My white guilt isn't going to help America. Here's what might.
"This is how it started in Nazi Germany," my mom texted me at 2:53 a.m. Wednesday morning, having not yet slept. "I don't feel safe."
At 7:40 a.m., she wrote to all four of her kids, "We need to consider what this means to Jews and I think yesterday was a Kristallnacht."
Her mother, my Grandma Helga, escaped Nazi Germany on one of the last boats out in the 1930s. She didn't speak a word of English. Still, she went on to become the first woman admitted to Yale's Graduate School of Anthropology. It's become bragging rights to all of us who fall under her lineage. She was in no way privileged in her upbringing, but she paved the road for my privilege.
I'm not afraid for me. I'm a white, Jewish woman from a suburb in Long Island, New York. Yes, there are aspects of my identity (woman, Jew) that are directly threatened by certain Trump enthusiasts, but most of me feels — perhaps naively — protected in my bubble. For me, life today is the same as it was yesterday, except that I've been trying to nonverbally communicate apologies to every person of color with whom I come into contact.
This urge to connect is crawling through my skin; it was the lump in my throat when I went to sleep after Trump gave his victory speech and it was the knot in my stomach when I got out of bed three hours later. On my subway ride to work in the morning, I caught myself attempting to make eye contact with any person of color in my car, wanting them to read the apology emanating from my eyes and sad, concerned smile. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry this happened to you... to us. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
The lump, the knot, the tingling skin, it's all just guilt brewing in my body, because my brain can't really compute what's going on in my head.
By the number of outcries of shame and fervent apologies that've filled up my newsfeed post-Election Day I know I'm not alone in my guilt. "I am sorry to all the underrepresented people of this country," one friend posted as a Facebook status. "I'm ashamed and incredibly sad." There are apologies and expressions of shame on Twitter, too:
I didn't vote for Trump, but about 53% of white women voters did. Despite the outright misogyny, racism and xenophobia expressed by the Trump campaign, it appears the majority of white women who voted in the 2016 election felt safe enough to vote for him. Maybe they think they have nothing to fear. Even though the numbers don't add up— one in every six American women is the victim of an attempted or completed rape — their privilege has perhaps led them to believe otherwise.
How does a white person grapple with hating Trump, knowing that it's mostly white people responsible for getting him elected?
I don't have an answer, but here's what not to do: Do not let the feelings of guilt metastasize and leave you immobile and flailing. Do not try to relate to the hurt felt by disenfranchised groups by explaining how sorry you are and how badly you feel.
"[White guilt] is something that white people have to process and deal with on their own to be in better relationships with people of color," clinical psychologist George Sachs said in an interview.
To be clear: Experiencing white guilt doesn't make you a bad person. "It comes from privilege and empathy," Sachs said. "People develop guilt because they feel the imbalance of their situation." It's cognitive dissonance, and that's real, but it's not a solution, or even a Band-Aid.
White people's responsibility, then, is not to publicize their outrage for their disadvantaged friends, but to do something to push forward from the outcries of unfairness the instant we recognize the unjust inequality. Because we are privileged, we should not stay in our comfortable bubble. We need to work to make the comfortable bubble in which we live bigger by stepping out of it — apologizing for the outcome of passivity won't lead to more inclusivity.
We don't need to sit alone with our guilt and let it fester. We should be talking about it — just with the right people. "White people need to work out their issues among white people and not make it a problem for black people," Sachs said. "It's either done with friends, in groups or therapists, but its not a problem for [people of color] to deal with."
So what is there really to do, beyond finding the right place to dump your feelings of guilt? President Obama may have put it best when campaigning for Clinton. "Don't boo, vote," he said. Don't apologize, take action.
Empathy is important for human connection, but in the case of what's next for the country, it's a passive excuse for seeking change.