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Should you feel guilty for being white even if you’re “not racist”?

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A friend of a friend, Raymond*, mentioned that he is all for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but that he doesn’t feel that we (white people) should have to feel guilty for something we didn’t do.

This didn’t sit right with me, though I could understand what he was getting at, so I pondered it for a bit.

This blog post is the result of that pondering (including resources), which I’m sharing with you in case you are white,

and in case it helps you realise that it’s time for us to face the awkwardness and the guilt and do the work to expose and dismantle our unearned white privilege and accidental racism.

To the people of colour who read this blog, I’m deeply sorry for being so very late to the party. 32 years late.

To everyone – I am very new to this work, and it is very likely there are blindspots (unconscious biases) that I can’t yet see that will show up in my words. I apologise in advance for all the fuck ups I will undoubtedly make on this journey, and I welcome any feedback if you feel the desire to share.

I’m showing up anyway, because to try and fail is the only way to learn to be better.

Raymond’s* comment (*whose name is not actually Raymond) sat uncomfortably with me for a while until Neville came up with this analogy (I’m not sure if this is accurate, but bear with me)…

If you drove over someone’s foot because you’d been taught to drive badly by your ancestors, and never taught to check for blindspots…

Would it be your fault? No.

But would you still feel guilty that you crushed someone’s foot? Hell yes.

Would you ignore the guilt and do nothing about it once you realised? Hell no.

The same is true of inadvertent racism and unearned white privilege.

To the people of colour reading this – I’m so sorry for the ways in which I may have unknowingly driven over your feet with my words or actions. I’m committed to finding and removing my blindspots and dismantling my privilege.

Our blindspots may not be our fault.

But once we know that we’re hurting people with our blindness… they ARE our responsibility.

Those of us who are white people living in countries where white culture dominates – we’ve grown up with unspoken white societal rules, biases, and social conditioning that you’re likely not even aware of. The rules and biases serve to make our lives easier, so we don’t notice them as easily as those who are disadvantaged by them. I guess it’s a bit like how you can’t easily detect your own accent when you live in your home country, because it feels so normal to you.

Not only are we not negatively impacted by these unspoken rules and biases (as POC are) – we are given a huge head start by them.** And we don’t even know it.

Whiteness to white people is like water is to a fish – the fish doesn’t know that it’s in water. It doesn’t question how effortless it is to swim through the water, because that’s all it knows.

It seems to me that we’re swimming in a sea (whiteness) that is easy for some fish to swim through, and much harder for other fish to swim through (in the forms of both explicit and implicit racism). In order to create a healthy environment where all fish can thrive, we first need to look at the toxic water (whiteness) in which we’re all swimming.

[Side note – here’s a diagram of explicit and implicit racism:]

Project Self - Andrea Featherstone - Bloody Good Life 101 - Mindfulness - Life Coaching - blog post

**Acknowledging racial issues doesn’t mean that there aren’t other inequalities that exist. So try not to bring up that “you’ve had it hard too” as an argument against racial equality. Your hardship is a separate issue (which sucks also!) that does not negate the need for racial justice.

Being “not racist” (or neutral) is not enough. We need to understand our own unearned white privilege and bias before we can become useful allies in dismantling racism and recreating an equitable and just society.

If you’re white, consider this – have you ever struggled to find a Band-Aid in your skin colour? What about concealer?

This blew my tiny mind.

The “skin” coloured Band-Aids and concealers implicitly state that “normal” skin colour is white. This is just one of the 26 privileges listed in this article here (written in 1989 but still problematically relevant) that I have always had as a white woman without having a damn clue that these were privileges.

As white people, most of us aren’t able to see that we have unconscious biases against people of colour, nor that we have a tonne of privilege through no merit of our own, nor that we reap the benefits of racism by always getting an invisible head start and a leg up – just simply because we were born white.

For those of us who feel certain we aren’t racist – perhaps Raymond is right, it’s not our “fault” per se.

