From white guilt to white responsibility

June 30th, 2015

For more than a decade now, I’ve been being told in anti-racism trainings that I carry around an invisible backpack of white privilege. This backpack was first described by Peggy MacIntosh in 1989 and has since then become a foundation for building awareness of privilege. As MacIntosh wrote: “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

But there is something they did not tell us about the invisible backpack: the contents of the backpack are stolen.

Let it sink in.

It is not simply unfair that we have certain unearned advantages; and the appropriate response is not simply to feel guilty about it. Rather it is unjust that we possess things taken through theft, and the appropriate response is to take responsibility and take action.

White guilt paralyzes us and maintains the norm. White responsibility motivates us and disrupts the norm.

I was recently asked whether it was acceptable to use white privilege for good. My response was that it is not ours to use; once we know that, we can never use it alone again. We must first gather around the table with those who do not carry white privilege, who we trust to hold us accountable. We must then empty the backpack onto the table, and ask the community how we will use what is rightfully communal property.

Until we dismantle systems of injustice and white supremacy, the backpack will be ours to carry; attached to us regardless of how we feel about it, because it clings to us as tightly as the skin we are in. Yet, it will become increasingly more heavy as we come to a deeper understanding of why it contains what it contains. Once you realize and accept that what is in your backpack was acquired through blood and death and rape and cruelty; through slavery and the massacre of indigenous peoples; through the theft of bodies and the theft of land; what we were once told was an inheritance we will come to know as an inheritance of others, stolen through the blood of their ancestors.

No, we were not the ones to steal it. Yet, we make ourselves accomplices to the crime if we choose to keep it after knowing how it became ours. That is why we must pick up white responsibility rather than white guilt if we are ever to stop the cycle of this crime.

When we pick up white guilt and add it to our backpack, it makes the load feel lighter because we fool ourselves into thinking we have done something. We may not take any action, but at least we can look at other white people and think to ourselves: at least I feel guilty, that makes me better than those people over there who act like they do not care. Yet, we have not actually done anything to change the situation. In many cases, we have actually added a burden to people of color by acting sad and mopey and expecting them to cheer us up by telling us we are the good kind of white people.

When we pick up white responsibility instead, it does not necessarily make the load feel lighter. In fact, it is fairly likely to make the load feel heavier. Yet, with that weight comes the motivation to alter the situation and to see a change take place. With that weight comes the desire to see a day come when there are not quite so many things in the backpack, not quite so many unearned advantages. With that weight comes the hope that maybe someday the backpack could be gone altogether. For while we cannot undo what has been done, we can begin to refuse to be accomplices to the crime.

To be of any use in this struggle, we need to pick up white responsibility and white action, rather than white guilt and white helplessness. We need to understand why privilege exists not just that it exists. We need to feel outraged not just guilty.

Real social change cannot come from personal guilt which seeks to alleviate one’s own pain by doing or saying something that will cause the one who has experienced injustice to absolve us and release us from responsibility. White guilt keeps us focused on ourselves.

Instead, social change will come through the acceptance of responsibility and the resulting action that seeks to alleviate the pain of others, rather than remaining focused on our own.

If my privilege was taken at the expense of the community then the only viable option is to restore my privilege to the community. To make it, as far as possible, communal property.

This means that those who are the ones experiencing injustice are the ones who get to define what justice is. Any panel discussing justice that includes a majority of white males as the speakers cannot be a panel on justice because it is inherently unjust by not including voices that experience the most injustice. It is often prioritizing the voices of those who benefit professionally from justice work, rather than those who actually suffer from injustice. It is an exercise in hearsay.

It means that my role is to listen before I speak. My voice and opinions must be in sync with the voices of those most impacted by injustice. If they are not, there is clearly something wrong and I need to keep my mouth shut and do a lot more listening.

It means that I do not get to be a hero. We do not get to pat ourselves on the back for dispensing a little bit of the overflow or our privilege. We do not get to “save” anyone.

It means that I understand that my privilege was stolen through violence. Through colonization. Through slavery. Therefore, it must be submitted to the accountability of those whose losses constituted its gains.

What belongs to the community as a whole must be restored to the community as a whole. Only then will the invisible backpack truly disappear.

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