White Guilt Revisited
I’m a middle-aged, white, heterosexual male and as such I’ve been the ethnic embodiment of evil and unjustified privilege in the United States for centuries. My heritage includes slavery, the KKK, the Native American genocide, the oppression of women and gay people, and even though it wasn’t founded in the U.S. we have to throw in the Nazi Party as well. I’m the face of Big Oil, Big Pharma, the corrupt banking system, corporate America, Christian fundamentalism, and now I’m sitting in the White House.
There is a thread that runs through us white males (who will henceforth be referred to as “Whitey”) that makes us prone to a massive sense of entitlement, greed, power lust, paranoia, and a need to dominate and control. To claim that this is an unfair characterization would be to deny a mountain of evidence that grows daily.
This thread may be described as a primal identity, a DNA pattern, a blueprint, a parasite, a biological program, or a variety of other euphemisms. It has had many different hosts throughout recorded history: Pick any empire-building culture and there you’ll find Whitey at the helm, regardless of the culture’s ethnicity.
No, I’ve never participated in any of the aforementioned atrocities in this life, since I was too busy well into my 40’s trying to be a good boy and please mommy. However, even though I have not demonstrated the worst of Whitey, the predisposition can still be found within me. It can lie dormant, waiting for the circumstances of its unfolding like a cocked pistol. This also means that it can be accessed just like any other part of my mind, if I’m willing to see the truth about myself.
I was born into a white male’s body and I can either accept the ramifications of that biological signature, or I can simply fall asleep in the illusion that I’m one of the “good ones.” It has been a long process, but once I gave it permission to start rolling, there has been no end to the recognition of Whitey inside me.
White guilt is not an expression that we hear much these days because, you know, we’ve come so far with race relations in this country that we don’t have to think about it anymore. I believe, however, that it continues to be one of the most insidious elements perpetuating America’s racial divide.
With a historical track record like the above, I suggest that it is actually a healthy emotional response to feel guilty about being a white male. That may be a statement that is hard for a lot of people to stomach, but feeling guilt is not the problem; It’s what we do with the guilt that creates the nightmare.
But first, a story of the roots of my own white guilt and how I’ve come to an uneasy peace with it. If I don’t use humor in this post, it would only reflect the sadness, shame, and anger that this subject elicits in me and it would never get written. I realize this blogpost is not very coherent, but the process by which white guilt is instilled and hopefully acknowledged is not linear, to say the least.
I was born and raised in Upstate NY and enjoyed what I’d describe as an Opie Taylor childhood. All that was missing was the stream running in the backyard. My parents loved me and my five siblings and each other, did not beat us, and when not at school my days were spent reading, drawing, and playing all manner of sports and games.
I was insulated from the world at large and not a lot was asked of me, other than to do well in school and not get arrested. I only had to walk 10 minutes to both my grammar school and high school, both of which were Catholic institutions. My friends were exclusively from Irish, Italian, or Western European heritage and I never said five words to a Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Jewish person before I was 14 or so. Without a fancy DNA test to factor in any nuances, I know that I’m Irish-German right down the middle and it doesn’t get much whiter than that.
The only glitch in an Opie Taylor childhood is believing that it reflects the rest of the world and that it will continue into adulthood. After decades of focused exploration I’ve been able to see through a great deal of the naivete engendered by my childhood environment. It’s been a fascinating trip, albeit a profoundly sobering one. For example, to think that I used to believe the government cared about individuals, or that a man in a black suit with a white collar had a special connection to God is incomprehensible to me now. But such is the power of indoctrination.
My hometown was very segregated, especially for a such a large city in the Northeast that has always considered itself progressive. For much of my childhood, black and Hispanic people were like an urban myth: I knew they existed, but they lived in certain neighborhoods that most white people took pains to avoid.
It was the 60’s and Catholic school was changing to include education on the civil rights and women’s liberation movements and the injustices that gave rise to them. I learned of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow laws, ethnic ghettos, concentration camps, and the eradication of Native American culture and genocide of its people in the wake of Whitey’s relentless push to conquer North America. I was taught Negro spirituals, songs by oppressed Irish railroad workers, and Jewish folk songs (even though we were also told they were going to hell).
