Confessing past acts of racism is not the way to ‘woke’

24 Jul 2020

It’s unfair to attempt to lift this guilt off yourself by burdening it onto a black person. We don’t exist to carry your guilt and rid you of your sins.

“Forgive me father for I have sinned” are the words usually uttered in a church confessional. But in this new technological age, “Hey Bizzi, I’m so sorry but I actually used to celebrate Australia Day” to my Instagram inbox apparently does the same job.

A few weeks ago, as the Black Lives Matter movement boomed in Australia and abroad, many took to posting a Black square on their Instagram account. Since then, Black people everywhere have had their white friends, acquaintances, associates and, in my case, even a doctor attempt to confess their racial sins, beg for forgiveness and have their white guilt washed away.

Apparently this notion of absolution has insidiously made its way out of the confessionals and into everyday interactions that continue with the entitlement to the absolution they are seeking. As though an individual receiving their confessions is inclined to or capable of absolving, as if the behaviours being confessed are not part of a much larger issue of racism that has origins in – you guessed it – the Church. You need only read about critical race theory research on the relationship between the church and racism to be galled by the current displays of performative confessions.

I know I’m not the only person of colour this has happened to – Michelle Law tweeted about receiving irrational apologies, and I’ve heard similar stories from friends. People have demanded education on Australia’s racist history from my friends in Facebook comment sections, acting like they can’t do their own research or like this friend is a spokesperson for all Black people. People of colour worldwide are being treated like it’s their responsibility to excuse racism and educate the ignorant. Even my mother had a nurse ask her “what can we do?” in the middle of her chemotherapy appointment.

Attempting to get me, or another Black person to absolve you of your white guilt is another way in which Black people are working and exerting effort (in this case mental and emotional) for the sake of white people.

The truth is, I don’t care if you used to celebrate Jan 26, and I don’t want to hear about how you used to use the n-word. You telling me these things is a way for you to ease the burden of your past actions and thrust them upon me. I don’t want to hear about it. I won’t help to make you feel better about your past and I don’t want to carry that weight. I am already carrying enough weight of my own from the racism I have been forced to encounter in my life without you unburdening yourself by adding to my load.

The words said while admitting guilt can be nice. That there have been lessons learnt and growth had. But reaching out to your nearest Black person to confess your guilt does nothing. The ‘Black friend’ being reached out to often isn’t even a friend. It’s a former school chum you haven’t seen for five or more years, a patient, or someone you’ve met once and just so happen to know is Aboriginal.

It’s unfair to attempt to lift this guilt off yourself by burdening it onto a Black person. We don’t exist to carry your guilt and rid you of your sins. An interaction like this doesn’t make anyone involved feel good or valued, so why are they so common and continue to happen when we try to discuss racism and why Black lives matter? Conversations about racism in Australia should be centred on the damage it inflicts on us, but somehow it always ends up back talking about how we can make white people feel better.

As the perpetrator, you feel guilty. You have to re-live past mistakes that you’ve made, that you’ve grown from. This brings you shame, embarrassment and even sadness or anger over what you’ve done, who you used to be and who you used to interact with. You’ll feel like you may be looked down on for having been this way, but you’re also proud that you don’t feel that way any longer, and you want to be acknowledged for your growth.

Here is your cookie for not being a racist

For the listener – the Black person – they feel uncomfortable and exhausted. It’s easy enough to ignore this situation in a direct message, or to take days to respond. But in the settings of doctors and nurses, police or teachers, the power imbalance often leaves Black people feeling like they need to respond, educate, and absolve in order to ensure they receive the minimum standard treatment that white people get to take as a given. They are suddenly forced to commit emotionally in a situation in which they were the one seeking help from someone whose job it is to help them. It leaves us feeling used and tired.

There are people that I don’t interact with anymore purely because of this. They only reached out to me in the midst of a social movement to discuss race, and if they’ve attempted to speak to me since, it has yet again been about race. While being Black is core to my identity, these people don’t talk to me about our common interests, hobbies or achievements. They’ll only talk to me about my race and what it means to them. I’m more than just a skin colour. This alone makes it clear that they only see me as a vessel for their white guilt. To me, I now see them as a vessel of negativity and emotional burden.

There are so many other ways to show you’ve grown that don’t include confessing to the nearest Black person – it doesn’t make you ‘woke’ to confess what you used to think or do – it burdens us.  You must tip the scale so your good actions regarding race now outweigh the bad ones, don’t just be passive and say that you’ve changed. Whether it be through donations, holding space, protesting, sharing the stories and voices of Black and Indigenous people who have been marginalised their whole lives, calling out (or in) racist actions, or having conversations with the white folk around you and holding yourself accountable.

By the end of all this, you should feel comfortable with yourself and no longer have the urge to burden a Black person with the juicy details of your own racist past. Dropping by the local priest to say ‘soz’ may have worked in the past, but it’s not what we’re looking for, and it’s not our job. Reflect on your own behaviour, keep the mistakes you’ve made to yourself, and make change for the better.

And most importantly, understand that racism is a burden placed on Black people by no fault of our own, so if you want to talk about racism then let’s talk about how we can ease that burden for Black people, a burden which still literally kills us and is why we need movements like Black Lives Matter in the first place. There is no room in this movement for white people who do not understand that by putting responsibility for their salvation on our shoulders they are adding to this burden, not alleviating it. They are not allies, they are perpetrators.

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