From Brer Rabbit Redux:
by: Matthew Johnson
I was out once with a friend talking about oppression and societal injustice when she said she liked how I wasn’t a ‘guilty white man.’ This made me consider the difference between acting out of guilt, necessity, and solidarity. I believe these are the three main motivators for any sort of social justice or humanitarian work; they do not overlap because they depend greatly on the activist’s position in society and view of that society.
Guilt, in my mind, is the weakest of the three motivators. Guilt is ultimately selfish. It does not serve the needs of the victim but of the perpetrator. Let’s say my father used to be a Klansman, and I decided that once reaching adulthood and understanding the legacy I was inheriting that I would donate 15 percent of my salary to black charities. This would not be serving the true needs of the victims because I did not ask the victims what their needs were. I did not seek out the families that were directly harmed by my father, and I certainly didn’t engage in anti-racist work in my own family and larger community, which would prevent the rise of more Klansmen. I merely sent money to assuage my guilt.
Perhaps a more compelling example is progressive white supporters of President Obama. I can’t help but wonder if they really support his policies or if they are just too afraid, out of guilt, to criticize a black president. They might also be too afraid, out of insecurity, to criticize a man who is ultimately doing more for their community than he is for most blacks. But for the sake of argument, let’s just say that they do care about the larger black community in the United States. Is it not hypocrisy, perhaps even racism, to refuse to criticize a black man for pushing the same policies as his white, despised predecessor? Do they really think their reverence for a black man in the White House is going to make up for centuries of slavery, murder, rape, discrimination, imprisonment, and exploitation?
People who identity as oppressed — whether they be impoverished, of color, homosexual, or disabled — generally engage in so-called activism out of necessity. They are not in a position to simply don a business suit and join the ranks of the privileged. Many of these individuals did not have to learn about racism, classicism, sexism, or any other –ism in college; they experienced them firsthand. If they are to live healthy, safe, and equitable lives in the United States of America, they are obliged to organize or agitate in some way. They do not change causes the way people change clothes — as some white progressive-types do. They do not have this luxury.
Solidarity, I would argue, is the proper role of the privileged in relation to the oppressed or the underprivileged. This is not an easy concept to explain. It must be felt by the privileged person on a deeper level than guilt. The privileged person must understand that his personal suffering or forbearance ultimately means little to the underprivileged person’s liberation. The privileged person must understand that there is an oppressive system at work that manipulates the oppressed and the oppressor alike and that the liberation of one is irrevocably tied to the liberation of the other. We, as the privileged, must not attempt to simply reach out and pull our underprivileged brothers and sisters up to our level. This is not enough, for we must also jump down from our pedestals. We must ultimately join them in the middle, for it is self-evident that the underprivileged becoming “white,” or privileged themselves, is not the answer. It is privilege that continues to separate and alienate humanity rendering peace and justice impossible — not superficial or physical differences.