal entries. Yet I can still be confident that they were both landed immigrants (from Russia), and that this decision was very likely as a result of WWII and widespread anti-Semitism. But another reason why I know so little about my maternal grandparents is because of how little time my sisters and I spent in their presence–because my father was clearly uncomfortable around them, and because he was the driver, he made all the decisions about where we spend our time. I feel a (detached) sense of resentment towards my mother for not standing up for both herself and all her children, to know her parents. But as I’m sure I’ve already written about, if it isn’t already clear from the contents of this paragraph alone, she is the Adult Child of an Alcoholic, and this has impacted her in a number of devastating ways.

Which brings me to my parents, who were both born and raised in Canada. From the time they were just children, until they were attending college, Vietnam War took place, in addition to numerous other wars overseas across Asia and the Middle East. But just south of the border, the Civil Rights Movement was happening too.  I feel this is important to emphasize because it’s clear to me that my parents’ sympathies were with the families of U.S. soldiers, for reasons I will never be able to comprehend other than by thinking of racism as a trait my grandparents have passed on to both of them. Although admittedly, my parents’ sympathies may have also been influenced by the immigration of draft dodgers and deserters into Canada, and the uprising of anti-war activism across the continent (especially in Canadian colleges and universities). The inconsistency of the Canadian government’s official policy of non-interference may have also given my parents reasons to hang on to their unchecked racial and cultural prejudices as well, as we exported raw materials and finished goods directly to the American military, which were in turn used to bomb and raze Vietnam to the ground.

Neither of my parents really expressed quite how important this 19-year-long conflict was to the context in which I would find myself growing up, and unfortunately, my schools also failed. I know can thank the Canadian government for that oversight. What they did express, however, was a great deal of racism towards anyone of Asian or Middle Eastern ethnicity. Not only did both of them do racist “impressions”, use racial slurs in their every day speech, and tell racist “jokes”, but my father in particular made sure I was indoctrinated with a great deal of pro-war, pro-American, pro-colonialism/imperialism culture, as represented in films and television that he had been exposed to (and continues to work towards being exposed to). My father wanted to be stuck in the mindset that shaped his early childhood memories. And my mother learned early on in life to be helpless and complicit, so she never spoke against these practices.

I understand how difficult it must have been for my parents to have their ideas and loyalties challenged, especially in a college setting. They successfully passed on the same racist traits to me and my two sisters, and I had to do the work of un-learning those traits. The difference in my case is, it seems, that I was willing to do that work for as long as I can remember being conscious of the existence of cultural differences between people. And though I am ashamed of individuals like my parents and grandparents, with whom I share my ethnicity, I am not willing to project my conception of these individuals onto all white people. The answer to race-based oppression is simply not to wallow in hatred of all white people, myself included. It’s also important to acknowledge that, though racism against white people is not institutionalized in the Canadian government, nor systemic, racism against white people can still happen. And it does, every time an expectation of white guilt is projected onto a white person.

Recognizing white privilege is not an admission of guilt, for say, perpetrating genocide against aboriginal peoples all across North America. Thus, it is simply not helpful to perpetuate white guilt (or perpetrate it against white people). For example, I recognize that, simply by virtue of the fact that I am a white person living in Canada, I have inherited social privilege from a history of colonialism, institutionalized violence, and genocide at the expense of the First Nations. But I have to ask myself how I would be helping any First Nations person in this day and age, as many activists in this country are working towards reconciliation between the First Nations and the rest of the country, by paralysing myself with feelings of shame and self-hatred for having been born a white person. I recognize that by virtue of having been born here, I have inherited social privileges that new immigrants don’t have, such as free citizenship (including the right to vote, hold political office, or apply to jobs that may be unattainable to an immigrant). But how am I helping them by hating myself? I’m just not. And I’m sick and tired of being held to that requirement (by white people) on the basis of my skin colour. It’s got to stop or we can never become useful allies.

9 thoughts on “White Guilt

  1. Hmmmm, while I appreciate how well thought out your post is, I don’t find myself agreeing with your argument. Perhaps because I get tired of readings similar protests and yet I have myself experienced such few examples or instances of white people being made or expected to feel guilty that I can’t quite make the connection. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I am saying I can’t believe it is some kind of pervasive problem – it seems to me a red herring. I have just written a post about whiteness that definitely speaks against what I do find a common practice in my country – and that is the very quick reassurance to white people in the room that what is to be discussed should not engender any feelings of guilt or shame blah blah. I don’t subscribe to that reassurance. Nor do I have any need to MAKE white people feel guilty, but I do happen to believe it is an appropriate response to ongoing colonial practice and I’m happy to be alongside in those emotions; without removing, reassuring or rescuing. I also don’t buy that shame is paralyzing, I personally think on the other side of any difficult emotion is a more enlightened and insightful understanding of the problem at hand that engenders action, not inaction. Cheers.

