In the past couple of years I’ve noticed that many caucasian people I’ve come in contact with are experiencing a growing discomfort with being white. Something within us feels a bit guilty, like we are the ones who have caused the world’s problems. We think of the Nazis, the British in India, slavery in the US, and remember all the times in history that white people have made non-white people’s lives miserable.
Authors Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp have so appropriately named this comfort “Great White Guilt” in their book Being White: Finding our Place in a Multiethnic World. This feeling makes us feel like somehow our ancestors were responsible for suffering in the world and that we today are responsible. We hear the voices from the from the outside world, and the more powerful feeling from within. Something that tells us that being white is not OK.
In my community, I spend time with a lot of non-white people, and the white people I do spend time with behave with some level of “brownness.” There are some people who I meet who it is so obvious they are trying to fit into a brown culture that they’ve totally lost themselves. And I don’t blame them, because it is very easy to. I lived in India for a number of years and there was a lot to pressure to “be Indian”. To dress Indian, to eat Indian, to walk Indian, to talk Indian. There was simply no other right way, and when nearly everyone in society corrects your “white behavior”, the pressures wear on you. Finally, you start to think less of yourself and question if being white is really OK. Then you feel that being who you are is wrong or shameful. Being white becomes not OK.
I’ve been told many times that I am a “white Indian.” I used to take this as a compliment as I had worked very hard to learn the Hindi language and adopt certain lifestyle changes in order to survive in India. They eventually became a part of me. Now when someone says that, it bothers me. Why?
There is a theory called the “Coconut Generation” where it has been said that some Indian American kids are “brown on the outside, white on the inside”. I find a growing trend of white people who somehow are striving for the opposite “white on the outside and brown on the inside.” Personally, I think it is a short-sighted and an awfully one dimensional way to look at a person or to view oneself.
Cross cultural change is good and important. We need to learn about each other’s lives. Adopt behaviors which come to us naturally, enjoy each other’s cultures and be comfortable in our own skin.
As we think about atrocities like slavery in the US, the British occupying India, and the holocaust, we have to consider that these atrocities were caused by white people who oppressed others out of fear because they were insecure in their own racial identity.
I’m writing this because I think that white people need to move past “Great White Guilt” and move into healthy reconciliation. There are lots of reminders and pressures in this world to make us feel guilty for bad things that white people have done in the past. We don’t have to deny this and disassociate completely. Realize that you can do your part in creating positive change in society, but don’t try to be someone else while doing it. Be yourself. Be white.
17 thoughts on “Why I’m OK Being White”
Brilliant article and oh so true! I lived in Indian villages for over two decades and completely embraced the Indian culture (which I still love and keep close). After returning to USA and reconnecting with some lost (good) American tendencies, I received comments from other white people in India, “Amazing how quickly you adopted to American culture again!” Which sounded like a smack in the face! However I don’t apologize, but accept who I am. Though, I still have some of that guilty feeling of being white. Oh and you forgot the invasion of America and abuse of all the native American Indians, that still comes into my memory quite often and makes me feel guilty. 😦
Eileen, Thanks for being real in your response. I really appreciate your thoughts as I know you grew up in India. Distinguishing reality of what good guilt and bad guilt is can be such a journey (like Fatima mentioned) it is not easy and I often find myself trying to define my feelings when I think about issues like the exportation of Native Amerixsns. I’m thankful for your comments and the community of ladies we have who are in similar circumstances.
Sorry exploitation. Not exportation. I’m on my phone.
“Cross cultural change is good and important.” i agree. concerning my race (which is primarily caucasian), i have never been ashamed of who i am. i understand history, and that i played no part in what you mentioned; all i can do is try to be a positive person and influence on those around me – today, tomorrow and the rest of my days on earth.
God bless you and your husband.
Indeed Shaun. If we all do our best in serving these around us, we are doing our part.
I have always been a white person surrounded by people of color. As a child it was by the demographics of my very multi-racial neighborhood and school. Later, it was because I converted to Islam and most people in my social life were/are people of color. I also lived abroad in S. Asia and the Middle East. Like you, I am also reflective on race and whiteness. To me, the most important part of understanding whiteness is not through a white guilt angle, but a white privilege-white supremacy angle. But many white people don’t like thinking about whiteness through the lense of white privilege because it makes us feel guilty, so the two issues can be intertwined. I see two types of white guilt, as well. There is the kind that makes white people feel that racism is something of the past and deny contemporary racial discrimination under and over arching global system of white supremacy. It makes us defensive and full of excuses about the ills of our past and present, especially about acknowledging the present. This type of white guilt is crippling to social progress—yet it is the most common type of white guilt and indeed the most common mainstream white reaction to any racial issues. The second type of white guilt is positive. It is an acceptance of the reality that whiteness brings privilege, and an acknowledgement of what white supremacy really means and how it crushes people of color across the globe. It is the feeling that, yes, slavery was horrible, yes, as an American and especially as a white person I STILL benefit from my country’s history of enslavement of blacks and the destruction of indigenous America (even if my entire white family came to the US AFTER slavery was abolished and even if I am Euro-Jewish, Italian, Irish, part Native-American, or other “ethnic” white). It is basically owning reality. And yep, any decent human being with half of a conscience would feel guilty for being connected to such things. But this type of white guilt doesn’t push us into defensiveness and denial, it pushes us into action—to criticize white privilege, acknowledge racism and deconstruct it, and to embrace people of color as true peers and equals. This is the position of the white ally. An ally with people of color against racism who is willing to give up white normativity and accept people of color as equals and superiors who can potentially be smarter/better/more valuable/or any other positive adjective that mainstream white society tries to not let people of color be (unless we are romanticizing them). This is a hard position because one is simultaneously wanting racism to truly end, but also living as a white person who benefits from whiteness…so not all people of color are welcoming to whites as allies. But no matter, it is not about pleasing other white people (who feel can very threatened by this ideology) or pleasing people of color (who based on every moment of past history and present history have absolutely no reason to trust or embrace white people even when we claim alliance). So it can be a lonely place. But it is about action. It is about speaking up and doing. It is about getting beyond the guilt.
