Why White Guilt Is The Least Important Consideration In My Work

One of the most common refrains I hear from white readers of my work is, “I really liked this piece because it didn’t make me feel bad about being white.” The thing is: I honestly couldn’t care less.

Time and again, these readers express how happy they are when they don’t feel shame or embarrassment about the conditions of structural inequality and white privilege across the world. They laud their interpretations of my work and their perceptions of my thoughts as non-confrontational and accessible.

But I never set out to treat white people with kid gloves. And, their fixation on their own feelings about the lived experiences so many racial minorities openly express in an effort to end their unjust marginalization is precisely why many activists and organizers rebuff white “allies.”

What white readers of my work are actually saying here is: “I prefer to learn about my privilege and my active participation in the maintenance of institutionalized racism and inequity as long as I am not being blamed for anything.”

There are two core issues with this logic.

First, this sentiment underlies the ubiquitous tweets and other social media rants from white progressive “allies” who are flummoxed that Black people and other marginalized folx won’t just blindly accept their benevolence. These are the folx who decide that, once a single person of color has challenged or criticized their attempts at social justice work, they are completely done with the process altogether (I have previously suggested that this sentiment is exactly why white people have no place in Black Liberation).

Here’s the thing: if one Black person farting in the elevator, cutting you in line at Kroger’s, or not kissing your crusty pinky toe because you wore a safety pin is enough to make you abandon your entire cause for justice, liberation, and civil rights for all people, not only are you trash, you were never an “ally” in the first place.

You were and are doing this whole social justice thing all wrong.

You don’t get brownie points for being decent. You don’t get a pat on the back for acknowledging that non-white people exist and should be able to breathe, live, and thrive on their own terms. Your demand that you receive extra credit for meeting the baseline requirements of civic humanity is an extension of your own commitment to white supremacy. Period.

Second, my writing works to center the most marginalized among us: poor folx, queer folx, femmes and other women identifying people, Black folx, the differently abled and the like. Translation: I don’t center white people.

In most cases, I don’t even directly address whiteness unless it is to discuss the various systems of power and violence that disproportionately affect non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people.

I write about terms like misogynoir and patriarchy not because I seek to protect individual white people from culpability but because we marginalized people have long theorized the systemic oppression we face. We have named it. We’ve made it plain. We don’t have to make our struggles palatable to make them valid. That’s the work white people have to do on their own.

Thus, in the most basic sense, I think guilt and shame are actually effective emotions in this case. The problem is those emotions are usually called upon to reinforce white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy and other normalized violence. For example, folx are totally okay with shaming sexually active women to reinforce the primacy of male desire and the faux narrative that femininity is conditional upon norms about chasteness and sexual virtue. Shame is used to force queer folx into closets and erase trans folx’s entire existence. Those forms of shame and guilt are seen in the mainstream as corrective and necessary to maintain the status quo in a society that relies on rigid caste systems rather than on utopian ideals like democracy and freedom.

We rarely see shame leveraged to effectively dislodge white supremacy, heteronormativity, ableism, fat shaming, and the like. That, too, extends white supremacy and suggests that effective social justice work center the feelings of white people. So, I won’t set out to shame privileged white people but I’m not against it. I am totally aware that white people’s shame and guilt alone won’t get us free. Yet I do see the value in white people utilizing these sorts of emotions to disrupt the entitlement and privilege they witness amongst their peers, family, and friends.

In the end, I’m really talking to marginalized folx, namely Black folx. When white folx make my work about anything else, they are showing their own commitment to the very systems of oppression that I am working to dismantle. In essence, y’alls slips are showing.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

1 Response

  1. Bethan says:

    Brilliant article, read it three times. I have a question, how do you feel about the portrayal of black people in predominately white books? I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems to me that skin colour is always the character’s first defining feature and is usually described in terms of food/drink e.g. caramel, chocolate, coffee. Whereas this is not the case for white characters, despite many different “hues”. Even if they’re described as particularly pale, milky, translucent, tanned etc this is never the first trait attributed to them and so what defines them physically, it’s always eye colour, hair colour, size, stance, personality. Conversely, how do you feel when skin colour isn’t mentioned at all yet alluded to, like in Harry Potter 1 when literally the only non-white character in the entire book is described as having “dreadlocks”, thereby playing into ingrained cultural associations and assumptions. Then later in the series the only Asian characters are given distinctly Asian names so we can identify them so. Yes, it’s 1990s rural Scotland, and 2010s rural Scotland is just as diverse as it was then, but it begins in London and the students are supposed to come from all over Britain by way of genetic selection that transcends class, race, sexual orientation, or any other factor to do with identity. This seems to epitomise a trend in books by white authors in which all characters are assumed to be white unless indicated otherwise. Do you think a “colour-blind” approach would be more desirable in contemporary literary fiction, in which skin colour doesn’t even come into it and so the reader “casts” the characters in their head as whatever race they happen to imagine for whatever reason? Or do you think disassociating identity from social context would be impossible? If the latter, should the solution then be for more authors to write more diverse books regardless of their own race? Or do you think white authors would be unable to write “real” non-white characters because they just can’t fully identify with treatment and experiences they’ve never been the direct object of? If not, to what extent do you object to the rhetoric of race? Is it always problematic or does it just depend on that particular author’s mindset and style of expression? Moreover, what about books out with the genre of literary/realist fiction e.g. sci-fi/fantasy, in which entirely new humanoid worlds and histories are created. Surely the lack of BAME characters here is downright racist? Would you want an explanation for why a certain character or race in a created world looked a certain way or is suspension of disbelief enough? Would diversity in the race of characters then seem problematic, like “token” races thrown into the story to make it more diverse and therefore directly dependent upon the race, persuasion, political agenda of the author? Or would “over-explanation” seem equally “self-conscious”? Sorry this single question turned into such a tangled web of musings but as a prolific reader/writer I’m just really interested in different perspectives on this! Thanks