I attended a predominantly white college in a Civil War town. To my benefit, there were a number of global programs established to teach students about race. Curious about social justice as a young white woman, I participated in a program called Crossing Borders which included groups of students from the college I attended as well as from two Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCUs) in New Orleans, Louisiana. We hosted each other at our respective schools for a semester, then we all spent a month in Cameroon, West Africa to study race from a global perspective.
Crossing Borders helped me confront my white privilege, and become an activist, rather than remain paralyzed by the guilt often associated with it.
Studies show that white guilt can be a catalyst towards anti-racist attitudes and actions, but can also create defensiveness and disengagement1 when unaddressed. If you’re a white North American paralyzed by shame or guilt surrounding your privilege, know you’re not alone. If you’re willing, there are things you can do to transform your paralysis into action.
Without knowing it at the time, my Crossing Borders experience incorporated the four stages that Where Change Started creator L. Glenise Pike outlines in her guide to becoming an anti-racist: awareness, education, self-interrogation, and community action. Here’s how each showed up in my experience:
I started Crossing Borders unaware of my own privilege. This became clear after attending a lecture by a civil rights lawyer during my time at the HBCU in New Orleans. He had just laid out points about anti-racist actions, and I still stood up in front of the audience to ask what I could do to help. It was clear I wasn’t listening, rather, jumping out of my skin to find ways to overcompensate for my white guilt.
A friend pulled me aside afterwards and told me I had the right heart, but that it was moving in the wrong direction. As uncomfortable as it was, this moment changed my life. It helped me realize that to be an ally isn’t about saving anyone, or about taking actions that made me feel better about my privilege. To name a few counterpoints, allyship is actually about:
- Becoming aware of your privilege
- Listening to those who have been most impacted by white supremacy
- Creating space for their voices to be heard, and
- Speaking up against discrimination
Developing a mindfulness practice over the years has helped me lean into how uncomfortable it is to feel my own privilege. To sit with this discomfort though, and detach myself of personal guilt has allowed me to begin deeply listening, both to myself when bias arises, and to the experiences of others.
Developing an awareness of my privilege was a good place to begin learning about the history of white supremacy and race. I was lucky to take classes at an HBCU that were taught by black professors, and populated by predominantly black students. I listened to the personal experiences of these mentors and peers, and started to understand our nation’s history from a different lens than the one I grew up with. I also began to understand how racism inhabits our physical bodies, even from birth. Author and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem explains that the trauma caused by racism is passed down generation to generation, and that “Our very bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.”2 The #blacklivesmatter library, teaching, activism, and community resource list is an excellent place to start if you’re looking for educational resources like Menakem’s, and others that tell the history of racism and white supremacy.
One thing I learned through this process was the benefit of an open mind. As you educate yourself about race, staying open and undefended is important to growth. Developing a growth mindset, the idea that there is always more to learn and that failure is beneficial to your evolution benefits you more than a fixed mindset, one where you believe that everything you think and know is finite.3
For those ready to dig deeper, the next step beyond self-awareness and education is self-interrogation. As we investigate our own relationship with race, L. Glenise Pike explains “The self-interrogation stage is about identifying any of the ways your behaviors may be perpetuating white supremacy.”4
During the Crossing Borders experience, I kept a journal where I’d record examples of my own biases that arose in different scenarios. Then I’d pose questions like: Why is this so uncomfortable to feel? How can I learn to sit with this discomfort? and How might I respond differently next time when the discomfort arises?
By asking myself questions, and getting quiet until answers arose, I noticed how my personal experiences with race and privilege dictated my biases and responses to certain situations. I was able to mindfully remove myself as the center point of conversations that came up about race. I could do my own inner work around a situation, but instead of making conversations all about me, I learned to ask questions of others, and then to listen for how I may best be of service.
Taking a deep dive into myself, being uncomfortable and open to what I discovered, and developing mindful approaches around my privilege allowed me to move into a more action-oriented space. When I returned to school after Crossing Borders, I understood that I wasn’t an “expert” at race. I knew I’d still fumble, freeze, and that my deeply entrenched biases would continue to show up. But, I had developed resilience for when these things occurred. I now had a framework and internal process from which to operate that helped me feel more confident taking anti-racist action. I became a moderator for a racial discussion group called Sustained Dialogue, which led to action-oriented projects that we implemented on campus.
Currently, I keep myself educated about what actions are most needed during these tumultuous times, understanding that I am here to amplify the voices of those most impacted by white supremacy, and to give back in the ways being asked of me.
It’s not imperative that those ready to confront white guilt attend an HBCU or travel to Africa. But, know you don’t have to stay stuck. In fact, staying stuck perpetuates the racial divide in this country. In addition to the resources mentioned in this post, there are myriad ways to begin developing an awareness, educating yourself, self inquiring, and acting in order to contribute to the dismantling of racism in the United States.
 Grzanka, P. R., Frantell, K. A., & Fassinger, R. E. (2019). The White Racial Affect Scale (WRAS): A Measure of White Guilt, Shame, and Negation. The Counseling Psychologist, 48(1), 47–77. doi: 10.1177/0011000019878808
 Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmothers hands: racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press.
 Dweck, C.S. (2008) Mindset :the new psychology of success New York : Ballantine Books.
 Pike, L.G. (2019). The Antiracism Starter Kit. WhereChageStarted.com. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b21b436f8370a84045a7256/t/5dfa5d9ccda8467a3e891749/1576689054017/Antiracism+Starter+Kit.pdf