About so-called “coconuts,” white supremacy dictates that the more ‘cultural capital’ you have with whiteness, the more successful you will be in US society. Belonging to Asian-American subculture and perhaps being perceived as a coconut has to do with a sink or swim assimilation…children of brown immigrants don’t choose cultural hybritidity like us whites can. They are born into it as minorities. As whites of a majority, we can turn our backs on hybridity, but brown people in this country are always living with it. So I think this is an unfair comparison to make between whites who embrace India and American born desis who “act white.” (And what does that really mean, especially since they are not white, so their way of being brown is a true way of being brown even if it has identifiable overlaps with mainstream whiteness in terms of lifestyle, manner of talking, patterns of thinking, and behavior…they are still brown.) There is no such thing as a coconut, really. This extends also across the globe…the more (superficially/commercially) Westernized you are, the better English you have, all of this is a marker of status in many countries…you know this very well as this is the case in S. Asia and is due to both the colonial era and to more modern forms of commercial colonialism, i.e. when “globalization” really means embracing a Westernized market. So you have brown/black “kala saheb,” coconut, or Burger. You can see where there are complex structures of compulsion pushing people into cultural hybridity.
With us, our intersections with S. Asian culture may can contain elements of compulsion (inlaws, desi community pressurizing us to adapt and adopt—and then they laugh at us when we become “too desi,” don’t they?). But there isn’t the same over-arching structure of white privilege and white supremacy that creates so called coconuts on us because, well, we ARE white, we are part of that global and national structure—that’s why white on the oustide, brown on the inside is unnerving. If we pick and choose from a desi cultural buffet, we can justify it with our whiteness. And if we turn our backs on it completely, that’s our privilege because we have whiteness to run back to. And if we come to a space at which we are comfortable, with our partially desi-fied selves, okay with our whiteness, but enjoying our desi embellishments that have become very much a part of us, that is fine, too—as long as we are real about what that all means.
Thanks for the thoughtful response. Embracing the desi embellishments is what it’s all about!
I will formulate a more thoughtful response later. I’m about to board a plane to Delhi.
A very thought provoking post. Being a white girl from the white suburbs of Arizona – who is now living in India (since 2003) I asked myself if I feel this kind of guilt. I can honesty say that I don’t ever feel guilty for being white. I feel guilty for being wealthy, having access to luxuries while children sleep hungry on the streets. But not because of my skin color. In fact you would think being white living amongst brown people – that would exaggerate the situation. But it is quite the opposite. I don’t really think about being white. I do identify with being American or Western. However, this part of my identity doesn’t carry any guilt. In my Indian neighboorhood I haven’t felt pressure to be “brown.” I have developed new parts of my identity that are very Indian. But I do not feel it is a win – lose situation. Becoming more Indian doesn’t mean I have to become less white. I can comfortably operate in different situations. Whatever crimes have been committed by white people – are not crimes I have committed. I think when we stop seeing ourselves as white and others as black or brown or yellow or red – we will have really achieved something.
Jill, thanks for your thoughts. I never really thought about being white until I moved to India and had people treat me radically different. While I like your idea of promoting global citizenship, I disagree that we should try to be colorblind. This was the language of the 1990s and it made little difference in promoting harmonious relationships between groups.
I think that unity in diversity is a much more crucial ideology to cling to…and with that we have to recognize and appreciate color and the culture that comes along with it. It’s a more difficult mentality to embrace because it requires not only respecting other cultures from a distance but learning and appreciating…. Which I think most all of us in the desk group have done. Kudos to you for embracing Indian life and all it’s idiosyncrasies. 🙂
We are speaking of acculturation on a micro scale here. Acculturation usually results in some kind of syncretism, and as many of us have experienced, that is exactly what has happened in our lives.
