Is white guilt a thing and should we have more of it?

The third part of my Blogger’s Block series prompt came courtesy of a Twitterer friend, Keri Stroebel who asked this:

Why do so many white people attack other white people who are trying to be anti-racist? Why use the terms “white saviour”, or accuse you having “white guilt” or even straight up call you a traitor to your race?

i invited her and another friend to respond with me so we could tackle this question from a few different angles or perspectives.

Keri Stroebel on white guilt and more…

It’s a question that has bothered me for a long time, and while I could ask the question online, on Twitter for example, I fear I already know how that thread would go.

I realise it will sound like a lot of generalisations, and I would hope that this goes without saying, but I should probably mention it anyway. This is not an effort to generalise, it’s an observation on the particular people that engage in these behaviours.

Here’s what I’ve seen:

Support BLM and there will inevitably be white people, particularly in South African that rush to “whatabout” you. Farm Murders, they want to talk about Farm Murders. Now, I distinctly remember them marching about Farm Murders, which they are fully entitled to do. However, now that people are marching for BLM, they have a massive issue with it. My conclusion: They don’t want the focus on anyone but themselves. White people have always enjoyed the privilege of attention. White actors winning Oscars for playing people of colour, being the OWNER of slaves instead of being the slave. Hiring a domestic worker instead of BEING the domestic worker. White people have always been the “important” ones. It’s not about YOU, this movement, is about someone else.

This is a loaded topic for me, being a white woman who grew up in Centurion, Pretoria. A very afrikaans, conservative town. I wasn’t always anti-racist. In fact I distinctly remember using the phrase “I’m not racist but… “ at least into my early 20’s. My family wasn’t overtly racist, because we were all nice to people of colour. However, we were actually, racist. I didn’t realise that at the time. In fact, it was only when I moved to Cape Town, almost 10 years ago, when I realised just HOW racist the people in our lives actually were, and how I kept quiet about it, and was therefore complicit in it.

I literally never said anything, even though I was becoming more and more uncomfortable about it. Interestingly, this coincided with my realisation that I’m an atheist, but like I said, it’s a loaded topic. When I moved to Cape Town with my husband, we didn’t know a soul here. We spent many months alone, just us, with no friends. Removed from everyone we knew, and the world we’d both grown up in, we were able to discover how we actually felt about the world, and our beliefs. We became different people when we moved away, and we’ve become committed to constant learning and growth.

Aside from hearing the K-word at pretty much every braai, there was always casual racism at events. Especially if discussing taxis, or government. I remember the first few times I voted. I voted DA. Why? No idea. It was who everyone I knew voted for, because well… everyone I knew was white. Voting for the ANC was voting for the enemy. “These people” can’t govern. Now, we know the ANC sucks but let me be real, the MAIN reason the ANC is a no-go for most white people, is because it’s run by black people.

I can only imagine that what I’m saying here is going to enrage people. However, I’ve been in it. I’ve seen it, heard it, and kept quiet about it. I have experienced (and sometimes still experience) white people talking to me about something race-related, and just assuming I’m in agreement because I’m also white. That should tell you something. It’s like a little club. “Oh, another white South African, someone I can be racist with”.

Reading this, many white people are going to feel attacked. I think that’s because they know what I’m saying is true.

I think the reason white people are on the defensive, and attacking other white people is because they don’t want their safe space destroyed, because that means they have to do some work, on themselves. It’s a reluctance to admit that you’ve been wrong. It’s the realisation that REAL equality, that is going to happen with or without them, means the end of their time as the “important” one. The facade is crumbling. You’re not the be-all and end-all, which is what you’ve been taught and shown. Perhaps these white people think that POC are now competition, and they need to make sure that white people “win”. White people, and I must say, white MEN, don’t seem to enjoy being told what to do, especially not by a black man, who has historically been the one taking the orders.

Maybe, white folks, if for once, you kept quiet, and listened, we could ACTUALLY begin to move forward. You’re so sick of hearing about racism, but you’re doing nothing to change that. You’re actually making it worse. Discussions about racism, on this scale, will not stop, until you start playing your part.

White people caused this problem, we are responsible for fixing what we broke.

[Keri Stroebel: Twitterer and IG – @keri_stroebel]

Keri Stroebel on white guilt

Andre’s Thoughts

Andre Vlok is someone who, like Keri, i met on the Twitterer, and got to more closely meet on a Zoom call yesterday. One of those rare people who i had quite a strong back-and-forth argument with on a particular topic where we disagreed quite strongly and still managed to stay civil and continue in friendship. So definitely someone worth listening to. Here are his thoughts on the question:

Why do so many white people attack other white people who are trying to be anti-racist? Why use the terms “white saviour”, or accuse you having “white guilt” or even straight up call you a traitor to your race?

This is really quite a big topic, the more I gave it some thought. Most of these thoughts should, I suppose rather remain unexpressed, but then, maybe that is a part of the value of this – that it should be dragged out into the sunlight. My apologies in advance, the thoughts are unpolished and they need refinement and an editor!! I have just run out of time, with a few deadlines looming for later.

As I understand Keri’s question, there could be three main reasons in my view that contribute to this in the response from the conservative white perspective –

1.    We must, I presume, accept that for some a white person acting in a compassionate and caring, unselfish manner towards “blacks” would be perceived as threatening “white interests”, an act of hostility. This I think plays into the lager mentality, the us/them paradigms, the “swart/rooi gevaar” indoctrination of decades past (like we endured in army days) and in a genuine perception as being threatened, in danger. I get this a lot in responses to my work and social media comments. If you deviate from “the script” you can be called a “traitor” and a “k*ff*rboetie”. For what its worth, I accept that these reactions come from a genuine place of sincerely felt fear.

