White shame is the name of the game

It’s time we confront the uncomfortable truth.

Kate McCarthy

The Minnesota Daily reported on Thursday that a Jewish student at the University found an anti-Semitic message in his dorm room. To anyone who says it doesn’t happen here — it did. And to anyone maintaining that racism or bigotry is done and over — you’re wrong. Sorry, I forgot this is an opinion column: I very much believe you are wrong.

Last weekend, I ventured out to see I Am Not Your Negro, the shattering new documentary guided by writing from James Baldwin’s opus and, more broadly, the lasting discussion of “race relations” in the United States.

A particular thread that stood out to me was the idea of white shame. In a world of rules and machinations created by their historically-dominant race, white people want to quickly apologize and move on from the scalding truth. As a New York Times film review puts it, “… the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression.”

It’s not so easy, though. We might have to sit with some discomfort for a while and be okay with that.

It peeks through in other films, too. Several months ago, I saw Selma with my family — an incredibly impactful, truthful film with a black female director. A portion of the movie — during one of its most heated stretches — follows the narrative of a young white minister who joins the march and is ultimately murdered for it. While watching, I thought, “How nice to have this guy’s story, too.” And it is a moving one; I don’t want to be flippant about that.

But now I wonder if perhaps that choice was made to assuage white viewers, make them feel appreciated and included. As if to say, “Don’t worry, not everything you did was bad!”

Was it meant to make the film more palatable for white people? In a documentary about the post-Civil War South that I watched recently in my sociology class, time was taken out of the narrative to tell the story of a white woman’s family and their terrible treatment of African Americans which she later weeps about. She laments how difficult it is for her. And I’m sure it is. Perhaps that sense of shame and remorse is something necessary to feel still and shouldn’t be forgiven so easily.

We can apologize and express sadness, but the wound isn’t healed yet. It will take time and conscious efforts on the part of white people to work against the systems they’ve benefitted from. The idea of having to sit with this shame is a tough one to take, but our country deserves a full recovery, not a slap-dash, avoidance-based one.