To: Liberal White People
Everywhere, the World
Re: Talking about Racism and the Politics of Guilt and Love
“‘Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,’ she said, ‘and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.’” Toni Morrison, Beloved
Dear Well-Intentioned Liberal White People (WILWP),
So you want to talk about racism. Well, you should know: it’s going to hurt. To talk the truth about race and racism is a kind of surgery which cannot be anesthetized, sterilized, made painless and easy to consume. You need to feel something. Many things, actually: anger, sadness, fear, guilt, resentment, envy, despair – because that is what real relationships with real human beings are like, and I want you to experience me as a real human being. I don’t want to be a tool, a doll, a fetish, a caricature, a charity case, a monster, or a capital-E Expert in Interracial Politics anymore. You cannot really love any of those things. And I want you to love me; it’s what you taught me to want. I dare you to listen. I dare you to love me.
As a writer, performer, student, and community member engaged in critical dialogue on race and racism, there are certain questions that I am often asked by white people in my life: Why am I responsible for something that my ancestors did (i.e. colonization, slavery, forced migration, cultural genocide)? How long is long enough to feel guilty? If white people are always getting it wrong, why can’t you just tell me how to not be racist? If I don’t want to be an oppressor, what is my place in the struggle for racial liberation?
WILWP, here’s the thing: if you can’t figure it out on your own, I got nothin’. Over the years I have certainly learned a lot of academic theory, a lot of critical history, a lot of postmodern terminological jargon, and if pressed, I could formulate answers to these questions. I could talk about the ways in which the history of European colonization of Asia, the Americas, and Africa continue to shape the socioeconomic realities of the present. I could pull out Peggy McIntosh’s list of white privileges. I could refer you to pre-eminent critical race theorists, and I could cite statistics.
But frankly, I am plumb tired of doing that. You can look it up on the internet for yourself. To enter that discussion is to jump down an endless rabbit hole of contention to which there is no bottom, in which your racial privilege and angst are the perpetual centre of gravity. There is no relationship of love in the darkness of that debate, no way to make you understand, no reason for me to stay.
So let’s make a deal, WILWP. You don’t ask me to explain history’s connection to the present, and I won’t ask you to reimburse generations of poverty created by slavery and indentured servitude, head taxes, internment, and discriminatory education and employment practices. You don’t ask me when you can stop feeling guilty, and I don’t ask you when I’m going to get back those conversations I didn’t have with my grandparents because my family decided that I would have a better chance at life in Canada speaking English instead of an obscure Chinese village dialect. You don’t ask me what your place is in the “struggle for racial equality,” and I don’t tell you that you directly benefit from oppression that has resulted in my personal trauma. To borrow a phrase from the Daria theme song, “Excuse me, you’re standing on my neck.”
What I propose we talk about – what I think we must talk about – is not the theoretical position that white people should take in order to ‘liberate’ people of colour, but rather the positions that you already occupy. Well-intentioned white people, you are inextricably enmeshed in nearly every aspect of my life. You are my teachers, bosses, co-workers, roommates, friends, and sexual partners. And in every one of those roles, the fact of your race gives you some measure of power over me: the power to place yourself in the centre and me in the margin. Your well-intentioned questions, your desire to not feel guilty, your Hollywood White Saviour movies like The Help andThe Last Samurai and Dances With Wolves, and your trips to dig wells in Africa and teach English in Korea do nothing to close the gap between us.
This is perhaps hurtful to read, WILWP, especially if you are someone who knows me well. If you are used to my generally gentle demeanor, my politically correct sense of humour, my middle-class living room manners, you may want to cry. Feel free. I will not tell you that your tears are worthless, though they are dangerous to people like me: white women’s tears have brought many a conversation to a halt, have gotten many people of colour imprisoned and fired for being ‘too aggressive.’
But I believe that tears can be healing as well. As a child, I learned not to cry, have in fact lost the ability to cry in confrontations, because they meant I only got hurt worse. Even people of colour’s tears are worth less than white ones. So let’s all cry if we need to. Talking about racism should cause you pain. Fear, and anger, and yes, guilt too. It means we are speaking the same language.
And what are we really talking about when we talk about race? Well, I don’t know about you, WILWP, and I don’t speak for other people of colour, but I am talking about how to love. Not in the superficial, “let’s just treat everyone the same and bake a cake of rainbows and smiles and eat it and be happy” sense, but about the kind of love that hurts. The kind that is complicated, the kind that struggles to breathe, that leaves bloody handprints on the side of the face. I am talking about the fact that if we are to be quite honest, we already know that there are no final answers to your questions, have always known. That you may not have chosen the legacy of your whiteness, but it is yours, and it is your responsibility to figure out how to heal the damage it has done. If you want to talk about race with me, you have to accept this. If you want to talk about race with me, you have to listen to the things that hurt, that scar and bleed – and love me anyway.