The events that have unfolded in Ferguson, MO and New York City are certainly not the first to spark racial dialogue (or lack thereof) in our country. Even so, many of us are at least on the fringe of the conversation now because of those two cities. Maybe we have written a blog or two. Maybe we shared controversial pictures and posts on Facebook. Maybe we offered our 2 cents in the comments section beneath one of those posts. Maybe we have avoided social media, but engaged in conversation with friends and family. In any case, I am guessing that a few of us have come across the term “White Guilt”.
Most likely the term was used by a white person who said something like, “I refuse to feel White Guilt” Many of us white people cringe when we hear other white people seem to acknowledge it, like when Brett Dennen sings “Then I curse my whiteness and I get so damn depressed. In a world of suffering why should I be so blessed?”
I have to confess that I am not speaking of “other” white people as much as I am speaking about myself. I have fought tooth and nail against the idea of White Guilt since the term was brought to my attention. I would usually rationalize my hatred of the term by acknowledging that I never owned any slaves or put up any “No Coloreds Allowed” signs. I have always been against racism, but I felt like White Guilt was a fruitless and self defeating idea.
Then I went and read a book. It was a book that was assigned to me by my boss. The name of it is “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown. The book centers around the study of vulnerability and shame. In it Brown makes what I have come to believe is a perspective shattering distinction between Shame and Guilt.
Shame: I am bad.
Guilt: I have done something bad.
Brown goes on to suggest that guilt is actually a good thing. It gives us something to work with. It gives us the opportunity to recognize our wrongs and work to make them right. Shame on the other hand is a completely unhealthy power. If we are in shame it means that we have internalized our guilt to a point that we no longer separate who we are from what we have done.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to apply these ideas to communities rather than just individuals. This Shame/Guilt distinction has made me reconsider my feelings about White Guilt. I confess that I used to think that Martin Luther King Jr. healed our country of all racial inequalities, we (white people) have learned our lesson, and all black people just need to get over it like we have.
It is in this frame of mind that the violent rejection of White Guilt usually comes in. I get it. Remember, I have rejected it for a long time. But as I find myself surrounded by people of all different races–many of whom have suffered under the domination of white people and/or white led systems–I am realizing that White Guilt is exactly what I need. I need an entry point through which to engage the racial tension in our country and a healthy acknowledgment of the sins of white people and systems–and my own privilege because of those sins–might just be the most vulnerable and honest.
I think that when most of us think of White Guilt, we are thinking more along the lines of Brown’s definition of shame. We get the feeling that if we don’t reject it, we are essentially agreeing that being white is the equivalent of being evil. That’s why I think it’s important to make the same distinction that Brown did as we talk about White Guilt. I absolutely believe that White Shame is an entirely fruitless and self defeating thing, but White Guilt might just be our invitation to move toward something better in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of other races.
Ironically as much as we violently reject the idea of–what I will now call–White Shame, I believe that many of us are already pinned beneath it’s oppressive weight. Brown goes on to say these words about shame.
“When we experience shame, we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalizing our lapse, offering a disingenuous apology, or hiding out.”
When I read that quote I am reminded of the many times I ignorantly claimed that black people were actually more racist than white people. I think about the times I rolled my eyes when a black person would claim racism was involved in something bad that happened to them. I think about the times I remained silent even though I thought racism was happening in front of me. I also think of how we, as white people, have already apologized for the deep roots of oppression black people have endured and the effects of which still oppress many black people today. But then I find it difficult to think of exactly when that authentic apology would have taken place. Was it when we so graciously allowed black people to eat in our restaurants or sit in our seats on the bus? Was it when we so self-sacrificially allowed black people to compete more fairly in the job market? Was it when we–albeit through jeers and curses–allowed black children into our schools?
To be honest, I am not sure that there ever really was anything more than a disingenuous apology offered to the black community in the United States. That’s why we need a dose of White Guilt–so we can finally acknowledge the sins of oppression that are a true part of our history. So we can finally be awakened to see how those sins are still effecting black people across the country. So we can finally say that we–through an authentic apology born out of healthy White Guilt–will stand in solidarity with you and not rest until true justice is a reality for us all.