Recently I saw an old article written by a white man who had gone through an experience in which he had found relief from the sense of guilt he felt because of racism. For him relief from guilt came from a direct experience in which a black person forgave him. His life since then has led him to significant change and involvement in the struggle against racism. Other white people have had similar experiences, often within the context of a religious setting. Those experiences, when accompanied by active change in lives, are valid, and I do not want to argue with them. However, I do have quarrels with some people who assume that these experiences dictate the way all whites must find relief from guilt. I have heard it declared as the route which whites must take. That route for the remedy for white guilt also defines a role for blacks; whites have had a historic propensity to define roles for blacks, and we have had enough of that.
I have two other objections to the insistence that whites must seek forgiveness from black people for their involvement in racism. First, it places the burden for the whole matter back on black people, asking them to take the role of savior. The oppressor takes a foot off the back of . the oppressed and says, “What I have done is terrible … I feel guilty … now forgive me!” Second, this approach misses the fact that demographically there are not enough black people to do the forgiving for the many more whites, and most black people have better things to do than run around forgiving whites.
Guilt is a common human response which many white people experience when they are confronted with the facts of how white racism exploits people of color. Guilt is felt, guilt is given verbal expression, and when it is “acted out,” it takes numerous forms. Guilt can warp responses, or it can give direction to them. Guilt can motivate action or it can become a substitute for action. Guilt can contribute to understanding, or it can cloud realities between people. Guilt can manipulate or it can be manipulated.
Most often when I hear white people talk about guilt in relationship to race relations and racism, there is an attempt to deny it. “I don’t feel guilt” … “don’t blame me for slavery” … “I never owned slaves” … Or sometimes the expression of guilt by one white person is met with an “Oh, you shouldn’t feel guilty; that will do no one any good!” In each case there is an attempt to deny the feeling of guilt.
Since the issue of guilt does come to the fore frequently, here are several observations about guilt which I hope will be helpful.
1. Guilt is a predictable human reaction when one sees another person or group oppressed. It is probably a peculiarly human reaction; not to feel guilt under such circumstances would be a measure of inhumanity. One who is incapable of feeling or expressing guilt may be on less healthy psychological ground than the one who does feel and express guilt. So let’s not deny the guilt feelings when they come; guilt is a real human emotion.
2. Guilt is a feeling which we can acknowledge, work through, and then move beyond, to take a positive action to correct the situation about which we feel guilty. A major danger is that we become flagellants, delighting in the wringing of hands and endless verbalization of remorse. Then guilt becomes a swamp of inaction. The trick is to avoid getting trapped in guilt, but rather to use that emotion to generate activity which counteracts racism. Doing this is much harder than saying it, but the goal is to move beyond guilt over the past into responsible action for the present.
3. Religious expressions have often led people into guilt feelings, and some will argue that religion has created more guilt than it has alleviated. Religion at its best provides a way for many people to deal with guilt, and from that perspective guilt should hold no horror at all. The Christian churches and their members should have no fear of guilt. In its theology and forms the church has ways of responding to guilt, for leading people through guilt to positive action. Some of the words which remind us of those forms are: confession, forgiveness, repentance, new witness. Similarly Judaism and other forms of religious expression have ways of acknowledging guilt and responding to it, with positive results in the lives of adherents to the particular faith.
4. People often argue that they cannot feel guilty about the past, for things that happened before they were born, or for events in which they were not actors. This is usually the argument that white folks make when they say, “Don’t blame me … I didn’t own slaves!” Yet those same people are quick to invoke an opposite emotion and to express pride over things in the nation’s past to which they did not contribute. No one I know who so proudly celebrated our Bicentennial fought in the Revolutionary War or helped to write the Constitution! Every fourth of July we glow in the pride of our history, and shout about events to which we did not contribute! Maybe the complainer did not own slaves, but slavery was a national system, and it is an appropriate response to feel some sense of guilt about slavery, if one is a part of the dominant society. Similarly in the present, one may not contribute directly to housing discrimination, but still feel a sense of shame for a society in which housing discrimination functions to make it measurably more difficult for a person of color to obtain housing than for a white person.
5. There is a corporate nature of life which often finds us in situations where we carry out a responsibility assumed by someone else or some other group with whom we are identified. I am part of a corporate group which is obliged to make a regular mortgage payment, necessary because forebears fifty years ago borrowed money with which to erect the building we still enjoy. Most of us who now are responsible for raising and paying the mortgage were not around when the obligation was incurred. If we were to go to the bank and announce that we were not going to make more payments because “we did not incur the debt,” we would be told clearly and forcefully (with law behind the statement) that the corporate nature of our relationship to the original debtors does indeed make us responsible for their past decisions.
Another aspect of the corporate nature of life carries extra-legal obligations for national, religious, racial, and other groups. The Old Testament knew of that corporate nature when it spoke of grandparents eating sour grapes and setting “on edge” the children’s teeth. The history of racism, the constant oppression of people of color is a part of that corporate life which white people in the United States share. Though not personally responsible for that past, we bear a part of the corporate responsibility. If society’s “teeth are on edge” because of the past sourness, we are wiser to acknowledge the responsibility and to do something about it than to shrug it off with an “I never owned slaves … don’t blame me!”
6. Some have noted a distinction made in Japanese culture between shame and guilt which may be instructive for us. Shame, felt as a societal phenomenon in Japanese culture, does not carry with it the intense form of personal guilt which is often associated with guilt in the United States. This is not to assume that patterns in Japan can easily be transferred to the United States of America. Other peoples have developed different ways of responding to the sense of guilt; maybe we can learn from them. In this nation we often appropriate guilt in a personal way … “I am guilty” … “I am diminished” “I am not what I ought to be.” Guilt of that sort is not something many want to accept, especially when dealing with corporate and societal forms of racism. It is easier to push it away, and say, “I am not guilty.” Perhaps we can learn from other cultures a more healthy way of assuming responsibility without personal incrimination.
There is obviously much more to be said about guilt and racism. Each of the above observations might be a first sentence of a separate article. Maybe this will start the discussion for you and your friends. If you feel guilt at some point, don’t be surprised; please don’t become captive to your guilt. If you don’t feel guilty, then please don’t start feeling guilty because you don’t feel guilty! There is enough genuine guilt around without creating more.