Growing Up White and Guilty In America

I am going to out some of the white folks here. But mostly I am here to out myself. These are just some thoughts on racism and my own confessions. Please take them as that. I write these words with fear and trembling. 

Would I have been like Jill Fenstin here, brave enough to stand for equality? I hope to God I would have. But I don’t know. [Click for photo credit]

Most of my friends are white.

Nearly all my family is white. Most of my church is white. (Ugh. This sucks already.)

Throughout my upbringing, I’ve had a precious few other cultures sprinkled in, friends who taught me about life outside of white-dom. But there was always a hush over our differences, unless they were obvious, like skin color or hair texture, or what our mamas were making for dinner.

It wasn’t until college that I learned my friend of Asian descent, a girl who grew up her entire life in the U.S., experienced racism in the most insidious ways. At the grocery store, for example, cashiers would often speak loudly and slowly, “Paper or plastic?” “Plastic”, she would reply back to their shock, in her perfectly flat, Midwestern accent.

I had no idea it was like that for her. We’d been friends over ten years before I heard of this.

Why did I not know? Because I chose not to know. I never asked. I wanted it all to be okay. For the 60’s to be behind us. I knew it was bad in Mississippi, but in Oregon and Kansas, can’t we all get along now?

I dated a black man from Western Kansas in college, but I had mixed motives.

I genuinely liked him. I liked his GAP jeans and his athletic posture, his down-home twang that occasionally slid off his tongue and the way he called me “kiddo”. We talked of how we would run for political office together and challenge racial prejudice.

But while I knew I liked him, I also hoped deep down that dating a black man would officially rid me of the racial enmity in my own heart. Somewhere I learned that white = racist so my job was to prove to the world – and mostly myself – that I wasn’t some god-awful bigot like other white people. Like I felt like I was.

When we watched the movie Holes together, he was furious because the black man loved the white woman, but no one would let them be together. I felt angry too, cried the tears of injustice, but the anger I saw in him was old. Like it had been there long before he was born.

I’ve tried to downplay racism by assuming I can relate.

Sometimes I’ve told myself, My family is Irish. We experienced some racism when my great-grandfather arrived from Dublin at the turn of the 20th Century. But now I know better. Yes, there was some ethnic backlash, but we could change our names, work out our accents and blend in. And we did. The color of my skin has not caused me to be turned down for a job or pulled over by police. I don’t understand racism.

Or I’ve told myself I understand racism a little because I am a woman, and it’s a man’s world, and I have to work harder to be understood and taken seriously. But of course that can’t be true. White opens doors the world over. It has for the past several hundred years. I can’t even fathom the opportunities I have and the challenges I don’t face because of my whiteness.

I’ve been angry at being held responsible for the sins of my ancestors.

I’ve thought, It wasn’t me who enslaved your ancestors. Why am I guilty? I would not have had slaves. But why would I not have? The economy depended on slavery. What would’ve made me different? This is one of the hardest parts to admit.

Although victimization, oppression, hate and greed are inexcusable violators of humanity, I feel like being known as the Guilty one may be as toxic as being the Victim. 

Hear me: after the wrong is done, the Victim may overcome evil and the obstacles. Victims can be the underdog, the hero we cheer for.

But Guilty means you are stuck. You don’t have a choice about whether or not to be guilty. You just are. Good people don’t root for the guilty party; we all hope they get what’s coming to them.

So we, the guilty, try to minimize the impact of slavery, if for nothing than to ease our weary consciences, forget what was done if we did not directly do the harm. We point out “all our black friends”. We buy hip hop and vote for black presidents and tell ourselves it’s different. We’re different. We’re not the guilty ones.

We don’t want to be Guilty because guilt is the soul turning on itself. But we are still stuck in our shame, and shame is poison too.

We are handling our guilt badly. There are no excuses for pandering and condescension. For pretending to want progress and open dialogue but never acting on it. For perpetuating the sins of our ancestors with our silence.

But I tell you for certain, this is the result of a conscience incapable of resolving its own guilt and shame.

I want to get past the shame. I want to be forgiven.

I want all my black friends to know how bad I feel about slavery, that it makes me sick to my stomach. I want them to know I hope to God I would’ve defended them when my ancestors were beating and selling their ancestors. It’s horrible to even write the words.

But I don’t know if I would have, and I need you to forgive me for that. If you can. Because I don’t know if I would’ve been brave and understood your value as humans endowed with the same inalienable rights as me, humans fashioned in the image of the Divine. I might have accepted slavery as the status quo, assumed these people were less than me, hiked up my petticoats and closed the curtains. I am afraid of public opinion. I might not have advocated for you. God, I’m so sorry about that. Knowing what I know now, I wish I could undo it. I wish I was more bold. I am trying now. But can you forgive me?