But that doesn’t mean that we should avoid feeling guilty for inadvertently being part of this problem.

And it doesn’t let us off the hook from using that guilt to MOTIVATE us to do what we can to help heal this problem and become allies of POC in dismantling racism.

Even though the chances of us buggering things up is ~ 97.9% likely, those of us who are white need to start up showing regardless.

We need to accept that we will likely mess up, and we will likely receive backlash. We especially need to accept that any backlash and anger is understandable, justified, and necessary to start healing the deep trauma that has been created by the white supremacy that has prevailed for far too long. (Ideally, it would have prevailed for 0.00 minutes).

If you mess up, apologise, but don’t stop there.

Don’t close and become defensive.

Stay open. Feel your feelings. Don’t suppress the discomfort, there’s a lesson there. Keep learning.

For those of us who are white, the things we do or say that may affect people of colour are likely in our blindspots.

You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it.

But on the day that you wake up and realise you’ve accidentally been driving over people’s feet for your whole life, injuring many – definitely psychologically, possibly even physically – you have two options:

1. Run away from the guilt that you feel when you see how badly people of colour have been suffering and how confronting the whole situation is. Defensively exclaim that it’s not your fault, that you’re “not racist”, that everything is “equal opportunity”, that you shouldn’t be “attacked” and all of that kind of bollocks that we can only cling onto when we haven’t actually investigated or tried to understand racism. Because we’re in the privileged position of not having had to.

Pst – everything that makes you defensive or reactive in life is a clue.  Investigate it.

2. Wake up to the pain of the people of colour in the world around you. Wake up to your unconscious biases and your privilege. FEEL the guilt. FEEL the pain and suffering. FEEL the feelings, don’t avoid them, they have a message for you, they always do. And then do what the feelings are telling you to do. TAKE ACTION.

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” – Angela Davis

I’ve linked to a bunch of great resources (above and below) in this post that have blown my tiny mind and helped me to understand this better. If you’re white, please join me on the journey to understanding how we can see, understand, and start to dismantle our white privilege and unconscious bias.

This image here helped me understand that if we’re white, we actually have to recognise and dismantle our unearned white privilege in order to create a just and fair society for everyone.

Project Self - Andrea Featherstone - Bloody Good Life 101 - Mindfulness - Life Coaching - blog post

Then, once I’d finished a long sobbing session while watching the video of George Floyd’s death and the protests around the world, and really FEELING the suffering rather than avoiding it, I began the process of educating myself on my blindspots.

As a starting point, I’ve signed up for Rachel Cargle’s free 30 day #dothework program. And then donated Rachel money here for putting together this great resource.

I also found Rachel Cargle’s 30 second video on her Instagram really helpful for explaining why it is our responsibility as white people to deal with what our ancestors did, even though it’s not our “fault”.

For helping to convince your white friends who are not yet willing to face their own bias, privilege and internalised racism, read this article, also mentioned in Rachel Cargle’s 30 day program: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.

And lastly, perhaps my favourite, this list of 10 metaphors about white privilege (especially love the short caterpillar & snail video.)

There are so many resources out there, but I’m trying to be concise – not my strong suit!

Just start somewhere.

No matter how kind, open minded and accepting you are, and no matter how “un-racist” you think you are –

And no matter how uncomfortable it feels.

It may not be your fault. But it is your responsibility.

Ps – a massive thanks to my friend Claudia who is researching and writing her thesis on critical multiculturalism as we speak. She shared many of the above resources with me, and has really helped me start to understand racism and whiteness more deeply through many non-judgemental conversations.

Do not ask your friends of colour to do the emotional labour for you. But do educate yourself and talk to your white friends who might not understand the importance of this work yet.

Pst — for some handy tips to help your mind calm the fuck down so you don't jitter through your day like an anxious hamster, download the free g-book here: How to Stop a Bad Day in its Tracks. It’s free, and brill.

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