As others prepare for their next semester of college, I spent my last orientation week as an undergrad volunteering to facilitate peer discussions about race with the incoming freshman class. My university, thanks to a group of passionate brilliant students, began a diversity orientation even called One Community two years ago, and given the social climate currently in America, they decided to focus this year’s event on race.
Long story short, we have a panel of students share their narratives and experiences with the new freshmen, and then afterwards break the freshmen up into small groups paired with a facilitator in order to have a constructive small group discussion. This was my second time facilitating for this event, and what I found right away was the amount of guilt expressed by white students about their white privilege. Other facilitators later echoed similar experiences, discussing how some felt lost on how to even address the phenomenon. It was this experience which inspired me to write this article.
So what is white guilt? Washington Post writer Krissah Thompson references the case of Rachel Dolezal in her definition, saying that Dolezal is “an archetype of white guilt played to its end.” The root of white guilt is that, upon recognizing the racial inequalities in their community/ies, white people feel ashamed for being white.
This is in fact an important feeling, because it signifies a recognition of racism and racial privilege. I personally feel it constantly. Every time I see another news story of a Black person killed by police, I feel guilty for being white. Every time I experience Black people talk about the hardships they face every day because of their skin color, I feel guilty for being white. Every time I am reminded in any way, shape, or form about the continued existence of systemic racism, I feel guilty for being white.
Dear fellow white people: this is normal. This is okay.
So if it’s okay, what’s the problem? I’m glad you asked. The problem is when we let white guilt grow past that inner dialogue. White guilt is inherently problematic because it is the result of us (white people) thinking that we are somehow personally responsible for the racism we see and hear about. On some level we know that it isn’t our fault individually, but we cannot shake the feeling of being accused and so the result often becomes an attempt to silence discussions on race [insert All Lives Matter movement here].
The definition of privilege entails that those who have it cannot easily see it. So when white people first encounter discourse of race privilege not only do they feel they’re being accused of something, but also they feel said accusation is not even grounded in truth. In that context, hostility and defensiveness are understandable though not productive.
To discuss your white guilt in spaces dedicated to racial justice and healing for people of color is in fact hypocritical because you are exerting white privilege by taking up space to talk about your guilt for white privilege. To ask (or worse, expect) people of color to recognize anything concerning your white guilt is directly reinforcing white privilege.
While I understand your white guilt, I don’t feel sorry for you. And I don’t feel sorry for myself.
Getting past white guilt is deceptively simple, and it starts by recognizing that this guilt stems from a place of self-pity. We feel bad that we are benefiting from something under which others suffer, and that’s good. But it’s not enough. We need to do more than feel bad; we need to find ways to help change society so that these privileges do not exist.
White guilt is inherently unproductive because it implies that the guilt is all there is. No action is being taken. No method of alleviating this guilt is being researched. And when action is taken, usually it is not positive action.
By realizing and internalizing that white privilege is not any one person’s “fault,” and rather a system of our society that we need to change, white people can simultaneously alleviate the source of their guilt and the source of others’ oppression.