These last few years I have struggled a lot with something I finally learned to call "White Guilt." It is this creeping sense that, as a white person, I bear some unique responsibility (even culpability?) for the racial divides and disparities of the present moment. So what do I do with this feeling?
At first I repressed it, and the thought of it made me angry. Many of my conservative friends told me not to feel white guilt. "You didn't own any slaves! Your ancestors immigrated after the Civil War!" But that seemed so individualistic to me.
Then, when I began to accept the realities of white privilege in the U.S. (how my being white and from a white family has given me all kinds of contemporary and generational advantages in society), I gave into white guilt...sort of. I felt terrible about the realities of my racial privilege, but I didn't own them. They weren't my fault. So I felt it, but denied it at the same time. Many of my progressive friends told me something like, "Yes you benefit from white privilege, but you didn't create it. You shouldn't feel bad. Just get to work fixing it!"
Then many of my "woke" friends told me that wasn't helpful. "We don't need your white guilt here!" They could smell it even if I denied it. What they were saying, as I understand accurately, is that if you are fighting for the lives and dignity of black folks and native folks and latin@ folks and asian folks, not for the sake of their lives but rather in order to alleviate yourself of the guilt...Stop. It's not going to work. You're not going to be able to sustain the work, and in the meantime it is going to become about you and not about #TerenceCrutcher, #TyreKing, and #KeithLamontScott. So am I back where I started? Just don't feel the guilt?
As a Christian, I've come to believe in white guilt, and here's why. I believe that all human beings are connected. SO connected, in fact, that the New Testament says I experience the culpability and consequences for the faults of the first people on earth. If that's true....is it possible that I can experience the culpability and even the consequences of white people in the U.S. over the last 500 years (what my brother Mark Charles calls "the trauma of white america")? Is it possible that my intuitive sense of culpability is part of my connectedness to other human beings across time and space?
But if that is what's happening and my white guilt is real, what do I do with it? I know can't take it into the work of liberation! As one of my therapists used to say, "Guilt is a really bad motivator."
Well, here's where I experience the real beauty of my faith in Jesus for contemporary work in racial justice. I am forgiven. Not tolerated. Not in a state of perpetual denial. Not permanently excluded for the way I've participated in white supremacy. Guilty and yet Forgiven. Forgiven and therefore free. And once you're free, you're free to work for the love of others with a motivation sustained not by guilt but by gratitude. So here's a call to all guilty and forgiven white folks. Let's get to work.
Photo by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue via Creative Commons