Feel guilt over your privilege?

Guilt isn't useful, back up and try again

Welcome to At The End Of The Day, my newsletter that brings a people-first perspective on the news to your inbox. I’m Hannah Sung.

At any time of day, there’s a good chance you can find my feral children in various states of undress, wrestling on the living room floor and climbing on their Dad’s back, screaming: “I AM A BABY CHEETAH.”

I’m glad things are basically normal for the kids (welcome to our home!) because I’m not feeling normal in the least.

Did we really *just* pass the 100-day mark of COVID? It feels like eleventy-thousand. I want off.

Source: United Nations COVID-19 Response, Unsplash

The scope of my stay-at-home world remains tiny, thanks to my privilege, which is huge. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the systemic issues we need to change, including police brutality and race [1] and mental health [2], migrant workers and food supply chains [3], fair work [4] and healthcare, loom larger than ever.

It is really hard to know how to be a citizen in this world right now. As Ontario marks the entry into Stage 2 this week, I’m not feeling like a celebratory mixer.

What I am feeling, and I see this elsewhere, is a deep regret that we’re in this mess at all. A novel coronavirus is one thing. But racism – we should have been further along on this. This is not where we should have been in 2020.

I first had my eyes opened to learning about structural inequities in university. At some point around that time, I made a choice to try a career in media and create positive change from the inside.

Years later, whenever I would get frustrated in the workplace, I’d think, “I can use what power I have now to help move things in the right direction with small, incremental change.”

The other day on the radio, I heard, “This is not the time for small, incremental change.” It was Syrus Marcus Ware of Black Lives Matter Toronto and I couldn’t agree more.

So what have I been doing all this time? It feels futile. Listening and learning (and producing and hiring and making space and having tough conversations) all seem like such a bare-bottom minimum and I’m angry that we aren’t further ahead.

While I contemplate the massive inequities of our society, many of which I benefit from, and I sit in my comfortable home office, I deal with guilt.

The other day, in an everyday text exchange with a friend, I accidentally stumbled into a conversation that’s helping me grapple with my frustration, confusion and yes, the guilt, over the “small, incremental change” approach I clung to for years.

Let me introduce you to my friend, Lisan Jutras. I know her from working in journalism together but she has also been studying to become a therapist. You know when you glimpse a friend in their element and you’re reminded that they are professionally brilliant?

That’s Lisan in all her therapist wisdom. I confessed my recent feelings of guilt over the “small, incremental change” approach and how it feels inadequate. Lisan is white and while I’m not white, I know I have a lot of white privilege. We had a conversation about power, privilege and how we can figure out, for ourselves, the most useful way to proceed.

Source: Volodymyr Hryschenko, Unsplash

ATEOD: I want to talk about what we were discussing over text, when I mentioned how I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough.

LJ: The first thing is, guilt is not helpful or productive. It's more like a self-flagellating tool. It saps energy. Having said that, it's also not voluntary. It's hard to turn the tap off of guilt. One way to do it is to act, rather than getting stuck in guilt. But act out of a place of authenticity.

Nothing good can come of a “false self.” If you’re acting out of a false self, you’re being falsely compliant. One thing, in terms of the kind of white person who doesn't want to be racist, who makes proclamations about their anti-racist stance but it's a performance, what I fear is, What is running in the background? What kind of damage can be done by not acting out of that authentic self? Whether it's resentment that can build up, or whether it's actually being more racist because you're not accepting your own racism, if you know what I mean. And so that's why I think it's so important that people really do the work of knowing themselves, and their own capacity, before they start acting.

ATEOD: What if you agree that there isn't a lot of time to just be navel gazing? There might be a small window and we need to do something now. How can you be sure that you're acting authentically?

LJ: I wrestle with this question too. Because the thing about acting out of an authentic self is, it's not just about ensuring that you're not secretly racist in the background. It's also about knowing your personal capacity. If you push yourself so hard that you melt down or burnout, that's also not helpful. It might sound like it's excusing complacency in a way, and that's my fear. And I'm speaking as someone who's hypersensitive and my capacity is honestly pretty low. So I do what I can. If that means that when I’m at my limit, I choose to give money because that's something that's little emotional labour, yes, I will do that.

I'm aware that saying, “I don't want to melt down” can be weighed against these much bigger, more serious issues of people being killed by police. But I still think it's important to allow both emotional realities to be true. I also understand that that can be contestable, like some people might not like hearing me say that and I feel there's a fair argument to be made there as well.

ATEOD: It comes down to a question of what we were talking about earlier. Of doing what you can. And how we're in a time and place now, where it's like, no, incremental changes are not enough. Are there still different ways that everyone can come at big systemic problems in their own way?

LJ: Yes. I think it's essential. I conceive of it as an ecosystem of activism, right? You need to have the introverts do their thing, the extroverts do their thing, the people who feel justifiable fury and want to act on it, do their thing. The people who are more conciliatory, do their thing. Everybody has a role to play. As long as your end goal aligns, why wouldn't there be something for everybody?

ATEOD: And so how do you handle the feeling, But is it enough?

LJ: Um, honestly, I don't think that I ever vanquish that thought. I think that's part of what it is to be privileged, to never feel that you've done enough. You do what you can and you push yourself as hard as you can without breaking yourself. Don't be lazy, you know, but don't punish yourself. Because that can only work against the cause.

ATEOD: I was so fascinated by this topic of guilt because I have been hearing people say, I feel like I haven’t done enough. And I feel that way too. But it's such a crazy reordering of your MO when you've always felt like, I'm trying! This is the way that I can contribute! And then you think, Well, no, clearly it hasn't been working.

