I wrote a year ago about how I feel about white people claiming to feel overwhelmed with guilt about winning the birth race lottery—spoiler: I thought “what a useless exercise” then—and I still find the subject matter resurfacing over and over again, with increasing frequency since the beginning of the indigenous nationhood movement. I will freely admit right now that at the time I wrote that first blog entry, and many other related entries, I was missing vocabulary (e.g., lateral violence) and had only a very superficial understanding of some of the concepts and emotions I was dealing with in my writing. As a result, that blog entry, which you can read here, might not feel particularly on point for a lot of people, and I now realize exactly why that is. So today, my writing is going to probe deeper into this phenomenon. I do, however, first want to make a point of acknowledging this point in that first blog post:
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 didn’t have the words for it then, but now that I do, this is an example of lateral violence (further on that below).
So what is white guilt? Apparently, for some people, it not only fails to be self-evident by its namesake alone, but when described, fails to appear familiar. White guilt is an emotional reflex in which someone like myself (a whitey) becomes acutely aware of the white privilege they’ve inherited by virtue of birth lottery, and becomes overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and anxiety as a result. Sometimes white guilt feels like a genuine emotion, while other times it is actually very consciously manipulated in dialogue to reinforce a Eurocentric focus on race/ethnicity by using the enormity of guilty feelings for being helplessly born white to overshadow the plight of people of colour. Other times it is policed out of white people by angry white people who have turned their deep-seated feelings of anxiety into a form of action rather than a crisis of consciousness — though that action is a form of lateral violence — and this is sometimes used by those angry action-oriented whiteys to win anti-racist ally points from people of colour (which unfortunately still works about half of the time, thus helping it become perpetually renewed against more white people—even effective and/or hard-working white anti-racist allies). In this last case, the novelty often wears off as the anger persists, and rightfully so. It is, after all, angry white people who colonized North America, for instance, at the plight of indigenous peoples. Whether anger is motivated by fear, guilt, or some other anxiety, it still looks the same in the end, and while I can’t speak for people of colour, I’m pretty sure they’re already long-ago tired of white people getting angry.
If you don’t engage with actively confronting and challenging racism very often (or at all), you probably aren’t going to recognize these behaviours (in which case, how the fuck did you even find this blog and why in the world have you read this far?) I happen to work at anti-racism and anti-colonialism from multiple angles every day, using multiple tools at my disposal, and as such, I see (and call out) these behaviours a lot.
The Birth Lottery Guilt Reflex
There are productive ways of engaging with one’s social privileges as a white person once one becomes aware of possessing them or having them attributed to oneself, and then there’s white guilt. It’s like the polar opposite of White Whine, because rather than complaining that I was born white through no power or will of my own and therefore can do nothing about it, white guilt is essentially a complaint about what a bad person I am (either directly or through association to my racist, colonial ancestors) for having been born white through no power or will of my own. Bonus points are awarded for whining, tears, and solicitation for pity from people of colour. I know when I first found out about the sheer scale of white privilege (i.e., systemic), little bit by little bit as I did, the temptation was always there to just wallow in the paralysis of guilt for having a share of it. I had some pretty strong emotions whenever I was learning new information about events of ethnic cleansing and colonization of various parts of the world by white people—especially when those white people were my not-too-distant ancestors. I also had some pretty strong emotions for realizing how many shitty, racist things I had once said, not realizing at the time what I was participating in. An endless fountain of strong emotions now flows within me for all the shitty, racist things I know my blood relations have all said and done (and continue to say and do) even though they all knew better. I can’t even speak to them any more (any of them), in part because of their choices in relation to racism and colonialism (and in large part because of the sheer enormity of trans-generational and lateral violence among my blood relations, which they all deny). I just can’t handle it.
