Trading my guilt for something that pays better dividends.
On power and responsibility.
This week’s newsletter is inspired by Paco de Leon’s amazing book, Finance for the People. Do yourself a favor, dear human, and read this book. It’s super practical and it helped me gain clarity on the ideas I have expressed here. Ironically, I did not get paid to tell you that.
We’re nearly two months into 2022 and although I chose the word “presence” for this year, I did not think that presence would come in the form of finally being present with and examining some of the unconscious beliefs that have been driving my behavior over the course of my life. I talked last time about my fear of being a bad person and how the shame it creates is holding me back from doing the good things I want to do. In this newsletter, I want to talk about my changing understanding of personal power and a certain form power I have often feared: wealth.
About a year ago, I was leading a discussion group taking the course Before We Were White. I asked my group participants, all of whom like me are white: what have you been taught about what it means to be white? There was a surprising amount of consistency in our answers, and it went something like this: White people are just normal, plain people. We’re not really remarkable, not exotic or ethnic. We don’t have a culture or a cuisine. We’re not good athletes, we can’t dance, we can’t jump. We’re like vanilla ice cream or mayonnaise.
Now, I can’t speak for white people who were raised outside of the US, but I imagine if you are white and have lived in the US, you have probably witnessed or absorbed this story that white people tell ourselves about ourselves. And it’s completely false. Of course we have ethnicities, cuisines, and cultures; of course we can be amazing athletes and performers. In fact, because we often have access to resources that others don’t, we dominate many fields of endeavor. Why is it that this group, which controls most of the political power, land, and money in the United States, talks about itself in these terms? There are two answers that come to mind. The smaller reason is that many white people are afraid of being considered white supremacists if we talk positively about ourselves as a racial group. But the bigger answer, which one of my discussion group participants pointed out, is that not claiming power is a way to avoid claiming responsibility. Lemme say that again:
Not claiming power is a way to avoid claiming responsibility.
Even though holding power while claiming powerlessness is a strategy that has upheld white supremacy, I think that there is a version of it that persists on the Left. White people often try to distance ourselves from power and in some cases, white leftists intentionally impoverish themselves in order to feel that they’re on the right side of the struggle. (See the concept of “punk damage,” which I learned from Beth Pickens’s book Make Your Art No Matter What.)
I don’t in any way want to downplay or deny the financial and legal systems that we’re in, which were built to benefit the few at the expense of the many. Those systems are powerful and real. But here’s the thing: when we over-identify with our own powerlessness, or even create it, we needlessly diminish our ability to make change for good. My drive-by opinion is that impoverished punks who dumpster dive and live in squats have gained personal ideological purity at the cost of being able to contribute meaningfully to causes they care about. They may think that they are opting out of capitalism by choosing poverty, but they really haven’t made a dent in capitalism and have sabotaged their ability to take care of themselves and others.
I have never gone so far as to deny myself food, shelter, or medical care, but I sure have felt a lot about guilt for being able to access these things. Consequently, my view of myself as a powerless person has often overshadowed my view of myself as a person who holds power. In crafting my story of myself, I have often preferred to think of myself a queer person from a working class background (which is true) instead of a white, often cis/hetero-passing, non-disabled, middle class person (which is also true.) I think this urge to identify with the ways I don’t have power comes from my culture’s tendency to very strongly equate guilt with personal worth with personal responsibility: if I’m not guilty of making the mess, I’m not a bad person and I’m not responsible for cleaning it up.
In the United States, we have one of the strongest integrity-guilt cultures in the world. An integrity-guilt culture is one in which people are respected for hewing to their internal sense of what is right and wrong, sticking to their beliefs even when it may be damaging to their reputation or well-being. That’s the state of integrity. The flip side of that is being in a state of guilt: feeling bad for having done something bad, whether or not people know you’ve done said bad thing. The complement to this is the honor-shame culture, in which people are rewarded for upholding norms that benefit the group, even to their own detriment. The flip side of being in honor is being in shame, which means being publicly humiliated or punished for violating the group norm. Both integrity-guilt and honor-shame cultures have their downsides. The downsides of honor-shame cultures are pretty easy to spot, as they generally involve human rights violations like stoning adulterers to death and enslaving prisoners of war. The downsides of integrity-guilt culture include destructive individualism and neurotic obsession with one’s personal innocence or guilt.
Being raised in an integrity-guilt culture means that I’ve been programmed to avoid feeling guilty, because feeling guilty means being a bad person, unworthy of love. And I think this is why there has been so much resistance to owning up to the damage caused by slavery, land theft, and other injustices in this country: because white people’s first instinct is to see the call to reparation and repair as an accusation of guilt. How could we not? We were raised to frame good and bad in terms of personal innocence or guilt. It just seems easier to opt out of feeling guilty by being in denial about our personal privilege and power. It takes effort to re-program ourselves to understand that you can take responsibility for fixing a situation you are not guilty of causing. And that it can be worth the time and effort to do so. Lemme say that again:
You can take responsibility for fixing a situation you are not guilty of causing. And it can be worth the time and effort to do so.
I am a middle class person. I am not wealthy and I am about to own a home for the first time. I don’t have investment accounts and I make more than the median US income. I drive a 23 year old vehicle and I am probably in the top 20% wealthiest people on the globe. Last year I budgeted and saved to be able to give away $2,000 to individuals and causes, but how awesome would it be to invest ten times that amount of money every year toward ending injustice and helping the environment? What if I could meaningfully participate in an initiative like Buy Back Black Debt? But I’d have to increase my own power/wealth to do so, which means I’d have to take more responsibility for being a part of the system that we’re in. That means I’d have to make ethical compromises like investing, but the payoff would mean a greater ability to make the world better. It would mean, in short, getting away from the guilt = bad, innocence = good dichotomy.
It’s really scary for me to talk about myself as a person with power and wealth. It’s even scarier to talk about myself as a person seeking power and wealth. Yikes! For so long, I’ve been running away from my personal power, hiding how much privilege I have and keeping myself out of positions of influence. And why? So that when the world ends I can say “It wasn’t my fault!”? I want to move forward in integrity, owning how much power I have, and how much I want, so I can wield it for good.
9 of Feathers (Wands) from the Brady Tarot: Conflict.
I had a feeling when I was shuffling the cards and laying them out that I would pull a feisty one, and I was right. In her guidebook to the Brady Tarot, Rachel Pollack says that the conflict in this card “is not in the situation but the person.” For the past few weeks I’ve been writing about inner conflicts that I am ready to lay down. Is there a fight you are having with yourself that you’re ready to stop having? I, for one, am ready to stop having my energy sucked away by these internal conflicts so I can put it somewhere useful.
* The way I define it, whiteness is an ideology rather than a statement about the worth of individual people. You are not a bad person because you are a white person raised in the ideology of whiteness. You had absolutely no choice in the matter. What matters is what you choose to do after you start to recognize the lies of white supremacy and the realities of racism.