Writing about racism is fatiguing, anxious work. I worry that I’ll make white people — people we know and love — uncomfortable. But I’m not going to make any accommodations for the comfort of white people in this article. And if you can sit through that discomfort, you might come closer to understanding how racism feels for myself and those of us forced to look upon its ugly countenance, day after day after day.
Talking about racism is transformative. It stirs something inside of you that is deeply human. Discussing racism is like walking a tightrope. Below you lies a chasm of righteous anger, and all you can do to keep yourself centered is to balance your emotions. Sometimes that’s not enough, and you might fall.
Other times, you dive headlong.
I dove the other night, talking about racism and the concept of white guilt with one of my white partners while we were in bed together. It left the two of us in tears. I couldn’t say exactly why — some pain is unnameable, I guess. All I really remember is how I boiled inside when she told me she didn’t dwell on her own white guilt. I thought it meant she felt no shame for the prestige “whiteness” granted her. But her point was that guilt did nothing to help people of color — we’d prefer justice and dignity — and it probably stunts the conversation surrounding racism. Still, white guilt exists, and it bears examining.
What is it? The answer lies in how the white people I know feel unable to claim their own suffering.
Someone I love recently said to me that everyone has a right to suffer and to feel their own pain. But I’ve seen white guilt work to invalidate that pain. And I’ve often heard my white friends relate stories of poverty, depression and near homelessness, only to turn around and diminish their own suffering and devalue their pain by reminding themselves of their white privilege — that they still have it better than a lot of people. White supremacy robs white people of life’s poignancy.
It robs you of more than that. I once knew a dancer who believed her accomplishments were hollow and her efforts reflected little, because of her white privilege. She was amazingly talented. She ate, slept and breathed her life’s passion. She should have been able to stand inside her achievements and have them recognized as her own, not as the result of her whiteness.
This is a part of how white supremacy has poisoned the well of experience for white people through white guilt. This is how people have become casualties of a system that grants them unequal opportunity and then denies them the joy found in realizing those opportunities — like eating from a buffet that offers no nourishment.
To illustrate: Consider that there’s no rationally accepted concept of white pride. Because to celebrate “whiteness” would mock the misery and injustice lived by oppressed people of color — people whose very bodies support the structures of white supremacy. White guilt, then, seems to be an expression of shame brought on by acknowledging that being privileged comes with being white.
What does it mean to be white? What is it like to have the world reflect your image? That’s worth exploring by someone who can speak to that experience. Someone who isn’t me.
I can only tell you what it feels like to exist within the shadow of whiteness.
And I’m not talking about overt racism but rather the invisible forces that remind you that you can’t escape the ambit of whiteness. Often, when I speak, I’m reminded that there are stigmatized and acceptable ways of speaking. I’ve been told I’m a “whitewashed” Mexican because I lack an accent, because I don’t speak Spanish. How I act creates the impression for others that I don’t seem Hispanic.
People in Berkeley have trouble placing me racially, so I get questions about what I am or where I’m really from — I’m from Whittier, actually. Then, once they know, they assume I’m from immigrant parents — my mom was born and raised in California. There’s a perception of my skin color that evokes certain images for people, certain stereotypes and expectations. When those expectations aren’t met, the conclusion is that I’m somehow less authentic — “whitewashed.”
People of color are branded as more or less ethnically authentic by how closely or disparately they reflect dominant white culture. And white culture is seen as the absence of. A myth is created that white people are homogenous, the default. The rest of us find ourselves railing against our inability to embody the default — whiteness.
Modern racism fosters a climate that paralyzes the discussion by guilting white people into silence because they don’t perceive their own victimization, and frustrating people of color into exhaustion because they can’t bring white people into their consciousnesses. The insidiousness of silence is in the way racism destroys people. And it does destroy people. Not by killing them — though it does that too — but simply by teaching them to quietly despise themselves.
Zion Barrios writes the Monday column on social topics that rarely enter open conversation. You can contact him at [email protected].