Rethinking White Guilt

I’d never experienced racism until I lived on a reservation. It was a wonderfully unique community–governed by Natives, yet three quarters hispanic, and all the more diverse when it came to opinions on race, inequality, and oppression.

Most white people live a life devoid of any recognition of their race. Whiteness is largely assumed the default in America and to be of a different ethnicity or culture is to be a deviation from the norm (or at least so it is perceived). That may not be how people would define it, but I’d argue that that is a pragmatic understanding of “culture” to those in the majority.

My Native friends, Corey and Phillip, explaining Manifest Destiny

But often as a white person (or person from majority culture) begins to encounter race and culture tangibly, they experience a phenomenon called “white guilt.” White guilt has been defined as “the individual or collective guilt often said to be felt by some white people for the racist treatment of people of color by whites both historically and presently.”

When individuals begin to experience white guilt, they usually respond in either one of two ways: They begin to work hard to pay of the debt left by the ancestors and release themselves from guilt, or they blatantly retort that they are not guilty for they had no participation in acts of oppression.

Both of those positions aren’t actually helpful though as they’re both done out of self-preservation. But what if I told you there was another way?

As I began to learn about the shaky past between my racial ancestors and my the ancestors of my Native friends, I began to experience white guilt. In the face of such historic oppression I felt like there was something that needed to be done on my part to make up for prior generations.

I’ve learned to give up white guilt though, because, well, I’m not guilty. Guilt assumes culpability–that I was a participant in a crime or violation. It goes without stating that I was not nor am I a participant in historical acts of oppression that have caused systemic issues of inequality.

But more importantly, I don’t have white guilt because guilt is a bad motivator. Guilt is rooted in reconciling some personal debt. When that debt is paid the debtor is freed. But there far more happening than resolution of a debt.

What I am calling for is a paradigm shift in the way people, and specifically white people, generally understand race. To escape two routes of self-preservation and make a new path forward.

You are not called to be guilty, but you are called to be responsible and to care.

Yes, neither you or I have actively acted against minorities, but through the virtue of our birth we are beneficiaries of historical acts of oppression. Regardless of action, by our very status of beneficiaries we are called to action. (For more information on how white people are beneficiaries of historical oppression, read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack).

It is important to note that your status as beneficiary is not dependent upon the actions of your personal ancestors. Your family tree may not be rotten but as a white person you have benefited from acts against minorities done by your race (e.g., your personal family has little to do with the discussion, even if your family had not yet immigrated to the United States during historical acts of trauma).

But it is not enough to stop at responsibility. Responsibility assumes obligation. Like the debt of guilt, once an obligation is accounted for a person is free to act as they wish. We are called to do more than fill an obligation.

We are called to care.

You see, if we only act out of guilt or to fill an obligation then we will have little lasting impact. We may at one point achieve societal equality but it could just as soon fall back into inequality if it was only done out of obligation. For when we are freed of guilt or freed of obligation we can return to acting in a manner that caused the problems to begin in the first place. But if we earnestly care and seek the best for our brothers and sisters of all ethnicities, then we achieve an unshakable equality.

And the great thing about this equality is that it is not about you. It has nothing to do with your sense of guilt or need for self-preservation and has everything to do with people of all races and minorities being counted and treated as equals despite what was done in the past.

This concept aligns much more clearly with a Christian Worldview than a motivation of guilt or obligation.

1 Corinthians 12:26 says “If one part [of the Body] suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.”

If one part of the Body of Christ suffers then we are all worse for it. It’s not that we are unaffected by individuals and ethnic groups that are suffering from historic acts of oppression, but that the entire church is hindered.

So, no, you don’t have to feel guilty. But you do have to care.




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