Dear White People: If You Really Want Change, Stop “Feeling Uncomfortable”.
Regarding America and race, it’s fair to say that we are living in a time of long-overdue upheaval. In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of four cops, it seems that all of America has finally awakened to the reality of deeply problematic racial issues.
We need to address these issues, and for the first time, it looks like we may have the will and perspective to do so.
Which is why I reject the idea that we white people need to “be uncomfortable”. To “sit in it” (our racism and privilege).
We live in a culture that is surprisingly comfortable with prescribing to other people what they need to do. Repeatedly, I’ve been told (particularly online, and particularly by my white friends) that it is my duty to stew in discomfort for my part in racial inequality.
This idea has taken form in lots of recent books, but it is neatly summed up in this essay which has been shared by several of my white friends. “I don’t want you to feel at ease,” writes Kandise Le Blanc. “I don’t want to vindicate your white guilt. It’s yours to reconcile.”
I’m not going to debate the idea of “white guilt”. I’m not interested in whether all of us white people bear some responsibility for racial inequality. In fact, let’s assume we do.
What I question is the productiveness of feeling bad about it.
Recently, an online friend of an online friend (a woman who knows nothing about me except what can be gleaned from a profile picture) instructed me to “feel uncomfortable”, and then to seek out some black voices to educate myself.
The thing is, I actually began “educating myself” by listening to black voices long, long before the tragedy of George Floyd.
Two decades ago, I started reading books like the biographies of Frederick Douglas and Malcolm X. I sought to learn about the experience of people who were much different than me.
I wanted to understand the world beyond my own experience.
Strangely enough, as I listened to those voices and observed their experiences, I never felt any of the self-focused discomfort that is being prescribed today.
Even stranger, I didn’t sense that the black voices of decades past wanted me to feel that.
What I felt– and what I sense that they desired– was anger. And responsibility. Not the responsibility to feel bad about being white, but the responsibility to use my skills, voice, and yes, privilege, to affect change.
For me, that meant writing stories. Stories like “The Nightmare Pearl” that features a young black girl living in hiding from a justice system that she knows won’t be fair to her– and the confused white friend who has never had to fear a cop or distrust authority.
Stories like the one in my final game, Dream Revenant, in which a 60’s era white man must adjust to the death of his young black friend at the hands of the KKK– a death he eventually learns was caused by his own Klansman father.
I wrote these stories because unlike preaching to each other on social media, stories bypass all of our filters. Stories construct empathy. They erode ingrained prejudices.
I wrote these stories to help us all explore the complex relationship we have with racial injustice in America. To foster sober understanding and build bridges of empowerment.
I don’t have a LOT of influence. My stories and games haven’t changed the world. But it was what I could do. It was– and continues to be– my responsibility to use my voice, my skills, and whatever limited influence I have to make whatever limited difference I can.
But here’s the thing: If my response to learning about racism had been to stew in my own white guilt, to “feel uncomfortable”, to “sit in it”, I never would have written those stories. I never would have progressed to proactive responsibility. I never would have used what I have to do what I can.
It’s anger that empowers me to try to make a difference. Anger, and a sense of deep injustice– that things are not as they are supposed to be– that fuels me to use my privilege and influence to act.
Shame doesn’t empower to action. Nor white guilt. Nor stewing in self-flagellation for being white.
Honestly, isn’t “feeling uncomfortable” just a form of perverted self-righteousness? Isn’t it another way white people can make it all about themselves?
C. S. Lewis said that true humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.
White guilt is unproductive because it’s just another form of thinking about ourselves.
It’s time we white people thought of ourselves less.
That’s real humility. And this is very much a time for humility.
On the other hand:
If you are a white person who resents the idea that you should learn about the black experience in America, maybe you do need to get past your own pride and self-centeredness. If that makes you uncomfortable, then perhaps you should feel that and get through it.
If you are a white person who bristles at the idea of responsibility in terms of racism– if that idea makes you feel uncomfortable (and therefore angry)– then I suppose it does behoove you to feel that and get past it.
Because responsibility, in this instance, isn’t necessarily the same as blame. Responsibility is empowerment. It means that you have the position and influence to make a difference.
And thus the responsibility to do so.
And if you are a white person who experiences the lazy racism of callousness toward the voice of black protest, then I suppose it will require some pain and discomfort to break out of that selfish inertia, to face the reality that not everyone’s experience is your own.
Some white people, then, do need to wade through their discomfort with the reality of racism in America. Some white people may even need to atone for some injustice and hate they themselves have spread, or their families.
The problem with telling ALL white people that they need to “feel discomfort” is simple: the white people who need to feel it won’t (because it’s too broad a brush), and the white people who could be empowered to act will be too busy self-flagellating (on behalf of the white people in the first category).
I want to see us, as individuals and a nation, confront the history and reality of racial injustice and systemic racism in our country. I want to see us empowered to take action to undo that injustice, and be a better people.
And that is why I wish we’d stop telling all white people to stew in self-centered discomfort, to hide away under the rock of white guilt.
For a lot of us, we need to be doing, not feeling. We need to be thinking about ourselves less, not less of ourselves.
That’s how change will happen. And change needs to happen.