Not Guilty, Not Innocent

 “Not Guilty,” Mr. Brainwash, 2011.

“Not Guilty,” Mr. Brainwash, 2011.

By Sarah Nicole Prickett

Sometimes I wonder what happened to the valedictorian of my high school, because I'm too lazy to go look at her Facebook. She was so funny and smart and she said the funniest, smartest thing about all of us at South Secondary School in London, Ontario. "I was glad to go to such a diverse school,” she said. It was the opening line of her speech on the last day of those lives. “There were white kids who shopped at American Eagle, and there were white kids who shopped at the Gap.”

I was a white kid whose mom shopped at Winners, and these acute small discrepancies in class were all I could think about. Race hardly occurred to me; intersectionality I would not understand til after I had dropped out of university twice. It wasn't only that I had grown up in the middlingest town, a place so white and so dull it spawned the guy who made Crash. It was also that I had been homeschooled, and that for years and years my only friends were other (white, Christian) homeschoolers. One day we were visiting my mom's best friend, whose kids were regular-schooled, and one of them was wearing a “stop racism” pin. I wasn't sure what “racism” was. I was twelve.

Because I had had almost no opportunities to prove that I was not racist, I became sort of worried that I was. My parents, reassuring me, said that the best way to avoid racism was simply to not see race. To be colourblind. They said this cause they were white. If, in order to respect everybody, you have to not see or try to understand the ways they might be different, and how those differences are cool and the gang, you're a sort of bigot.

It didn't help this blossoming white guilt that my mother was German, and that German was the first language I spoke. The first time I watched The Diary of Anne Frank—also around age twelve, I think—I cried for an hour. When she came up to my locked room to console me, I told her to “leave me alone, Nazi.”

At sixteen, I developed a full-body crush on the hot lifeguard, Hector, who was Hispanic. I would have slept with him if I had known how, but I didn't. I've now fucked ...enough guys, and one girl, and they are all. so. white. I think that's not for a lack of attraction, but a lack of circumstances. I think it would be worse of course to token-cast my sex life. But I still worry like I'm twelve, and I am still far nicer to non-white guys who hit on me, because I don't want to be a white bitch, even if I am. Then I worry again that this is reverse racism. Then I worry that worry itself is white privilege.

You see how people without real difficulties will make things difficult for themselves; that maybe this is the white condition.

When at 22 or 23 I began to write, and increasingly to write about fashion, I did not immediately think I was doing what came most easily to me. I thought, for example, that since my mom had shopped at Winners and I had no Toronto-famous last name and no money and no connections, I might be a tiny maverick in the industry. That mirage vanished fast. I became—not entirely willingly—an “It Girl,” which is both kinda sexist and laughably easy around here. Easy, that is, if you're white. And so the guilt returned, because I had always wanted desperately to believe that I've earned what I have, and yet I knew I had become something that I hadn't earned, that nobody could, and that very few women who weren't white/slim/attractive/young-ish could have. I knew I was getting good at what I did, and that I worked obsessively; I also knew that would never be the whole story.

I had to stop feeling guilty before I tried to change the story, before I began to write “consciously,” in a way that's both necessary and probably irksome. White guilt mutates into white obligation, and obligation into smugness, and smug is one of the grossest things you can be (witness: the bullet trainwreck that is #Kony2012). Plus, you can only feel guilty about things you could have helped. Birth: not one of them. As for now, I don't know if writing critically about industry standards is "helping" anybody—ugh, even that word just makes me think of Emma Stone in a movie I'll never have the stomach to watch—but I know I try to avoid harm, ignorance, callousness like plagues. I try to understand how people are both different and the same, the same and different. I think I'll probably be doing this forever and for better reasons than guilt.

Any day now and not a second too soon, I'll grow out of being called a goddamn “It Girl.” I hope soon too that “It” will change.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a Toronto writer who lives in New York now.