I Don’t Feel Bad About Being White, 1
It’s strange to have to claim it: “I don’t feel bad about being white.” But claim it I must.
The weird and sad fact is that there’s an all too familiar experience among those of us who are white and trying to figure out how to be anti-racist allies. At some point most of us have either been accused of “hating white people” (or being “anti-white”) or pitied for our “self-hatred.”
This has happened to me more times than I can count.
The general demeanor of the speaker in these moments is pretty different. The “anti-white” accuser is angry and the “self-hatred” pitier feels bad for you. But the assertions are based on identical logic. (They’re also almost always made by white people—which is itself worth noticing.)
As for the weird part, for me, that’s in the “anti-white” accusation. When directed my way I just shake my head in wonder: do these folks not realize my partner, my kids, and a lot of people I love are white? How could I possibly, therefore, be “anti-white”? It’s a nonsense accusation.
The sad part, though, is much more troubling.
What does it say about our view of white people, and of who we are as people, that attempts to seriously engage and critique whiteness, racism and white supremacy must mean you hate yourself or other whites? To say so is to essentially conclude that holding degrading views of people of color or “just” tolerating such views quietly when expressed by others, living peacefully with a system that constantly and measurably harms communities of color or “just” tolerating such a system quietly is simply part of what it means to be white.
What a low estimation of white people and our capacity for humanness.
In fact, we should name this view for what it is: the truly anti-white position. Racism and/or a fundamental inability to take proactive and sustained stands against it are simply part of who we are as white people? That’s about as anti-white as it gets.
This is a lot like the view of men revealed when people suggest men are “naturally aggressive” so they can’t help themselves when they sexually assault women. I challenge men in my classes to loudly reject and call out this view of their maleness for what it is: a pathetic view of their capacity to be human.
What’s more troubling, however, is the power these views have to stifle our attempts to grow an anti-racist practice—which is already difficult, slow work that has a never-ending learning curve. The first time I had a (white) professor in graduate school suggest in comments he gave me on “an otherwise excellent paper” that he hoped I could eventually learn to stop hating myself quite so much I felt called out and crappy. I wanted to protest my innocence and somehow show him I really was perfectly “okay” with myself. I wanted to insist he had misread me.
What a misdirection of energy, now turned back towards proving myself to white people (or, in this case, to another white person—who, I think, thought he was being kind) instead of continuing to pour energy into what I was actually doing in the paper he deemed “otherwise excellent”—namely growing my understanding and developing my ability to resist.
It took me some time to learn to see his comments and others that have come my way since for what they were/are: a way to keep me in line; an attempt to keep me in a white line.
It took me some time to learn that his comments had more to do with his own internalized “anti-white” view—his conclusion that part of what “white” means is to just live with or accept things as they are, that anything other than that must mean you don’t like your “white” self—than about some failure in my work or fracture in my psyche.
It took me some time to learn that I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with me.
I don’t feel bad about being white. I hate white supremacy. And I reject whiteness even though I know I continue to dwell in it, benefit from it and be shaped by it endlessly and every day.
But I can fight and challenge all of these things. Accepting them is not part of “being white.” And the commitment to challenging them, however imperfectly I continue to do so, is actually a sign of a self very much in tact (or at least as in tact as a self can be). It’s evidence that there’s an actual real human being in there—in here—amidst all the brokenness this system embroils me in. There’s a real human being in here attempting to grow towards wholeness by fighting that brokenness.
I don’t feel bad about being white because being white doesn’t mean accepting evil and oppression. And, on the flip side, challenging evil and oppression doesn’t mean I feel bad about being white.
Learning this distinction has been critically important for me. It’s helped me stop internalizing ant-white voices that would have me believe that skin color is destiny and so I should just stop because otherwise…well I’m showing too much.
So maybe, you’re white and trying to grow an anti-racist practice, and you’ve learned this too. Or, maybe you need to learn it. In this case, learn it. And, I hope me putting it out there helps you do so.
Keep naming it and acting out against it. Keep getting out of line. Because you know what? When you do? Well…You’re fine. There’s nothing wrong with you.