Some terms are criticized as social justice jargon. However, many of these terms are important to know about and understand. One such term is white guilt.
Dictionary.com offers a concise definition of white guilt: it is “the feelings of shame and remorse some white people experience when they recognize the legacy of racism and racial injustice and perceive the ways they have benefited from it.” While it sounds well-intended in certain ways—after all, it recognizes racism and injustice and ways white people like me have benefited from it—white guilt can also be extremely problematic in certain ways.
But why can white guilt be problematic?
The problem is that in many cases, feelings of shame and remorse can be so great that they prevent one from doing anything about the racism and racial injustice that’s so upsetting to begin with. While it is important to recognize racism and racial injustice around you, especially if you recognize some of the ways it benefits you, it’s counterproductive to be so upset about those systems of injustice that you feel unworthy of playing your part as an ally in the larger effort to ensure that Black lives matter. After all, the goal is not to wallow in guilt, but to turn the recognition of injustice into anti-racist action.
It’s also worth noting that one of the criticisms I often hear of white guilt is that white guilt doesn’t turn into white action. That’s something to be conscious of, if you, like me, are white. It’s important to be conscious of the fact that it’s not enough to simply recognize how racial injustice benefits you, nor is it enough to feel guilty about how racial injustice benefits you. Instead of simply recognizing how racial injustice benefits you (or even feeling guilty about that), donate to and/or volunteer for racial justice organizations, attend Black Lives Matter marches (while practicing mask-wearing and social distancing, of course), vote for candidates who have an extensive platform on racial justice, and educate your own friends about the systems of racial injustice you’ve noticed yourself, among other things. In doing these activities, however, please note that it’s not about you or about erasing your guilt, but about racial inequality (because for too many people attending a protest march, for example, is about making them look like the “good people”).
In addition to the volunteering, marching, voting, etc., however, I also recommend that people struggling with white guilt should process those feelings with other people who have struggled with white guilt themselves and managed to turn that guilt into racial justice action. While it may be tempting to talk about your white guilt with anyone and everyone to show how “woke” you are, the most productive and healthy way of processing and overcoming white guilt is probably by talking with people who have that shared experience with you.
So, for those who are still struggling with white guilt, I know how you feel. I was there, and I can sometimes still be there. I just hope that you will be able to turn guilt into action, for guilt without action does nothing.
 Some, such as Ciarra Jones, the author of a widely-read Medium piece on white guilt, argue that white guilt can even impede upon white action: https://medium.com/@ciarrajones/the-violence-of-white-and-non-black-poc-apologies-d1321c0ccb8e
4 Replies to “What Is…White Guilt?”
I think “white guilt” in the extreme doesn’t help anyone, but you are right it needs to lead to change. I get upset when there are people that say that they didn’t do anything bad it all happened such a long time ago, because that doesn’t mean that you have not benefited from it. Most white people have benefited from it in some way, but they feel no guilt whatsoever. It is that same with the American Indians and the treatment they received and continue to receive at the hands of the Whites and the White Government. If you don’t feel guilty about that in some way then you just don’t want to know our true history.
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Absolutely. You’re correct. There is a happy medium… you want to be aware of the history, but also realize that guilt without action would not produce results.
It is part of the path but leads through a lot of quicksand and we can get sucked in. I too am White.
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Absolutely. You’re correct. It is part of the path, but we don’t want to stall in that path (which can all too easily happen).