White Guilt is a super-duper-f*cking-tricky-ass thing. “That’s just white guilt” is something I’ve heard people say to belittle any feelings that come up about the injustices of the past or present. In this kind of interaction, it’s as if, because guilt is a feeling, it’s completely irrational, unfounded, and worth throwing away.
But getting rid of white guilt can be as tricky as getting rid of fruit flies — Yes, I’ve been battling them, too.
Guilt is tricky for a few reasons.
- Guilt is real. It isn’t irrational, it stems from reality, from something we’ve done. For some of us, the connection with out ancestors is so real, that we feel guilty as if we took those actions ourselves. We also know that we benefit in the present from the actions our ancestors took in the past. Feeling guilty gives can be the first step to taking responsibility. Since white people have conquered every indigenous nation in the world and performed rape and slavery from the very start, guilt is appropriate. And some guilt towards the injustices our ancestors actually committed, can be healthy, if we give ourselves the space to really feel the feelings and connections we notice.
- Guilt is pervasive. Left undetected, guilt can become underbelly of everything we think, see, and do. It is important to see it, name it, and handle it so it does not operate in hiding, but is visible.
- Guilt can be paralyzing. For many people, white guilt is simple a I-feel-bad-about-myself that doesn’t prompt anything else. It goes quickly from analysis to paralysis, where all bets are off. When guilt is unconscious, it acts like glue: it traps our energy and our creative power.
- Healthy guilt can hook into unhealthy guilt. It’s very easy for healthy guilt — “I benefit from institutional racism” to become unhealthy guilt — “Anytime any person of color is upset with me it’s my fault,” or “I need to suffer because I’m privileged.” In progressive white culture these can be combined, creating exponentially impacted pain. The pent-up resentments can fuel microaggressions. When we overflow with self-inflicted pain, sooner or later it bursts.
- Guilt is insidious. Unhealthy guilt is insidious and contagious because it popularizes the belief that: “I feel responsible for your feelings so you have to feel responsible for mine.” These beliefs are behind the detrimental role of microaggressions, white fragility, and white women’s tears — the tendency of white women to play a victim role in diverse conversations. When we finally break the numbness and start feeling our feelings, it’s easy to project the guilt and blame others because they “made me feel this way.” As long as we’re talking about words, no one can make us feel anything. When people say what they say, our own guilt feeds the pain. Without the guilt, we would just apologize and let go.
- Guilt is past trauma running the show. The expectation and entitlement that others take care of our feelings keeps white people weak, infantilized, and disempowered. Our inner-dialogue about victimhood, translates externally into more predatory behavior. It is a trauma re-enactment: we are stuck in the victim/predator/savior narrative. As long as we are stuck in those roles, we are never free. Most perpetrators are people trying to not be victims again. But there is no freedom in perpetration, it’s like changing your viewpoint on a crime scene: It still freaggin hurts to be in it.
- Guilt is hidden. I know a lot of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) who think that white people are drowning in guilt. I don’t think white people are run by conscious guilt. I think we’re run by unconscious guilt. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of white folk either don’t feel the guilt or have no idea they do. Like all other feelings in the white world, it gets pushed underneath an ocean of fake niceness until it’s numb.
Now that it’s clear how insidious, hidden, and detrimental white guilt is, where do we go from here?
I see a personal, collective, and global dimension to healing white guilt.
Acknowledge. At a personal level, it requires learning to spot it. Instead of dismissing it, we need to find ways to express it, whether verbally or artistically. When I take responsibility for the wrong I or my ancestors have done, I offer amends. Amends are not because I feel bad for the other person, but because I feel bad for me. I offer amends not to be liked, appreciated, or visible, I offer amends to bring wholeness to my own humanity, by being honest about who I am.
Share. At a collective level, it’s important to create spaces in which white people can share their feelings of guilt in community. We need to be heard, held, and nurtured as we share those feelings.
Listen. At a global level, releasing white guilt requires restorative action. We have to be willing to be be accountable for the harm we and our ancestors have caused. This means listening to the pain cause without reacting. Listening just to listen. Yes, it’s gonna hurt like hell (especially because we’ve been numbing the pain for so long). The healing is in the feeling of the hurt. We must let it flow like a river so we can move on.
Grieve. My friend Quanita Roberson always says that “shame, blame, and guilt are not feelings. They are where we go to hide from the feelings. The feeling is grief.” We have to grieve: the idea that we were born in the best country in the world. We must grieve our whole identity shaped around a great, just, and free country. We have to grieve everything we were taught to believe about America. We have to grieve the country we thought we knew. Healing guilt requires a commitment to loving humanity, my own first, then others. See the truth, the whole raw truth, then restore.
Restore. Restore is the last step. We must do this last to break the cycle. Our obsession with fixing stuff and acting too soon is making things worse. Once we’ve processed the feelings personally and collectively, then we can really imagine and create what a restorative country looks like.
On a national scale, there’s space for different types of restoration. I do believe though, that if we did this work profoundly, reparations for Native and African American communities would be the next step. Reparations is the most organic resolution of an amends process — one white liberals and progressives have been avoiding, because we’ve been so frozen in the guilt.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates mentions in The Case for Reparations:
“Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say — that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt….
What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal… Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.— Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Previously published on medium
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