Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Being White in a World of Color: Guilt and Goodness

You can't very far into a discussion of being white without plowing into the question of guilt.

Many might read the statement in my previous post about the places I've gotten it wrong as being spoken out of guilt. But I don't feel guilty when I say it.

I've posted before about the National Coalition Building Institute, and much of what I'll be writing about white patterns was learned from twenty years as a local associate in the Maine chapter of NCBI. One of the pillars of NCBI theory is, in the words of founder Cherie Brown, "Guilt is the glue that holds prejudice in place."

In a workshop years ago, I heard a woman of color - I'll call her Miriam - share a story about how she'd been mistreated because of her race. Moved to tears by her account, I also felt uncomfortably implicated. Afterwards I approached her and urgently expressed how sorry I was, saying, "if there's anything I can do..." Miriam's response: "Annie, just be yourself."

It was guilt that made me feel that I was somehow personally responsible for Miriam's pain. It was guilt that made me turn her story into something about me. It was guilt that made me seek reassurance and absolution from Miriam so that I wouldn't feel bad anymore.

Over the years, I've gradually worked on letting go of guilt and tried instead to remember my own goodness. I've noticed that I didn't ask to be raised in a system that would separate me from other people, that would divide us by our differences. I didn't ask to be taught patterns that would make it difficult to have authentic, loving connections to all kinds of people; in that way, it's not my fault.

The patterns are there, though, and it's goodness - the knowledge that we are one human family - that makes them my responsibility. I don't want any obstacles in the way of seeing the value, significance and wonder of any person I meet.

So instead of a guilty cataloging of sins, I consider this journey more of a detective investigation. I'm fascinated by the evidence I gather, and glad for every new clue that adds one more piece to the puzzle.

The more of the puzzle I see, the more I'm freed to just be myself.

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