Written by Georgie Blewett
In big, bold letters, the words “Grateful for:” pop up on my phone screen every day, demanding I fill in the blank. Some days I blatantly hit the snooze button without a second thought. But on the days I decide to be diligent, my answer hardly varies – I am grateful for the life I am privileged to live. I’ve seen the world. I attend the University of California. I own a Hulu and a Netflix account. The day-to-day nuances of this privilege change, but underneath, it is a core belief that I am more fortunate than many. On down days, I have to remind myself at least I still have legs. This is my daily reality check. I was born into a white, upper-middle-class family, and this makes me feel guilty. This guilt stems from the fact not everyone is as privileged as I, and maybe I could be doing more to combat inequality. I admit, my little alarms are a way of selfishly easing the guilt, a reminder to check my privilege. While this guilt is not inherently problematic, as these feelings are often unavoidable, I find it imperative to talk about it.
Two weeks before my sophomore year started, I embarked on a backpacking trip around Europe with two close friends. Amsterdam was our longest sojourn, and I refused to stay longer than three days and not see the Anne Frank House. Hopping from one train to another with our bulky backpacks, my friends and I eventually got ourselves through the long, winding queue and into the house in which the Frank family hid from the Nazis for more than two years. The house was tall, but cramped. The first room was cold and pure white; the headphones translated the exhibit’s audio from Dutch into, in my case, English. The stairs leading to the first floor had character, worn down from years of use and discovery. Each room had a different atmosphere, yet all solemn and heart-rending. Following the line of international tourists, I listened to the voice in my headphones, absorbing every detail and feature of a decomposing house so full of life. Anne’s room, with postcards and newspaper clippings taped to the faded orange walls was the most charming and sobering. Here, I began to feel the tears well up. I had listened to the grotesque horrors of the Nazis and the impressive feats of Miep Gies and Johannes Kleiman risking their own lives for a crusade much bigger than themselves. I felt haunted by Anne’s room that so closely paralleled my own childhood den. I felt guilty; these atrocities could never have happened to me. I could have walked down any street in Germany during WWII without fear, my blonde hair and light eyes making me somewhat exemplary. I often think I am not worthy of such a privileged life – all I did was be born. Yet, in these moments I must remember not to let guilt mask my view of the world. In times of challenging adversity, it is not guilt that should win. Empathy should dominate.
White guilt can manifest itself in many ways. There is the “white savior complex”, in which a well-intentioned white individual holds the belief that they can “save” desperate, needy people, many of whom may be people of color. For example: mission trips to Kenya to build a school promoting a Eurocentric ideology that Kenyans possibly never asked for, emphasizes the sentiment that Western societies are superior. Actions taken to challenge injustice born out of the white savior complex can be seen as acts of selfishness or ignorance. The service that comes from this manifestation of white guilt can free the “savior” of guilt in a detrimental manner, possibly leaving the “sufferer” in a worse position than before.
Constance Wu, an Asian-American actress who actively promotes empathy and equal representation on screen, touches on this: “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world.” The belief that the white way of life is the right way of life is essentialist thinking. Occasionally, white saviors may be propelled by the idea that if they manipulate a culture different from their own into following the “correct” values and ideals, they no longer need to feel liable. Justifying “involvement” abdicates white/privileged responsibility for continually perpetuating white-centric viewpoints. If this is the case, these saviors feel that they have done their job, that they have rescued the poor and needy from inferiority, and thus, are freed of burden. This eliminates guilt, yes, but at what price? By influencing others to follow this “correct” path, these saviors are stripping away cultures that diversify and embellish our world. However, if one can take responsibility and move past the guilt stemming from what they are perpetuating, aspects of privilege can be used in a powerful and constructive manner. The privileged have the platform to have their voices heard, voices that can preach compassion and advocate for empathy. We also have the capacity to provide a space for others, those who have been disempowered and disenfranchised, to campaign for themselves, while we take a step back and listen. While preaching compassion is crucial, the groups that seek equality for may have other solutions we haven’t considered. Providing an open ground, as not to dictate their platform depending on whether we agree with the ideologies they present or not, opens a gateway into these other solutions.
Empathy is paramount. But why? There are many aspects of privilege. So far, I have mostly talked about white privilege, yet not every white person has complete freedom from discrimination. For example, while I do have greater access to privilege and less consistent and debilitating discrimination and adversity, I am a queer woman. In the wake of Trump’s election, I felt an attack on part of my identity. Empathy allows one to vicariously experience another’s feelings or experience, validating hardship and adversity. Though it may be objective, it compels the capacity to put yourself in another’s shoes. There are multiple facets to one’s identity, which people can often share with one another. Finding aspects of our privilege, and discovering how to use this to our advantage, is a central thought of being empathetic.
Upon my reflection of visiting The Anne Frank House, I now realize though I am white, I could have been targeted during the Holocaust. Though my blonde hair and light eyes give me the facade of the Aryan race, coming out as queer could have sent me straight to my death. This thought only serves to strengthen the testimony that empathy and compassion are critical. Many aspects of our society today seem to reflect the same bigotry from which Anne hid almost 100 years ago. We often say history should not repeat itself, yet our memories of the Holocaust have not prevented other genocides. For example, since the Holocaust, there has been the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, 1.5-3 million Cambodians killed under the regime of Khmer Rouge, and most recently the attack on Rohingya people in Myanmar. This serves to prove that a lack of empathy is damaging to our world.
We need to amplify the voices of the oppressed, whether that be people of color, lower-income minorities, or people of a faith that have been constantly and unfairly attacked. As a society and as humans, we cannot afford to quiet the stories shared by members of marginalized groups. As a person of privilege, learning how to speak up against institutionalized prejudice is vital to breaking inequality. It is not enough to acknowledge your privilege, you have to recognize ways to use it properly. Soley memorizing statistics, for example, is not advocacy. Faye Crosby, former Yale professor and current lecturer here at UCSC, says it best: “Given current imbalances, it is not enough to be non-prejudiced; you must also be affirmatively seeking to establish and strengthen a just and peaceful world.” We can help by fighting for voting rights, staying informed about foreign affairs, and pushing for equality. Attending panels and protesting are meaningful. Having these taboo conversations, continuing these discussions about privilege, and understanding, not just listening, to the dialogue from other communities, are all essential. Do not expect thank-you’s and accept when you may be wrong.
Frank once said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” What I felt inside the Anne Frank House was guilt, but Anne taught me a valuable lesson. I can suffocate in my guilt, or I can turn it into meaningful activism. Anne wanted everyone to live by compassion and empathy. We can start acting now, start using our privilege as a platform, and start improving the world.