Last Monday’s “think piece” made reference to the title of a book called “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together at the Cafeteria?” What followed in my post was a discussion of some of the sociological and psychological factors that can influence people in a minority group to seek each other out. If you clicked through to the customer reviews, you were treated to gems like this:
The author must have wrote this book for black people and liberals ONLY !!!!!! Only then could a positive review of this book be possible! More of that ‘blame whitey’ baloney that is just ‘not sticking’ anymore. It’s like something Jesse Jackson would write: PATHETIC.
Or this sharp insight:
I found Tatum’s book to be laughable at best. She deliberately shows her hatred towards whites with her over the top view of what racism is (a system of advantage based on race). I find her definition to be a joke. She provides no substantial evidence to support any of her claims about white people having this ultimate advantage in society and how everything has been essentially spoon fed to whites.
There is a tendency for white people to feel ‘blamed’ or ‘guilty’ for racism, which I suppose is a regrettable side-effect of being a member of a majority group. When the story casts your team as the bad guys, it’s hard not to feel personally attacked whenever someone talks about the team. As a man, it’s tough to deal with the reality of male privilege because it’s always “my fault” whenever we talk about women’s role in history. It’s certainly tempting for me to slip into feeling blamed, or feeling like the only weapon that feminists have in their arsenal is just to blame men for all of the problems of the world.
However, this kind of reaction is seated firmly in assuming it’s still about me. Framing the entire feminist movement as “just blaming men” keeps the spotlight on us and puts us (as men) back at the centre of attention. Feminism isn’t about “blaming” anybody, it’s about identifying real inequalities, and the factors and psychology that perpetuate those inequalities. As with any inequality, there will be a group (or groups) that occupies an exalted position and one that holds an inferior one. However, when the exalted group stubbornly ignores the reasons why they occupy that position and explain the inequality away by assuming that the differences are due to the work ethic or genetic makeup or some kind of factor intrinsic to that group, it’s often necessary to point out the flaws in that line of reasoning.
In exactly the same way, when anti-racists wish to point out the inequalities between racial groups, it becomes inevitable that they (we) identify who is on top and point out some of the reasons why. Otherwise, we slip back into the too-convenient “explanations” that put the blame on the victim and completely absolve anyone else of any responsibility. You might hear, for example, someone talk about how affirmative action programs simply make racism worse by making white people resent minorities, or saying that if people just took “personal responsibility” for their attitudes then the problems would disappear. The problem with those excuses is that they make solving race issues everyone else’s problem, removing any need for the speaker to speak up, participate, or sacrifice anything.
The idea that the goal of anti-racism is to make white people feel guilty for the sins of their ancestors is flawed for two reasons. The first is that these aren’t problems that are the domain of mythical ancestors – we still find them happening today. We may not have the same state support for them, but there is still a real economic, social and political gap between people of colour (PoCs) and whites in North America. Doing nothing will not make the problem go away – it will simply allow it to continue in perpetuity. Active steps must be taken to address and ameliorate the problem, which is a problem for all of us.
The second problem is that guilt is a useless emotion. You’ll notice (if you care to look through the archives of this site) that at no point do I suggest that white people should feel guilty, or even imply that guilt is a useful motivator for anything. The kinds of actions that are motivated by guilt tend to be short-term Band-Aid solutions to serious problems. After all, if you can make a lot of noise about how you love everyone, or about how bad you feel that your ancestors did X and Y, then your guilt goes away. Feeling bad doesn’t level the playing field; it simply makes you look for the fastest way to stop feeling guilty.
It is for this reason that you’ll inevitably see the “get over it, black people” or “that was in the past” or “you just hate white people” response whenever someone talks about an inequality, or seeks an apology for a historical injustice. The narrative goes something like this: “I am not responsible for the actions of others, those things happened long ago, therefore I have no responsibility to give up my privilege”. Well, it’s either that or it’s “I feel super-bad for what my ancestors did, but I didn’t do it personally, therefore it’s enough that I don’t specifically discriminate against PoCs”.
Neither of these attitudes are helpful – they are the equivalent of throwing up your arms in surrender and saying “oh well, what can you do?” Anti-racists and those who study issues of racial inequality are offering solutions, but as long as those solutions continue to be branded as “blaming whitey”, we’ll never move white people out of the spotlight, and never see any real progress.
If you do feel guilty about the past deeds of white people then I feel for you. I don’t know what to tell you other than the fact that your guilt is at best irrelevant, and at worst a detriment to making any advances toward closing the gaps. So cut it out :P
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