White Affect Caught in the Colonial Act: The Cultural Archive of Shame and Guilt

Eliza Steinbock
(Maastricht University)

This essay is derived from a talk given at the 2021 Inward Outward Symposium on “Emotion in the Archive”, and it remains a plea for attending to ugly feelings, specifically those of guilt and shame. Guided by where these emotions arise in relation to the cultural archive of imperialism, I theorise the effects of the denial of guilt and shame by the characteristic colonial mentality that stakes its claims on being rational.

Emotions tend to be unavoidable, impactful layers in interpretation and communication, regardless of whether they are registered or not. Prior to becoming an individualised emotion, the capacity to affect and be affected—I will call these “affect” for short—inheres in our objects, colours our thoughts, incites ideas and actions. Associated with the devalued categories of the feminine and the non-white, emotion, feeling and affect are also regularly refuted as scholarly concerns. Entire professional fields have been staked on the claim of warding off emotion, on critical distance, the performance of neutral, unaffected or non-coloured observation. Supposed neutrality can be seen in some forms of archive and collection making. The suppressed emotion in the material cultures of colonial documentation centres is palpable: the straight-ruled ledger pages, the mathematics of profit, the record of captured and sold. Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts” seeks to defy the lack of care and flatlined emotion shown in the archive of the Black diaspora. She unfolds the claims of dispassionate documentation to reveal the deep feeling of the deaths of two young African girls on the middle passage, recorded piecemeal in the ship’s ledger and financial accounts, the captain’s log book, a court case that dismissed murder charges against the Captain. Hartman notes that lives blotted out are represented by “an asterisk in the grand narrative of history” (2). The asterisk typically connotes ‘additional’ or supplementary information, and Hartman draws on the asterisk’s aesthetic as close to a nothing as possible, a point on the page, a typography of that barely worth mentioning. It is indicative of a blotting out of emotion and care, a refusal to feel.

Expanding on Hartman’s notion that the archive of the Black diaspora is composed in asterisks, in “Mathematics Black Life” Katherine McKittrick writes that these asterisked archives are “filled with bodies that can only come into being vis-à-vis racial-sexual violence” (16). She describes how perplexing it is to rely on “data that honour and repeat and cherish anti-black violence and black death”, asking how to undo the persistent frame of violence that calculates according to Black suffering and white supremacy (17–18). She sets herself the task of writing Blackness by ethically honouring but not repeating anti-Black violences, reading the mathematics of these violences as possibilities that are iterations of Black life that cannot be contained by Black death. In other words, strategies that “allow us to read the archives not as a measure of what happened, but as indicators of what else happened” (McKittrick 22). To this end McKittrick borrows “the arithmetics of skin” derived from Simone Browne’s research that shows how biometrics are laden with the logic of whiteness as the measuring stick through which other racial technologies are understood (23). So too, the arrangement of colonial archives seems to follow the white living body as the mathematical measuring stick through which all other bodies are calculated. The indexed and the asterisked are two different orders of being and of feeling inscribed in colonial archives. The rationality of proud, smug white supremacy is indexed, while the refusal to feel for Black suffering is asterisked. From the arithmetics of skin one might project a calculus of racialised affect; in both cases, the white living body is the measuring stick and the non-white, dead body simply takes the stick.

Queer Latinx performance scholar José Esteban Muñoz describes this performance of whiteness as performing on an affective register of racialised normativity. He writes that:

Acting white has everything to do with the performance of a particular affect, the specific performance of which grounds the subject performing white affect in a normative life world. Latinas and Latinos, and other people of colour, are unable to achieve this affective performativity on a regular basis. (Muñoz 68)

