Michele Bachmann recently made the claim that President Obama was elected because of white guilt. Among the many reasons this is a ludicrous statement—not the least of which is that Obama was elected on his own merit, twice—is that white guilt never accomplished a thing. That’s because guilt of any variety is paralyzing. White guilt is a deer in the headlights. I know, because I’ve been that deer. I think a lot of white people have.
I also know that to act as an ally to people of color—to become a friend, a sister—takes inner work. It takes confronting the guilt—which may or may not have anything to do with your own life and choices, and may just come from the fact that you are part of a privileged race in a racist society—and then moving past it so that you can help bring about change. To do that, you have to listen to the conversations that people of color are having.
This listening is key, because if you don’t listen before speaking, you might enter the conversation defensively. I’ve had that defensive reaction, though I’ve kept it to myself. When I encountered the Twitter hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, my first thought was, “Hey! That’s not how I feel!” The hashtag made me feel accused, as though it was assumed that my whiteness automatically meant I had no real interest in sisterhood or solidarity with black women or other women of color. I was frustrated. But I didn’t tweet about it.
Instead, I did a search on the hashtag, and I learned a lot. I understood where and why it had originated, and I understood that the woman who created it, Mikki Kendall, had extremely valid concerns about the ways that white feminists in power have ignored, excluded, and tolerated abuse of women of color within the current feminist movement. I entered a full and ongoing conversation within feminism about race, class, publishing, legislation, leadership, and the current power structure, and I’m still listening. Sometimes what I hear is pure anger directed at all white women, but I don’t take it personally. Instead, I dig to see where it’s coming from, so that I can eventually find my own place within the conversation.
I couldn’t have done any investigative or emotional work if I was still stuck in white guilt. Because white guilt keeps you out of the conversation altogether, or has you entering it without vital knowledge. It’s not the only factor that keeps white people out of the conversations being held by people of color, but it is a significant one. I believe guilt is also often a factor in keeping men out of feminist conversations—and similar factors are at play in overcoming it:
Entering the Conversation
I used to feel that conversations among black people—especially black women—excluded me. (Because black people are often excluded from the national white conversation, the reverse is deeply true, but I was beginning with my own experience. That’s how things work on a personal level. It’s how we keep ourselves segregated.) Essence and Jet weren’t for me—they were for black women. The Root and Racialicious didn’t have to do with my concerns—they were for people of color, and maybe I’d be an intruder if I went poking around over there. Unconsciously, I was afraid I’d run into things that would make me confront my whiteness; consciously, I just figured I wasn’t welcome.
Entering feminism meant I no longer had the luxury of remaining unconscious: to live what I believe, I had to open the door. This is an incredibly important first step: if white people who wish to bridge the divide of race and help eradicate racism do not enter the conversations that black people and other people of color are having, we will never understand where they are coming from in the conversations we do have. We will be mired in our own fears, guilt, defensiveness, anger, misunderstanding. And nothing will change. (I believe Jada Pinkett Smith was thinking this very thing when she suggested that black magazines begin to feature pictures of white women.)
When I first saw the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, I felt personally accused and attacked, even though it had nothing to do with me directly. I worked through my defensiveness because I knew I didn’t deserve an attack, and I’d been listening to these conversations long enough to figure that something was up.
People who are dealing, in their daily lives, with sexism and racism get angry—that’s a natural reaction. That anger is going to be a part of conversations between white people and people of color, and between men and women, of any race. If you hear anger and you know you don’t personally deserve an attack, you won’t react as if someone who is simply speaking his or her experience is attacking you. And if someone is attacking you, you will recognize it and deal with it calmly. (If someone is consistently tweeting anger or dismissive statements about all white feminists, with nothing constructive in and around the anger, I unfollow her.)
Facing the Assumptions of Privilege
Privilege gets into your brain—it encourages you to make assumptions about yourself, other people, and society. Assumptions like: All women experience sexism in the same way, and will have similar needs in overcoming it. Assumptions apparent when a white writer uses the word “women” and then discusses only the experience of white women. (Belle hooks discusses these assumptions—and others—in her book Ain’t I a Woman: black women and feminism.) I have to admit that I see myself in some of these assumptions—myself before I began listening to people of color, myself as I began divesting of white guilt and its unconscious beliefs and needs, as well as the blindness of my own privilege.
I’m not done with this work—as I continue to listen to women of color and hear their frustrations, I’m sure I will find other ways in which I have been blinded by privilege. While I know I am coming from a good place—I want to help create solidarity, for example—I also know that until I face what my privilege means and how it unconsciously shapes my thought, I cannot play my part. For example, I—along with other white people trying to help heal the pain of racism—might think I can solve problems that aren’t mine to solve. If white guilt is ever motivated to action, it is this: to run in and make amends for racism both past and present, stepping all over our sisters and brothers of color to do so.
This, I suppose, is what Michele Bachmann was accusing our country of—throwing water on the twin fires of history and continuing racism. Her statement reveals the work she has to do: in accusing the country of electing a black president out of white guilt, she assumes that white people really elected him, that he isn’t worth electing on his own merit, and that white people are here to save black people from racism by choosing leaders for them. There is some serious racist thought all over that nonsense. And some serious privilege.
If we are to heal the divide that racism has caused in this country, moving beyond white guilt is a crucial piece of the puzzle. It is not the only piece—people of color also have work to do, in trusting where trust is warranted, and in being patient with people of good intention who are still awakening and learning—but it is a vital one. For as long as white guilt acts as a paralyzing force, keeping us from entering conversations that make us uncomfortable or from examining our own assumptions and how they hurt others, solidarity will, indeed, be impossible.