LJ: But just because somebody else reaches a limit with their capacity for that kind of incremental change doesn't mean that you have to be on their timeline. If you goes against your character to --

ATEOD: Well, it's not so much that, it's that I do feel my own level of personal power and privilege is changing. As someone who's now firmly in my 40s, as someone who's had personal interactions where I've been reminded that I am a boss-type or you know recently when somebody said to me that I inspire them with my work, I was like, really? Right — I guess I am somebody who's worked for a while now. It's just a funny recalibration. I'll always love Elizabeth Renzetti’s essay that she wrote in Shrewed, where she was talking about the issue of white women, feminism and intersectionality and having to re-orient your idea of what your own power is. I'm actually just going through that change now.

LJ: Of feeling yourself to have power?

ATEOD: A little bit. For example, I can hire now.

And if you believe there is systemic racism and a framework of white supremacy, then you have to do the even more distasteful work of understanding where you are on the ladder. And it's not just an up-and-down thing, it's intersectional. But I know I have so much privilege. Examining it is very ugly, like getting in a swamp instead of going around it. You have to really be very realistic about who are the people who are dehumanized by institutions like the police and who are the people who are propped up and given all the privilege and I'm like, in between, but near the top.

LJ: Yeah.

ATEOD: So what do you do with that?

LJ: I think maybe part of it is making mistakes, necessarily. Part of the process is trying different things. And failing at some of them.

ATEOD: Oh my god.

LJ: [Laughs]

ATEOD: I love that because nobody likes failing over and over but --

LJ: I hate it!  I hate it! In all realms, I hate it. But in this specific realm, it's even worse, right?

ATEOD: Stakes are high.

LJ: Stakes are high.

The personal work of this is like, how do I be an imperfect ally? There is no other kind. And so when you are imperfect, what do you do with that?

ATEOD: What about the idea of calling out versus calling in? From my laypersons point of view, it seems that shame doesn't work to teach people. But you are an actual professional. Does shaming work or not in terms of changing people's behaviour?

LJ: I think it varies. Some people can take shame and metabolize it and turn it into something useful. And some people can't. And I guess the question is, if you’re confronting someone, what works for you? Do you want to pitch yourself gently in a way that you feel the most sensitive person is able to hear? Do you have that capacity? Maybe you don't, maybe you just are over it.

ATEOD: What if you’re past the point of caring whether someone can handle it? Obviously, some people think shaming works and I don't want to dismiss the idea –

LJ: Yeah, I know. But I think you and I, it's in our character to be sensitive and individually-oriented to other people. And I think that there are people who see it much more systemically.

There are people who are at a point like, this isn't about someone's feelings. This is about a system that's broken. And I respect that as an outlook, but I could never do it. It's so uncomfortable for me.

ATEOD: Maybe I have too much faith in people's ability to change their views and become less racist.

LJ: You have too much faith in it? You feel you are too gentle with people?

ATEOD: Maybe. I'm like, If you just read this book! If you just have this conversation!

LJ: Your approach has a place and will reach people that this other one won't, and vice versa. They're both of value. I think the key is to not get hung up on whose is better and just say, “they're different, even though I feel like mine's better” [laughs].

Our cause is winning people over, individual by individual, and theirs is to draw public attention, to raise awareness of things that are happening, which has a different mandate.

ATEOD: Yeah. And I'm so glad you said that because, I was approaching this conversation like, the way I’ve been approaching wanting to make positive change my whole life, is it all garbage now? I'm so fed up and impatient, you know? But now, at least, after this conversation with you, I feel like, No, There isn't just one way of making things work.

Thank you, Lisan, for trusting me enough to have this kind of conversation, where we wrestle with our privilege and guilt and a giant good luck to you on your exams to become a registered psychotherapist this fall (not that you need it!).

As for me, part of my privilege is that I’ve been able to pay out of pocket for therapy over the years. I love therapy so much. It’s a no-strings-attached way to have deep conversations and for me to learn.

What I hate is that it’s so expensive and inaccessible. Even if you do have a permanent job with benefits (so rare), often the benefits barely scratch the surface or don’t cover a wide enough range of psychotherapist qualifications.

Here’s a small list of Toronto (some national) mental health resources that are no- or low-cost (thank you to my friend Day for sending these to me!). And don’t be put off by the word “crisis.” They’re there for you.

Crisis Services Canada 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645

Toronto Distress Centre (24/7): 416-408-4357 or text 741741 (2am-2pm daily)

Talk 4 Healing – is a culturally grounded, fully confidential helpline for Indigenous women available in 14 languages all across Ontario. Women can phone 1-855-554-HEAL and the website has a live chat function

Naseeha A mental health hotline for Muslims and non-Muslims 1-866-627-3342

Black Healing & Support Resources in the GTA

Take Care 19 Accessible and inclusive mental health resources for coping through COVID-19

And this is a list of therapists who have found audiences online, in case you want to include psychotherapy perspectives in your IG:

Instagram Therapists are the New Instagram Poets

And I’ll leave the last word with an essay I stumbled on by someone I admire. So What’s Next? by Emily Mills of How She Hustles.

Thank you so much for reading,


Further Reading:

[1] We Must Defund the Police, It is The Only Option, Maclean’s

[2] Family of Ejaz Choudry demands firing of officer who fatally shot him during mental health crisis, CBC

[3] Exploitation, abuse, health hazards rise for migrant workers during COVID-19, group says, CBC (*since this story was published, another migrant farm worker has died from COVID in Ontario)

[4] Loblaws ending $2 per hour pandemic pay for workers despite soaring profits, CTV Toronto

Source: United Nations COVID-19 Response, Unsplash