We Have to Talk About White Guilt

Angelo Franco




We’re at a point at which America’s race problem is at the center point of every conversation about this country’s history, present, and future. As paradigms shift and blurred lines become more defined, we’re trying to figure out how to do the work necessary to move progressive and anti-racist ideals forward, including by white people coming into the fold. But sometimes, the implementation of this is more performative than actionable, and it’s oftentimes driven by white people’s desire to appear woke. In other words, this doesn’t come from an informed, thought-out process, but is instead compelled by reactionary performance that stems from white guilt.


White guilt is pretty easy to define because it’s exactly what it sounds like: It’s white people feeling guilty about being white. It’s in the concepts and applications of white guilt that things get tricky because just like racism, white guilt can also exist in many forms. At its most basic, of course, it’s the guilt someone feels when they do or say something they know is racist, harmful, or biased (see Amy Cooper of Central Park birdwatching infamy).


But it can also be the guilt a white person feels when confronted with their own knowledge that conflicts with their ideals of white exceptionalism (see Rick Santorum and his dismissal of Native American everything). It can be the guilt a white person feels when they try so hard to not be racists, but the world insists on being a racist place (see this illuminating letter to the editor and its equally illuminating lukewarm responses). And it can also be the uncontrollable desire a white person has to show how woke they are that they lack the foresight of how their performative actions can harm their cause (see every attempt made by the woke Twitterverse to unmask some liberal/leftist personality as some kind of secret racist).


The Rick Santorum gaffe is interesting because there may be more instances of white ineptitude being swept under the rug for the sake of white shame than we imagine. And it makes sense, of course. Admitting that white exceptionalism is not a thing means confronting the reality of the violence that was brought upon people of color throughout history for their exploitation. It’s the obtuse narratives of “Native Americans were already killing each other off anyway, the land would have gone to waste” or “Africa was devoid of culture and architecture and infrastructure before we got there” that faux white exceptionalism loves to cling to, even though they are just not true. This is why school districts teaching critical race theory are in danger of being defunded now, claiming that these topics are divisive, when in truth, they are filling the void of blissful ignorance that exists for the sake of white shame.


Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, we have the white folks who are trying to get woke. They follow the right content creators, they try to vote blue (whatever that means nowadays), and they repost some atrocity with a caption like “Why is no one talking about this?” or some equivalent thereof on their social media platform of choice. They pick up the must-read books - likely Bad Feminist or So You Want to Talk About Race or How to Be an Antiracist or Amerikanah for a splash of literary fiction they can actually propose to their book club. Sometimes they will go to a march or share a link to a GoFundMe for a victim of racial bias.


And, you know, they mostly try. But this can be hard. Really, it can be. Not being racist is easy: literally, just don't be a racist. But being anti-racist takes work, and it’s work that is not always easy or even beneficial to oneself. And there’s so much happening all the time, and everyone’s needs are different. Check on your Asian friends - don’t burden your Asian friends; go to marches - don’t take up too much space in marches; speak up - know when to shut up and just listen; at least share information if you can’t do nothing else - don’t just engage in “slacktivism”-- get up and do something. 



It’s a lot, and it’s confusing. Having to check our biases constantly and actively, figuring out how to dismantle entire systems, reshaping our hiring practices, embracing school districts rezoning to desegregate our classrooms, etcetera upon etcetera. It’s hard work. But at some point, we also just have to take a seat and really think about how performative activism can actually hinder the cause, at best do little else than provide an invisible pat on the back with nothing to show for it, and at worst, actually hurt the BIPOC we’re all trying to support.


Here's an example:

There’s a Black, queer performance activist based in New York City who goes by the name of “Crackhead Barney and Friends” on social media. Activism can take many forms and can look like many things; it can also be something that is incredibly personal and thus can oftentimes be seen as offensive to others. All that is to say that for some, Crackhead Barney’s choice of activism can perhaps be an acquired taste. She’s brilliant. Her activism is the epitome of satire, she’s crass, loud, incredibly funny, and fiercely brave. She was actually on the ground covering the January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol as it unfurled, during which she even interviewed the now-infamous QAnon horned shaman. Her skits are completely unscripted, which sometimes leads to dangerous and unsavory situations, and she has been arrested several times.


Crackhead Barney was recently arrested again while attending an anti-vax march to do what she does best: troll them and break everyone’s brains a little bit. Walter Masterson, a fellow activist with a sizable following in Instagram and (at the time) on Tik Tok who had also attended the anti-vax march as a counter-protestor, then began filming their day-long journey to try to get Crackhead Barney released from jail, including livestreaming some of the process, from the moment of her arrest through her release. Sometime in the midst of all this, his Tik Tok followers decided that Masterson and Crackhead Barney were partaking in something incredibly racist, so they reported his account to Tik Tok, which then took down and banned Masterson’s videos for violating the site’s term and conditions.


The offending action: Crackhead Barney was wearing blackface.


