Right now I’m thinking about a few questions so many white people ask around race and racial justice, the one which is burning me now, and always, but especially now is the ever popular “how do we discuss race without shaming or guilting white people”.
This question seemed nonstop this year at HGSE from so many white peers, and every time it was shot down or reframed or challenged it grew back.
White folks who are even remotely interested in anti-racism,
Shame is when the nature of our (in)actions are revealed to us, guilt is when the nature of our (in)actions are revealed to those around us. The question isn't how do we make whites not feel these things, but how do whites act upon these feelings as they are a reflection of the beginnings of some kind of awakening process? To create a dialogue which seeks to shield whites from shame or guilt is to never call into question unequal systems of power which allows whites to exist in a state of constant dominance, one wherein our freedom and comfort are predicated upon the oppression and discomfort experienced by folks of color.
Furthermore, to ask this question is to both center the dialogue once again on whites and whiteness insinuating that the goal of social movements is to create comfort for whites at the expense of POC (which is exactly the goal of white supremacy) as opposed to reaching equity for historically aggrieved communities. To ask this question is to position whites as primary visionaries and knowledge producers, it is to position white morality as the most human, and therefore trusted moral compass (asking that all progress adhere to this morality), though it is this morality which murders unarmed folks of color with impunity every day. It is this moral compass which kills and kills and kills and with which grand jury after grand jury finds no guilt. White supremacy isn’t just as simple as a public lynching, it is the instinctual place from which white people experience, imagine, and question (or don’t) the world. To ask this question is to ask to that we are not made to leave the imaginary. The white world is an imaginary one with real consequences. As Claudia Rankine says, “because white men can't police their imaginations, Black men are dying”.
The distance between one’s internalized sense of superiority which asks a conversation on race to be centered around white comfort, and the execution of Philando Castile is the length of a barrel. The distance is so fucking short, y’all. Who has the right to exist? Whose humanity is most valued? Philando Castile's execution allows for one’s priority in conversations on racial justice to be figuring out how not to feel guilty. That is what comfort allows, this comfort is built on the dead. Our sleep is built on the sleeplessness of folks of color. This single question was asked so much this year at Harvard it was baffling and sickening, especially coming from a host of some hundred future or current educators. Whiteness cannot imagine a world in which it is not the apex, the center, the objective-this question which seeks to redirect and immobilize progress only proves that.
If you feel guilt or shame that is the feeling of seeing yourself honestly, if even just a glimpse, for perhaps the first time. This feeling is the feeling of the white moral compass beginning to bend. This is the feeling of realizing you are being seen, that POC are not in fact objects and are indeed agents and subjects and * holy shit * humans and knew what you were about long before you did. This feeling is the feeling of being discovered. And if we cannot bear to be discovered, if we cannot bear to discover ourselves, then justice will also remain shrouded and unrealized.
If you feel guilt or shame in a conversation about race ask yourself why-do not ask a person of color-ask yourself how dare you believe the conversation’s purpose was to guilt or shame you, that somehow even on the topic of black and brown liberation the conversation is still about us. If you feel guilt or shame then realize your real self is facing your imagined self. What does a socially constructed lie do when it sees itself? Do not turn away. Take a good hard look and don’t look away. Step into those feelings and use them as fuel.
Destroy the White Imagination. Destroy White Instinct. Destroy White Comfort. This comfort, this instinct, this imagination kills, and kills every day. Remember Philando Castile and Alton Sterling next time you think about asking how the conversation could be different to avoid your feelings of shame and guilt. Think of Rekia Boyd and Renisha McBride and Tamir and Trayvon and Eric and and and. Think. Think long and hard. We gotta reveal our real and imaginary selves, we need to close that gap. We are 600 years late in facing ourselves. The time is always right now. Rest in power and peace #PhilandoCastile #AltonSterling
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, performer and educator. He has received grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, & the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. He as worked as a dish washer, a farm hand, a traveling performer, and a youth counselor for teens experiencing homelessness. He recently graduated with his Ed.M from Harvard University. He lives in Minneapolis. You can help support his writing HERE.
Writer. Performer. Youth worker. Educator. What I know is eclipsed by what I don't. Working and writing for justice in all the ways I know how. Radical imagination. Deconstructing Whiteness.