Today’s entry is inspired by my Twitter (FYI there’s a walk-in plastic surgery booth at LAX where you can get your shame glands removed). I’ve been tweeting as The Lorax of White Guilt, who speaks for people who feel terrible about how easy it is for them to speak for themselves. Naturally, this reminded me of my childhood, which I suspect was sponsored by the Rwandan genocide and documentaries about the IMF.
Being the kid of missionary parents in Colombia gives you a weird perspective on what it means to be a part of the race that’s been purple-nurpling the world for the past few centuries. You get your image of white guilt from people living an insane contradiction. On one hand, they’re actually experiencing the difference between the first and third worlds, gaining unparalleled insight into how the other 80% sees us. On the other, they’re blissfully ignoring the fact that they’re continuing one of imperialism’s slaphappiest traditions.
Forming proper white guilt is like making sancocho (a stew from a different culture! Check out these African masks, too!). You start with a base, a set of core principles that foster its development. For me, it was my father’s particular strain of Christianity. Then add chunks of life experience until it’s thick as glue and exposure to it makes you slow and bloated and unable to stand. Simmer on low for twentysomething years or until you’re certain you have an informed view of the world. Then go protest something.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those inbred fucks who thinks we should have a White Entertainment Television. I do think, though, that a lot of us are cooking with shitty broth, so when we finally add the potatoes of experience, they just fall apart and turn the soup mushy and unpalatable.
Abandon this metaphor, Peter, it sucks. Okay, self-doubt! How about you cut to the point so this doesn’t sound like you just wrote this to plug yourself? We passed that on the first sentence, dick.
Anyway here’s one of these stories. In fourth grade, my brother starred in the school play. Instead of Our Town or Peter Pan scaled down for half-people with no long-term memory, his school decided to mount an original. A horribly fucking stupid original called The Ghost Janitor. (He was the janitor.)
The Ghost Janitor‘s plot was this: 1. Kids at school think a ghost is ghosting around in their classroom when they aren’t there, 2. it’s the janitor, 3. moral. What moral? Who cares! Janitors are people too, or ghosts aren’t real, or death comes for all and hope is but a distraction invented by the desperate masses to ward off the ever-encroaching darkness.
The point is that I came to associate anything I couldn’t explain at school with janitors. They were mystical men, after all. As far as the handful of other white kids and I knew, all their conversations were elder magick chants. “El jefe no me ha pagado en tres semanas,” you say? Don’t go waking up Cthulhu, now!
A couple years later, when I was in third grade, I bought a book at the yearly We Swear We’re Literate Don’t Cut Our Budget More Fair my school threw every year. Santa Claus Doesn’t Mop Floors, from the Bailey School Kids series about regular people that paint-huffing children mistake for creatures of legend. (And it was about a janitor. Coincidence???)
At the end of the day, I couldn’t find it in my desk. I got home and my dad asked me what I’d bought with his money. Great, so where is it? I panicked. What other possible explanation could there be? I had searched so thoroughly!
You guessed it. I accused a janitor of stealing Santa Claus Doesn’t Mop Floors.
My dad turned this into a teaching moment. Instead of just saying, “son, that’s retarded, please sit quietly while I call someone to check our walls for lead paint,” he pressed me. “Did you actually see a janitor reach into your desk and steal a kids’ book?” Uh, I— “Because if you did, I can call the school and get him fired.”
Double panic! I hadn’t seen anything! Don’t get anyone in trouble!
Well, that’s what happens when you make false accusations. To take it a white guilt-y step forward, he said that the janitors at my school wouldn’t jeopardize the jobs they needed so badly on something as trivial as one of my books. I should leave them alone.
As two of the few people in 1980s Santa Marta with American money, my parents had employed a maid. They didn’t have much, but she had less: getting to eat depended upon coming by twice a week and straightening up for half an hour. It seemed patronizing at first, but at least it was better than the alternative. It’s those little things that give you a broader perspective, he said, a more nuanced understanding that he hoped I’d develop.
That pressure was kind of a dick move, and I may have been too young to pick up the real message, just developing guilt for knowing that my word as a white kid was often more valuable than a Latino man’s. Even so, I’d rather have that than sheltering that leads to hypersensitivity later in life.
So where does this leave me? Years of political correctness and incorrectness pit my instincts against each other. Example: I’m currently living in a low-income, almost entirely Hispanic part of LA. Yesterday, I bought a set of computer speakers for ten bucks at a yard sale. The lady who sold them to me insisted they were in good working order, so I figured why not.
I get home, plug them in, and they don’t work. First thought: I can’t believe she fucked me! Second: Hold on, she barely spoke English, cut her some slack. Third: What does that have to do with anything? Fourth: I’m saying she looked like she needed cash pretty bad, and our country’s screwing her in so many ways, what does she need us storming back there for? Fifth: Oh, and we’re NOT broke? Sixth: Yeah, but we have a degree courtesy an education system that sets up minorities to fail—
And so on. Whether I’m right or wrong, at least I’m thinking about it from multiple angles, which I feel too few people do. Plus, it helps me redirect my rage and blame onto myself.