Essay, Writing

On Guilt & White Privilege

Race is an accident of birth. Acting like an asshole is a choice. Often, when I criticize racism or acknowledge racial inequality (both online and in meatlife), some white person accuses me of acting out of white guilt. That’s hilarious to me. Guilty people rarely act. Guilt is an immobilizing emotion.

Fortunately, it’s not an emotion that I personally experience. I don’t feel guilt, about anything, really. It’s not a part of my limited emotional repertoire. I also don’t understand why the rest of you feel guilt. If you really think something’s wrong, just don’t do it. If you really don’t think it’s wrong, why do you feel guilty? You’re all so confusing to me.

Especially ridiculous is this idea that someone can “make you feel guilty.” Nobody makes you feel anything. That’s Therapy 101 (I’ve got an 11 year ‘degree’ in therapy, and that’s been impressed upon me). Other people certainly don’t “make” you feel guilty. They might try. Sometimes people try to “make” me feel things. It’s sort of fascinating, but it doesn’t work, because my feelings are mine.

People often tell me that I “should” feel guilty. But if I don’t think that I did wrong, I don’t feel any guilt about it, and if I do think that I did wrong, I try to make it right. Guilt doesn’t make anything right, so what’s the point of it? If you feel guilty, it’s because you think that what you did is wrong. Other people might reinforce that, but at the end of the day, you’re the one who thinks you did something shitty.

For four years, I taught a course called Sociology of Race and Ethnicity in the U.S. The vast majority of my students were white. I’m white. I’m Velveeta, and Spam, and Jim Crow parents white (none of those things are exclusively white of course, but you know what I mean). The first thing that I told my students, on the first day of each semester, is that guilt is an unproductive reaction to injustice. It gets in the way of thinking, and just as importantly, it gets in the way of working to support marginalized groups. I’ve got no patience for any of that shit.

If you’re a white person, and you feel guilty about it, when a person of color tells you that you’ve acted wrongly, you’re likely to feel defensive. Defensiveness will likely close your ears and make you act like an asshole. However if you don’t feel guilty, you can experience a callout as feedback, and (I’m assuming here that you care about racial justice) evaluate (and maybe, depending on the outcome of that evaluation, adjust) your behavior.

I’ve fucked up plenty as a white person. I sometimes say fucked up things. I certainly think fucked up things. I think fucked up, racist things, a lot more than I like admitting here. Like all of us, I’ve been raised in this racist culture. It gets into all of us. I’ve been really lucky to have had some friends, over the past 25 years, who were willing to call me on it and teach me something different. Sometimes, that involved screaming at me. At the time, that was really hard to experience. Now, I’m enormously thankful for their willingness to bother to do that. It certainly wasn’t their job to improve me, but I am improved by their efforts.

I don’t feel guilty about my white privilege. What’s the point of that? When I catch myself thinking something fucked up, I call myself on it, think about why I thought it, remind myself exactly how it’s wrong, and really work to change my thinking. Some of the time, it works.

When I say something fucked up, and someone calls me on it, I try to hear them (sometimes I do better than other times). I care, ethically, about hearing marginalized people, and I don’t want to contribute (we all do contribute, but working against it is worthwhile) to anyone’s marginalization.

People who feel guilty get defensive. They can’t hear criticism. As a result, even at their best, they make really shitty allies.

I don’t personally identify as an ally, and think that’s a problematic identity. But our current racial climate is particularly nasty. While I don’t like “ally” as an identity, I do think that we can try our best to act in solidarity. Not on behalf of other people (because they have their own agency), but in solidarity with them, at their direction.

I don’t want anyone to feel guilt about being white. That’s stupid, and if you feel that way, you should get the fuck over it. Racial inequality isn’t about you and your precious white feelings.

I do want everyone to look at the enormous repository of data that evidences white privilege. Don’t feel guilty about your white privilege. I don’t feel guilty about my white privilege. I didn’t choose it, and neither did you. We do choose what we do with it. If you care about racial justice, you use your white privilege to back up persons of color, as much as possible. Having advantages like white privilege is an accident of birth. How you use those advantages, well, that’s what matters.

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