What is white confession for?

I. Me versus the Y

Man, the problems I’ve had with the YMCA. So often I’d show up to swim and find the pool closed for this emergency repair or that, and insufficient signage to let me know before I changed into my suit and swim cap (the swim cap looks particularly stupid). There was that time they ended towel service, and the time they decided to close the women’s locker room for cleaning during the exact hour every day that I would be there, and what about the time a photographer came to record the old pool before it was demolished, and swimmers weren’t notified, and she snapped at me for getting her camera wet when I came over to inquire what she was doing? And what about the scale that doesn’t work and the showers that dribble rather than shower and the swimsuit extractor thing that’s always broken? Oh, it gets me so mad. I fly into a rage, in fact. In fact, a disproportionate rage. Every time.

This came home to me while I was talking to the aquatics director a few weeks ago. I was bitching about the situation at my home branch, which has been under construction for some years, and she shrugged and said, “An urban Y.” Something small unlocked inside me. I went and showered and got back into my clothes, and the whole time I was thinking: it’s my white privilege. That’s what makes me so angry. That’s why I have so much rage when I can’t get what I would consider to be adequate customer service at the Boston YMCA. It’s because on a deep level I expect the Boston YMCA to be like a health club in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (where I grew up, and certainly never went to a health club). I expect the world, at every turn, to give me the attention, the consideration, and—frankly—the service that I was always encouraged to expect.

I once heard Diana Dunn, a trainer with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, comment on the persistence of race and class privilege, even in those who work against it. Quoting her colleagues, she said, “Diana’ll go white on you in a second.” I too can go white on the world in a second. It happened two nights ago, when I told a Black man who was standing near the entrance of Hibernian Hall what event I was attending, as if he were a doorman; and it happened two decades ago, when as a Yale student I mistakenly assumed that a working-class kid from New Haven could not possibly be in court for the same reason I was, protesting the war. (Yes, he was also white, but my classism can be as damaging as my racism.) This is not only bruising for the people who have to deal with me, but, as I grasped at the Y, detrimental to me as well. It means I’m more often angry, frustrated or stressed than I absolutely need to be.

II. Centering the white subject

When I shared my swimtime epiphany, a friend responded that everyone who goes to the Y deserves working facilities and courtesy from the staff; it’s not necessarily bad behavior on my part to be aware of the organization’s weaknesses. This is true. It’s also true that my focus on my own white supremacy can be—oh, heck, it is—obsessive and is probably tedious for some of my dear ones. And further true, I’m sure, that many people around me find the idea of white supremacy completely irrelevant to their lives, their politics, and their view of the world. To those people, should they be reading, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’s magisterial Atlantic piece, “The Case for Reparations”; but I won’t argue with them, because I’ve always been shy of trying to convince someone that her view of the world is incorrect. On some level that seems to be none of my business. I’m also, as I’ve discovered to my sorrow, a very poor debater.

A more academic objection to the kind of confession that I practice can be found here, in an intellectually rigorous essay by Andrea Smith. She writes:

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege. These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.” . . . The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral. For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness. The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt. . . . [T]hese rituals ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.

She goes on to observe that

the presenters of these narratives often present very nervously. Did they speak to all their privileges? Did they properly confess? Or will someone in the audience notice a mistake and question whether they have in fact become a fully-developed anti-racist subject? In that case, the subject would have to then engage in further acts of self-reflection that require new confessions in the future.

In short, the ritual of confession serves to center the experience of the white person and to consign people of color, with whom the whites are supposedly working in solidarity, to a passive and receptive role. This seems to me the biggest pitfall for white “allies” or “antiracists” or however we style ourselves. As a sign at The City School has it: “Emotions are political: privileged people take up too much space in feelings.” (I don’t have the original citation, alas.) Working so hard to examine my privilege may actually make me even more likely to focus narrowly on myself and my feelings when I’m around Black people doing liberation work.

III. Why does this post exist?

So why do I keep writing post after confessional post about my whiteness, especially if such writing potentially supports white supremacy? On one hand, I’m probably not reaching many people who aren’t already inclined to see the world as I do. And I’ve said I’m not on any mission to debate folks who disagree with me. On the other hand, readers familiar with anti-racist thinking will find nothing new here. On the third hand (Nabokov has a line, in Pnin I think, about how these imaginary limbs sprout additional appendages all the time), you could argue that I’m actually drawing a material benefit from airing these ideas, as they result in blog entries which I can Facebook, Tweet and otherwise use to affirm my status as an Author with Thoughts.

Again, all true. And certainly egotism and its dance partner insecurity are involved in every post I write. But I think talking about these little lashings-out of white supremacy (also called microagressions) serves a greater purpose. I know for a fact that such petty moments are mere splinters off the deeply embedded and virulent racism I carry through the world. I feel it every day. Self-interrogation is an exercise in awareness. It helps me stay alert to the problem of white supremacy, which a white person can so easily forget, and maybe someday—I’m not sure this is possible—it will help rewire my brain so I can lay down at least a piece of that racism and walk away.

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