Tuesday, March 3, 2009

White Guilt?

This is a guest post by Rachel

Rachel is currently completing a PhD while working as an adjunct wage slave teaching Philosophy and Women's Studies courses, holding down a desk job that keeps the benefits coming, and blogging at The Feminist Agenda. She lives in Wyoming with her partner, 5 y/o stepdaughter, 15 m/o daughter, three cats, one large dog, and two teeny-tiny African dwarf frogs.

I’ve been thinking about the classic phrase “white guilt” lately. For one thing, in discussions about privilege, people often invoke the concept of white guilt in a fairly defensive way. As in “I hate it when people point out my privilege, because then I don’t know what to do – am I supposed to spend my whole life apologizing and feeling guilty for things I can’t control?” Occasionally this kind of response is sincere, but generally it’s a manipulative dodge. I always want to say “for one thing, you could drop your defensive attitude and start taking a more detailed look at things in order to become aware of the systemic exclusion and hardships faced by many individuals in your world.” But this kind of advice is generally lost on the defensive and manipulative sort.

But my thoughts on “white guilt” have led in a different direction lately, and it strikes me that the phrase is both deeply inadequate and deceptively inaccurate. It’s inaccurate because privilege comes in many shapes and forms. It’s inadequate because a thoughtful person who’s both privileged by birth and invested in social justice will wrestle with this fact, and reflect on their daily choices and actions with a far more complex response than guilt. Guilt doesn’t come close to capturing the deeply conflicted emotions involved.

For example, there are times when a white, educated voice will be more likely to be heard than the voices of those who are being wronged. The fact that your voice is privileged, and that this puts you in a position to help a group in need, is a conflicting experience. On the one hand, somebody needs to do something. On the other hand, it feels like speaking up in this situation amounts to giving your implicit approval to the very system which privileges your voice, and borders on paternalistic behavior. At best you can speak up, draw attention to the problem, and then defer to the voices which should have been heard to begin with. But in my experience, this produces mixed results.

Then there are the choices I make for my kids. I have deep convictions about the many problems with the food we eat and the lies we’re told by the food industry and its government lackeys in this country. On the other hand, I understand that having access to food that is free of toxins such as agricultural chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics, highly processed sugars, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, and artificial colors is a privilege that many cannot afford. The diet that accompanies poverty in this country is horrible, and undeniably linked to the ever-increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. When I go to have lunch with my daughter at the daycare every day, I cringe as I watch other kids eat the crap that is subsidized by the government and billed as “a nutritionally well-balanced lunch.” I’ve heard the arguments that buying local and choosing organic, natural foods is an elitist sign of privilege, but I just can’t bring myself to put that shit in my kids’ mouths. Similarly, I’ve heard the arguments that homeschooling or sending your child to a private school is elitist and takes resources away from the public schools that need them so badly. And yet, after tutoring kids from the public schools for more than a decade, and teaching freshman courses at the college level, I would homeschool my kids in a heartbeat if I had the option. And that’s the nature of being a parent – you have to make the choices that you think are best for your kids, even as you realize that just having that choice is a privilege.

Do I think it’s my responsibility to go around feeling guilty because these choices are available to me? No, but that doesn’t mean I can bury it in the back of my mind and go my merry way. An aware person is a person who will be more likely to see opportunities to work for change and to point out systemic injustices wherever they’re found. An aware person is more likely to spot the bullshit in the “bootstraps” rhetoric that abounds in our culture and point it out to others. And an aware person is more likely to understand how the advantages they had contributed to their success, and to work to extend these advantages to a broader and more inclusive group. Such awareness inescapably leads to deeply conflicted thoughts and emotions, but nobody ever said the examined life was easy. Just worth living.

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