I think that the real tension lies between the individual experience of multiculturalism and the collective expectations of white people, regardless of who is placing those expectations. As Fatima said, white privilege is a reality of the world that we live in and we benefit from it whether we want to or not. So there are expectations from white people to act or think in certain ways and conform to particular stereotypes (the “why can’t you find a nice Catholic boy” issue). There are also expectations from a very racially-aware swath of society that we *do* shoulder the burden of white guilt – that somehow we pay for what white people have done in the past. That it is not appropriate for us to mix with different cultures because we would just want to take them over, as we have always done in the past — or even that we should not have the privilege of such mixing as punishment for what people have done in the past. But I think this line of thought only perpetuates the problem and continues to hold white people somehow apart and separate from everybody else, which was exactly what those people who started the “one drop” rule wanted in the first place
These expectations do not always line up with our experiences in a multicultural society, which most Americans do live and work in to some extent or another. We are surrounded with people who are not like us, and yet there is not the expectation that they should be like us, or that we should be like them. Some of us do have more contact with another culture than the one we were brought up in, whether that be because we married into it, have many friends of a different culture, converted to another faith, or moved to a different part of the country. There are also people who do indeed feel they have “no culture” and go looking to “find themselves” in some exotic culture, or to pick and choose from the visible elements of other cultures in order to feel a sense of identity. (The multiple subcultures in the US – , but groups such as goth, skater, hipster, country club – attest to this need for identity). However, this latter group is different because there is no tangible connection to the culture and therefore no need to integrate the “invisible” elements of the culture such as values and attitudes.
I think it starts with self-awareness: Who am I in this melting pot society? How do others perceive me? What kind of privileges do I have? What can I do to promote equality over privilege while still participating in society in the ways that make sense for my individual situation?
Very aptly put, Jessica. When we live in another culture, our own identities can easily get twisted. There’s self-centered pride, arrogance, or avoidance on one end of the spectrum and guilt, shame, and discomfort on the other. The most sensitive persons are on your end, and, I would say, these are the persons best able to profit from the experience.
While India may have the coconuts–inverted or not–this internal wrestling can hit any person living abroad. For example, any American living in Europe during the Kyoto Summit, the Iraq Invasion, or the elections of George W. Bush could easily fall into a guilt-ridden posture that nearly paralyzed. Having to fend off Germans’ critiques of US foreign policy, the Katrina debacle, or 45 million Americans without medical insurance, to name a few examples, was simply no picnic for me as I lived in Berlin the last decade.
This discomfort at least has the potential for a more mature attitude toward ones own identity. It looks like you, Jessica, have been able to truly gain from your time in India. Thanks for sharing your own personal experience. Your account strikes home with many of us and lends us support.
I just regret those who go abroad, never go through the self-questioning, and return home never the wiser.
Lucky Fatima’s comment made me laugh. Sounds like a stodgy old ex hippie professor’s lecture from a lefty, liberal college campus. Guilt? Naw. As sovereign individuals the only guilt we need to feel is when we purposefully do something to hurt another sovereign individual. I’ve never done that so I have nothing to feel guilty about so far.
I was once watching Jon Oliver in a stand up comic act where he described feeling guilty in 5 minutes of entering any museum in the world because the British Empire had done something terrible in every part of the world.
I on the other hand have a very different outlook. the British colonized India for 200 years and its been more than 60 years since they left. In these 3 centuries history has surely been screwed up.
As a conquering force, the British could never break the cultural backbone of India as it has happened to every culture that got invaded and conquered. Interestingly, India and its culture survived and then mutated.
It is ironic that Indians took to the English language and made it their own presently about 25 to 30 words in the Oxford dictionary are Hindi words. We Indians went one step further, we took the language and also the jobs and ended up being the biggest ethnic minority in US and UK.
I am guessing that most of it was done by food and our blend of spices. So if there is any guilt, I think Indians should be sharing some of it now.
My experience of white guilt is a bit different from the experience of other whites in this area, or so it seems, since it looks like most whites have had this guilt of being white while in India. But I have had this feeling simply having never traveled outside of North America. Ever since I was first interested in desi culture years ago, ever since I started speaking Urdu and Panjabi ( I speak both very well now) in my middle school days, I have always felt a little bit of this guilt, though I think it was more fear of playing the part of the “ugly American”, which made me increasingly put on desiness instead of blending in. I strove to become as desi as I could in a white household in rural Michigan, in a town with a slight desi population, and in some way I think, even as a college graduate, I have a fear of somebody telling me that I’m not desi, even though I speak Urdu and Panjabi without any type of accent, even though I have a desi accent that penetrates my English, even though I watch Hindi films, even though I’m planning on marrying a desi girl, etc. Maybe this is a bit odd, outlandish, but more than trying to become as brown as possible, I’ve also tried to eradicate any possibility of being the stereotypical “ugly American”, i.e., the ignorant, uninterested American whose obnoxiousness manifests itself through an unbending will and self-satisfaction at the expense of another person. I am wondering now if maybe, despite the virtues of being the exact opposite of the “ugly American”, despite the beauty I’ve seen in desi culture and the lifelong pursuit I have of it, if maybe this is a little unhealthy, now that it’s hard for me to relate to fellow Americans.