I have studied racism for much of my adult life. While far from being an expert, I am pretty well-versed in most of the white-oriented terminology in anti-racism work. White privilege, white fragility, white supremacy — all are concepts I’ve worked to understand and continue to delve into more deeply.
I’ve also read enough comments on the internet to be familiar with the terminology of those who resist anti-racism work. One that comes up repeatedly is the concept of “white guilt.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people respond to an article about white Americans’ role in battling racism with “What’s with all the white guilt?” or “Why should I feel guilty because I’m white? I never enslaved anyone,” or my personal favorite, “So I’m supposed to hate myself for my skin color now?”
These responses always baffle me. In all of the times I’ve written about racism, I’ve never once stated or implied that people should feel guilty for the skin they were born in.
Not only that, but in various conversations and studies about racism, I have never once had anyone tell me I should feel guilty for being white. Nor have I had anyone tell me I should hate myself for being white. Not once.
And I don’t feel guilty for being white, nor do I suffer from some kind of racial self-loathing. I didn’t choose my place of birth or genetic makeup. I didn’t ask to have this lack of melanin. My skin color isn’t something I have any control over. I’m a white American, and that’s just a fact.
But that doesn’t mean my white skin doesn’t mean anything or affect my relationship to people of other races. I recognize that I inherited centuries of social, political, and economic advantage due to my skin color, and that I naturally benefit from a society that is rooted in white supremacy. I believe I have a responsibility to use the privilege afforded to me by my white skin to create a more just society.
Perhaps people who cry about white guilt are conflating that sense of responsibility with feeling guilty. Perhaps they are reading a personal accusation into a larger discussion on how white supremacy has affected our history and how it influences our current society. Perhaps they are oblivious to the far-reaching scope of racism in America and simply can’t see how addressing whiteness is useful.
Or perhaps taking personal offense and getting outraged over perceived blame allows them to disengage from what is actually being said. The “white guilt” response often feels like an excuse to dismiss the entire conversation.
As a white American, I feel a moral obligation to help mend the tears in our nation’s fabric that white supremacy has caused. I acknowledge that there is a debt to be repaid as well as a great deal of damage that needs to be healed as a result of it. And I can do that without feeling guilty.
I am not personally a white supremacist, nor have I ever directly oppressed people of color. But I was born into a country where white supremacy was rampant upon its founding and written directly into its laws for the better part of two centuries. White supremacy was at the heart of the transatlantic slave trade, the Fugitive Slave Acts, the Indian Removal Act, the Black Codes, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Indian Citizenship Act, Jim Crow, Anti-Miscegenation, and other racist laws.
And here’s a mind-blowing fact: Slavery existed as a legal and widely accepted reality on our soil for longer than the United States has officially been a country. Let that sink in.
After slavery ended, black Americans and other minority populations were actively and legally oppressed, segregated, excluded, and subjugated for another hundred years. None of this is ancient history. Some Jim Crow laws are technically still on the books, and there are still people alive who remember having to sit in the back of the bus.
Why did those things happen? Because the nature of power is that people who have it want to keep it, and white people have always held the power in America. White people decided that all of those unjust laws were okay, and throughout our history, white people were the only ones with the power to undo them.
Yes, eventually enough white people — after years and years and years and years of people of color asking for their humanity to be seen and acknowledged — decided it was time to put an end to the majority of the most blatant, legal injustices. Yay. But they don’t get a cookie for finally getting around to doing the right thing, and we don’t get a pass on the less obvious racial injustices that still plague our country.
And the fact remains that white people still hold the power in America. One of the most obvious examples of that is our current Republican-controlled Congress. Do you know what percentage of congressional Republicans are white? 94.5%
Yes, you read that right.
When white Americans decry race-baiting and “identity politics,” I have to chuckle. White people have played the race card and engaged in race-based identity politics throughout our entire political history. White people are the ones who created racist laws. White people are the ones who segregated schools and pools and drinking fountains. Racial inequalities exist because of how white people used their power since America began.
But pointing out that reality doesn’t mean I feel guilty for being white. It means I acknowledge that the roots of white supremacy run deep in our country. It means I feel compelled to use the inherent power and privilege of my skin color to mitigate the effects of white supremacy and racism — individual and systemic, as well as conscious and subconscious. And I feel compelled to do so not out of a sense of guilt, but out of a sense of justice and humanity.
Guilt implies a sense of wrongdoing. When I study the history of racism in our country and strive to understand how I can help mend the wounds it has caused, I know I’m doing the right thing. When I listen to people of color and believe them, I know I’m doing the right thing. When I point out racial injustice and challenge people who believe it doesn’t exist, I know I’m doing the right thing. When I examine what I can do as a white American to undo the harm done by my ancestors, I know I’m doing the right thing.
No “white guilt” necessary, only a desire for real justice and true equality. The only people who should feel guilty are those who get in the way of that.