*I’ve italicized the word white, where possible, throughout this post, to indicate that race is a socially constructed concept that has no actual scientific background.
I use lower case when writing the word white because of the history of tangible ways that it has been used to dominate and oppress others and needs to be humbled.
I use the term white because it’s power has been in it remaining invisible and unnamed, substituting itself for words like “normal” and “superior” as opposed to being simply one way of being.
Dear “white, and Feeling Guilty, in Canada”,
It was in my late teen years that I first began to notice the fact that there was a division between indigenous and non-indigenous people. I had little information about the history of our country or context for the disparities I saw, the poverty and health issues. Over the past 30 years I’ve spent varying amounts time in intensive study, and exploration about this relationship. I lived on a reserve for several years, I took my BSW at the Inner City Social Work Campus in the North End of Winnipeg where the majority of students, and many professors, were either Indigenous or People of Colour. I spent several years in an anti-racist support group for white people, trying to understand the impact of colonialism on ourselves and how to reduce our ongoing contributions to colonialism. I did my Master’s thesis on Raising Racial Identity Awareness Among white Social Workers- which included a working group of 10 social workers who identified as white and met for 8 weeks to explore the impact of their racial identity on their social work practice. I’ve been a part of an organization that is working to develop educational material and venues for concrete ways for non-Indigenous people to practice decolonization, including land return, sweat equity and financial renumeration. I continue to explore what being white in Canada means and what my responsibilities are as a citizen here.
Lately I have been meeting more and more white people who are struggling guilt about their racial identity and how to be “good person” in Canada today, as their understanding of racism and the history of genocide and colonialism grows. Fears of getting it wrong, again, often keep people for speaking up or taking action on injustices around them. I want to share some thoughts on this that might be helpful to other white people in their quest to be better white people.
1. You are not fundamentally good or bad based on my racial identity
You will always be white. You will always reap the benefits of this identity, in terms of engaging with systems that cater to your world view, which are run by people who look like you, speak your language and who generally give you the benefit of the doubt. This might sometimes mean that there will be times when your racial identity, more than any other attribute you might possess (including intelligence or work ethic) gets you good grades, jobs, access to housing, and good service. It also means that you have certain biases, racist ideas and assumptions that you may never finish becoming aware of in this lifetime. For this reason, you can assume that you have the potential to cause pain or harm to others without intending to. None of this makes you a bad person.
You are also not inherently good because you want to help, because you’re trying to be a better person, because you have pity, compassion or empathy for others, because you think you’re a good person, because you think you understand the issues and have studied them. You am simply a person who does your best with the best intentions that you can muster, and sometimes this is really helpful for others and sometimes it’s really not, and sometimes your actions are actually really harmful because you are a human.
2. You are both an individual and a member of your racial group
You personally, as an individual, are not responsible for all historical injustices committed on this land. You are also not personally responsible for all injustices that are currently occurring in this country. However, you are part of a group, a collective of people, who, as a whole, have been responsible for much harm done and continue to be responsible for causing harm to others. As a white person I am strongly influenced by the culture of individualism which conflicts with other collective cultures. This makes it very difficult to separate criticism and blame towards white people as a whole and take responsible for what part is yours, because, it is both. While you, like every individual, no matter what their racial or cultural identity, are unique with your own personal history, with your own understanding, knowledge and wisdom, with your own intentions, you are also a member of a larger group and, like it or not, share many of the less desirable characteristics of that group. You contribute in many ways, big and small to the oppressive practices of this group. You benefit from these practices in many ways, big and small.
As a member of this group, you need to determine how you want to take responsibility for repairing the damage that our group has done, and continues to do, to this land and its First Peoples. In this way, you can decide how to use the benefits of my skin colour, the wealth you’ve received as a result, and the power you get, on a day to day basis, by having this identity, to do this. You also need to work hard at not being overwhelmed by guilt, knowing that feeling guilty does not help anyone, unless it spurs you to concrete actions, without expectation for gratitude or forgiveness.
3. You are not required to do never-ending penance for your sins or the sins of white people since time immemorial
In my BSW program, we read a book called The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Meme, who described the psychology of various groups in his home of French Tunisia. These included, The Colonized; the The Colonizer who Refuses; and The Colonizer who Accepts. At the end of the section on “The Colonizer who Refuses” Memmi states that the likely outcome for the colonizer who refuses to accept their role as a colonizer, is that they find that they no longer fit in their colonizer group and will likely be rejected. But also, they will never belong with the colonized. Memmi projected that if a revolution happened and the Colonized gained power, the Colonizer who Refuses they may not have any place in this revolution and may still be treated as a Colonizer who Accepts.
I remember asking the professor what options were left for me, what hope was there for me, as a Colonizer who Refuses. I had already attempted to gain citizenship to my ancestors’ home of Holland and had been denied. She assured me that, from her perspective, as an Indigenous woman in Canada, the goal was to learn to live together respectfully, and not to punish or kick anyone out.
You do need a home to live in, you do need to care for and feed your family, this is not about total self sacrifice, or disappearing completely, it is about learning to live with integrity, responding to valid guilt for things you’ve personally said or done and what our group has done, by taking concrete action, in some way, to repair the relationship with the land, with your own soul and with others who live here. You am allowed to feel joy, you are allowed to feel at peace and you am allowed to continue to grow. Denying yourself those things will not help others. You also need to understand that it is appropriate to mourn and grieve what has been done, even the mistakes you’ve made but this is not the only way to live.
4. You are required to act
Feeling overwhelmed by guilt, by the immensity of the problems and injustices within our nation, feeling stunned when facing accusations of racism or oppression, are no reason to give up trying to do better as a white people. We need to thicken our skin, hear out others’ criticisms, weigh them with my own growing knowledge and awareness of myself and the broader issues, and check in, when needed, with reliable wise counsellors from varied racial backgrounds (without asking them to do my emotional, education, psychological or practical work for me).
You am required to continue learning about yourself, about the history of this country about the perspectives of others and about the current issues facing Indigenous people today. But that is not all. In order to find peace and integrity with yourself and right relationship with others you need to take action in tangible ways to work towards healing. Action is best taken with the tools you already have, in contexts in which you already have knowledge and relationship and connection and integrity. Action is best taken based on what has already been requested by those who will most be impacted by it.
Action is not charity, or benevolence, it is a duty, a way to make right what has been done wrong by yourself and our people. It does not deserve any kind of recognition or gratitude. It is the returning of stolen goods, it is the repairing of what has been broken it is the support for those trying to heal, fix, make right. it is restoring balance with was attacked and and injured. You have a responsibility to participate in this as a white person in Canada. You have a responsibility to figure out what that looks like in your life.
Hope this helps a bit, I’ve noted some additional resources below,
Just another white lady, in Canada
Also check out One Drum by Richard Wagamese for more on decolonizing oneself