Let’s stop dissolving in our white-settler guilt.
White people have room to improve. To do that, we need to stop dissolving in our white-settler guilt.
While attending a Cancel Canada Day protest — an Indigenous-led demonstration in opposition to the settler-colonial state of so-called Canada— beneath high-rise buildings on unceded Skwxwú7mesh, səl̓ilwətaɁɬ, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territories (downtown Vancouver, BC), I noticed a common sign held by several other white protestors in the crowd. It read: “I understand that I will never understand, but here I stand.”
I’d seen this message before. In the weeks leading up to Cancel “Canada” Day, I’d attended protests responding to the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and more generally to the on-going murder of Black people at the hands of the police in the so-called United States. The same sign, “I understand that I will never understand, but here I stand,” was held high—albeit meekly—by white people in the crowd.
I understood the general meaning of the sign. It’s a recognition that, in our whiteness, we will never experience the lived traumas of being systemically oppressed and killed for being BIPOC; nevertheless, we stand in solidarity with those who lead us in rising up against the settler-colonial, white supremacist systems which perpetuate that violence. Honestly, at the time, “I understand that I will never understand,” resonated with me. But now I just see it as a cop out.
As fellow Medium writer Holiday Phillips wrote in her piece Performative Allyship is Deadly (Here’s What to Do Instead), “It’s critical to realize that if your allyship is performative, you are excusing yourself from engaging with the tough and messy conversations necessary to address the root causes.” By saying “I understand that I will never understand,” we are explicitly opting out of the conversation, and paralyzing ourselves in our own performative allyship.
Us socially aware (‘woke’) white people know that we will never truly feel the particular pains felt by BIPOC; we know that we can’t truly empathize. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity to gain the best understandings possible for what’s required of us.
We need to show up ready to fully engage with one another in order to form new systems of power that aren’t rooted in settler-colonialism and white supremacy. But before we show up to take part in constructing those systems—systems that aren’t designed solely by and for white people—we need to do some serious inner work.
By displaying or saying, “I understand that I will never understand,” there’s a part of us that clings to the guilt we carry for our white heritage. This guilt doesn’t help anyone, and it’s time to let it go.
Robin DiAngelo coined the term “White Fragility,” which she defines as the ‘lack of psychosocial stamina’ to actively confront the socio-political positions of our whiteness. In her essay, White Fragility, She asserts that, “white fragility doesn’t always manifest in overt ways; silence and withdrawal are also functions of fragility.” Here, DiAngelo’s language can help us better understand the statement “I understand that I will never understand,” as a covert expression of withdrawal. More-so, it’s a self-defense mechanism in the face of our whiteness being scrutinized.
Letting go of our self-defense mechanisms is an essential part of our inner work, because when we do show up, we can’t afford to project the burden of our white guilt onto our BIPOC friends, colleagues, and comrades.
Instead of saying “I understand that I will never understand,” we need to show up with the stamina necessary to internalize critical feedback, and then act accordingly without getting defensive or shutting down. We need to remain engaged in critical Discourse, and understand that it’s compassionate criticism through community involvement which will drive us towards improvement.
As our inner work will be reflective of the real, social impacts we make, de-centering ourselves as white people will be central to that work. Yet we must also dig deep within ourselves to draw focus on that which we need to let go of. Robin DiAngelo reminds us that “white racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden of interrupting it belongs to white people.” A key part of that interruption now is to let go of our white guilt, and take ownership of the racist systems which our ancestors have left us to dismantle.