The White Guilt Issue (No. 11)


The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

–Langston Hughes

When I was in fourth grade, around the time Black History Month started getting widespread attention in my school, our teacher handed out a worksheet, photocopied from some book designed to promote multicultural teaching during the month of February. At the top, it quoted “My People,” by Langston Hughes. Then there was some information, probably about the Harlem Renaissance, or something, and then it asked you to write a poem about your people. I remember that I, usually so eager to leap into writing assignments, sat there, staring at the blank lines in front of me, completely at a loss. I was an upper middle class white girl. I had just learned about how my people, my race, had kept Langston Hughes’s people enslaved for the better part of American history. I knew also, from social studies earlier that year, that my people were responsible for wiping out most of the Native American population. And though I hadn’t yet studied it, and hardly knew its name, I had a vague idea that white people were also responsible for the Holocaust. What good could I possibly say of my people? I had, I thought, no right even to attempt to write a poem like Hughes’s, which was so beautiful, written about a people so deserving.

I know that eventually I wrote something, but it seems that I disliked my response so much, felt it was so wrong, so misconceived, that I did not save it. I do not know what the other kids in my class, who were, by and large, WASPs just like me, wrote. I do not know if they were overwhelmed with the sense of cultural guilt which struck me first on that day and has remained with me. Since that day, I have always had a peculiar awareness of the groups I belonged to, by accident of birth, realizing that none of them were things I wished to claim for my own. I knew also, though, that I could not abandon them and take up residence with some other group: I had no right to be black, or Jewish, or gay, and perhaps I even had no right to claim some kinship, or some understanding, with any of them. It is a lonely place to be.

Arbeit macht frei,” I added, realizing that Timothy wasn’t Jewish and probably wouldn’t get my morbid reference to Auschwitz.

One of the creepiest moments for me was discovering that six million Americans had taken Prozac. As a Jew, I had always associated that precise number with something else entirely.
–Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

By the time I got to college, I had succumbed to the idea that I was a white girl and there was nothing I could do about it. I used to tell people that I was majoring in Dead White Men, which was basically true, although as a Classics major these days, you are informed that the society you are studying, which lasted several decades in one form or another, and spanned, at times, most of the Mediterranean, was, in fact, one of the most diverse societies ever to exist. My senior thesis was about Herodotus, whom I think I admired most not for his inclusion of women (the topic of said thesis) but for his ability to travel, to go everywhere, and, it would seem, be accepted by everyone.

On the whole, though, I steered clear of multiculturism, and it steered clear of me, except for the one fascinating thing I discovered–there was, in many of the people I met, a preconceived notion of a subtle anti-Semetism on my part. Well, perhaps anti-Semitism is a bit strong–but it was assumed that, like the Timothy Elizabeth Wurtzel speaks of, because I was not Jewish, I knew nothing of it. Further, because I was from Iowa, I could not possibly know anyone who was Jewish. Judaism, it seemed, was a religion and a culture which extended no farther west than 8th Avenue. I became immediately defensive. I have Jewish friends, I wanted to say. I’ve read the All of a Kind Family books and the Diary of Anne Frank. And I was once told by an acquaintance in high school that, by virtue of my maternal grandfather having been technically Jewish by birth, I was “Jewish enough for Hitler,” thus making me feel, if only for a moment, that I belonged in some small way to the club. But I would always stop, midway through. I was no expert. And to say, “I have Jewish friends”–what an awful thing to say, as if that is the only reason I chose them as friends, so as to fill that segment of my multicultural quota. I wanted so badly, though, for people not to view me that way. I knew the meaning of Arbeit macht frei and the deadly signifigance of the number six million. The result of these accusations of a subtle anti-Semetism on my part had the effect of creating that feeling in me. I would catch myself thinking, What makes these people think they’re so special, that only they can know about the Holocaust, or even about something as innocuous as lox?

At lilac evening I walked. . . in the Denver colored seciton, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. . . . I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned.
–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

A few months ago a friend of mine confessed she felt incredible sadness at the thought that, no matter what she did, she would never be a gay man. At first I laughed, remembering a guy I knew in high school who used to say, “But I really want to go to Wellesley!” But then I remembered Kerouac, a man not generally endowed with any degree of political correctness (and in fact, I could easily construe several readings of the passage above as quite racist) and his lifelong desire to break on through, to belong to something other than himself, his mother, and the Lowell of his childhood, and, in the end, despite his virtual invention of a new American prose style, his complete inability to do so. Perhaps that is why am drawn to Kerouac, despite his misogyny: it is the way he “shambled after. . . the people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones. . . .” But where Kerouac’s desire to belong to some other people was fueled by a desire for kicks, a desire for something more in life, mine still remains a simple desire to escape from guilt. Both of us wish to leave a culture which is dying if not already dead, because some aspect of it is stifling to us. Kerouac never really found another place to go: he died in his mother’s house in Florida at the age of forty-seven. I am still looking.

I don’t have a conclusion to this issue; these are all things which have been preoccupying me for years, which were brought to the fore today after reading the title essay in Daphne Merkin’s collection Dreaming of Hitler. I feel I should report that about a year ago, I did play a game of pool volleyball with a bunch of people from Vassar. In a moment of inspiration, as we were trying to decide how to divide the teams, one person yelled, “Jews versus Gentiles!” and so ensued the game to end several thousand years of religious conflict, an hour of volleying slurs as well as balls across the net (“You friggin’ pork eaters!” “Christ-killers!”). Unfortunately, nobody thought to keep score, but we did succeed in scaring away the rest of the pool guests. I’d like to say that it just goes to show that if you spend enough time playing in the water in your underwear with people, the tensions of the world will be solved, because I’d like to end this on an upbeat note–but I can’t quite do that. I’m just going to have to let it dangle—-

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