To reiterate, Crackhead Barney is a Black woman. And in her performance activism, she makes use of satire to highlight the ridiculousness of the issues she tackles. But it seems that Masterson’s followers, who are mostly made up of white liberals and progressives, took issue with her use of blackface. To his credit, Masterson, who is white, was quick to point out the hypocrisy of the “woke mob.”


This is a specific example within a microcosm of local political activism, but it helps exemplify several issues with white guilt and the desire it creates to be seen as woke.



One is the passive consumption of activism. To be clear, there can be real power in online activism, in the dissemination of information, and in the awareness of an injustice that you learn about from social media. But what we’re talking about here is the willful observation of activism from the comfort of distance. It allows for post-dissection of what went on; you can rewind and pause, take your time to figure out how you’re supposed to feel about what you’re seeing without the burden of having lived it. So, to some extent, it allows viewers—in this case, Masterson’s white liberal followers—the chance to find something to be outraged about from the comfort of their couch.


It’s also of note, of course, that these were Masterson’s followers and viewers, not Crackhead Barney’s or her producer “Be Happy for Once.” Perhaps a group made up of people who prefer their activism to be more subtle, which is to say at least without all the antics and flair that Crackhead Barney is known for -- which may help illuminate another issue with this white guilt concept in this whole scenario: the offending action.


Through this entire ordeal, followers of a white male activist’s account can see how activists attempt to counterprotest an anti-vax march a year into a pandemic that has taken millions of lives; they see a Black woman as the only person who is arrested while a white man films it; they see the trials and tribulations of trying to locate the random precinct where the police took her; and they see her being released after the police found no reason they could hold her. And after all of this, they find that the most outrageous, pearl-clutching, gasp-inducing atrocity was seeing a black woman wear blackface to perform her activism. 


And it’s understandable if the knee-jerk reaction of seeing someone in blackface is to be shocked and scandalized by it (and then to report it to Tik Tok to get an activist’s videos banned). And the use of blackface in any form perhaps should be a topic of discussion; but in this case, a Black woman activist wearing blackface needs to be an intracommunity conversation among Black activists and the Black community - there’s just no space for anyone else’s opinion here.


But what is perhaps the most interesting facet about all this is that the backlash was directed mostly at Masterson - the white activist who was filming and sharing the whole thing. It was Masterson’s followers who reported him to Tik Tok, and they specifically reported Masterson’s videos, not Crackhead Barney’s or her producer’s. They perhaps found Masterson’s lack of outrage at seeing Crackhead Barney in blackface itself as offensive. Maybe they indeed realized that it would be distasteful to report a Black woman for doing performance activism and getting arrested for it, so they directed their wokeness to a more apt candidate for their indignation. And so they managed not only to ignore the real calamity in all of this, but also to sideline Masterson’s own history of activism. And that’s the thing, it may seem like they were just punishing Masterson for his apparent lack of wokeness decorum in the presence of “blackface,” but really, they were effectively damaging a platform that had been used to advocate for BIPOC and progressive issues: They got him banned for documenting the arrest and release of a Black protestor. And that’s white guilt in a nutshell, at least within this iteration of it: Ignore all context, reject any thought of consequence, and let your so-called wokeness shine by calling out anything that may seem like an easy target.


This happens often in some form or another. It happened when Lindsay Ellis, a YouTube personality, was “unmasked” as a secret racist (she is not) by woke Twitter users, with some white users even pretending to be Black to do so. It’s the same logic when some Tik Tok user demands that Sutton Foster immediately respond in condemnation of Scott Rudin (which she eventually did) with the exact same rancor and expediency that some other actors had, instead of allowing a female actor the time she may need to gather her emotions amid the noise to form a non-reactionary response to something that will affect her entire career.



I cannot say if the firing of Alexi McCammond was the appropriate response for racist and homophobic tweets she had written a decade earlier when she was a teenager and for which she had already apologized years before she was named Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief, but her past behavior was framed somewhat deceptively, and the woke left sustained that these were simply consequences for her actions, and that she should work to be anti-racist --  never mind McCammond’s entire professional career where she has tried to do just that and likely just misunderstands what “anti-racist” actually means. Meanwhile, there is no word yet on what happened to Christine Davitt for her exact same past crime as McCammond.


We should apply insight out of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, an already favorite of the woke mob. He notes that it’s our actions moment by moment that determines what we are, not who we are. Racism is a spectrum in which we can be racist one minute and anti-racist the next; these are not just binaries that deal in absolutism in which you can neatly fit yourself.


Let’s take heed, because when we let our guilt dictate our actions to make ourselves feel better, when white people feel the need to appear woke because the shame as being seen otherwise outweighs true insight, it can lead to reactionary wokeness.


So we post, we buy a book that we can display on the coffee table, we retweet, we demand a resignation or two, we write a mildly lippy caption on a repost of an Insta story of an activist we don’t even follow, and we call it a day when one of our own are brought down. And that’s not actionable anti-racist work, that’s just performance.


Author Bio:


Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Durera Toujours (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--StockSnap (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--John Lucia (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

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