I don’t remember very much about my first appointment with my therapist, Colleen. It was primarily a screening, I think. She asked me all the standard questions: Do I have little interest or pleasure in doing things? Trouble concentrating? Thoughts of hurting myself?
At the time, I hadn’t yet been held on suicide watch at a mental hospital, so I was very trusting. Every question made me spew answers because I have so much to say about my experience as a person with depression. I monologued about my life for nigh unto the full hour.
After listening to the slurry of babble, Colleen asked only one question: “Where does your guilt come from?” she asked. “Who modeled it for you?”
Before that first appointment, I’d never thought of myself as having a guilty conscience. As soon as she said it, I saw it everywhere. The way that I blame myself for everything. The sense of being responsible for my entire environment and also most others’ environments. The way that someone else will bump me in a crowd, and I will still be the first to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I’m so clumsy.”
You could call it Catholic guilt, I guess. I come from a Catholic background. Self-flagellation is the name of the game in Catholicism, and we relentlessly practice self-martyring, which feels like a dreadfully responsible thing to do. If we don’t feel guilty about the ills of the world—about our sins—then we’re definitely going to Hell.
Like most Millennials, the first thing I do upon returning to consciousness after a night of sleep is grab my phone. As soon as Do Not Disturb comes off, the alerts come up.
It comes through Apple News—both WaPo and Time want me to know that America is detaining migrant children. Twitter makes sure that I know it too, not just because it’s in my friends’ list, but because they now alert me to big news stories as they pass. It’s on Facebook, from my local newspaper; it’s on NPR when I ask Alexa to read me the news.
Even though the world has only just learned about it, there are lengthy think-pieces on the matter. I take the time to read The Atlantic’s hot takes. I like The Atlantic. It’s regarded as being moderate by more liberal critics, and offensively liberal by conservative critics, which means that it’s about as balanced as you’ll get in the country.
The Atlantic has excellent writers on staff, so reading about the way that children are detained is vivid and visceral. I’m beside myself. I can’t go to sleep that night.
A few weeks before we learned about the detained migrant children, I had been in the mental hospital. “I think I’m only so messed up about this because I’m relating to it too much,” I tell my husband. “I’m only sympathizing because I feel like I’ve been in a similar place.” Left loudly unspoken is my self-evaluation that I’m human slime for being able to empathize with these children, who remind me of my own children, only because I have mentally centered myself in the situation.
If I were a better person, I’d feel guilty for everything America does wrong, not just this one particularly horrifying thing.
On Twitter, one of the brilliant women of color I follow has tweeted a lengthy thread about white supremacy. She explains how many migrant children, abducted from their families, are entering the American adoption system. People are profiting off of this separation. It’s really insightful.
I’m horrified. I want to contribute to the conversation. I draft a reply.
Then I think about what I’m writing.
Nothing that I type seems to have the proper emotional gravity, despite my initial tweet beginning with the words “yeah, ugh” and a frowning emoji. I launch into an explanation of my experiences as relevant to the topic (like a time I saw something bad happening to someone else) and how the world Just Shouldn’t Be Like That.
But the world is Like That, and my role in this world is different from hers. Her perspective is more relevant than mine—she is from a migrant family, she has a law background—and I don’t need to derail the conversation by calling attention to my irrelevant perspective. Especially not right now.
In fact, I don’t need to reply at all.
And I don’t that time, even though I often have in the past, blindly stumbling through conversations with my good intentions swinging wild right hooks every which way.
Instead, I retweet. I decenter myself. I hope that the conversation, led by the original poster, will be more fruitful without me in it. And I quietly hate myself for not being one of the victims, but one of the people who has contributed to making the world worse for them.
Decentering whiteness is a key aspect of social justice in this era. America’s built on white supremacist bones wrapped in the snuggly-wuggly flesh of something that doesn’t look like white supremacy, but has been grown on the scaffolding of it. White people can’t begin to unpack and attack our complicity until we admit that it’s there. It’s on the surface level, it’s at the core, it’s everything.
Of course, if a white person chooses not to unpack this, there’s nothing that will force it to happen. Other white people aren’t going to make you do it. White people really like being in a happy white bubble. It’s awkward to point out how your son’s public school is reinforcing white supremacy, and we can’t have this awkwardness, that feeling of guilt forced upon us exogenously by white people breaking the patterns of white conversation that happily skirt around the rotten heart of white America. This is not civilization.
Decentering ourselves is difficult. It’s an inherently selfless thing, and white people don’t really know how to be selfless.
We’ve been raised on a narrative of white America fixing the world’s problems. We are fluent in it.
In elementary school, we hear about how white colonists arrived in the Americas, made friends with the natives, and then something-something-something happens and all of a sudden, after Thanksgiving and something involving redcoats, we’ve made a country. A free country filled with religious liberty and native princess Halloween costumes and little narrow strips of land where surviving natives are graciously permitted to live, for now.
