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Moving Past White Guilt

Posted May 19th, 2011 by cws_mcqu

My name is Bree Mead and I am a sixth year graduating senior from Novato, California. I have been here so long because I am double majoring. I have an Art History degree already completed with a focus in Mesoamerican Art Studies, along with a Spanish minor and I am just finishing up my Fine Arts degree with a focus in Printmaking. I have officially been a Community Relations Facilitator for OSU since early April 2011 and it has really altered my life. I have been reading on social justice and diversity and also attended the first ever Exploring White Identity in a Multicultural World Retreat (EWI), the sister to Racial Aikido for students of color. It is a retreat for white people to learn and understand their own white privilege and oppression. In addition, I recently completed the Building Inclusive Communities (BIC) workshop to better educate myself on oppression & privilege.

These emotional experiences have been the most valuable to me in my growth as a white person in this world we live in. Yet, also, it has been very challenging, as all things worthwhile are. A lot of emotions came up for me during the EWI that I wasn’t expecting. I know that one thing that gets me upset is when I do not feel understood. No one wants to feel that their behavior or thoughts are being perceived as racist. It was a group of strangers, minus two for me, and we were all there as white individuals to discuss the very touchy topic of racism and the subsequent topics from that.

Talking about racism is very difficult. Growing up, I was always morally taught to be nice to all and that everyone is created equal and should be treated so. You were either racist or not in my white-educated world. The toughest thing I’ve had to learn about so far in this CRF job was the fact that since I am white I am therefore a racist by default. This infuriated me; I was not a racist. I was friendly, thoughtful, and lazy at times, but never a racist.

However, once I learned the actual definition of the word, I was able to process the reality of it more rationally. The system of America is set up by and to benefit white people, therefore I have the institutional power to oppress another human based upon race whether intentionally or not. Even though I am not intentionally or consciously reinforcing racism, I am taking part in a system and therefore subconsciously doing so. This in fold benefits me and disadvantages African Americans, Native Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders etc. Even a few weeks ago I would have just typed, “and disadvantaged those who aren’t white.” That would’ve been incorrect because it just perpetuates the thought that the dominant “race” is white and everyone else is part of the “other” group. That is a racist way of organizing my thoughts, and it was subconscious!

I feel that as a white person who has grown up being taught and believing that you treat every single person as an equal, the day you become aware of the fact that you do subconsciously think and act in racist ways, is devastatingly filled with guilt. I have learned that even the mere act of saying hello to someone can be racist. In the movie Spinning Into Butter, a young black college student at a predominantly white campus, Simon Baker, spoke of his feelings of his white professors. Simon hated that he felt singled out by his professors because he was black. He felt that they only stopped and said hi to him on campus outside of class because he was black, that they felt obligated to be nice, while they never stopped and said hi to any of their white students. This really made me think. Then the next day I was walking to work and noticed a black man sitting on some approaching steps with his bicycle. When I walked by I said, “Hello.” While these few second of noticing him, exchanging hellos and passing by him occurred, Simon’s words and feelings spiraled in my head.

Instead of being overwhelmed with guilt after this event, I realize that these analytical thoughts are very important to have. I believe that EWI helped create a safe and cooperative environment to begin this journey of self-reflection. Before this retreat, I allowed white guilt to eat me up. I would also feel anxious, always worrying if a person of color would see me as a racist. Yet a facilitator said a great thing to me, “Why should you be worried about something that you should know you are already going to be seen as?” If someone is emotionally on the defense about an issue such as this, it could disable him or her from learning something else. When I catch myself subconsciously or, horribly enough, consciously thinking or doing something racist, now I do not let myself feel the white guilt, but rather scold myself and push myself to see things differently. I know the root of these thoughts and behaviors is through socialization and I believe this is a life long journey to undo it. I know that this job as a CRF has pushed me into a now better-educated point of view on racism and my role in it and I am grateful for that. I do not want to continue to live in a world of complete white ignorance. However, I understand why some would want to.

When I got home from the weekend-long EWI retreat, I called my parents. I hadn’t spoken to them all weekend due to lack of cell service at our location.  At the retreat, we were told that we should practice discussing topics of racism with people whom we could feel safe with. I must say, it was difficult because at the end of our conversation, my father got defensive saying that he feared for me going around and telling white people that they were racist and being received by angry people. I told him that he raised me right and that I wasn’t going to go around talking to every human about this. If it came up in a situation and I felt safe, I would address it, though.

His fearful reaction for my safety made me feel angry and misunderstood. I felt like my parents supported me and listened to what I had to say but they were not interested to either learn about it on their own or pursue it more with me. It just wasn’t of interest to them.  Talking about racism is a difficult thing with other white people because it is such an unpleasant topic. But that is something that I am privileged with, along with my parents. If I don’t want to talk about race issues, I don’t have to. However, there are other humans out there in the world who are constantly dealing with it. To merely just for even one minute imagine it for my life, it is exhaustingly depressive.

Since I felt misunderstood after my conversation with my father and with the experience at the EWI retreat (it is difficult when people are at different stages in their journeys), I honestly feel hesitant to discuss this with other white people, what I am learning about our world and myself. I don’t want to damage relationships I have with people but I can’t live amongst people who think it is uninteresting or unimportant to discuss the privileges we were given as white people and how that privilege affects all humans.

Yet I would love to discuss with someone else the question of, “Why did I say hello to the black man?” Was I just saying it out of politeness that I show to all or because I noticed he was black and I felt awkward? If I didn’t say hello wouldn’t that be rude? Would he think I was a racist? So I should say hello because it is the polite thing to do and I wouldn’t be seen as a racist. The fact that I had this thought process storming from a simple hello is racist and also in my mind ridiculous.

At the EWI retreat, I found the idea and act of emotionally exposing myself to the group through the topic of racism to be extremely uneasy. However, when I pushed myself to open up about emotional topics within my small group, tears came from topics I thought had been long addressed. It felt good to express my thoughts and experiences involving my own privilege and racist acts that we have thought or done. I believe I can never truly eradicate all the subconsciously racist thoughts or actions I will do in my life, yet through talking about it with other open individuals, I can better understand and learn from others and myself on how to be a better me, guilt free.

Bree Mead

Community Relations Facilitator-Southside Residence Halls
The comments shared by the Community Relations Facilitator program are strictly the point of view from the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of UHDS. If this article has inspired a desire to dialogue, the author, or another CRF and/or any Resident Assistant, Resident Director or CoOp Director would be happy to participate. Please contact Nina Gassoway ( to assist in making arrangements.

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