White Pity & White Guilt

by Matthew Madrigal

In 2019, it’s truly perplexing to see white people react the way they have to the recent incidents that have transpired regarding race and bigotry at Syracuse University.

I’m not referring to the silent white people who absolutely know they’re wrong and keep silent. They know if they opened their mouths for long enough, any decently intelligent person could sniff out the racism in their ideologies. I’m talking about the outspoken “accepting” white people in these matters who painfully try to perform their “wokeness” to people of color to assert that they are an ally. The funniest part about all of this is how much they expose about themselves when they open their mouths about it.

I recently read an article regarding the recent incidents occurring all over campus. It was very well-intentioned, and I give credit where credit is due. It had a good heart. Sadly there was something uncomfortable about it that I don’t think most people recognized upon reading it. The writer claims how they were ignorant of the racism that people of color face on a daily basis, and it was an eye-opening experience for them. They were “shocked” to learn about the disadvantages, oppression, disrespect, and hardships people go through on a daily basis due to the color of their skin.

I really wonder why that was. Today, in the age of information, the social media generation, the Tumblr kids, Gen Z, whatever name you’d like to refer to the current zeitgeist as you would think these people would know better. Have you been so sheltered from the world, both in a historic and modern sense, that you were truly ignorant about what was going on?

Or were you just willfully ignorant?

Most white people who are outspokenly “shocked” to hear about what’s going on and learn about this, can fall into one of two categories. I place shocked in quotation marks because I don’t think anybody with a functional brain living in this day and age, especially somebody going to a large university, could be ignorant of the fact that this is happening. The two categories follow as such:

1. They don’t have many friends of color, therefore they mostly hang around people who look and think similar to them. When a large group of white people gets together, it’s not hard to imagine these people making disparaging remarks (even if jokingly) about people of color. And that’s to say it lightly. When white people are together, knowing nobody’s going to snitch on anybody, and if they all seem to share similar mindsets, it is easy to believe they will throw around the words “n****r” and “sp*c” and words of the like without really batting an eye. Even if it’s “just a joke bro”. Therefore, when they say they are “shocked” to hear about racism and how it affects people of color, they’re just putting on a front and pretending to act as if “they never knew how it really is.'' Yes, you do. You’re only lying to us and to yourself.

2. The alternative “shocked” white person is one that would be traditionally considered more liberal, and even might go as far as to call themselves “woke”. This kind of person has friends of color (and often, they pride themselves on having friends of color) and would never in their life want to be viewed as a racist because they’re “not” by the textbook standard of the word. And they’re probably right, they genuinely do care about making diverse friends and have empathy for the people of color that they do know. They probably do try to the best of their ability to not be racist. However, this type of person could be more detrimental to progress than the other type, due to the fact that it is hard to tell where they truly stand. They could be hiding in plain sight, so to speak. With the other kind, usually, you know that what you see is what you get.

Consider this — if you are friends with people of color, even if only a few, how are you actually shocked that this is happening? Do they not tell you about their experiences in the world? Or are you too afraid to cover that topic with them? Or maybe they don’t feel comfortable speaking about that topic and sharing their true feelings about it with you. Or maybe, even if they do share those experiences and stories with you, how are you now still shocked to hear what is going? Did you never actually believe them? Were you only half-listening? It’s all circumstantial but if you feel targeted by this, feel free to circle whichever scenario applies to you. It may be more than one.

Anybody who considers themselves an “ally” should not be filled with what is called white guilt. What are you guilty for? Do you still silently perpetuate and uphold systems of racism and oppression that you swear you fight against? You should have nothing to be guilty about if you’ve done nothing wrong and have treated people the way they should be treated.

Anybody intellectually and emotionally capable of understanding the structure of racism in oppression in America will understand what is wrong and why it is wrong, but there should be no guilt involved unless you have personally done something to be a part of that. To be white and filled with guilt rather than filled with a willingness to be understanding, accepting, and empathetic is insulting and limiting to all people of color.

