White guilt is a bummer. In my experience, it tends to bite you at the most unexpected moments. The other day a friend asked me if I had gone to see Triple 9 at the cinema. ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘I love Anthony Mackie.’ This accompanied by a demonstrative sigh and a hand pressed to my chest for emphasis (if I could have said #bae, I would have).
I felt weird about this exchange as soon as it was over. I’m not normally effusive about actors I like–and ‘like’ would certainly be a more accurate verb than ‘love’ to describe my feelings for Anthony Mackie, a black actor I find attractive and funny but whose work outside of Marvel I’m pretty unfamiliar with. White guilt whispered that mine was the exaggerated performance of a guilty racist.
Which sounds legitimate, except that Anthony Mackie really was the entire reason I went to see Triple 9. I searched every scene for him with a fangirl’s eagle-eyed attentiveness and disproportionate investment in his underdeveloped character. And looking back, I wondered how it was possible to feel guilty about an insincere display of enthusiasm when my enthusiasm had been so… well, sincere.
In the entry levels of Social Justice™, we tend to talk about racism as if its something straightforward, which is why we generally don’t address cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term for mental stress caused by holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and if you’re white and liberal and American in the year 2016, you’re basically guaranteed to suffer from it. Why? Well, on the one hand, you’ve unconsciously absorbed latent racist attitudes, just by virtue of growing up white in a country where legal segregation ended less than fifty years ago. On the other hand, you’ve been taught that racist is one of the worst things a human being can be.
Want proof? Take a look at any popular film about race. Hollywood tells us that true racists are loud, obvious, and irredeemable. They’re usually bitter, smug, or sadistic, even before you hear their views. And crucially, they’re almost always from another place (usually the rural South, a place Hollywood doesn’t seem to believe actually exists), or another class (racist because they’re ‘ignorant’), or another time (‘Grandma, you can’t talk like that anymore!’). The point is that racists are racist because they are a) fundamentally bad, and b) not us.
And this, Hollywood, is rich, because you can only hear so many sassy black women ‘you-go-girl’-ing their white girlfriends, magical old black men giving sage advice to gormless white protagonists, or comic black sidekicks screeching ‘Aw, hell no’ before you start to unconsciously absorb a few ideas. And yet in the same breath Hollywood insists that truly good people will always believe the right things, instinctively and without needing to be taught. So we can watch a film like 12 Years A Slave while reassuring ourselves us that in 1850 we too would have behaved like Brad Pitt’s Canadian Jesus and conveniently forget that Abraham Lincoln himself believed black people were biologically inferior and was disgusted by the very idea of integration (that’s true; look it up).
And while its disturbing to realize that even Saint Lincoln the Emancipator fell short of modern ‘non-racist white guy’ standards, it’s more disturbing to realize that back in his day those standards couldn’t even be found in most abolitionist circles. There’s nothing to reassure us that aren’t currently guilty of the same hypocrisy. And this is where cognitive dissonance comes in.
Clumsy metaphor time: imagine for a moment that your brain is hanging out in your skull, happily listening to Beyoncé (because who doesn’t love Beyoncé?), but in the distance it can also hear the distracting ‘untz-untz’ of subconscious racism. It’s a low, barely perceptible beat, growing increasingly frustrating, because your brain isn’t sure where it’s coming from or how to switch it off. So all it knows how to do is turn ‘Single Ladies’ up louder and louder until it drowns out the offending noise. This is your brain on cognitive dissonance. It results in what psychoanalysts call reactive love, which is basically the ‘I have black friends’ defense, except that it’s your subconscious defending you to yourself instead of to other people. It isn’t concealing or performing a feeling, but rather encouraging and cultivating one that will make you feel better about yourself.
And we can see this kind of reactive love surrounding the black celebrities white liberals have elevated to superhuman status: Obama, Oprah, Beyoncé (is it coincidence that these get single-name titles like religious figures?) It’s a love bordering on worship, and this is because reactive love is by its nature extravagant, compulsive, and inflexible. Unlike garden-variety love, it’s hard to dial down, keep to yourself, qualify, or adapt to changing circumstances. To be clear: whether or not this love is warranted is not the issue; the issue is how it makes white liberals feel about ourselves. One shouldn’t discount the importance of feeling good as a factor when I proudly claim Janelle Monáe can do no wrong, when I read Neil Degrasse Tyson’s tweets religiously, when I watch every film that has Queen Latifah in it, when I believe anything Morgan Freeman says, or when I say how much I love Anthony Mackie, compulsively, and without really meaning to.