Against the backdrop of racial tension and segregation in my Upstate NY hometown I was taught that the South was where the bad, racist people who had supported slavery lived, while us free-thinking Northerners saved the day and freed the slaves. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling in retrospect.
In the midst of this litany of crimes for which any moderately moral person would feel ashamed, I was informed of manifest destiny and the fact that–wink, wink–all of it was necessary for us to become such a great country. So, the guilt is the price we pay for having what’s “rightfully” ours, even though we destroyed cultures and murdered millions in so doing. Catholicism provided the ready-made framework of original sin to funnel all this through and not blink. If we’re already fucked in God’s eyes right out of the gate, what’s a little more stain on the soul?
All of this was absorbed by little Opie who desperately wanted to be a good boy and ignore his own potential for hatred, revenge, violence, and rage. He just wanted to do his best, not get into trouble, disappear, not make waves, and have everyone think the best of him, while obsessively drawing peace symbols and swastikas on the covers of his notebooks.
In a subtle and seamless manner, reinforced by ideology from church and state, I was being encouraged to hate my own race as well as develop a superficial, patronizing empathy for oppressed minorities. This is what is known as a lose-lose proposition. Black people, Native Americans, and other people of color first and foremost were depicted as helpless victims who needed our assistance, in the absence of having any real interaction with those same people. This type of objectification is just as dehumanizing in my mind as the objectification of a slave as a piece of property or a woman as a collection of body parts.
Opie’s fevered brain started to do the math and the uncomfortable question became apparent—If I’m a white person and all these horrible things were done by white people, does that make me a horrible person, too? He wanted to take it all in and still come out of it a good boy, but the tension of holding all this contradictory information was too much for his overburdened mind to hold.
I still remember that moment when I couldn’t stave off the bigoted voices in my head any longer: nigger, spic, kike, wop, faggot, slut. But how could those thoughts possibly belong to Opie, who only wanted to be a good boy and have everyone peacefully coexist? So, I did what everyone does: I split the world in two, and decided that certain thoughts were mine and others were not mine. I call this standard maneuver the on-ramp to the highway to hell.
I believe that is one thing Whitey banks on as he conditions young white American minds: Most children want to be “good” as their identity preference, so they reflexively ignore the monstrous truths about our race and retain what makes them feel good about themselves and gains them acceptance by the world. Whitey can thus reveal all his sins to the children, knowing that the guilt that is being cultivated and repressed will keep them in a virtual state of paralysis as adults when it comes to race relations.
As Opie experienced more of the world, the pedestal he’d placed all his victims on began to get very rickety as he realized that people are just people. Since we’re encouraged by many sources to remain falsely innocent in this life, we resent those who remind us that we’re not. White guilt is a good fit for the superior-inferior duality that we all play out in some form. If I can’t feel inferior to the victims anymore because they’ve shown themselves to be less than saints, then I’m forced into the very uncomfortable position of being superior. Uh, oh.
And, if my mind won’t allow me to feel superior (which it certainly did not as a boy), then I have the magic third option, guilt and shame, which bridges the gap between inferior and superior. Actually, it is just a cheap curtain to hide feelings of superiority, so shame is a safe place to be, especially in Catholic school.
Although resentment is one of the most toxic human emotions, it appears to be one of the least understood or talked about, because it can be so hidden and wrapped in contradiction. As soon as resentment sets in, then what might be a source of compassion–witnessing someone’s suffering–instead feeds my resentment and reminds me of my own self-loathing for being white. This became my loop of white guilt.
We take on other’s beliefs from the day we’re born and we come to believe that they’re our own, because a child doesn’t realize it’s being brainwashed. It’s up to our “adult” selves to dismantle this network of personal and cultural lies or allow the conditioned child to drive the car into the sunset or at least until the wheels fall off. Indeed, in our desperate need to construct an image we can present to the world it wouldn’t occur to most of us to undertake such an examination. In the end, though, we need to take ownership of all of it, but not take it personally.
