No End State: Thoughts for Otherwise Marginalized White Folks
In this post, I’m addressing my peers: white folks who are marginalized along some axis other than race. Poor and working class white folks, queer and trans white folks, white folks with disabilities, etc.—we need to be honest about whether we’re leaning into the identities under which we’re oppressed, at the expense of doing honest work around our whiteness, racism, and anti-Blackness.
I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience to focus on how we’re oppressed and marginalized, nor is it blameworthy on its own. Of course we notice those identities more—that’s what white privilege is. It makes whiteness the invisible norm, whereas our other identities are what make us targets of slurs, violence, economic disparity, and other injustices. But at some point in our journeys, once we get through our excitement of consuming all the literature about queerness/class/disability/etc. and sharing in righteous anger with our comrades (or ideally, even before then), we need to also address the fact that we are white and therefore in a position of extreme privilege. We need to read what people of color have to say, to listen to what people of color have to say in our communities and workplaces. We need to sit with the discomfort of our racism and fucking do something about it.
If your reaction to reading the words of people of color on racism (and particularly black people, as anti-Blackness is its own thing in this culture), is guilt and a desire to run back to the safe enclave of writing about your own people, good. Keep reading.
Reading about racism as a white person is uncomfortable. It should be. We need to sit in that discomfort.
Being complicit in genocide should not be comfortable. This is not hyperbole. We, as white people, are complicit in actual genocide. This should disgust us, outrage us, and inspire intense feelings of upset and guilt. But we can’t stop there. We can’t turn back to the ways in which we are oppressed and make those our singular focus. We need to be bold and move forward in our anti-racist work.
Here’s the thing about guilt: it can be motivating. Guilt is about behavior, and we can change our behavior. Guilt is a big red warning flag that says “hey, you are fucking up! You are not acting in any way to change this enormous systemic problem (or you are not acting enough, according to your own internal sense of morality), and you should do something about that!” A great way to assuage guilt is to do something about the problem. Take action in the fight against racism and anti-Blackness. Listen to how black people and other people of color and indigenous folks are asking for white support, and provide it. Invest in a lifelong process.
“But Avory,” I hear you saying. “Ongoing genocide is kind of a big-ass problem. I’m never actually going to do enough to assuage my white guilt.” Or — “Ongoing genocide is a big-ass problem. I don’t have the spoons / relative privilege within my white community / time / money to fight it.” That’s okay. Let’s talk about what we can do.
Fighting racism, anti-Blackness, and genocide takes investment from across society. It must be led by people of color and indigenous people, and it must also be supported by a shit-ton of white people. I’m not asking you to solve the problem. I’m asking you to do your part. And it can’t really be simply about assuaging white guilt, but if that’s a motivator, then by all means, let it motivate you. What I’ve found in my own work is that over time, the guilt isn’t really the point anymore. And the guilt doesn’t go away—but it continues to be a useful flag, letting me know where my own practices are contributing to the problem.
When I talk about doing your part, I mean do whatever it is that you, personally, can. That might not be marching in protests. It might be sharing the words of people of color—especially trans women of color, especially black people, especially indigenous people—on social media. It might be crediting folks of color for their ideas and doing your research when a white person claims to have “discovered something.” It might be working within your own communities, with white people who are also marginalized like you, to turn the focus to racism and anti-Blackness. It might feel like baby steps. Sometimes it might simply be listening, or shutting up.
Anti-racist work is a lifelong process. Sometimes we don’t have the energy, or spoons, or physical ability, to contribute in what feels like huge ways. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply an ongoing lens to our work that says “hey, I am doing what I do on unceded land, I work and play and hurt and struggle in the context of a genocide, I benefit from my white privilege.” In applying this lens, you can find the ways in which you can contribute. You can contribute in small ways over time. You can focus sometimes on simply not making the problem worse, on centering race and avoiding racist words and actions.
I think it can be scary, particularly for those of us raised in a capitalist society that’s all about bootstraps and “achievement,” to think about a problem that not only seems huge but one that we cannot possibly fix. In a society driven by 5-year-plans, by goal-setting, it can be troubling to realize that there is no end state. There is no way to “fix” white guilt, any more than there is a way to “fix” genocide.
We can’t do this shit alone, nor within our lifetimes. We have to act interdependently. We have to accept that we will continue to act in racist ways, to fuck up, to have guilt about it. And we have to keep going, even when there is no end state. This is not an unwinnable game, but it’s a game so big that we often can’t see where we fit into the overall strategy. We have to be boldly, defiantly optimistic in the face of impossible odds, and we have to be content to take a backseat in the game and allow those most affected to lead.
My hope is that ultimately, this is a freeing prospect. There is no end state, but that also means that there is no final failure. If you fuck up, you address your fuck-up, you pick yourself up, and you do better. You keep going. Once you let go of the idea that you’re working to assuage your white guilt, the idea that there’s some awesome anti-racist version of you that never makes mistakes, you start seeing your guilt as that warning flag rather than a thing to “overcome.” You start understanding anti-racist work as a lifelong project that goes alongside your work as a person marginalized in other ways rather than a thing to address and then get back to the other work. You become a lifelong member of the anti-racist struggle.
That’s not an end state. That’s a way of life.