For the most part, I dealt with my emotions around white privilege privately, because I didn’t know who I could turn to for help working through it. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone else for the shitty things I have to face within myself and just accept that I didn’t know better then but I do now. I had already been that burden, and effectively alienated large numbers of people who couldn’t handle it, when I was just beginning to realize the magnitude of the violence I had faced at the hands of my own blood family. This new awareness of my privileges asna white person was totally different, because this time, it was me against the rest of the world, and I am the only one responsible for the violence I’ve perpetrated. I couldn’t point to my blood family and accuse them of making me be sometimes-racist, because I often didn’t do it in front of them, and that means I made those decisions on my own—even if my blood family’s favourite pass-time was racist “jokes” at home or racist slurs while we were out for a drive (which is an accurate description of their favourite pass-times), and thus, they could be accurately described as a significant influence in my own repetition of racist behaviours. I am to blame this time. I could very easily have turned to anyone I know at all points of this process, with every new piece of the puzzle, and wax poetic about how guilty I feel for having been complicit with it all this time without having any conception of the gravity of my actions and choices. And if I had, a lot of people would have just rolled their eyes while a few would recognize something they have been through already, in me, as I spoke. And it is those few who would be coddling, back-patting, and comforting me through my crisis. Even if it kept coming up over and over and over again. Because I’m doing the “right” thing (i.e., feeling guilty) rather than the “wrong” thing (i.e., feeling defensive and entitled). And so I would have been exploiting those people, had I gone down that road. So not only is this exercise completely useless, it’s also oppressive to the people who enable it.
The Stealth Eurocentrism Reflex
Occasionally, people who once experienced the birth lottery guilt reflex become aware of the fact that they are exploiting people by venting their troubles to any attentive ear in exchange for good feelings, and become better at doing it in order to exploit a larger audience. This allows them to avoid actually dealing with the original crisis while fulfilling some need they have to prey upon and leach off of the emotions of other people. If you think I’m kidding, even momentarily, guess again. The effect of this expert manipulation, and even of the birth lottery guilt reflex, is to refocus the entire crisis of systemic inequality back onto the collective or individual guilt of white people, thus reinforcing the privileging of white people and their concerns over the plight and needs of people of colour.
There is a sense in which there are generally two kinds of people—people who feel energized by being in the presence of others, and people whose energies are depleted in the same scenario. A lot of people don’t know themselves well enough in this particular respect, to vocalize what they individually need in social situations, because most people believe that they should feel energized by being around other people. However, a few people know themselves acutely well in this regard, and deliberately pursue relationships and social situations with people who don’t know themselves well enough, in which they can nourish their own energy reserves unnoticed and uninhibited. In some circles, these exceptionally manipulative and exploitative few are referred to as psychic vampires (I use this term metaphorically), and as far as I’m concerned, their motivations know no bounds. These may be just some of the people who will engage in the stealth Eurocentrism reflex. Others may include people who genuinely do not want to let go of a sense of entitlement, superiority, and privilege over people of colour; and people who actually believe that white people are being oppressed by the very notion of white privilege. While it is fair to say that all of these kinds of people need to be fired out of a cannon into empty space where their ideas can’t get in the way of the progress everyone else is working toward, ultimately, they are human beings deserving of a base level of dignity and respect, just like everyone else. And that’s about all the space I’m willing to give them. And only if I absolutely have no choice. There is just no way to tell which of these people is feeding off of your attention, and which of them feels validated even further by every single rejection of the manifestations of their sickness. It is demoralising to try and change any of them, because ultimately none of them want to change. My energy is better spent trying to help people who want to change, to find their way.
How many haters does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. They fear change, even if it makes the world a brighter place.
