Mithridatism and the Validity of White Guilt

LouisaPower & Privilege, What The Matriarch Sees

I used to push my leathery pork liver around the plate, cutting into smaller and smaller pieces, hiding it under the mush of boiled vegetables which consituted precisely a third of the dinner plate in many mid-eighties English households. But to no avail. My mother had been brought up in post-wartime England; eating was learned as a discipline and you ate to stay alive according to how best you could use your rations book.

Most evenings I heard about the starving children in Africa, and I learned how lucky I was to have food on my plate, even food which made me gag as I pushed it past the reflex at the back of my throat. Sometimes it took hours before I was allowed to leave the table. So I learned over a period of years and the hard way, how to swallow what I hated. If the children in Africa could still smile, I was certainly not allowed to cry. I was not allowed to be angry. I was not allowed to run away despite being controlled this way, because I had every comfort–a good education, a warm home, food and clothes on my back. What more could I want?

This was the backbone of my privileged upbringing and it transmitted to many other areas in my life. Since my tears were not allowed, I found ways to circumnavigate the rules via what my adult self recognizes as strategic, but what my mother told me was manipulative. It was only manipulative if she found out though. Napkins, the family dog and throwing up after dinner were all strategies I employed. So manipulation and deceit, both to change or hide from the consequences of disobeying the system around me and–failing that–of my own self through repression and denial became master skills which helped me survive. And survive I did.

That survival mechanism is otherwise known as ‘fawning’–it is the art of fitting in, of seemingly preserving the status quo, of making your way with a thousand cuts–especially as a white woman–in a patriarchal society.  Like Mithridates, the ancient Greek King who–legend has it–ingested small amounts of poison to create immunity, it is the art of swallowing what we hate little by little, of being formed by it, developing an immunity to it and even learning to live on the rush it gives us so we can make it in this sick world. If it is no longer poisonous to us, it is easier to dish it out as we deny that it’s poison.

As a child, my manipulation and deceit were ingrained subconsciously. They built my neural pathways created an extraordinary ability to deny reality and live in disonnance, it formed my sense of self. You could call me a fraud, but in truth, there was only a undeveloped baby underneath. The baby I might have been wouldn’t have been able to suvive. So I wasn’t wearing a mask, I was the poisonous mask and I knew nothing else. You can see many of past me in today’s white society. Masks going about their business, playing the game but believing it to be reality. It is the only reality we know because we were fed it. Line by line. Lie by lie. Or more accurately, it was the only reality we knew.

I’m forty. My first two decades was spent without the web and when the internet arrived the online world was simply an extension of the offline world. Thus my third decade was spent looking at static pages and longing to be a part of the niched social media for students and young anarchists. As the internet has opened up my fourth decade has been flooded with facebook, medium and twitter. New possibilities, new experiences and an insight into intersectional issues which only existed previously under the ‘starving children in Africa’ trope. I was taught they didn’t exist in the western world. I was so, so wrong.

So barely a quarter of my life has been spent understanding that I perpetuated sickness and trying to find the way in which I–as an unwitting part of the system–could change myself in order to fight against it. If you are only finding out now, I understand how hard it is. It has been very, very hard for me too; especially because I was already an adult with layer upon layer of highly developed survival strategies based on manipulation and deceit. I thought it was all true, but it was built of poison. I didn’t know that what I had consumed was poison, how could I know? After all, it didn’t kill me. In fact I was told, it only made me stronger. I grieve the racist horror that I have perpetuated whether I knew it or not, whether I like it or not. I also grieve my own poisoned childhood, as I grieve the revelation that the world is very, very sick. My emotions are bound up in anger, shock, disgust and wave upon wave of guilt. I am a white person and I shed many white tears because I have white guilt.

Our white guilt is called out by our intersectional peers. It has no place in their horror stories because we, albeit for reasons which are self-evident, are globally responsible for their oppression past and present. It is not their burden to carry, it is ours. From one white person to another, I believe that our white tears, guilt and fragility are understandable. But I also believe that to use them as an excuse for our behaviour in the past, in the present and in the future does not fly. To truly do better, we need to take full responsibility for who we have become. How we have become. And what we will become. Transferring our white guilt by blaming others traps us in the victim cycle. It doesn’t stop the poison only enables it. To use white guilt as an excuse for not acting now, only means that we become conscious victims and/or abusers as opposed to being unconcious victims and/or abusers. Is that who we want to be?

I have two children now. But I said I was sorry are words often employed by them as an excuse for whatever incident has sparked a quarrel with the other. They try to assuage their guilt by offloading it onto the people they hurt. And I say to them,

“It’s great that you acknowledge what you have done, but whether or not you meant it doesn’t mean that your actions didn’t hurt.”

I believe that supporting them so that they can face up to their responsibility is one of my biggest jobs as a parent both in teaching and by example. So they and I, are not allowed to burden anyone else with their guilt for what we have done, even if what we did was done unconsciously. Just as it is not our intersectional friends’ role to support white folk through our guilt.

Guilt will not kill us, but our poison has killed them.

It feels terrible and there are places we can share our guilt, but that place is not with those who have lived through the horror we have perpetuated. Guilt should not be used as a currency we pay until we feel better about our own actions, past or present. And whilst it feels easier to offload it via the means of apology or tears, it will come back again and again until we deprogram ourselves to reject the poisonous hate we were forced to consume and now use unthinkingly and as a matter of course to nourish the system which poisons so many others with less privilege than ourselves.