Monday, December 22, 2014

Racism, Part 4: Why I'm Giving Up White Guilt

Without going down the rabbit hole of the psychology of guilt, let me say that I am giving up guilt for my own good, and for yours.

(the rabbit hole: step, step, step, step, step, step, step,)

Giving up guilt is a way to empower myself and others. It is drawing the lines around what is mine and what is not mine. Drawing lines works as well in a personal relationship as it does in matters of culture, community, and racism.

As in all relationships guilt has a mirror function and a feedback loop.

"Guilt is...an extremely powerful tool which can be used to manipulate someone’s behavior, and is something that is strongly interlinked with the need for external approval."


Racism and White Guilt

First, in the case of racism (the distorted distribution of power, opportunity, education, wealth and resources toward some racial group) it is important for me, as a white person, to recognize that there is a reason to have guilt.

The first challenge is to recognize the guilt at all, then to identify why I have the guilt. Once I identify why, I understand better who I am, where my feelings are coming from and what I can do to change actions that make me feel guilty, thus letting go of my guilt. The result is empowerment, for me and for anyone else caught in my dance of guilt.

Having awareness of how one effects others, and employing a sense of empathy can bring about understanding. A common understanding about power distribution, justice, history, and responsibility, is definitely what we need to address feelings of white guilt in the US.

Psychology Today explains the good and bad side of Guilt,

"Guilt and its handmaiden, shame, can paralyze––or catalyze one into action. Appropriate guilt can function as social glue, spurring one to make reparations for wrongs. Excessive rumination about one's failures, however, is a surefire recipe for resentment and depression."

Guilt is a response to disapproval, from oneself, or from others: we learn what to feel guilty about by the norms set by our environment.

White guilt may effect different people in different ways depending on ones experience. A person may feel guilty because they are: raised racist, deliberately acting racist, thinking they might have acted racist, or even because they are simply aware of racism.

Maybe there is such a thing as black guilt...not being 'black enough' not wanting to accuse white people, even though one feels harmed...I dont know.

Without awareness, there is ignorance, and denial. Denial may make one act indignantly or angrily, or project distorted emotions, at someone or something that reminds them of their guilt.

Defining ones boundaries can help anchor ones identity, help one own the responsibility that is theirs, and direct people back to their own rightful boundaries. Identifying ones own boundaries reduces the criticism one accepts from outside sources and compels us to analyze our behavior against our own, or sacred, values.

Let's face it, there is a distinct dysfunctional relationship between black America and white America. It is an old relationship with much history. A history (which lives on in some families/communities) where 'white people' are guilty, and in denial; and a present where some or many people feel guilty, but have done nothing explicitly wrong.

Some project that denial in deliberate and sometimes angry accusations; rigid authoritarianism (forceful ignorance and unwillingness to change); constant second guessing, or anxiety; or acting as a rescuer, which may lead one to become a victim or abuser.

In my case, I felt guilt because I was aware of cultural racism. I have experienced people in my area being racist. Adding to this layer of awareness, I am also aware that the demographics of my area are changing to include a greater number of non-white citizens. I have already seen how non-white people in rural PA are treated by individuals, by the school and police system, and even by the community municipalities in community planning.

I often become paralyzed with guilt, making my presence an uncomfortable one, and quite often overcompensate by making eye contact and smiling at non-white persons, or by engaging them in conversation, almost always hinting at how uncomfortable it must be to live in such a white, intolerant, area.

My guilt was making other people the victim. Whether the person I encountered felt like a victim or not, once they met with me, they probably did.This is a part of the process of the convoluted guilt feedback loop. In fact, I was creating the environment for an abusive relationship by creating a victim, acting as the rescuer, and in the end, committing a racist act as an abuser.

What was even more disturbing about my realization that my white guilt was causing me to be racist was why I was acting that way. In fact, because I felt the other the victim, it gave me power.

I have always been concerned about racism, because it is wrong, unjust and hurts people, but the way I went about trying to address it- by approaching and talking to black people about racism, was a projection of my guilt, which resulted in a racist act

What else, but power, could make me believe that I can; invade someones space, even from far away, as soon as I think I see a non-white person; engage that person in a personal way, basically invading now, their personal space; expect them to accept my intrusion; expect them to see me as a nice, helpful person; expect them to befriend me and share their most personal feelings.

Not only was my approach disrespectful, it was ignorant- a clear sign that I had issues. Why was I approaching non-white people about racism, when it is white people's racism that I am so worried about? Wouldn't it be more sane to talk to white people about it?

I wanted something from the non-white person I engaged with about racism- I wanted forgiveness.

Indeed, going through the process of recognizing my guilt, and the role my guilt plays in the wider societal horror of cultural racism empowered me. It helped me see that I was projecting victimhood on non-white people, forcing them into a role where I could play rescuer, so that I could feel better about myself.

My attempts to address racism this way were futile. Non-whites did not want to engage with me in this manner, and their rejection caused me to feel even more guilty, and clueless.

Recognizing and analyzing my guilt has allowed me to face what I was hiding from- white people's racism. Getting to know my white guilt has empowered me to face my white peers and engage them in discussions about race.

I am lifting my soul off of non-white people I encounter, seeing them not as victims, but as whole, empowered humans who are capable of leading their own battles without me. Instead of taking their power from them as a source of consolation for me, my goal is to keep my gut empowered and in its place, while acknowledging the power in others.

It is not OK or healthy to take up the sword for someone else when the very act dis-empowers them, and creates a cycle of dominance and dependency.

It is always more effective for people to stand up for themselves, to fight for their own dignity- even though, as friends, neighbors and fellow citizens, we need to support each other in our journey toward a more perfect union, where justice prevails equally for all.

I drew the lines: this is mine/this is yours, and those lines reorder power relations between me and non-white people. Me letting up on their space allows them the freedom to be without me acting as an oppressive power figure, and it allows me to be free to focus on and try to 'fix' what is really mine- the legacy of white supremacy in my own world.

Make a great day!
-Kathryn

Next time... the value of leadership 

More food for thought on white guilt.