White Guilt? You Have No Idea

Sarah Britten responds to a lame ticking off from Dan Roodt… 
“I think I speak on behalf of all whites when I say we are just totally sick of all the race-baiting going on in South Africa.” So says Dan Roodt, who read my last Thought Leader post and was most unimpressed by this “latest sigh of white guilt”.

So I thought I’d write about guilt. Once upon a time, long ago, I wanted to be a concert pianist. My dream of becoming a virtuoso didn’t happen, of course; at the age of 13, I developed crippling stage fright and after I failed Grade 8 – twice – I realised that Bach and Chopin were never going to be my friends.

Did I let that stop me? Oh no. I became a virtuoso of guilt instead. I might not be Jewish or Catholic but I can outguilt anyone. See, I suffer from awkward English Anglican guilt, which revolves around painful social obligation and doing things you hate but feel you should. It’s the worst kind of guilt because there is no escape from it ever.

To date, I have come up with 11 major types of guilt in my life:

1. White Guilt. I became aware of how wrong apartheid was in about 1987, when I was 12. Today, I can’t walk down the street in the boomed off suburb where I live with my grandmother (to keep my overheads low; see point 10 below) without wanting to compose an essay on systemic inequality. Or twerk because it’s good for my thighs (see point 7). Or be glad that no matter how much I hate my hair, I don’t have to worry about weaves.

2. Work Guilt. I haven’t had a guilt-free moment of leisure in the last twenty years. If I didn’t have exams to study for or a thesis to write, I had deadlines and PowerPoint. My entire life revolves around being Productive or thinking about being Productive, and then feeling guilty about not being Productive enough. Then I feel guilty about being a freelancer and able to work my own hours when everybody else has to sit in traffic.

3. Writing Guilt. When my client work is done, there is writing to do. This way, every spare moment of my life is filled with obligation and a sense of failure when I don’t tick off my to-do list! When I stayed in the bush in December, I was able to churn out up to 11,000 words a day. It was the best holiday ever, even though I now feel massively guilty because the moment I got home the writing ground to a halt because I took on so much client work to allay my guilt about not being a productive member of society.

4. Other People Guilt. Work is the perfect guilt double-edged sword, the gift that keeps on giving. When I’m not working, I feel guilty about not working. When I’m working, I feel guilty about neglecting friends, family and significant others. I feel guilty about working instead of socialising. I feel guilty about always saying no to evening events. I feel guilty about tweeting that I’m socialising and then tweeting that I’m working past midnight again.

5. Money Guilt. Multiple sources of guilt here. I feel guilty about not earning enough in order to pay more tax in order to be a worthy citizen in a city that only cares about what you have, not who you are. Then I feel guilty about earning the money I do because I’m convinced I don’t deliver enough value to clients. I feel guilty about having money when others don’t. I feel guilty about not giving money to the guy at the robots with the cardboard sign. So I try to buy my own love by donating way more than I earn to charity or paying for the education of deserving youngsters, but its effects are shortlived.

Spirit animal 2

6. Food Guilt. Carbs are evil. Every time I want pizza or a muffin, I imagine a tiny version of Tim Noakes sitting on my shoulder wagging his finger at me. I go through stages when I resent having to eat anything because of the guilt it induces. Then when I do eat, I feel bad about eating, so I eat more to punish myself for being weak. Yes, I need therapy.

7. Gym Guilt. Our father who art sitting in an office somewhere working for Discovery Vitality, I have sinned: it has been seven days since my last gym visit. And when I do go to gym, I experience guilt triggered by multiple sources: not running fast enough, not doing weights, tweeting from the treadmill and – of course – being at gym instead of getting work done.

8. Parental Guilt. My mother has never reminded me what she went through to give birth to me. She doesn’t have to: I am a perpetual motion parent guilt machine. I work out of my parents’ house because they have wifi and a washing machine and it’s a way to keep my overheads low. The situation also offers a reliable supply of constant nagging sense of guilt about not being independent, not being married and not having kids.

9. Housework Guilt. I’m untidy, muddled, overworked and hate housework. This is a recipe for disaster. Whenever I run a bath after working past midnight to relax enough to try and sleep – again – there is a subtle ring around the bath to remind me of my failings. I try to disguise it by bathing by candlelight, but I know it’s there.

10. Car Guilt. I haven’t owned a car in two and a half years. (I’m starting a business with a friend, and I’ve had to put a lot of money into it, so it wouldn’t be sensible to sink my capital into a car just yet if I don’t absolutely have to.) I manage by borrowing cars from other people and occasionally being given loan cars in order to tweet about them. Because this means I am a freak and sometimes inconvenience others, I feel guilty about it.

11. Guilt Guilt. Guilt is stupid and pointless and a waste of energy. So naturally I feel guilty about feeling guilty about feeling guilty.

I could go on. The sad truth is that there is no guilt-free aspect of my life. There is no way out of this: no matter what I do, there is something else I should be doing to make up for my failings. The only thing I can take solace in is this: I might not be very good at the piano, but I am very, very good when it comes to guilt of all kinds.

So there you have it, Dan. White guilt? It’s the least of my problems.
– First published in the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader, 15 June 2013.