Since we think our thoughts and beliefs belong to us, then we only pick out those thoughts that we feel okay about and want to represent us and the rest are thrown on the dung heap of our repressed selves. In other words, we try to control our thoughts, and if there is a greater source of pain and suffering I’d like to know what it is. Our thoughts are there for us to witness and observe, not to take personally, protect or suppress.
That is why meditation is an invaluable tool: It presents at least the possibility to not take our thoughts, beliefs, and lives personally. In my early 20’s I started meditating and as I learned to witness my mind, Opie very gradually grew up, because he began to accept his unsavory aspects without stuffing them down. And, here comes Whitey, because he is being pulled to the surface by freeing other, seemingly unrelated repressed elements of my mind.
When someone says, “Just free your mind, man” they generally don’t know what they’re asking for and undertaking. If you’ve ever tried a meditation practice for any length of time you have likely found that your mind has very little interest in being free. In fact, it resists freedom like crazy and wants to keep itself small, rigid, narrow in expression and understanding, all so it can avoid the intense fear of chaos, the possibility of not being right, and the reality of its own death.
Since pushing Whitey back in the closet was not an option or a desire at this point, I had to put him right in my face so I could see him clearly. So, I watched programs like “The Murder of Emmett Till” and saw myself in two of the most despicable creatures to crawl out of a woman’s womb, watched “Triumph of the Will” and saw myself in the exhilaration of hatred, and saw myself in photos of white men proudly standing next to open graves of freshly slaughtered Native Americans as though they were big game hunters.
And if you think I’m patting myself on the back for all this inner work, then you’re missing the point. The result is that I’m more like Whitey than ever because he’s been invited to the table, but I’ve got him where I want him and I can watch him like a hawk. The point is not to cleanse myself of him, but rather to have as much of me in clear sight as possible, so I can see what I’m up to.
It is the difference between living my life out of fear that he might be me, rather than living with the recognition that he definitely resides in me. The only way I get rid of Whitey is to put a bullet in my head, because he’s part of my inner landscape and he ain’t going nowhere.
And because I’ve been fortunate enough to make peace with my monster, I’ve realized he has gifts to offer that I never could’ve imagined—gifts of creativity, passion, vitality. All he ever wanted was the opportunity to show them to me, but was always denied by the bully masquerading as a good little boy. I’ve learned a lot more about compassion, for instance, from getting to know my Whitey than I ever did while trying to become spiritually evolved. And if Whitey is kept caged up for too long, that’s when the dirty deeds begin.
If I‘m the only white person in a room, I can feel the white guilt threaten to dominate my awareness and my ability to act like anything but a frightened child. The joke is that what I really fear is being exposed as a white person, which couldn’t be any more evident. Does this happen 100% of the time? Of course not. Like anything, it’s situational and is just one of a complex of fears that reflect my own insecurities.
The same type of fear arises in other contexts: Can I have an honest conversation with a lesbian when I fear that she hates me because I’m a man; Can I interact with a gay man without him thinking I’m coming onto him; Can I talk frankly with a Jew about Israel or the Holocaust without being called an anti-Semite; Can I have an honest discussion about gender with a woman who describes herself as a feminist?
Now, what do I do if I can’t go to Standing Rock and I’m left with no one to hear my confession of guilt and tell me I’m not a bad person? What if I do get that opportunity and my apology is not accepted, my poor little Opie self?
I’ll tell you what I do: I keep that motherfucker Whitey on a short leash and give him some bones to chew on, so that he doesn’t have to find his expression “out there” in the form of death and destruction. I give him uncut violent fantasies, movies and TV shows in which I imagine myself in the villain role, take it out on inanimate objects, go to the shooting range, and most of all I don’t censor his thoughts when he has the floor, but just watch them, because suppressing them will only ensure their expression in physical reality in some context.
The only way I know to live in integrity with my Whitey is to not be his food source anymore, and as much as possible extricate myself from the systems he perpetuates and prove to myself I can have a relationship to other people and the earth that is not primarily about domination, consumption, and destruction.