Even more, I wish slavery weren’t true. I wish it was a lie, an awful nightmare of history we could wake up from.

But it is human nature, ignorance and narcissism combined with the insatiable thirst for greed and power at its worst.

And I have been its greatest advocate. 

Me, little me, the social worker and minister’s wife, the everybody-loving hippie from Oregon. Me with the friends who are Asian and black and Latino, me, trying to blend in and pretend I believe in equality but remaining silent when Trayvon died because I didn’t know what to say or how to respond and I didn’t want to add to the anger. So instead of something, even empathy, I said nothing. Out of my guilt, my ignorance, my shame, I did nothing.

So here we are again, with Michael Brown and John Crawford, Ezell Ford and Eric Garner, all unarmed black men shot by police in the past month. 

Unarmed. Shot. In the past month. God, help us. Help me. I didn’t know until a few days ago, but what would I have done?

So I’m sorry. I am so, gut-wrenchingly sorry. And I don’t know what to do. I am inept.

I feel stupid trying to talk about race. When I do, I feel like I am adding to the pacifying, spineless, shame voices of white folks. The guilt gushing out of our mouths in strange, apologetic tones.

I have said I am sorry in my heart for so long, and I used to be angry: We are still talking about race? Can we please move on? I see now why we cannot. Thank you for not letting us move on.

But the real work only gets done when there is forgiveness. Shame only leaves when mercy is extended.

I need mercy. I need forgiveness. Will you give it to me? Will you forgive me, us, the shameful, silent, guilty white folks who are stupefied by our powerlessness, fearful of your opinion, fearful of condescending yet doing it anyway? God, we are a mess! But it would move us forward if you could forgive.

If you can forgive us, we’ll stop telling ourselves we have black friends so we’re not racist. We could stop trying to “help” by throwing money at broken welfare systems which often keep people in the very oppression we claim to rescue them from, and instead we could build real restoration together. Maybe we could stop wringing our hands, looking for something, anything we could do to show you we’re not guilty, and in this frantic state, causing more problems than we solve.

Maybe, if we were forgiven, we could have a chance to see each other as equals. Maybe we could finally live out the prophecy of America our founders wrote for us over 200 hundred years ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

[Essential reading for white folks by Austin Channing Brown and David Schell. And THIS ONE by Christina Cleveland.]

How have you experienced racism in America? I would love to hear your thoughts, but if you comment, keep it civil and for-the-betterment-of-others. Trolls and nasty hateful stuff will be deleted straightaway. 

 

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3 thoughts on “Growing Up White and Guilty In America

  1. Hey Sarah, it’s your less hippy friend from St. Louis. Love your heart in this, and I’m not sure about the details surrounding the other cases, but here is a couple thoughts that in no way discredit your feelings, only hopefully provide info.

    Trevon was killed by a Hispanic neighborhood watch guy that was acquitted because Martin was assaulting him. The same founding fathers that proposed that we are all equal, created our legal system.
    Being here in STL and having vet friends that are cops in that area, I would caution you against rushing to conclusions about the shooting and the idea of an unarmed man killed by a cop. I can’t give details in a public setting, but they will be releasing their findings soon. Message me if you want to know more.

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    1. Thank you for the context, Chris. I don’t feel stepped on. 🙂 I didn’t mean to sound like I knew conclusively that Michael was purely innocent but in light of the perception of the event and the subsequent outcry, it seemed a good time to finally say these things I’ve been meaning to say.

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  2. I think about this a lot. As a clinical social worker I have tried to live out my values every day in my life at home and work. I switched churches because I wanted my kids to go to a more diverse church… I wanted them to see bi racial families and couples…I have taught my kids to not call homeless people bums… I have educated them about homelessness, we have as a family many times volunteered at homeless shelters. I wanted my kids to see how truly they were blessed to have what they had and want not for what they need but for what they like. I wanted to instill in them that their heart matters not the color of their skin.My heart was broken the other week when we were vacationing on Cape Cod… one of my children said” I hate immigrants”. I said WHAT!!! your great grand parents were immigrants. I feel sad when I hear ‘no illegal’s”. I am heartbroken when I hear that mothers from Mexico believe that the situation in their own country is so horribly oppressed that they send they send their children alone to another country. No matter the specific circumstances the public outcray come from a place of feeling oppressed… stepped on and not feeling safe in their own neighborhoods… no matter what the color of their skin is.

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