White Guilt as Ritual, Not Praxis

When aesthetics are king, white people can lose sight of what truly matters midst overwhelming injustice.

As a byproduct of our kind craving rapport, guilt is one of the most debilitating feelings any single individual can experience–as such, it is easily weaponized against those who see from it hardly any escape.

Relatedly intriguing has been the phenomenon of seeking personal accountability for systemic issues on social media on behalf of victims of prejudice–the posts often lay an unspoken path of redemption for those who wish to seek it, with gestures that can be at best marginally beneficial, and at worst completely useless.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence on the internet–since it has come to consume more of our daily lives, we are so enmeshed in its machinations that any challenges to its tangibility become moot. I’d be remiss to regurgitate the old line of “social media isn’t real life”–we’re at the point where the two have become largely synonymous; but to imply that the enactment of very simple solutions on an individual scale might bring about the downfall of systemic injustices is wishful thinking at its finest.

You’ve seen what the posts advocate for–whether it’s calling the reception offices of corrupt bodies of legislature in the faint hope of democratic accountability, donating measly amounts of money to a cause that needs orders of magnitude more for it to be realized, hanging signs outside in a community where the consensus of social views has largely been established, and much else in the same inconsequential vein. There’s the distinct feeling that social media’s brigade of makeshift priests seek little to absolve their subjects of guilt, instead compelling them to come back for more when another round of incremental change is yet on the docket.

The comparison with prevailing repentance doctrines in Abrahamic faiths can hardly be resisted–through no suggestion of this being an exogenous, irresistible force that compels all to cower in shame when confronted with their ills, there’s an entire industry designed around exploiting people’s worry of being put on the backfoot of a moral dilemma. White people have especially become masters at this–they keep nudging each other in directions that may seem beneficial to victims of systemic oppression, but these gestures end up more-often-than-not being a mere way to signal virtue. “I’ve done which I’ve perceived most others in my identity group to have not, henceforth I am in some nebulous sense better as a human being”, the internal script plays out–this wouldn’t unsettle me much if it was in service of material improvement for marginalized communities, but it often ends up running counter to it by taking precious airtime away from opportunities where real solutions can be suggested and advocated for.

There’s always this frustration that the marginalized relate to all-too-greatly, which is to see ideas and philosophies pushed for on our behalf that we don’t think are at all productive or useful for our current predicaments–there is little way given for consulting of the aggrieved party on what would alleviate their pain; instead solutions are rushed to on the premise of imparting upon some kind of inaccessible wisdom that only outsiders may truly grasp. This has already proven to be a recipe for guaranteed failure in more significant geopolitical conflicts, but the dynamic plays out just as potently in intracommunitarian relations–simply put, white people’s impulse to chime in with remedies no one asked for may not actually not only help, but it may also further exacerbate the very problems it seeks to solve.

The obsession with atoning for one’s generational sins is a subject of morbid fascination for me–not only because those who push for it rarely advocate what it is nearly necessary to right past wrongs, but they’ll often do so in an aesthetic that fits their intellectual forefathers’ conception of repentance. Most-resonant has been the barrage of infographics on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook on the heels of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the police last summer–while advocacy did have its cumulative effect in changing minds about police brutality and the simple notion that Black people are thought of as lesser-than, it wasn’t until Derek Chauvin—the officer who murdered Floyd–was found guilty of his crime that any modicum of justice was delivered. Despite all, political leaders were quick to dub it a token of change even in the context of a life gone, never to return.

Part of what makes it difficult to establish a free and open transactional lane on ideas that effectively tackle our current troubles is the reticence for all to actually be earnest and upfront about what they actually want. Some in marginalized communities have all but refrained from making bold-mouthed material demands to uplift their livelihoods, only using a grave calamity—like a mass shooting—as pretext to advocating for such; and white people keep couching their solidarity claims in metaphors and euphemisms so deep, that the truth of them can no longer be ascertained. Is it reparations for the legacy of colonialism that are sought, or do you wish to simply sleep better at night? A primary feature of our modern discourse is our inability to clearly express what it is exactly we mean–we just keep guessing and dancing around each others’ claims in the fruitless quest to finally grasp at their essence.

Capitalism’s tendency to empower a rugged individualism may be partly to blame, but it says much about the phenomenon that while its primary objective is to affect collective positive change, it comes from a largely-personal impulse to see one’s worries assuaged even though the issues raised may remain unaddressed. It’s a desire to get all the adulation for activism without it manifesting in any meaningful political praxis–it’s like Superman wearing his superhero get-up around Metropolis and expecting people to be merely astounded at the thought of a man taking flight just as alien threats remain abound. There’s a hollowness to it that feels distinct, and it’s all-the-more annoying that many who are incapacitated by guilt and oft-express their desire to free themselves from it don’t quite recognize it.