    • As it turns out, white guilt isn’t just feeling ashamed for having been born white. It is also a tactic that is used by white people who want to avoid engaging with experiences of oppressed groups or how they individually are contributing to those experiences (and therefore, how they can put a stop to that as individuals). In other words, it’s used as a tactic to turn a conversation about race-based oppression back into a conversation all about white people. It allows them to hang on to that problematic white privilege while receiving praise (especially from other white people) for giving lip service to the idea of letting it go. People who aren’t particularly aware of what this represents, will often look to someone who pulls this stunt as some sort of a hero, even.

      But I’ve also been experiencing, though periodically, white people who so aggressively project white guilt onto me, that they literally deny that racism can ever happen to a white person, and accuse someone like me of being racist (or specifically, of appropriating culture, etc.) if I even make the suggestion that this is like saying sexism never effects a man in a negative way. I’m still not saying that the hurt is equally proportional (and would never suggest that anyway), but I’m attacked on the grounds that this is me attempting to distract from the fact that I have privilege because I’m a white person. I’ve also been accused of racism/cultural appropriation for expressing that I am going to put my hair in dreads for a long list of complex reasons, as if anyone but white people can wear their hair in dreads, but white people who do can’t be trusted because they’re stealing other cultures (and punk culture isn’t considered a unique culture in their view, except in the instance of Neo-Nazis, who they are quick to raise as a red herring that stands against everything I personally stand for). That’s going to turn into a whole blog post in and of itself, because it’s the “People of colour said it, so shut up, Whitey”, which I feel is a fallacy.

      It probably is more common in Canada than in other countries, such as virtually anywhere in Western Europe, New Zealand, or Australia, where people seem to be significantly more progressive in their ideologies and their activism. And this is probably due in part to what seems to me, a successful equal rights activism campaign by indigenous peoples and/or immigrants who are people of colour. Then again, that’s just the impression I’ve gotten from people who have been there to experience it (writers, academics, and personal acquaintances). Other remarkable places where I have been informed of a prevailing progressive attitude that puts Canada in the 1950s includes Houston, Texas. I personally have not been to any of these places, so if I’m wrong, it’s my own fault (although the money barrier certainly isn’t helping me).

      As for how pervasive it is or is not, all you need to do is a quick Google search to establish that people of colour have been regularly writing against this practice for over a decade. I just happen to have instinctively (or perhaps intuitively) thought to myself about this for years — the most obvious example being of one of my former flatmates, who declared profound guilt for being born white, straight, and male, after listening for hours to a bi-gendered individual we had just met by chance that night, who spent about three hours explaining how zir family had deprived zie of zir Jewish identity because of anti-Semitism (and thus, for 50 years, zie didn’t know who zie really was). My flatmate announced his guilt and then went straight back to playing the notoriously problematic Grand Theft Auto, as if I had not just also finished explaining to him that this directly reflects an attitude of complacence with the misogynist content the game designers put in it.

      I guarantee you that if you spend enough time talking about identity politics among people whose loyalties you are uncertain of (because they never talk about it), you’ll see just why I felt the urge to write about it when it was keeping me up at night. I don’t know how much sense I’m making here, but the fact remains that I get it… I’m a white person, and in my current place of residence, that means I’m privileged. But the answer isn’t to find excuses or ways to avoid engaging other people, yet that’s what white guilt is attempting to accomplish.

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply! I can get your argument about it being a potential deflection, and certainly I don’t mean to imply that for me the purpose of the work/writing I do is to engender guilty/shame. My purpose is to end the reign of whiteness however that may come about; and certainly because it (the ideological system of whiteness) has horrendous impacts for all people in different ways. Just, as you highlight, patriarchy has impacts men and women. I think strategies that expand, open-up and connect are more valuable than those that shut down or provoke resistance, however I would argue that the experience of pain, such as the bodily experience of guilty/shame, can be a valuable point of connection. Anyway we are getting in to a more complex area that would take too much time and move too far from your original post, but we may agree on more than we disagree.

        I must say Australia/NZ is definitely not, from my perspective, more ‘progressive’ than elsewhere. I would say colonised/(un)settled nations everywhere still wrestle with issues created by the continuation of the ideology white supremacy that arose to justify the seizing of much of the world, in much the same way. It may come across that way in forums such as the UN and depending on how ‘progress’ is measured, but it hasn’t been my lived reality :)


        • I agree with your direction, as that’s the direction I’m trying to work in as well.

          Thanks for the input on the more/less progressive aspect of the feedback too. In a lot of ways, I don’t know if I’ve said it already or not, Canada’s Prime Minister wants us all to go straight back to the 1950s. It makes me sick to my stomach, and I ball both hands into fists at every turn of the political leadership of this country.

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