Even as a young person, I was aware of the challenges of race and ethnicity, despite my suburban shelter. I was born with an insatiable curiosity as well. My curiosity led to conversations with a variety of students at different times about their experiences in our high school. I recall a conversation with a classmate who was Jewish. He shared the struggles he faced as many of our classmates would threaten him, using anti-Semitic language as part of their bullying. I believed him to be telling the truth. And I also couldn’t believe people would behave that way. It seemed like a lesson the world had paid a painful price to learn so very long ago. I recall a conversation with an African American boy in one of my classes. He played down the challenges of being in a primarily white school, far from his home. As part of a busing program, he rode over an hour each way to attend our school. I understand now there were likely things I couldn’t understand. Maybe he was trying to express them. Maybe by then he was tired of trying to communicate his experience. Perhaps my well meaning curiosity was a painful experience for him. I just remember trying to understand if it was lonely or hard to be in our school- so white. So suburban. So far from his home. The conversation was brief and returned to complaints about the lunch menu after a short silence. And I really never stopped wondering what his experience was like.
The recent rise in awareness of white privilege and institutional racism has recalled for me these and other conversations. I feel a heightened awareness of my whiteness. White skin. White privilege. White suburban history. Whiteness. And a new social awareness of the challenges we face if we truly want to express our American ideals and values. If we want to live up to our own standards, we have to acknowledge where we are falling short on doing so. Acknowledging what has happened and how we have been complicit is an important part of moving forward. And yet it is often diminished to guilt, rather than accountability.
White guilt. Like any other useless experience, it has a seductive lilt to its presentation. It feels like accountability and it acts like seeking reassurance. It acts like avoiding conflict. It acts like not participating. White guilt is a distraction, at least for me, from taking the risk to be vulnerable enough to be responsible or to be wrong. And in being wrong, learn something and be part of the changes to which I am committed.
I have come to accept I will be uncomfortable, often, as I seek to be part of building a world I actually want to live in. And I will have to learn how to accept my guilt as part of me. I am grateful for the teachers in my life who have helped me to see there is more than my experience. More to the world than my view of what is. More to this moment than my discomfort. I hope I can use those lessons effectively to keep us moving towards a world that embraces all our voices.