Can White People Productively Process White Guilt Together?
Usually when I hear discussions around the concept of white guilt, they’re about how inappropriate it is to air or focus on. This of course makes total sense in mixed-race spaces. Often when white people express their guilt around race, it’s in a mixed-race space and they’re derailing conversations to center their own emotions rather than the priorities of folks of color. It’s never right to center white guilt and white experiences in a general anti-racist space, and in that context white guilt can be just as bad as white pride.
One thing I have been frustrated about, though, is the way white folks handle white guilt in white anti-racist spaces that are designed for white people to work together without burdening people of color with their emotions or education. I haven’t heard much productive conversation about how to address this within white spaces so that we can then do effective work to dismantle racist systems in solidarity with people of color. What follows below the cut is a sharing of experiences and some thoughts that I’d love other white folks to engage with around strategy.
White Guilt 2.0
My own experience is that white guilt comes in waves or cycles. I’ve seen graphics that frame white development around race as a linear path, where guilt is one distinct phase that happens around the point of racial “awakening.” But I think it also resurfaces in other ways. Personally, I had this period of shocked guilt where I realized just how bad systemic racism is and how complicit I am in it, and I did move past that shock. But I also experience a different genre of guilt, which is less defensive and more aggressive.
The way I’ve experienced this emotion is very different from that first stage of guilt. I’ve internalized that I am a villain in this story, and have no hesitation in my belief that white people as a group are toxic, no exceptions. No matter how well-meaning, we are all actively perpetrating racism throughout our lives and our culture is genocidal. From this perspective, then, my guilt looks more like hopelessness than defensiveness or avoidance. Rather than hiding from the problem, my instinct here is that white people are always in the way and cannot be helpful–there is no possible redemption. This isn’t an emotion I’ve really been able to socially process, because the reflexive reaction is just to disagree or focus on the positive–”but white people need to be involved to dismantle racism! You’re doing good work!”
The fact is, maybe I am, and maybe we do need to be involved. Short of some sort of mass suicide, white people are going to be a large population for a long time, and racism is a white problem, so we need to be part of the solution. A lot of the most adamant perpetrators of racism also won’t listen to anyone but fellow white people, which is why it’s important for white people to work with other white people on racism. But doing good work doesn’t change our culpability. So how can we simultaneously hold these emotions, recognizing our own involvement and the degree of it, while at the same time taking anti-racist action?
Racism as a Disease
One metaphor I’ve been using to try to process my own thoughts around this is racism as a disease. As a disease, racism infects and kills people of color, while white people are carriers of the disease. In some cases, white people are just running around actively trying to spread the infection as far as possible. In other cases, white people don’t intend to spread the disease, or even are actively trying to do something about it, but we don’t have any effective medicines available to treat people of color, and in fact do additional harm when we try, spreading the infection from our own bodies.
People of color, on the other hand, have the resources needed to heal themselves and their communities, but are fighting the constant spread of the disease and contact with infectious carriers. If white people want to do something about it, then we need to a) stop getting in the way and be aware of the harm we’re constantly spreading + b) find ways to eradicate the infection in our own bodies before we act elsewhere.
If anti-racist work as a white person is like a medicine that keeps us from being carriers of an infection, white guilt is a powerful side effect. When we air our white guilt in mixed-race spaces and ask for help or solutions from people of color, it’s asking someone who’s dying from a disease to help the carrier who infected them with the non-fatal side effects of a drug that will keep them from spreading that disease further. In other words, ridiculous. When we avoid or try to put aside the emotion of white guilt, or get defensive, it’s like stopping the course of the medicine because of the side effect. In other words, in these moments we say that it’s “too hard” for us to go through some pain even though our inaction is literally killing people of color.
So what if we do want to commit to this process and take the hard medicine? I think this means actively experiencing emotion, sitting with our guilt, and recognizing that it is justified and legitimate. We should be guilty. We are the villains in this story. Comforting each other doesn’t help and isn’t productive. And we have a tremendous amount of power, so we have to be involved in the solution. If we want to eradicate the disease, we need to move through these emotions and experience them as we engage with other parts of the work–both self-work, where we attempt to address our status as disease carriers, and work with other white people, where we attempt to curb the spread of the disease.
This kind of work can only succeed on a mass scale. We need a lot of people to commit. And of course, this work doesn’t happen in bubbles. White people should be taking direction from people of color and their priorities. We also should be focused on dismantling racist systems and institutions where many of us contribute but no one takes sole responsibility. And we must seek to minimize harm in our relationships with people of color, and acknowledge the harm we do cause.
At the same time, we need to figure out how we process guilt collectively and encourage others to work through their emotions. I’ve certainly seen handling emotions as a primary focus of white affinity groups, but often the tone ends up being frustratingly comforting or reassuring. Instead of affirming the legitimacy of guilt, white folks in these groups tell each other that they shouldn’t worry about it, that it’s a slow process, that we’re good people, etc. I don’t find this to be productive–it’s like stopping the medicine because of the side effects. What I’d like to see instead is white folks supporting each other and encouraging each other to continue taking the medicine, and being a sounding board or support network for emotion, so we aren’t burdening people of color with those emotions. Yes, white people are fucking awful. Let’s acknowledge that together but also keep the focus on our own complicity. Perhaps such a space for emotional processing can help us to separate it from doing the work.