2.    The second category is a more problematical one, for me. Here I believe we deal with someone who is less aware of what is going on. On the negative side I think that these people are more hostile, more harmful while on a positive approach I believe that they can be “saved” and made to join the rest of us once they see the strings that pull them. This group I believe are (a) conditioned to react in the tried and trusted way of the racist, but (b) have some visceral understanding of their errors, how immoral their conduct is. They want to step out of their toxic silo but do not really know-how. Much of these feelings are subconscious, causing a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. When they see a white person acting morally and compassionately towards “the other” this triggers a feeling of guilt, maybe not enough to break the chains, but something uncomfortable. That could be the spark that one can work with.

3.    The third group is an extension of group 2, I suppose, where the conservative has no cognitive problem in understanding that moral and compassionate conduct is the right thing to do, but needs a bit of help to see that it is socially ok to do so. Here I believe people who walk their talk, in real life and on social media, can act as living examples of that. It is ok to disagree with the white argument on a particular issue, it is ok to help a black person, to be their true friend etc.

Andre Vlok on the Twitterer: @vlok_andre

andre vlok

Brett Fish

Just a reminder of the white guilt question again:

Why do so many white people attack other white people who are trying to be anti-racist? Why use the terms “white saviour”, or accuse you having “white guilt” or even straight up call you a traitor to your race?

For me, the answer to a lot of these questions is defensiveness and distraction. Something has either touched a nerve in the person because they know it to be true or else there is a fear of what happens to them if it is true. Both of these tend to be informed by ignorance, which can be quite frustrating,

Let me briefly share my thoughts on the terms used there and then sum up my overall feeling with regards to this question:

White Saviour: Now this is a real thing. White people swooping in to save the day or feeling like they are is something that is real and pproblematic. This generally will be accompanied by selfies of the white person with the black township kids. And it carries the vibe of “Look at me! Look how great I am! Look at this amazing thing I am doing!” and the main problem is that is centers the white person in a story that was meant to be focused on someone else. And it carries with it a widening of the gap between the have and have nots. It also often comes at the expense of dignity or choice of the poor person – photos taken without permission, photos taken to show how bad conditions are in this place I am stepping into. White Saviourism is a very definite problem, usually brought about when we choose to focus on CHARITY and not JUSTICE. Charity looks like a handout or a temporary fix, while Justice tends to tackle the longer story and emphasise structural and systemic change.

White Guilt: This is an accusation that gets thrown at me a lot – either that i have it, or more regularly that i am just wanting everyone else to have it. Nothing could be further from the truth. i don’t feel white guilt, but i do experience and embrace White Conviction [which to be honest, sometimes feels the same as guilt, but there are some key differences].

Guilt tends to have you curled up in a tiny ball, rocking yourself in the corner of a room somewhere. You feel extremely bad and all it does it is paralyses you.

Conviction, on the other hand, makes you feel bad like guilt does as i mentioned, but it mobilises you into action. Because this thing i am seeing or experiencing is so bad, i must make sure that it changes.

So while i have absolutely no time for white guilt which helps no-one and achieves nothing, i love to focus on white conviction if it moves us towards being part of the change.

Traitor to your race: This statement feels so loaded and racist in and of itself. It speaks of a distinction between races – doing something for that race means you must be against this race. So i would not take that seriously at all. Actually the most traitorous thing done to the white race [as if colour was not something we came up with to establish power – go and look it up!] was convincing us that we were superior than other races and missing out on seeing other people as equal and learning from and celebrating and getting to know and being enriched by community with them. Striving for equality and equity does not make you a traitor. Leaving your race in the captivity of their racism does.

Drawing to a conclusion

Another one that was not in that list was ‘Virtue Signalling’ which for me is such an interesting one. It also speaks to the “Look at me! Look at me!” mentality of some people who love to be praised for what they do. But what i have found in activist circles is that while virtue signalling as a thing is not great at all, the ones who call out ‘Virtue Signalling!’ tend to use it as an insult when people are just getting on with doing the work that needs to be done.

The term itself suggests intention and while sometimes people’s intentions seem so explicit as to be discernible, generally the only one who really absolutely knows what your intentions are, are you. So you are really the best person to call yourself out on virtue signalling. It feels a bit like the opposite of Humility. If you are being humble, the moment you name it – “Look how humble I have been” – you are not any more. Only other people can witness humility in you and name it. Virtue signalling should be a self-test that happens every day you look in the mirror – Am I doing that? Well, STOPPIT! 

So, in conclusion, i think there is a lot of fear that drives those statements. Fear of “the other” in people who have not taken the time to engage with people who do not look like them. Fear in what I might lose – this is a big one – white people seem to fear losing something or everything despite there never being any kind of indication that this will happen. Perhaps the biggest fear in white people is that we will one day be treated the way we have treated black, indian and coloured people and that should be a valid fear. Because we do not have a good track record there at all.

Surely that should motivate us to pursue and engage and build bridges and yet so often it causes us to retreat and pick fights with the white people we think we can handle and throw words and phrases at them as insults in the hope that they will leave us alone.

What response do YOU have to those questions that Keri raised? Or how do you feel about what we have shared? Please share your thoughts in the comments below! Thanks for taking the time to read…