The Transformation-Reaction Reflex
People really don’t like feeling uncomfortable. A really common way of dealing with our discomfort when it happens is to convert our bad feelings into good feelings. It’s so common, it’s a defence mechanism known as transformation-reaction among psychoanalytic circles. Like when we hear something racist and it makes us really uncomfortable to be confronted with this information, so we turn it back on someone in the form of a joke, and we can laugh our anxieties away. Bonus points are awarded for heavy applications of sarcasm, for using an outrageously bitter or caustic sense of humour, and for getting angrier about it than even people of colour are (extra bonus points if this isn’t even clear to you until long after the damage is already done). Super hyper ultra bonus points for exploiting people whose core cultural values include promoting a robust sense of humour, as evidence that your “jokes” are effectively dismantling the uncomfortable stimulus, even if it may actually be resulting in increasingly magnified racism towards people of that ethnic group when your back is turned, and an increased frequency of the hostility they were already experiencing before.
In fact, my original piece on white guilt was largely inspired by a man who so persistently relied upon this very reflex, that when a white person disagreed on whether or not a given Thing was as racist or culturally appropriative as he claimed it was, no matter how nuanced their reasoning (this is, after all, an extremely complex and nuanced subject matter), he immediately resorted to badgering, bullying, and policing every white person he could for failing to adequately convey their own white guilt to his satisfaction, no matter how hard-working and actually effective they are as white anti-racist allies. He also denied that lateral violence exists among white people and denied that occasionally individual people of colour sometimes go well beyond a perfectly reasonable mistrust of white people (given what white people do to people of colour every day), to the point of all-out hating* them simply for being white. People of colour are most often the first people to step up and tell someone when they’ve crossed that line within their own communities, simply because it invites so much more racism upon all of them when that one person’s attitude gets out of hand. It’s also fairly critical to maintaining everyone’s mental health within the community, and white people could collectively stand to learn a thing or two from this.
* Note: I’m not using the term “reverse racism” here, but the man I’ve described above would, even though I would be talking about individual people of colour occasionally harbouring and hurling deep-rooted bigotry against white people—not as a “well people of colour are just as racist!” but actually in a completely different conversation, about whether or not racism flows in just one direction. Reverse racism, if it was actually a Thing and not just a straw man of what I had expressed, would be an entire systemic network of interdependent barriers at the expense of white people. Since this is really a completely fictive construct, this man’s hostility towards me was not only an utterly useless waste of energy, but also a transparent example of the kind of lateral violence (as stated at the top of this post, and arguably, an anti-white racist attitude as well) that he doesn’t seem to think exists.
I may be a minority of one with the following opinion, but I seriously doubt it. When we hear something that strikes us as racist and we turn it into a joke at that person’s expense, we are avoiding something deep within ourselves. That evasion may be temporary, and there’s nothing really wrong with that in the short term. It’s when it’s a multiple-times-daily exercise over the long term that we are avoiding that nagging thing deep down that requires our attention nearly every day. It may feel really great to know how you’re helping so many other people feel better, and this is especially true when those people come from a culture that places a high value on a potent sense of humour. By all means, keep helping people feel better. But you also need to keep doing the introspective work that got you there in the first place, and if you avoid doing that because you’re too busy cracking jokes, your utility will run out long before your presence does. Whether or not your initial self-exploratory investment was superficial, it certainly now seems that it was. Even more so as you inspire others (intentionally or not) to follow in your footsteps with their own superficial understanding of racism. Maybe that nagging thing is our very conception of racism. Are we failing to understand racism as just one interdependent system within a greater network we can understand as colonialism? Maybe we’re avoiding that (as I see many people doing, but especially those who deploy the transformation-reaction reflex in a thick frosting of sarcasm) because it’s fucking hard work and requires us to acknowledge and change a lot more about our day-to-day lives than we were challenged with by the time we first became allies against racism. Maybe that thing that struck us as racist was actually colonialist, meaning that it was steeped in several layers of systemic inequality, but when we treated it as though it was isolated within just one of those structures, we missed the whole picture by fixating on a single pixel of it.
It’s completely legitimate to feel guilt for your individual share of systemic white privilege—when you’re alone with your thoughts. It’s completely useless to rely on that emotion, however strong and valid it feels, as the primary motivation for your work as a white anti-racist ally. Does guilt ever stop people from lying and cheating? Why would it stop you from being a bad ally or worse?