Making the Creative Leap from White Guilt to White Responsibility

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere

Are you brave enough to do what Dr. Robin DiAngelo is asking of us? Can you choose to be brave, in a way America doesn’t necessarily value as brave. She is not asking us to “conquer” the “other”ing part of ourselves; no aggression. Like Dr. King, she is requesting we entertain all societal outcomes and our most basic daily decisions are linked.


[Note: This is the second article in a three-part series centered around the ideas contained in Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s new book, White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. For the first installment, please follow this link: Completely Rethinking . . .]


Inside the Horatio Alger-driven myth of American society we tell ourselves over and over again, business and crime are the result of our individual interactions. As individuals, our choices influence what happens in our lives, neighborhoods and cities. If we are good people, we reason, those around us will treat us in kind. Otherwise, if we choose to act disagreeable, we expect the experience at the post office, grocery store and police station to reflect that attitude.


The Rule in Dr. King America

As a sociologist, sharing facts which do not reveal the reflection of our stated values, Dr. DiAngelo is asking us to enter discomfort and entertain the idea that the inequality witnessed on the evening news is not coincidental. It isn’t all the working out of market forces, or the self-interested choices of the masses. American society is so structured European-presenting persons receive benefits at the expense of non-European-presenting persons.


Thanks to the 13 years America spent under the guidance of Dr. King, this analysis generates a tremendous emotional charge within (so-called) White people. The Civil Rights Movement exposed the living reality of domestic terror experienced by (so-called) Black America. It stigmatized racial-based prejudice and caste reinforcing behavior among Generation X White America. The Eyes on the Prize documentary, which does little more than string together newsreels and personal accounts of events, shows racist persons and racist acts as depraved.


As an individual, to be labeled a racist is a judgment permitting ostracization. Isn’t this what the Republican leadership is complaining of? For having a different opinion than what is politically correct – translate, for being labeled a racist – young women find themselves refused service by an uber drivers, the Trump Administration’s officials are being harassed out of restaurants and their staffers are finding it difficult to date as soon as they reveal their employment. These real world consequences for holding “white supremacist” views forces many who need to process their lived experiences to suppress them.


The brave among us make the choice to have the difficult conversation before crisis forces our hand. Let’s call those persons outliers. American history is littered with them, like Dr. King. In each generation, some Americans choose to join those occupying the right side of the bell curve, scurrying furiously towards the light beaming on new terrain inside our collective psyche. The issue isn’t history. The issue is helping most of us learning that we are brave and one of those outliers.


A Perfected Example

On Saturday, September 22, 2018, Orion Bradshaw self-selected to learn how to have the most difficult conversation of our lifetime. All summer Southern Oregon’s Racial Equity Coalition (REC) prepped the new iteration of its Race Conversation Tool Kit. Two years ago, in response to the angst displayed by those attending REC events concerning how to visit family over the holidays and not fight over racially charged statements, the Tool Kit was born.


An organization grown in Southern Oregon to pioneer a pathway out of false social constructs


Orion fits the profile of the readership Dr. DiAngelo seeks to cultivate. He is a privileged white male. For those who critique American society, whether Orion agrees with them or not, he sits at the top of the social pyramid; the game is rigged for him to win. Even after fifty years of Dr. King’s dream being the highly marketed ideal, the research Dr. DiAngelo reveals that America remains primarily a White Man’s World.


Last year, Dr. DiAngelo and Victoria Santos co-facilitated a equity, diversity and inclusion training Bradshaw, an actor, attended associated with Seattle Repretory Theatre. Bradshaw’s partner, a woman of color, shared the experience.


At 33, Bradshaw is on the cusp of being a millennial, meaning he shares in the progressive view of a Barack Obama presidency. The worldview of social justice, as America’s influence declines inspires him to explore the edges. It comes with its own risks.


I am a descendant of the pilgrims and Robert E. Lee,” Bradshaw said. “Nifty factoids to talk about in grade school, but a source of great personal shame, resentment— but also power— now. But, as we know, great power brings great responsibility, and burden. Now, what to (proactively and critically) do with these feelings?”


He continues, presenting a real word example of those feelings arising. “I see General Lee’s likeness in the grand wizard’s office in the film, ‘BlacKKKlansman’ and I am slashed. I see photos or hear stories of these atrocities from our US past, specifically as it pertains to the senseless killing and bondage of so very many black, brown, red and yellow people— and I feel like I had a hand in it sometimes. I feel like I was there. Guilt stemming from those images.”


A Moment of Truth

Inside the training, I watched as Bradshaw felt guilt and named it in group. The emotion arose after watching a three minute video reminding us of America’s relationship to lynching.


His response landed heavy in me. It was so pre-programmed. And, I possess enough compassion to know that Bradshaw did not know he was socialized to feel guilty for a time period he did not live through. However, I held my peace until break time. Then, I confronted him.


“You challenged me on the specific use of that word: Guilt,” Bradshaw said. “You said, ‘Why ‘guilt’? You weren’t there. Why feel guilty? Maybe there’s a more appropriate word to use instead.’ I paraphrase here, of course; apologies.


“At first, for a moment, I feel a bit defensive. But a challenge is certainly not a negative thing. So, I sit with it. I spin it around for a while. I try to accept the challenge. So, the next morning, I think of ‘responsibility.’ What does that do? Does it keep me moving forward more? Maybe it does. I think guilt has a tendency to keep one in place, static, too defeated to move – or make one not allowed to move, imprisoned. Or, it causes one to run away; to flee the issue. But responsibility stirs one’s forward actions, and it is far less unselfish. A much wider array of proactive verbs are possible here.”


Yes! For someone crashing into the realization that persons of color do not share his socialization and agree to view him as an individual separate from all other white persons, Bradshaw’s creative leap is admirable. It is exactly what we in social justice circles are begging for.


In “confronting” Bradshaw, he is unaware of my emotional currents. I am swimming eight feet deep in taboo waters. His social position is so great, if he chooses to not continue the engagment, or worse, punish me for choosing to bring it up in the first place, there is little recourse offered to me. I have to yield and adopt his position to (survive) close the encounter.


Dr. DiAngelo illustrates this point. “White fragility functions as a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me – no matter how diplomatically you try to do so – that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again. . . . Let me be clear that the term ‘white fragility’ is intended to describe a very specific white phenomenon. White fragility is much more than mere defensiveness or whining. It may be conceptualized as the sociology of dominance: an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain and reproduce white supremacy. . . . In my workshops, I often ask people of color, ‘How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism? How often has that gone well for you?’ Eye-rolling, head-shaking, and outright laughter follow, along with the conscious of rarely, if ever. I then ask, ‘What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change the behavior?’ Recently a man of color signed and said, ‘It would be revolutionary’” (DiAngelo 112 – 113)


And, if I may say so, it was revolutionary; it was.

Orion Bradshaw is in graduate school at Southern Oregon University for Education.


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