In the context of social justice dialogue, I rarely ever feel guilt. I am a non-Christian woman of color, so white guilt and the “shut up and listen” guideline is generally for other participants in a dialogue. I’m usually allowed to be as loud and angry as I want to be about social justice issues because if people ever microaggress, it’s usually against me.
I was reminded in one of the most embarrassing incidents that has happened to me in a long time that this doesn’t mean I am not equally capable of microaggressing.
Recently, I was watching movies with a queer friend of mine. Their roommate, who happens to be the guy I’m seeing, came in and sat down with us. I swore to myself I would not get too cuddly with him because I think it’s rude to make someone a third wheel. But two movies and 500 calories later, it was around 11:00 p.m. and I was definitely on the loopier end of consciousness and forgot that I’m not invisible when I flirt (not that that is an excuse for my behavior). When guy-I’m-seeing casually leaned over and started kissing me, my friend asked us to stop and reminded us in no uncertain terms that we were doing this in their bedroom (and I, on their bed) and we are a heterosexual couple.
The guilt recoil is not something I’m used to, and it hit me full force that night. I realized that what I did was offensively heteronormative, and I was guilty because I thought I knew better, or at least had more restraint. Being supportive of the queer community has always been a point of pride for me, and now I was suddenly seriously questioning how supportive I had ever really been.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve spouted the don’t-wallow-in-guilt spiel for white people who realize their white privilege for the first time (cue: white girl tears). I am a firm believer that guilt is not productive. It is a self-centered emotion that takes attention away from the actual problem and shifts the focus to whoever is guilty. Guilt is a token gesture in the grand scheme of overcoming oppression. The real acts of compassion (props, Paulo Freire) come from the people who can overcome guilt and channel their feelings into action to support marginalized communities. This support can take many forms—spreading the knowledge and joining organizations that support marginalized groups, among other things.
The worst part about that incident was wanting to talk about what I had done and not knowing who to go to about it. I couldn’t talk to my friend about my guilt—that would be incredibly selfish since they were the one I had microagressed against. I knew I’d have to talk to guy-I’m-seeing about it, but I felt so awkward and guilty that I couldn’t bring it up with him, not at that point. I thought of two other friends I’d usually talk to about something like this…and promptly realized both the individuals I was thinking of are queer as well. I didn’t want to unload guilt on them about a microagression that both of them probably experience all the time. All the while, my recurring thought was the idea that in public spaces, queer people can’t always show affection, and I’d had the audacity to do that in a queer person’s private space, perhaps one of the only places this person can feel comfortable showing affection.
The uncomfortable thing about guilt is having to acknowledge that that “other person” who microagresses all the time out of ignorance is actually you. Once I admitted that, I went to a place much scarier than where I thought I would go—fear. I know I had said sorry to them, but I was still fearful that perhaps my friend no longer thought of me the same way.
In truth, guilt is an expression of fear. It is the fear that people do not love you enough to forgive you for what you have done (or have been doing). There is, of course, an assumption here that people should love you, that they somehow owe you love and forgiveness. But people do not owe you love. People do not owe you anything. Guilt is selfish precisely because it demands something of people that they do not necessarily want to give.
So I’ve kept it to myself, but I resolved to tell guy-I’m-seeing that this cannot happen again. For now, I can forgive myself, and love myself by taking better care of this body I’m in so I’ll be less tired. The less tired I am, the less likely I am to forget things that are important. And when I don’t forget important things, I am usually a better friend to my friends.