Unpacking White Immigrants' Guilt: Why We Should Support Reparations
White people are not a monolith, just like any other racial group, but white immigrants do share responsibility for breaking down the destructive forces of racism.
Growing up, I never saw myself as white. I was Greek, through and through— not like those white people with "no culture, no lineage." But as time progressed and our society became more and more politically correct, I was faced with the insecurity of "being white." To many, it's laughable that some Caucasian people feel threatened and disconnected because of the color of their skin. That kind of alienation may sound familiar to many in America, but it's a feeling that, for some reason, many Caucasian people in the U.S. struggle with.
White guilt is ingrained in the minds of many Caucasian Americans, who struggle to handle or take accountability for the actions of their ancestors. Meanwhile, white immigrants fall into a peculiar position since their ancestors did not contribute to slavery, but the question that should be evaluated is did they contribute to racism and further white supremacy? The answer may be obvious, but to those who previous faced discrimination because of their ethnicity may feel conflicted about the assertion.
Once in a class titled "Race, Gender, and Sexuality throughout U.S. History," I posed the question, "Why should I feel guilty when my family was not here during slavery?" Knowing my own history, I was told on countless occasions how the Greeks were enslaved by "the Turks" for over four hundred years. When you look back on the history of the human race slavery has existed since 3500 B.C., originating in Mesopotamia.
But overtime I realized that this very argument is what many white individuals use to exonerate themselves from the narrative of systemic racism. Its an attempt to redirect attention away from the North American slave trade due to their own ancestral connections to enslavement. It's an argument meant to discredit the systemic violence black people still face.
America continues to feel the aftershocks of centuries of slavery, provoking debate about the idea of reparations. Many immigrants are conflicted by the redistribution of their tax dollars to compensate for actions that their ancestors were not responsible for. On the other hand, some argue that all white-passing immigrants who choose to live in the United States benefit from the racial hierarchy in place.
Our society has come a long way, but it's important to recognize the debate around reparations should not focus on who is going to pay versus who is going to benefit; it's about a redistribution of wealth to recognize that the African American community has been affected by racism, discrimination, and absurdly high incarceration rates.
Still, the question of reparations unravels a spool of questions about other racial and ethnic groups who've faced marginalization and oppression due to white supremacy and how we value, prioritize, and account for those groups. Since the early to mid-1900s, immigrants have fled from war, starvation, and poverty to seek a better and safer life in hopes of "the American dream." In particular, there was a time when Greek, Italian, Polish, and Irish people were discriminated against because they were not considered equal to other white Americans. Today, journalists, historians, and academics are reanalyzing the source of discrimination against those minority groups and how they've integrated as "white" people. While this history has been thoroughly and deeply discussed among intellectual crowds, we should still unpack why and how white immigrants have come to benefit from white privilege today.
My grandparents arrived in the United States from Greece between the fifties and sixties. Like many immigrants then and today, they did not speak English. My grandmother learned English watching TV and worked at clothing factories in horrible conditions. My relatives worked in construction, the food service industry, and tailoring. Like many ethnic minorities, they needed to prove themselves as contributing members of society in order to be accepted.
While steeped in their own Greek culture, my relatives concurrently worked to conform to a "white American" society. Recognizing the racism inflicted specifically on black people, they focused on surviving and functioning within the system of white supremacy instead of advocating for other minority groups who faced similar prejudice and discrimination at the time.
Reflecting on my history and how I have tried to separate myself from the idea of being "white" has clarified how significant my ethnicity is to my identity: I so badly wanted to believe that my American experience differentiated me from other Caucasians. But I've come to recognize how, while my ancestors were enslaved a little over two centuries ago in their homeland, I've never faced any discrimination for who I am besides little things (like my very Mediterranean curly hair, hairy arms, bushy brows) or asking me if my family owns a diner (they do) or if I believe in Zeus (I do not). I've been privileged to proudly proclaim who I am throughout my life because society taught me I would never face backlash because of it.
White Americans whose roots were planted before 1833 experience a guilt that does stem from their ancestors's role in slavery. In contrast, white immigrants' guilt exists because of how our relatives contributed to and benefited from the system of white supremacy, and how we continue to benefit to this day. White people are not a monolith, just like any other racial group, but white immigrants do share responsibility for maintaining the destructive forces of racism, whether for the sake of self-protection, obtaining power, or finding security in this country— just like how patriarchy is sustained by silent men. We have a long way to go, but recognizing our own privilege and our own significant histories can aid the fight for reparations for disenfranchised communities. The more we have these conversations, the more we can come together to undo the systems that harm our country and divide us.