In every anti-racism training or workshop I’ve participated in, whether it was led by a liberal or more radically inclined teacher, there’s a certain political conclusion that masquerades as common sense. At some point, the facilitator will reassure the whites in the room, letting them know that even though their lives are based on the oppression of others, even though they themselves are oppressors, they should not feel ashamed about this, and certainly not guilty.
There are a few reasons this is said and said so often. Sometimes, it’s meant to preempt a common right-wing objection: those opposing white supremacy are merely attempting to stoke “white guilt” in order to gain some kind of “free ride,” basically. Often, too, it’s thought that guilt is not a transformative or radicalizing disposition, but a paralyzing one. This all assuages the sore feelings of a white participant who wants to grouse that they didn’t choose to be privileged. Progressives like to pretend as much as reactionaries that racism is simply a set of bad ideas, not the ideological expression of material structures of national, colonial, and racial oppression of which whites are the intentional beneficiaries.
Unlike now, a half-century ago the left did not so universally believe that the excuses of the European were made in good faith, that oppressors were ignorant of their position and role in the world. In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s signal text The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote to his french audience that
You know well enough that we are exploiters. You know too that we have laid hands on first the gold and metals, then the petroleum of the “new continents,” and that we have brought them back to the old countries. This was not without excellent results, as witness our palaces, our cathedrals and our great industrial cities; and then when there was the threat of a slump, the colonial markets were there to soften the blow or to divert it. Crammed with riches, Europe accorded the human status de jure to its inhabitants. With us, to be a man is to be an accomplice of colonialism, since all of us without exception have profited by colonial exploitation.
The same is true of u.s. whites now, whose every movement takes place on stolen land, whose every breath is stolen air. (And increasingly, the pollution they brought with them.) As Fanon saw, colonizers always regard themselves as shameless and guiltless, while “the native is always presumed guilty.” We ought, then, to question why what passes for anti-racist pedagogy is so dedicated to pronouncing the colonizer as shameless and guiltless. We ought, too, to avoid assuaging the fears of white folks and instead pay more attention to why settlers of all political persuasions are so terrified at the prospect of their guilt. After all, what does a “nation of leeches,” as the Cree activist Buffy Sainte-Marie has put it, have to feel guilty about? Quite a lot, if one has even a passing and partially honest familiarity with u.s. and world history. Those who aren’t made to look in the mirror – and how many would ever choose to lift their own eyes? – will never feel the slightest desire to wipe the blood from their mouths.
Oftentimes this white disavowal of guilt is an explicit move to racial innocence. Dave Strano, an anarchist organizer with Redneck Revolt who founded the first iteration of the group as an attempted intervention in Tea Party gun culture, has written as the concluding words in an introduction to the group’s politics that
One thing that must remain clear: We do not feel guilty for being white. Guilt is an emotion that hinders progress. Guilt cripples and isolates. While we wish to remain critical and accountable for our roles in perpetrating systemic inequity (something we can change), we will also not feel guilty for our lack of skin pigmentation (something we cannot change).
This is clearly confused, if not dishonest, and betrays a complete lack of knowledge about what critiques of whiteness are even about. These critiques are clearly not in the least about skin pigmentation. Whiteness is not skin pigmentation, but a structural position in a regime of anti-Blackness, a an irredeemable complex of social relations that has always been founded on enslavement and genocide. In his reflection on the election of Donald Trump, the Native liberation theorist Enāēmaehkiw Kesīqnaeh summarizes this well:
Whiteness is more than a question of privilege, of false consciousness, hegemony, ideology and similar things. No, white power is a materialist relationship. It is a relationship built on stolen land, stolen labour, and stolen resources. Driven by logics of elimination, negrophia and parasitism, it is a relationship built upon a mountain of beaten and broken, dead and dying, Red, Brown and Black bodies. Whiteness is nothing more, and nothing less, than conspicuous consumptive death.
So what, then, are we to make of whites proclaiming in a defiant tone that they will not feel guilty? What lurks in the subtext, what else might be felt toward whiteness – pride? Indeed: Strano’s project is to redeem and valorize whiteness, to foster pride in his favored white sub-identity as a resistance identity. Strano would reinterpret the history of white domination as the construction of a certain white victimhood; white workers are conceptualized as co-victims alongside the colonized of the more affluent whites because they have not profited quite as much as their settler peers. “White working class people” are “relatively powerless,” he writes; yet to the colonized, it is plain to whom they have been and are now relatively powerful. As Fanon put this point in response to a certain French progressive who wanted to argue that not all the settlers Algeria were actually colonizers, “in reality every Frenchman in Algeria maintains, with reference to the Algerian, relations that are based on force.”
Elsewhere we can see what affinities this praxis expresses. In an interview with the Hampton Institute, Strano stooped to an apologia for white racism: “The last thing a poor or working class redneck that is a paycheck away from being evicted from their rundown trailer wants to deal with is some upper or middle class college educated kid from the burbs talking down to them because they use an offensive word.” This is not just incorrect; this is dangerous. This employment of class positionality as identity politics ends in a tacit, and perhaps imagined to be “strategic,” refusal to confront working class racism. The usage of racial slurs, an overt act of racial violence, also signifies an entire ideology. (Strano doesn’t entertain the idea that naked and rank racism from white people might indicate a class stand.) This is yet another riff on the poisonous and eurocentric nonsense that calling out racism “divides the working class,” as if it wasn’t white supremacist workers who were the ones doing the dividing.
No emotional state can be reductively labeled as transformative or not. The contemporary doctrinal rejection of guilt as a reactionary response was not always common sense. Guilt might not make white liberal anti-racists, but, properly oriented, it might make something else. On the importance of cultivating “national shame,” something all the more relevant in an imperialist settler colony, Karl Marx wrote that
You look at me with a smile and ask: What is gained by that? No revolution is made out of shame. I reply: Shame is already revolution of a kind; shame is actually the victory of the French Revolution over the German patriotism that defeated it in 1813. Shame is a kind of anger which is turned inward. And if a whole nation really experienced a sense of shame, it would be like a lion, crouching ready to spring… in Germany even shame is not yet felt; on the contrary, these miserable people are still patriots.
Sartre echoed these same words in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth, in his appeal to colonizers to unite without compromise with the Algerian national liberation struggle: “Have the courage to read this book, for in the first place it will make you ashamed, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary sentiment…” Anger that is turned inward burns. It can consume. But it can be turned outward. Self-criticism is essential for one to truly change; making excuses is not. Hatred for the evil in one’s self can be welded into hatred for the evil in this world. To look at one’s self without illusions can open one’s eyes to the world as it is. To turn inward does not have to take the form of navel-gazing, self-pity, and inaction. It can forge a new practice, and perhaps a new soul.