Beyond that, white guilt stems from another subconscious root deep down that most people are probably unaware of within themselves. They often feel guilty and have superb amounts of pity towards people of color because they usually see them as a black person, rather than a person who is black. Anybody with a half-decent heart and brain sees somebody as a human being first, and then afterward understands the factors involved with that person's skin color or ethnicity.

We shouldn’t see one another as a white person or a black person but rather as a person who is white or a person who is black, and understand that because of their skin color, they face and undergo different experiences than we do. People of all colors face adversity in America and across the globe in different ways. We as people must do our best to fully understand the scope and nuances of every color, nationality, and ethnicity. We are responsible as human beings who live in a multicultural world with other human beings who do not look exactly like us.

This is not to say, as many people do, that we should “not see color''. Rather, this calls for the opposite. Race, in the biological sense, does not change anything about us, physically, mentally, or emotionally. However, race is entirely different in a sociological sense. Being black does not physically or mentally limit any persons’ capability to accomplish something. Although being black in America, one is socially limited by systems and beliefs that have existed in this country for hundreds of years that can hold them back. When people can see the color of someone's skin and not let it affect their view on them, but rather compel them to seek understanding in the person, it is when they can truly have an educated and appropriate conversation about race.

To automatically view somebody simply through the lens of their skin tone rather than the fact that they are a living, breathing person who is simply existing on this lonely little planet just trying their best and loves, cries, suffers, smiles, screams, and asks big questions the same way you do, that is when you can truly see people as people first.

That is where empathy begins. On a human to human level. Factoring in their skin color, with an educated and informed approach to the history of the world, American history, and the current world we’re living in, will make you more empathetic and accepting, because you will get a more well-rounded understanding of their experience and why they may feel certain ways about things, or may act certain ways, or may think certain ways. This cannot be truly achieved if you do not see them as human beings first.

This is not a call for political correctness or changing of language. We do not have to refer to people as “that person who is black” or “that person who is white”. They’re a black person. They’re a white person. Rather, this is a call for changes in our approach to how we think of other people.

I found it incredibly interesting, that about four days into these incidents, once Greek life became a part of the discussion, every fraternity and sorority quickly rushed to throw together a cute little colorful flyer to “stand in solidarity” with #NotAgainSU and share how their organization respects every creed and color, and stands against racism. Oh, how life can be so ironic.

Following each fraternity or sorority posting this, a plethora of members in each organization shared it to their own personal Instagram story. A rather easy way to “do something” without really doing something. Posting a picture saying you stand in solidarity with something, and physically protesting and literally standing in solidarity with a movement are two entirely different things. It seems to me that many of these Greek life people used this as their quick and easy “Don’t blame me, I’m not racist” pass.

It doesn’t impress me.

Interestingly enough, did you pay attention to how many more people began sharing articles, posts, and reports to their stories once there was a chance that they could get out of class for the day? White people are not the target of the white supremacist threats towards the people of color at school, yet when they see the potential in “reaping the benefits” to skip class, they will jump right on. (I hesitate to use the phrase because there truly are no beneficial things happening towards students of color at the time, especially threats of gun violence and mass shootings.)

I don’t write this with any malicious intent towards white people. I just think the conversation amongst white people is the same conversation we’ve been having for way too long. “Black people have it so bad, it must be so hard for them! I feel so bad for them!” This is a conversation amongst so many whites and it never really goes anywhere.

The place we should be looking is within ourselves and asking ourselves “Why do black people have it so bad in this country? Why don’t I have it as bad as them? What am I doing to change that, or on the other hand, uphold that?” Start being critical of yourself, not pitiful of others. Call out your friends. Make this upcoming Thanksgiving the most uncomfortable one yet. Do something to change your mind as well as the minds of the people around you.

As Malcolm X wrote in the final pages of his autobiography,

“I tell sincere white people, 'Work in conjunction with us- each of us working among our own kind.' Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do- and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!”