#CrimingWhileWhite: White Guilt on Display With the Same Consequences

After a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who administered the chokehold that killed Eric Garner, “nice white people” took to Twitter to highlight racial discrepancies in policing with the hashtag, #crimingwhilewhite. The hashtag quickly gained momentum as a play on “driving while black,” but highlighted the ways in which white folks and all of their white guilt fail terribly despite good intentions.

Way back in January of this year “thrift-shopper” Macklemore, and Kendrick Lamar were both up for Best Rap Album at the Grammys. Lamar was the critic’s favorite, Macklemore like Elvis. The latter won, and it was the talk of the 2014 Grammys. In particular, Macklemore’s decision to self-capture a text message he sent to Lamar, privately, and post to social media, publicly.

Macklemore’s text read:

You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech. Then the music started playing during my speech and I froze. Anyway, you know what it is. Congrats on this year and your music. Appreciate you as an artist and a friend. Much love

Lamar, in an interview with Billboard magazine, said Macklemore is a “genuine dude.” Which I don’t doubt. But that’s beside the point. I don’t doubt all the #crimingwhilewhite sharers are genuinely, good white people. “Good white” people march in protests, unfriend shockingly white racists from their Facebook profiles, categorize their neighborhoods as “multicultural” and consider themselves above the fray: they’re liberal, educated, and only a little racist.

I’m white and a little racist. Everyone is a little racist, but then there’s the full blown, wave around the Confederate flag racist. There’s “pull up your pants and listen to the police or get what you deserve” racism and #crimingwhilewhite racism; they’re on the same continuum but opposite ends. And to further convolute matters, there’s guilt over white privilege: when folks like me benefit from a system of white supremacy that privileges white lives (who never participated in slavery) and destroys black lives (even though they didn’t participate in slavery, either).

Macklemore appropriated a Black art form as a white man of privilege and then turned around and told Lamar he “deserved” the win while holding a symbol of how structural racism rewards white lives — the Grammy. He benefited from the system, and then felt guilty, but not guilty enough to forgo participating. #crimingwhilewhite works in the same way. The only people who benefit by sharing stories of white privilege are white people — insofar as it gives validity to what people of color have been saying all along (racism affects every aspect of their lives) but other whites didn’t hear or care to hear. Acting on white guilt gives the powerful majority a feeling of absolution, but not necessarily the momentum to do anything about it.

People of color know the police stop white folks all the time and let them go. It’s patronizing at best to turn #crimingwhilewhite into a trending, activist hashtag. It’s not a revelation that comes with real-world, structural change like grand jury indictments and not shooting people of color first and having zero consequences later.

I’m not suggesting white people opt-in to stiffer punishments when pulled over for speeding. What I am suggesting is that white guilt — desperately wanting to separate oneself from steak and potatoes racism in order to be seen as helpful– actually turns into unintentional gloating and diminishes the voices and stories of people of color, which is who we need to hear from, anyway. When the New York Times covered the nation’s reaction to Eric Garner’s death on Twitter, #crimingwhilewhite got the headline and #alivewhileblack received one tweet at the end of the story. By amplifying existing examples of inequitable “justice” and first-person accounts from people of color, white folks can be helpful, but not while trying to win an award for themselves.

Liz Henry can be found here and is a contributor to the anthology The Myth of the Good Mother. She lives in Atlanta. Tweet her @_LizHenry

To schedule an interview with Liz, you can contact her at liz@geekher.com

  • #CrimingWhileWhite wasn’t to explain White privilege to Black people. It was for White people to start getting it. It was about “Hey, this is fucked up and I recognize that.” Finally White people are starting to say “This isn’t about other races. I have a part in this.” We don’t have to self-flagellate (though a little of that might be good for us, too), but recognition is the first step some people are taking, and an important one. I saw a tweet by someone saying this is the first time she got what her White privilege meant. I hope that there were many more like her out there. It isn’t a solution, but it’s something.

    • Yes, but the problem is that instead of listening to the black dialogue, everyone was focused on this damn hashtag. Which is a bunch of white people telling everyone how they got away with “murder”. I don’t know that it’s an effective way of getting the conversation to go where it needs to go, All this hashtag did was co-opt a narrative, again, and spotlight the fact that even when our intentions are good as white people, we are so off the mark so much of the time.

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