When South American loggers perform deforestation in the rainforest, Captain Planet (surely a white guy under his metallic skin, given his mullet and high levels of intervention) rolls in with his team of carefully diverse children to fix that shit, because that’s what we do.
Even in science fiction, cultures that are essentially Space Americans (like the United Federation of Planets, But Mostly Earth, Because Fuck Those Other Guys) rove the galaxy to seek justice and make worlds better. The Prime Directive is meant to prevent some level of interference, but it doesn’t really stop our heroic crew from intervening in what they decide are injustices, infecting planets galaxy-wide with Space American Values.
Our culture is built around colonization. Our brains have grown in that vat.
So when white Americans arrive in social justice spaces, we’re ready to fix it all, just the way that we’ve always “fixed” things. We want to colonize the movements started by the marginalized. We want to make it all better.
That’s what we do.
The fact that we think we have to use our power For the Better is part of the rot in America.
In fact, we must cede power.
We have to choose not to be the loudest voice in the room. We have to make ourselves less.
When we’ve spent your entire life privileged, deliberately trying to push even the most unearned privilege away is really goddamn uncomfortable.
No matter how uncomfortable it feels to realize I’ve spent my entire life benefiting from and feeding into a system that dehumanizes, exploits, and often actively kills people who don’t fit into a narrow privileged class, it’s less uncomfortable than being a small child taken from one’s parents and sold to an American family.
For nights on end, I dream of peeling paint surrounding doorways blocked only by shower curtains on pins so weak that they won’t stay up for the duration of a shower, much less allow me to hang myself. I’m bored without pens, computers, shoelaces. I pace the lightless hallway on non-skid socks and note that the building is sinking. The end dormitories are several inches lower than the fore.
I wake with panic attacks. There are children being kept in inhospitable, sometimes clinical environments. They miss their parents. They don’t know when they’ll get to see them again. I didn’t get to see my children for almost a week and spent so many hours weeping that I was a husk by the time I went home.
Something needs to happen with those children.
Naturally, because I pick up my phone as soon as I awaken, I’ve seen alerts for conversations about this on Twitter. I should tweet about it too. I make repeated attempts to distill the existential scream inside my soul to 280 characters. I delete about a dozen drafts.
Then I retweet a lawyer offering a site that will donate to twelve migrant-supporting organizations at once, and then I also donate my own money.
I try to draft a tweet about my donation.
It sounds self-aggrandizing. I delete it.
I’ve opened my wallet to help these children, but it doesn’t really feel like help. If I were a better person, I would be on the border finding a way to get involved. I wouldn’t be sitting on my phone in the predawn morning trying to draft tweets and hating myself for always say the wrong thing.
At some point I’ll have to say something, won’t I? The world is burning down.
My Twitter feed can’t always be retweets, and it can’t always be politics. At some point I stop looking at my feed. I turn off all alerts for Twitter, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Apple News so that I can pick my phone up without remembering how much horror there is in the world.
I think about what I’ve done today. I give myself permission to tweet about something that I know perfectly well.
“Wow that was a poop for the history books,” I finally tweet.
It’s true, I had a pretty great poop. It’s firmly in my wheelhouse. It’s my lived experience. I have absolute authority to talk about it, although the tastefulness is somewhat more controversial.
I feel guilty for tweeting levity instead of the existential screaming in my soul. If I were better, I would climb onto a crucifix on behalf of those children. I’d give them all my money instead of small recurring monthly donations. I’d really do something.
My stupid tweet gets five likes. Two of my friends talk with me. They’ve also had wonderful, historic poops this week, and I’m happy for them. I can be happy while creeping along constant low-level guilt. It’s not like our willingness to discuss poops means we’re blind to the horrors of the world. But I feel like my ability to even enjoy these moments of levity is a sign of enormous privilege—one more way that the system benefits me while grinding others into dust. Guilt and puerile joy have become bedfellows.
“If it’s outside your control, there’s no reason to feel guilty,” Therapist Colleen told me once, to paraphrase. “Once you’ve done your best and taken care of the things in your immediate control, you have my permission to be proud of yourself.”
She acknowledged that this was nigh impossible with anxiety, and I haven’t stopped hating myself for failing to be a great martyr.
I will vote in a couple of months, and I’ve written several screaming letters to my legislators—less exciting than crucifixion, but slightly more sustainable. I’m not the center of the universe. I can’t fix everything singlehandedly. The world isn’t about me. Sometimes it’s better to get out of the way. Sometimes it’s better to retreat onto a website of one’s making, outside of the public discussion space, and write ironic, navel-gazing think-pieces defying the thesis of the think-piece in the first place.
Just as there’s no ethical consumption in capitalism, there’s also no way for a white person to operate in America without benefiting from white privilege. There’s a lot to feel guilty about. There’s a lot to work on. The end game is still beyond the horizon, and the sun won’t rise there until long after I’m gone.