When I was about 10, on return home from church I ate a peach, the juice of which dribbled down my new pink frock. I scuttled to my room to change, bunching the dress under the bed. I emerged the picture of innocence, but I felt guilty. For weeks, the garment pulsed with accusation. Going to sleep, I always knew it was there.
Sure enough, my mother discovered the wad while vacuuming, and she was furious. She could have scrubbed out the juice had I told her about it right away. To this day, I’m mindful that you can only expunge stains while they’re still fresh — and somewhere in there lurks a metaphor.
I’m not prone to remembering the ingestion of individual pieces of fruit. That small memory looms as a touchstone for the experience of culpability. I’d not acted responsibly, and I’d compounded my malfeasance with concealment. When called out, I hung my head with nothing to say for myself. The last thing I felt inclined to do was to tear outside and advertise to the whole neighborhood that I’d been a bad little girl.
Though the concept of collective ‘white guilt’ has been with us since at least the 1960s, it’s seen quite the fashionable resurgence in the wake of the George Floyd protests last month. As universities, businesses and celebrities fall all over themselves to banner their racial blameworthiness, pale-faced mea culpas gather into a deafening chorus.
The issues are two. First, one of this column’s running themes: emotional fraudulence. Clarion declarations of moral dereliction do not have the texture of guilt. They are prideful. They have the texture of preening. Elaborate racial apologies are a form of showing off. When last month the actress Jenny Slate resigned from the animated Netflix show Big Mouth because voicing a half-black character was ‘an example of white privilege’ and ‘an act of erasure of black people’ within ‘a system of societal white supremacy’, she wasn’t making a career sacrifice, but bidding for elevated status.
Bet it works, too. Bet the lady isn’t short of work for long. FYI, a backhanded boast of my own: my latest novel anticipates white audiobook readers and voice-over artists being forbidden the ‘mimicry’ of speaking as non-white characters. The prescience is depressing.
We’re witnessing the spectacle of white people frantically competing with other white people over who can appear more self-excoriating, more self-loathing. But these people don’t hate themselves. They hate other people — mythical other people, for the most part, all those terrible racist white folks to whom they can feel vastly superior. Now that ‘white silence = violence’, they can also feel superior to regular going-about-their-business white people who haven’t managed to get prostrate pronouncements of self-disgust on BuzzFeed.
These confessions are also defensive. They’re diversionary, and an attempt to opt out. They translate as: ‘You don’t want to come for us! We’re on your side! We’re allies! We’re the nice white people, and because there’s no such thing as nice white people, that means we’re not really white after all! So you don’t want to burn down our premises, right? You want to go for those horrible white people, over there! Here, take some petrol and matches, on us! And we won’t call the cops, honest!’
Yet ask Adam Rapoport, forced to resign as editor of Bon Appétit over an ancient ‘brown face’. The opt-out doesn’t work. You get cancelled anyway, when your unseemly Black Lives Matter groveling is deemed insufficiently pious.
Proper guilt feels bad. Its emotional cousin, shame, feels even worse. Whenever I leaked a bit because I didn’t want to come in from playing outside, my mother forced me to wash out my panties by hand in the sink, in front of my brothers. Behold: shame. Adult examples of shame in my life I’d be reluctant to share here. Shame is soul-destroying, the stuff of suicide. You don’t parade shame in public; you’re unlikely to leave the house. So none of last month’s white protesters was ashamed.
Issue two: We’re in danger of installing heritable guilt as morally valid. Now that we’re to embrace the concept of an ineradicable ‘systemic racism’ while employees take mandatory courses on ‘unconscious bias’, bigotry is no longer a sin we choose or refuse to perpetuate, but a stain handed down through the generations that’s just as indelible as the peach juice on my pink dress. Is this what we want? Really? Will we stick modern Mongolians with the rampages of Genghis Khan? Hold some 19-year-old Muscovite today responsible for Stalin’s gulags? Force Germans to keep expiating their little hearts out over the second world war in the year 3000?
Maybe we should enlarge the lens. Frankly, I’m weary of the whole category ‘white people’, which throws folks of wildly different backgrounds, from Russians to Jews to Scots, into one big indiscriminate pot. So let’s talk about people, full stop. As a species, we’ve been treating each other like shit from the year dot. The horrors to which we’ve subjected one another, including slavery but a great deal else, are so incomprehensibly dreadful that no one, as an individual, could conceivably bear the crushing weight of all that torture, mass murder and sadism. If guilt is inherited, then every last one of us should be condemned to Dante’s nine circles of hell.
None of us chose the world in which we emerged. We didn’t pick our race, sex or natal nationality; any inbuilt leg-up or disadvantage these traits conferred at birth was not of our making. We didn’t select which awful history soaks the ground at our feet. It’s insensible to feel ‘guilty’ or ‘ashamed’ about something you didn’t do. It’s entirely sensible to feel regret, sorrow and abhorrence about the likes of slavery. It’s commendable to be informed about the past and to try to understand the nature of its wretchedness, as it’s also commendable to strain to leave the world a little better than you found it. But claiming that what happened before you were born is all your fault is not only ridiculous. It’s vain.