The inability or refusal to perform white affect has consequences. While Muñoz is primarily concerned with carving out analytical space for a certain mode of “feeling brown” in a world painted white and organised by cultural mandates to “feel white”, I want to consider the affective struggle taking place in colonial archives. The archive’s affective infrastructure is built to not spill, adhering to an unacknowledged vantage point of white unfeeling, a repression of feeling anything at all, a dispassionate non-acknowledgement of how others may feel. Muñoz is again instructionzzal here about the whiteness of occluding feeling, explaining that the predictable clichés of Latino/a affective comportment as “hot ‘n’ spicy” or simply “on fire” are not so much because Latina/o affect performance is excessive “but that the affective performance of normative whiteness is minimalist to the point of emotional impoverishment” (Muñoz 70). He continues that “Whiteness claims affective normativity and neutrality”, a fantasy that is displaced when we look at whiteness from a racialised perspective and see it as a hotbed of anxious attempts to avoid feeling bad (70). Muñoz writes sympathetically that “Once we look at whiteness from a racialized perspective, like that of Latinos, it begins to appear to be flat and impoverished” (70)—the latter a synonym for being needy, poor and disadvantaged. In Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai writes insightfully of animatedness having a long history of being racialised as non-white, making whiteness a kind of baseline affect, as close to deathly non-feeling as one might achieve without dying (92). On the whole of it, if whiteness is the official “national affect” aligned with a hegemonic class (in the context of the U.S., for Muñoz), it might not be a structural disadvantage to feel white, but at this moment in history this discriminating hierarchy is all the more reason “to position whiteness as lack” (Muñoz 70). Muñoz thus calls for an inversion of perspective that shifts the association of imbalance from non-white to white, and to embrace the affective subjectivities that cannot be contained within the sparsely affective landscape of Anglo North America—and we might extend this to the tersely affective landscape of white-identifying, white-acting northern Europe.

I suggest that in the performance of white affect, the flatlining of feeling, white guilt and shame are evacuated and the vacuous affects of innocence and pride are inflated; and innocence and pride are far from neutral. Allow me now to address the other white people, my white readers. Hello, I’m calling you in. Listen. Feel the burn of your cheeks as I call you white. I know, I feel you feeling out this space. What it feels like to be marked, noted; set apart. I’m calling to you to feel this for at least a moment. The prickles that rise up. The blush of knowing you are recognised and seen as something. You are experiencing being seen as something that feels quite apart from your felt sense of self. The self in this moment feels non-sovereign, because you are aware of me gazing at you, inviting in the gaze of non-white people to remark on your whiteness.

Let us go under the epidermal presumptions of being called into whiteness, as we know that it is more than melanin that marks out difference. Those that study whiteness study the structures that produce white privilege, so this is on us as bodies, and also beyond us as embodied individuals. When we examine what whiteness is, we analyse whiteness as a racial hierarchy, a culture and a source of systemic racism. We should be asking ourselves: What are the precepts and group behaviours of white people? What social phenomena are generated by compositions of white people? How does it feel to be white?

In White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, Gloria Wekker writes an ethnography of dominant white Dutch self-representation, distilling the structure of feeling whiteness through the material and incarnate cultural archive that contains a deep reservoir of racial grammars embedded in nineteenth-century European imperial populations (2). Positioned as an outsider within the Dutch, having migrated to Amsterdam as a young child with an Afro-Surinamese background, Wekker explores how four hundred years of Dutch colonisation has concretised in an aggressively “smug innocence” (18). The claim of innocence, she writes, is a double-edged sword: It contains not-knowing but also not wanting to know (17) and can be clearly heard in the claims of “But I’m not to blame!” and “No, that didn’t happen here!”

White innocence operationalised through practices of “forgetting, glossing over, supposed colour blindness, an inherent and natural superiority vis-à-vis people of colour, assimilating” provides a psychic buffer to white shame and colonial guilt (Wekker 15). White innocence seeks to anchor the racial ordering of the world in cultural life, government and institutions that uphold white supremacy. The claim of innocence disavows guilt, but disavowal is the simultaneous affirmation and denial of a thought or desire. Disavowal is a manner of shirking responsibility, refusing to acknowledge one’s role; Wekker sees denial and disavowal as important modes that the majority white population uses to deal with race (30–31). Of course, whiteness has everything to do with race, for to claim whiteness is to claim a race within an ontological order of racial hierarchies. To undo this onto-epistemology of racial hierarchisation that underpins white supremacy, the colour line and colourism, we white people must learn to shift emotional gears from deflecting any sense of guilt to reckoning with our cultural archive of non-acknowledged guilt. We must know—but also feel—this lack of innocence.

The cultural archive that Wekker draws on demonstrates the lengths and violence enacted to avoid at all costs what it means, or would mean, to feel white shame and colonial guilt. This is the performance of terse white affect that appears in many of her examples: the off-the-cuff one-liners, the non-responsive attitude to being called out, the curtness meant to cut short any lengthy questioning or feeling. Although her analysis of these responses is detailed and rich, Wekker spends little time examining how the affective attitude of innocence intertwines with guilt, and shame with pride. I would like to sit with these disavowed affects of shame and guilt, for they also powerfully organise whiteness through the active repression of ideas, facts, memories and feelings. One might say that shame and guilt provide the invisible or unarticulated infrastructure for feeling white, the necessary foil to the articulated claims of innocence and pride. For instance, we can identify how white innocence and pride serve as emotional covers for colonial guilt and shame in the way the jubilant phrase “the Golden Age” is used to try to positively frame the harrowing, traumatic, disturbing realities of the amassing of wealth in the 16th to 19th centuries through the theft of resources and the commodification of racialised human beings in the slave trade (e.g. Van der Molen n/p).

