White Guilt, Privilege, and Justice

It’s my understanding that later this week Evan will be providing some cutting observations on the state of Tumblr [two months later… -Evan.], especially in regards to its role as a haven of intrepid social justice and/or goose-stepping political correctness. While I’m guessing there might be some overlap in our posts, I figured I’d try to lay the groundwork here.

Not too long ago, readers, I stumbled across a garish little webpage dedicated to celebrating the “WISDOM OF THE LAKOTA”. In florid terms, the site noted the Sioux’s dedication to nature, their exemplary thriftiness, and their peace-loving nature.

There’s plenty of things you could say about the old Lakota tribes- that they were “peaceful” isn’t one of ’em. For *****’s sake, Lakota translates to “The Enemy”. One does not become synonymous with war by handing out daisy chains and Hallmark cards.

“We come bearing the pointy sticks of friendship!”

Now this wasn’t the first time I had seen that very list. A few months earlier, I had come across the exact same one, only this time it was attributed to the Cherokee. And not long before that, I had seen it posted as a set of Cheyenne commandments. And Iroquois, and Cree, and Blackfoot, and so on.

Now the pattern here is one we’re all probably familiar with already. After being cast as a villain in so much of American culture, the Native American legacy has since been dragged to the opposite end of the spectrum, now framed as mysterious, wisdom-dispensing healers who used every part of the buffalo and should’ve been more cautious about accepting blankets from strangers.

The picture that history paints us, of course, is strikingly different. Native hunters could be pretty vicious when it came to making use of the land, and there’s only one documented case of smallpox blankets ever being used. But how did we get from this-

…to this?

Three words: “White. Liberal. Guilt”.

Now in essence, this is the collective guilt felt by white folks over the offenses committed against Native Americans, African Americans, and whenever folks can be bothered to remember, Japanese Americans during the Second World War. While it seldom actually gets vocalized in these terms, the general effect is this rosy-tinted pictured given to the victims of bigotry and segregation (both historic and contemporary). Hence pictures like this:

And this…

and this…

This guy is almost definitely going to die of lyme disease…

“So what? The New Age crowd has more crap to hang on their walls. Vikings didn’t wear horns on their helmets either, so what’s the big deal here?”

Let me break it down for ya.

I. It Leads To An Inaccurate Portrayal of the World

…and that should, in and of itself, be enough of a reason. The simple fact of the matter is that there’s no good reason for fictionalizing history- more often than not doing so is just an excuse for being sloppy and lazy.

Which Evan covered decently in his Shame Day on The Lone Ranger

Beyond that, it’s pretty dang patronizing. Native Americans (or Muslims or Arabs or Buddhists or immigrants or anybody) shouldn’t need you to exaggerate or lie on their behalf. Heck, I’d even argue that the act of doing so serves only to undermine these folks, giving them an impossible reputation to live up to. You gotta let people just be people– good and bad together.

II. It’s Still Based In Racism

As strange as that might sound, it’s true- white guilt is just the other side of the coin as white pride is. Both assume responsibility and credit for actions that you had nothing to do with- simply by the virtue of race or nationality. This happens everywhere, but I’m guessing there’s no clearer example than that of Germany.

And that Scandinavia and the World comic hits the nail on the head there. To this day, there seems to exist a visceral reaction on the part of Germans to their own country’s history- that guilt running so deep that even certain legislation exists forbidding anything even remotely reminiscent of the 3rd Reich. Art Speigelman’s masterpiece MAUS has a brief section grappling with German guilt over the Holocaust:

(Sorry about how small this is)

In this page, a German reporter reminds Speigelman that “many younger Germans have had it up to here with Holocaust stories. These things happened before they were even born. Why should they feel guilty?” Speigelman replies with confusion, saying that he doesn’t know, but maybe “Everybody should feel guilty forever.”

Now I respect the man, but let me tell ya, that is some buuuuuulll**********.

The vast, vast majority of Germans living today had absolutely nothing to do with anything that happened back in the 30s and early 40s- hell, most of ’em weren’t even born. Feeling ashamed because Hitler was German (and if we’re being technical, Hitler was Austrian) is just as absurd as feeling proud because Bach or Goethe were German. A bit of shared DNA and regional proximity shouldn’t give you any sense of inherent innocence or guilt. It’s absolutely ridiculous. If you’re German (and we get at least a couple readers from the region a day), there is nothing to feel guilty over (except for the PEGIDA marches, and even then, you guys have been doing an awesome job of counter-protests).

III. It Fetishizes Suffering

This is definitely the more modern manifestation of this, in which folks will tell ya to (gah, I feel dirty for saying this but-) “check your privilege“. The message there is that you presumably have had some sort of deeply fortuitous or beneficial position in history.

Now in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with being aware of one’s position- heck, it’s necessary. When this gets turned from a reminder to an accusation, however, we run into problems.

Look, I’m a straight white guy. I’m not ashamed of that- in fact I’m happy about it (not proud– just happy). As a straight white guy, I don’t have to worry (as much) about police brutality, profiling, excessive prison sentences, microagressions, or objectification. Does that mean I don’t care when it happens to someone else? Of course not. But I’m not sorry that I haven’t had my skull cracked by a police baton, or that I haven’t gotten cat-calls walking down the street. I am not going to feel guilty that I’m not suffering, and to be disturbingly masochistic.

I can feel sympathy for this guy without feeling guilt that it hasn’t happened to me.

Heck, I’d accuse this sanctimonious hand-wringing on the part of folks who do feel “guilt” over their privilege as being just an excuse for inaction. All the self-flagellation in the world isn’t going to remedy these inequities. The solution to injustice is not to make everyone equally miserable.

IV. It Means Keeping Score

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t remember the horrors of the past. Quite the contrary, we need to do that to serve as a constant reminder of what could befall any of us. Trying to assign blame years (if not centuries) after the fact, however, serve only to perpetuate the eye-for-an-eye problem. I mean, if I, as a straight white male, am guilty of the sins of my fathers, then how far back does that extend? Should I be begging forgiveness from every British person I meet for my Swedish ancestors burning and pillaging their monasteries? Do the English owe me an apology for their forefathers’ treatment of my Scottish ones? Do the Franks pay reparations to the Romans who pay reparations to the Celts?

Worse yet, it means that there’s effort (if just an unconscious one) to “balance the scales”. Christians, for example, have held a pretty strong grasp over Western society for nearly two millennia- the impression folks seem to have gotten is that, based on this alone, they deserve to be mocked (while other groups get a free pass for the exact same offenses).

V. More Than Anything, It Distorts Justice

And that’s not to say you can’t criticize folks- you absolutely should (and lord knows I have)  You should just have an actual reason for criticism (someone not being as oppressed or miserable as _____ doesn’t count). Again, I gotta question the end goal here? We can all feel guilty and *****y about ourselves until the sun explodes, and none of that is going to make an ounce of difference. If ya actually cared about something, would you make a concrete effort to rectify it or just bemoan the world to feel all enlightened and superior?

And no, the irony of me guilt-tripping you on guilt is not lost on me…

That’s my whole point here, folks- don’t think for a second that a false or misplaced sense of grief is any substitute for actual justice:

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5 responses to “White Guilt, Privilege, and Justice

  1. Pingback: White Guilt, Privilege, and Justice | Christians Anonymous

  2. Reblogged this on encompassingchaos and commented:
    What they said…yep.

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  4. Pingback: Lisa Nakamura Part 1: Tumblr Activism and This Bridge Called My Back : A Culture War Report | Culture War Reporters

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