Recently I’ve been learning about how whiteness operates. Part of this learning came from what I think of as normal information-seeking activities: reading, reflection, discussions with friends. But I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve learned from an unexpected source: responses to my writing via social media.
Colleagues and professional acquaintances have seen my posts about racism (or promoting my retreat) and felt compelled to respond. I’ve found these responses illuminating, both about my own position (for example, prompting me to write about being Jewish for the first time) and about the performance of whiteness within my professional network.
I want to share an example. In response to a post about how “unconscious bias” training does not achieve what it claims to, a white professional acquaintance posted this comment:
…I’d read previously that unconscious bias training doesn’t work but, like many, don’t know what is the best path forward.
Let’s unpack this. The tone of the comment is supportive: he already agrees with my premise, he’s even read it elsewhere! And then there’s the “but”, the word some call the strongest in the English language. “But” allows my friend to pretend that he agrees with me, to give the impression of solidarity, while rejecting the essence of my argument (that white people can do something about racism.) He, like many others, just doesn’t know what to do.
I imagine him continuing: “Racism is really such an urgent and difficult and intractable ‘wicked’ problem, and now you tell me that my preferred fix doesn’t work! I am having such stress and discomfort just thinking about it, what on earth can we do? Now let me get back to my day job…”
This guilt complex operates as a smokescreen for inaction. If we’re talking about how guilty we white people feel, we are re-centring our needs, our comfort, our perspective. This is a power play, a refusal to centre the people who are actually harmed by the oppression. We are the beneficiaries of racism—how can we so easily get away with centring our own discomfort?
It’s like saying, oh dear, it’s so uncomfortable and unpleasant for Jeff Bezos to be forced to hear how shitty the lives of his employees are who don’t even get paid enough to feed themselves! Poor old Jeff! Why don’t we all sympathise with the burden of having to hear that through amassing huge wealth and power, you’re occasionally faced with the consequences of the exclusion and dispossession that your empire-building creates! That must be so uncomfortable and annoying for you, Jeff!
This is how whiteness operates. It says, let’s get the whole room to have a two-minute silence as we all empathise with the burdens of the Plutocrats of this world. We can do that, which will result in the continuation of suffering for the oppressed and a soothing of the psyches of the privileged. Or we can find our own equivalent of introducing the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (Stop BEZOS) Act to Congress…
Dear white reader, you are not Jeff Bezos. I know that. But you are complicit in a use of power that is part of the same system which enables such grotesque inequality to exist.
When we indulge in feelings of guilt, pretend to agree while denying our complicity and claim that we just don’t know what to do, we are using our white privilege to enable inaction. To say we “don’t know the best path forward” is bullshit. It’s a way to terminate the conversation while trying to position ourselves on the right side of a contentious issue.
What would it take to step out of denial and start to take action to resist the oppressions we’re complicit in sustaining?