Ask Andrew W.K.: Should I Feel Guilty for Being White?


[Editor’s note: Every Wednesday, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party.]

Dear Andrew,

I saw an essay you shared called “White People Problems” that was a pretty angry response to one of your advice columns. I think it’s cool that you consider views from people who disagree with you, but from what I can tell, the person who wrote the “White People Problems” essay was basically saying that by being a white person, you’re automatically luckier than other people — that you’re “privileged,” and that you don’t really understand how hard life is. Well, I’m white, and guess what? I don’t feel privileged at all. Like many people, I was raised by a single mother after my father (a drug addict) bolted. I currently work three part-time jobs, none of which pays much more than minimum wage. I started working as soon as I was legally able and never had a real opportunity to go to college. And yet I keep hearing how privileged I am to be white. So I ask you, should I feel…

Guilty For Being White?

Dear Guilty For Being White,

You don’t need to feel bad about being who you are in order to have an appreciation and awareness of people different than you and the challenges they face. Some people have continued to mistreat others based on how they look and where they’re from. We don’t need to compete over who has more or worse problems to have empathy for the unjust treatment of others, especially when it’s an injustice that you may personally never face.

You’re a person. And being a person is not something to feel guilty about. We can feel guilty about other things — things we’ve done, things we’ve said, things we’ve thought or believed. But we must still be open enough to realize the incredible cruelty faced by countless members of our human race, and how the reverberations of the past are still resonating in very real ways. Some things that don’t seem present for some are up-close-and-personal for others. There are people who have more from the start, and there are people who have the odds stacked against them. We must have compassion for the plight of others, and realize how we may, knowingly or unknowingly, play a part in it, and even benefit from it. We must constantly imagine what it’s like to be someone else — not just to “walk in someone’s shoes,” but to actually try and inhabit their very soul — to try and feel how they feel and think how they think. Yet we must also respect and realize that no one can ever truly comprehend what it’s like to be someone else — we can never fully know what they’ve gone through or how it feels to exist as them.

This creates a terrifying separation, but it’s also a fundamental and beautiful part of why each of us is unique. We can never really know anyone’s experience, but the process of trying to know and relate to each other is one of the cornerstones of humanity. We’re all one-offs, individuals, and at the same time, all in the same boat. As we each strive to get where we’re going individually, we should never forget that we’re all still going to end up there, together.

When it comes to privilege, I agree with the author of the essay you linked to in your question, Briallen Hopper of Yale. We can better understand the concept of privilege when we understand the following: Even though your life may not be trouble-free, just having the chance to consider some of the ideas we’re discussing here as simply ideas — and not as true hardships you experience yourself — counts as a type of privilege. Contemplating discrimination as an abstract concept, rather than as part of the everyday existence you’re forced to endure, is a luxury some people never get to enjoy. To watch other people fight far away from us — where we don’t have to fear for our immediate safety, or be negatively affected by the unfairness of an established system they weren’t allowed to participate in designing — is a type of blessing we must not ignore, even if it’s a blessing we didn’t ask for. These are all types of privilege, and many more exist.

Yet, every privilege contains within it the potential to become a hindrance, especially when those privileges disconnect us from the visceral adversity so many other people experience as reality. We mustn’t let our blessings harden our hearts. The world is too nuanced, chaotic, and complicated to try and compare our troubles by using a single standard – not everyone has the same starting standard to work with. Our dilemma is manifold, and so are its causes. But we do ourselves a disservice whenever we attempt to find the root of all evil in one location, on one side, or in one idea. When we try to pin down the location of evil, it simply shifts to another location. And sometimes, without us even realizing it, that new location may be inside of us.

Fortunately, evil can also be transmuted into good. Every disadvantage contains the possibility of an unforeseen benefit; every disability can inspire abnormally advanced alternate strengths. Rarely is a specific quality inherently good or bad — it’s what we make of it, or what we do with it in spite of itself — or what we do instead of it, or because of it. Our ingenuity knows no bounds. With enough perspective, imagination, and determination, we can locate new doorways when there seems to be no way out. If we take advantage of our natural ability to look beyond ourselves, and more importantly, to look through the eyes of others, we’ll discover wellsprings of opportunity woven into the fabric of humanity’s shared struggle.

We’re all different people with different things to offer — different attributes. Everyone has a mixture of both advantages and disadvantages. Some are more beneficial and some are more challenging. Some are inflicted upon us, and some we create willingly. These qualities do not have to define us, but they undoubtedly have tremendous impact on our experience as individuals and as a society.

There are an infinite number of variables that play into each moment of life — bad luck, destiny, free will, or all of the above. There are some of areas that we seem to have no control over, and others that are completely in our power to manipulate and influence. However, most events in life are a subtle combination of being both in and out of control — they are multifaceted and contain both “what happened” and “what’s happening.” What “will happen” is the only place where we have perpetual influence.

So we must each take what we have to work with and create as much goodness as we can. We must understand each other’s anger and use its power to bring out the best in all of us. We must try to right wrongs. We must try to work together toward common goals. It can be tempting to declare certain topics and areas of life “off limits” to certain people because they don’t possess the necessary experience or background to understand them as deeply as others can. In these instances, we actually need more discussion and inclusion than ever. We must encourage each other to take part in the experiences of all people, so that we don’t broaden the divide and see resentments.

We must never lose sight of our main objective because we’re fighting over who’s approved or allowed to contribute and care. Some people like to argue and find fault in others no matter what — and that’s OK. All those feelings – including frustration and even hate – work to drum up energy around places that desperately need it – ultimately helping us gain more insight and clarity. All out feelings are valid and useful if we have the wisdom to appreciate and nurture their best elements.

Each of us has an often unknowable role in helping the world unfold, and sometimes in ways that appear to make little sense at the time. When we zoom out far enough, we see that we’re all part of each other’s interlocking path. We must not be too quick to judge when someone else’s path appears different from our own.

In order to celebrate the rich diversity of life, we must be prepared to embrace all the challenges that come with it. We must keep the deceptively simple concept of loving kindness burning bright in the forefront of our minds, especially when others tell us it’s naive. Love is never naive. Compassion is never inappropriate. Love and compassion make life livable.

We must focus on what we can each add to the equation right now. Each perspective gives us a wider horizon, a larger field of vision, and a greater depth of understanding. This is the true beauty of the human spectrum. If everyone thought the same, the world would be boring and we would be blind. We thrive on seeing things differently from one another so that we can see things more clearly. When we look at the world as individuals — from 7 billion perspectives — we get to see more of the picture. We’re all members of the human race. We’re all on this earth together. And that’s a privilege we all share. Let’s make our time here as loving and joyful as it can be, for everyone. And remember… just because you don’t see a problem doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Your friend,
Andrew W.K.