What I found strange about the letter was that I’ve written two novels featuring couples of different races — American Indian and white. This woman had apparently read both of the books without noticing that fact. And then it dawned on me that for a great many whites, race is strictly an issue of black and white. What about Asian Americans? What about people of Indigenous descent? What about people with mixed blood?
You’d think that we in the United States would by now be in the midst of a productive conversation about race and ethnicity. Sadly, our public discourse on the topic is far from sophisticated. Racism is still a hot-button issue, but it’s one that generates so much discomfort that most whites would rather pretend there isn’t a race problem in America, particularly now that the nation has a black president.
Sorry. That just doesn’t fly. In my experience, conversations about race almost immediately run into a roadblock that makes further discussion difficult at best. And that roadblock is the phenomenon known as “white guilt.”
Bring up race among white people and someone is bound to say something like this: “I’m not racist. I’ve never done anything to anyone because of the color of their skin. Why should I feel bad?” I’ve always wondered what causes this reaction. Is it purely a defensive response from the hearts of genuinely good people who don’t want to bear the shame of having the same skin color as white supremacists and other obvious haters? Is it denial from people who are secretly mystified by the fact that people of European descent somehow ended up on the wrong side of imperialist history? Is it an attempt to reject the guilt they harbor from participating in white privilege or even from buried racist thoughts and emotions?
Regardless of the cause, it’s become clear to me that a nuanced conversation about race in America can’t happen until the sticky issue of “white guilt” is addressed and the discussion is allowed to move on.
So here goes: If you’re white, you enjoy a certain set of subtle and not-sosubtle privileges from birth that people of color do not. As a result, you’re less likely to live in poverty, less likely to land in prison, less likely to have sub-standard health care, less likely to die a violent death and so on. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t set up this system of privileges yourself or that you participate in the system unintentionally. It’s there. It exists. And you’re a part of it.
And although you yourself might not have owned slaves or massacred Indian people or imported Chinese to die while working on the railroad, other white people did, and the collective trauma of those experiences is still real to the groups that suffered through those atrocities. Rather than pointing out that you never did any of those terrible things, it might be more productive — and more healing for you — to set your ego aside and listen with compassion to the concerns of those who have experienced racism.
There. Was that so painful? When we can finally get past this quagmire, we can begin to address other issues, such as the extremely high incarceration rates of men of color; or the fact that poor people of all races have more in common with one another than they do with the rich; or the fact that the American “melting pot” lauded in U.S. history textbooks is slowly simmering to a shade of brown. The topic of what it means to be mixed race could keep us busy for a very long time all by itself — if we can ever get around to it.
Yes, talking about race can be personally uncomfortable, but the answer isn’t to avoid having that discussion. The answer is to accept the discomfort and submerge ourselves in the dialogue with the intention of listening rather than defending our egos.
On July 4, 1776, a group of white men proclaimed their nation free, declaring that all men were equal. They did so more or less blind to the irony that some men were enslaved, that the land they stood on had been stolen and that their own mothers, sisters, wives and daughters lived lives of subservience.
The United States has paid for the inability of its founders to bridge the gulf between their high-flown rhetoric and their actions. Now, 234 years later, the issues they couldn’t address are still the ones that haunt our society.