These feelings are not insincere. Reactive love isn’t false love. It’s just not organic love. It’s fed by an anxious overeagerness to find black people lovable and, like a genetically engineered plant, its fruits are suspiciously excessive.
So what’s wrong with it? On the surface, nothing. But it does benefit the lover more than the beloved. For instance, white fans fell madly in love with Lupita Nyong’o and her perfect everything when she took home an Oscar and the ‘Most Beautiful Woman’ title two years ago. We derived obvious pleasure and inspiration from sharing her best red carpet looks, watching her funniest interviews, and basking in her general flawlessness. Yet ‘Queen Lupita’ has had exactly two film roles (one of which was motion capture) in the same length of time it took Hollywood to make everyone sick of Jennifer Lawrence and Benedict Cumberbatch by putting them in everything. You can’t eat love, as they say.
The other problem, perhaps more important, is that reactive love divorces black people from their blackness. Loving something can be like stamping your mark on it. ‘Scandal is my favorite show!’ you might cry, the word my bringing a sense of safety in proprietorship; Scandal, and by association Kerry Washington, are part of your identity, they are yours. ‘Nicki Minaj = Queen’, you might tweet, thereby casting yourself as one of her subjects; she is your Queen, she is for you. I personally have caught myself tagging pictures of Anthony Mackie’s Falcon as #futurehusband, which is every bit as gross and proprietary.
I think this might have been why white people, even proudly anti-racist white people, were blindsided by ‘Formation’; many of us had been operating under the unspoken assumption that because we loved her, Beyoncé’s music was as much for us as it was for black people, as though our love could strip her of her race and origins, as though the pedestal we put her on necessarily isolated her from her black fans and fellow black artists, as though her celebrity somehow automatically transcended race. That’s why ‘Formation’ was a slap in the face to a lot of white people. It felt like Beyoncé was rejecting our love, and she was, because it was conditional and hypocritical. White liberals can always react to something black (and therefore threatening) by loving it it until it is theirs (and therefore safe).
Why are anti-racist white liberals even threatened by blackness? Well, for one thing, blackness makes us feel white. Hands up who likes feeling white? Exactly nobody. In my experience, most white people would rather identify with anything other than our whiteness. In high school, I used to cite a complex history within Western Orientalism to argue that being Greek didn’t really count as being white (I’ve heard similar arguments made by Jewish and Italian people). And I’ve heard others respond to being called white with a defensive ‘But I’m gay, so…’ or ‘But I’m a woman, so…’ or ‘But I’m disabled, so…’ as though these identities could somehow cancel out the offending whiteness and, by association, the crushing white guilt that invariably accompanies it.
White guilt is a problem here, not a solution. And it sounds paradoxical, but if we are to tackle racism head on we need to learn how to be comfortable with being white, not because there’s nothing to be uncomfortable about but because our discomfort distorts things. It distorts the way we understand racism. It distorts the way we perceive ourselves. It distorts what we feel and how we express it. It helps no one.
If we are to let go of white guilt and white shame we need to own our whiteness. Of course, ‘own your whiteness’ as a phrase provokes reflexive revulsion, even in me as I write it. It summons up associations with white supremacy and neo-Nazism. Our knee-jerk reaction is rather a hysterical colorblindness, a refusal to see the whiteness in ourselves that makes us so uncomfortable. Our instinctive response to this discomfort is to try to prove that we are different, that we are not like ‘those’ white people, that we can transcend our race through love. That we are white, but. We are white, but we are sorry. We are white, but we know what it’s like to be oppressed. We are white, but we once took a seminar on African American literature. We are white, but Falcon is our favorite Avenger (#bae).
Yes, we all know on a rational level that no amount of cringing, apologizing, and ‘gee-I-feel-so-awful’-ing will change the fact that we are unfairly privileged, and yet we keep striving to live up to the Hollywood myth that good people are good not because they do good things but because they believe the right things. If only we could stop striving to achieve a mythical ‘non-racist’ identity, we could instead focus our energy on real counter-racist action. And if we accept that the truth doesn’t always make us feel good about ourselves, maybe we’ll be better equipped to recognize it when the time comes.