White Guilt vs. White Redemption

Writers like me get accused a lot of appealing to people’s white guilt, so I figured I’d address that today.

By “like me” I mean a white girl from an affluent family who grew up in the burbs only to become some bleeding-heart idealist hippie spouting words like “oppression,” “disenfranchisement” and “Africa.”

Take this definition of white guilt from Urban Dictionary:

A belief, often subconscious, among white liberals that being white is, in and of itself, a great transgression against the rest of the world for which one must spend their life making atonement.

As an Irish Jew I know guilt like a best friend. In fact, when typing “Irish Jew” I felt strangely guilty. I often feel guilty for arguments I’ve already resolved, for having any fun ever, and even for crimes I never committed but know I would have if given the chance.

With all that experience on the subject, I have been struggling lately with the term “white guilt” and wondering if it’s really all that bad, at least as a starting point.

There is something healthy in admitting guilt. Confession is, after all, a fast lane to pardon. I have no need to spend my life trying to make atonement if I have already found forgiveness. Forgiveness brings peace, and peace motivates good deeds like nothing else I know. In admitting my guilt I am freed to pursue life-giving work. I can be less defensive about my own past, and about my people’s collective history.

I’ve tried both and there’s no doubt about it: Experiencing guilt, confessing it, and then moving forward as a forgiven person packs a lot more punch than striving constantly out of guilt and winding up a jackass.

So get in touch with your guilt, no matter your color. Recognize that if you’ve ever eaten Hershey’s chocolate or walked on carpet or bought a diamond, you have likely contributed to or benefited from slavery. Admit that had you been born into a Nazi family, or the child of a slave owner, you might have acted as heinously as they did. Acknowledge any apathy you feel toward human rights abuses across the globe and down the street.

But refuse to stop there, determined to work for the rest of your life to make up for it. If you’re willing to admit guilt, you can overcome it by accepting grace until your cup overflows.

This is where activism and spirituality collide head-on: not in Christian poverty tourism disguised as mission trips, and not in reminding everyone that your church buys fair trade coffee, but in the soul-empowering sacrament of confession and redemption.

After that, you don’t have to be prideful and arrogant to make yourself look knowledgeable and aware, and you don’t have to talk about Africa unless you want to. But you just might want to.

As a self-proclaimed white guilt survivor, I can promise it’s better than pretending the guilt doesn’t exist at all.

Do you struggle with guilt, and if so, how do you avoid letting it overburden you?

(Photo by Adrian van Leen)

2 Responses to “White Guilt vs. White Redemption”
  1. javateas says:

    I was a little white girl, survivor of my KKK father’s attempted abortion, who grew up a “latch key” child in a single parent home in Western Pa. I realized much later that my mom and I were very poor and that I was “neglected” because mom was an exhausted, underpaid teacher in a rural school district…and had “nothing left” for me when she came home at night.
    The term, “white guilt” was a bit new for me, but It applies, because my dad at least tried to lynch Black people… Should I feel NO sorrow over that? Lots of white Christian ladies saw their men walk out the door with ropes in their hands in the 30’s etc. Do we owe no thought to that terrible past?
    I think we do, indeed.
    What we do with that thought/guilt/sorrow, is hopefully something constructive. How destructive to do nothing.

  2. LB says:

    The thing about injustice is that it isn’t particular about who it’s visited upon, white, black, yellow, brown – young or old. There are voiceless people of all ages and colors who feel powerless and abandoned. So while I’ve never suffered from ‘white guilt’, I do suffer from pangs of conscience when I don’t act on my faith and treat others with the same compassion I’d hope to be treated with. It’s like Bob Dylan said, “What good am I if I know and don’t do?”

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