To better understand how shame and guilt provide the invisible or unarticulated infrastructure for feeling white, I would like to reach deeper into affect theory to examine their workings. Generally, the affects of shame and guilt are like boomerangs: they feel intrinsic to who you are because of something you have done, but in the face of an external source such as an authority or condemning party who ‘shames’ or ‘guilts’ one, the affect boomerangs back to settle, forcibly imbedded in the body. The body reflects the intensity: a blush or a blotchy skin, downcast eyes, stomachs tightened into knots, a frozen or stuttering tongue. Think of how I called out to you, white people, how that felt in the charged atmosphere. Shame followed, crept in knowing we would speak of race and racism, of colonial archives and colonial ideas. It was thrown out and inevitably returned, settling between our ears, in our hearts and minds, nestled amongst the ‘racial common sense’ imbued in us. Shame and guilt have an inward and an outward movement, leaving in their path a sticky residual feeling.

Sara Ahmed describes affect as “what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects” (29). She describes happiness as a feeling state, but one that turns us towards objects that accumulate positive affective value; of course, objects can also accumulate negative affective value. Similarly, using the language of affect for guilt and shame also raises the issue of overlapping affective and moral economies (Ahmed 30). The notion of “value” used here points to when value is awarded to particular registrations of affect, when they are economised into emotion to be had, avoided, owned or paid for. Before economisation, in its regular circulation, affect can serve to intensify or dampen, jolt or numb, or simply thrum in the background. It attunes us to other bodies, to the world’s fleshiness. Theorists of affect have conceptualised the inwardness and outwardness of affect as being a social path of affect’s transmission (such as in Teresa Brennan’s interest in crowds and mood), its felt intensity hinging the spaces of the virtual and actual (such that Brian Massumi develops from Deleuze), and a circuit that can be affectively charged within a social script (which Eve Sedgwick develops in her writing on Silvan Tomkins).

Tracing the inward/outward movements of guilt and shame enable me to insist on their social life and to avoid framing them as emotions that are too often received as belonging to a person. Shame and guilt are affects with a particular individualising effect in how they are embodied with responses that seal off the body. They stop sociality; they personalise problems that need to be addressed as shared. It is thus critical that they are examined as affective roadblocks, as something hidden by a defensive turning inward. This is why shame and guilt seem opposites of the affects of pride and innocence, which turn the body outward with a display of outstretched proud arms or an innocent body with nothing to hide. I suggest that white affect is caught in the act, paralysed in media res as it pivots between the inward-facing affects of guilt and shame and outward claims of innocence and pride. The only way out of this defensive disavowal seems to be to confront one’s ‘ugly’ feelings as well as the happy feelings that stick to particular objects in the archive. Working on one’s own whiteness as an affective complex should not, however, centre whiteness in isolation but should work through the cultural archive of imperialism as an ensemble of racial structures. Though we carry the cultural archive between our ears and in our hearts, we must acknowledge how, where and when these felt concepts were deposited as sentiments that shape the form and contents of colonial archives (Stoler 100–101).

Shame & Guilt


Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects”. The Affect Theory Reader, Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 29–51.

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press, 2014.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts”. Small Axe, no. 26, June 2008, pp. 1–14.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press, 2002.

McKittrick, Katherine. “Mathematics Black Life”. The Black Scholar, vol. 44, no. 2, Summer 2014, pp. 16–28.

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and other STDs)”. Theatre Journal, vol. 52, no. 1, March 2000, pp. 67–79.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press, 2005.

Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke University Press, 2003.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance: On the Content in the Form”. Archival Science, vol. 2, no. 1–2, 2002, pp. 87–109.

Wekker, Gloria. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Duke University Press, 2016.

Van den Molen, Tom. “The Problem of the Golden Age”. CODART Features, November 2019, www.codart.nl/feature/curators-project/the-problem-of-thegolden-age/. Accessed 26 April 2022.

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