In September of 1957, nine black students integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas with escort by the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. They were Ernest Green (b. 1941), Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), Jefferson Thomas (1942–2010), Terrence Roberts (b. 1941), Carlotta Walls LaNier (b. 1942), Minnijean Brown (b. 1941), Gloria Ray Karlmark (b. 1942), Thelma Mothershed (b. 1940), and Melba Pattillo Beals (b. 1941). They became known as the “ Little Rock Nine.” Elizabeth Eckford was captured in the iconic photograph above, taken by Will Counts.
The story goes that after the integration of Central High School, Hazel Bryan (the white woman in the photo) would transfer to another school due to backlash she received from anti-racist northerners who had seen the photo. She grew older, got married and realized how wrong she was for her transgressions captured in that photo. She would engage in civil rights work, and eventually apologize to Eckford, and she tried to build a friendship which happened for a brief while. Eckford, however, was never fully comfortable with it. Neither were the other eight members of the Little Rock Nine.
Eckford would eventually lament that “True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared past.” Bryan didn’t like that. It held a mirror up in front of her and her white guilt stared her right in the eyes. Bryan wanted Eckford to let it go. To move on. She had apologized, so why wouldn’t Eckford let it go? To this day, Bryan doesn’t understand why Eckford can’t let it go.
“White people want blacks to forget what happened to us because it makes them uncomfortable.”
The story of the women in that iconic photo perfectly reflects how white guilt is used to affect black thought. White people want blacks to forget what happened to us because it makes them uncomfortable, just like Bryan. Blacks Americans are consistently told to “let go” of the pain, the experiences, of the things whites have done and continue to do that perpetuate white supremacy. Blacks are supposed to forget the stripes on their backs simply because whites apologized and everything is supposed to be okay now.
White guilt tells them to tell blacks to let it go so they don’t feel guilty any longer. White guilt tells them that their tears are more important than the collective fears Black Americans feel of living (read: dying*) in this racist society. White guilt tells them that they aren’t privileged any longer because they apologized. White guilt tells whites that blacks are obligated to be a court to their privilege.
White guilt told Hazel Bryan that because she simply apologized to Elizabeth, she should be exonerated of this:
What Bryan doesn’t realize, is that despite her apology, black people are going to always be black. Her apology doesn’t exonerate black people from white oppression. Her apology doesn’t exonerate blackness from being deemed inherently dangerous, violent, animals. Her apology doesn’t exonerate black people from suffering through similar daily micro/macro aggressions that often feel akin to what Eckford dealt with that day in Arkansas.
The story of Elizabeth Eckford integrating Central High School as a member of the Little Rock Nine has become the story of Hazel Bryan’s guilt, and that’s really sad. However, it’s a perfect microcosm of what whiteness does all too often: centers itself. What’s frustrating about that is white people continue to misunderstand why it frustrates black people. Poor Hazel Bryan had to change schools because of hate mail for yelling “N*GGER” at Elizabeth Eckford.
What about Eckford? What about the other members of the Little Rock Nine? Upon news of the school being integrated, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to support segregationists and prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering the school. What about the trauma of seeing assault rifles pointed at you while you were simply trying to enter a place of learning? What about black people period, who live a reality that looks like the above photos everyday?
And they’re expected to just forgive and forget white oppression because they may feel guilty. Because they apologized. All too often black people are expected to befriend their oppressors, and that’s a sick reality. The privileged will always feign oppression when a light is shined on said privilege by the oppressed.
“When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” - Unknown
What her apology does do is attempt to normalize the white right at the expense of black lives. We’ve seen this all too often with the recent election cycle. Whites en masse voted for Donald Trump, only to later regret voting for him. This type of normalizing is what has lead to an uptick in racially motivated attacks since Trump became president-elect.
“Discovering your biases may be very uncomfortable, but it’s the least you can do, literally.”
To the white people reading this, what are you doing to overcome the white guilt that you may see in the mirror? How are you assisting in dismantling the oppression that people of color experience everyday from people who look like you? This is a challenge to stand up to white supremacy because whites have built the racist system that lead to Hazel Bryan chanting things like “Two, four, six, eight. We don’t want to integrate!” at Elizabeth Eckford as she marched into Central High School, and will have to be at the forefront of dismantling it.
Confront white supremacy when you see it and call it such. It’s not enough to just sympathize and call yourself an ally. Once you’ve confronted white supremacy, do it again. And again. And again. A simple apology or feelings of guilt are not enough, they only make you feel comfortable. Freedom work is uncomfortable.
I encourage you to check out opportunities to contribute like SafetyPinBox.com, a monthly subscription box for white people striving to be allies in the fight for Black Liberation. Read this starter plan on confronting racism. Consider your personal biases using this amazing tool. Discovering your biases may be very uncomfortable, but it’s the least you can do, literally. It’s a start.
The thing to remember is that black people, not unlike Elizabeth Eckford, are not responsible for their own oppression. However, black liberation is a necessity. Don’t rely on simply feeling guilty as your contribution, like Hazel Bryan. Simplifying racism with “I was young and dumb” rhetoric is normalizing, which is dangerous.
We all deserve to be free, and the work falls on all of our shoulders to make it so.