The term “white guilt” has been around for several decades and can be defined in a number of ways. Foremost of these definitions stems from the historical fact that white Europeans enslaved millions of Black Africans and cruelly murdered or displaced millions of Indigenous North and South Americans, along with Aboriginal Australians and other Pacific Island people. Insofar as slavery and colonialism are recognized as civilization-level injustices which no reform or apology can ever fully redeem, all white persons today are beneficiaries of, and accessories to, a global crime: guilty as charged.
There is another sense of white guilt, though, and one that has become almost as commonly understood as the centuries-old realities of racism and exploitation. This white guilt refers to the modern political force of contrition or shame on the part of whites themselves, for whom the acknowlegement of past evils has become a present good. Here, white guilt is not strictly about who committed what wrongs over which eras – something now pretty much beyond dispute from anyone – but about the mushier notion of how descendants of the perpetrators should feel towards descendants of the victims. Critical reference to white guilt is often tinged with contempt, used to describe a patronizing, performative show of humility that does more to soothe the consciences of individual white people than address continued problems faced by non-white communities. The criticism has been made everywhere from journalist Tom Wolfe’s report of “radical chic” in his 1970 article “That Party at Lenny’s” (writing about the uneasy mixing of Black activists with wealthy and fashionable white New Yorkers at a fundraiser) to Black author Shelby Steele’s 2006 book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.
Today, white guilt may be manifest in Native land acknowledgements stated before staff meetings or other public events, in diversity workshops mandated by schools or employers, in Black Lives Matter or Every Child Matters paraphernalia displayed by white protesters against anti-Black or anti-Native racism, and in a variety of other expressions in business, education, or the media. The problem is not the essentially sympathetic outlook being conveyed (or, some would say, enforced); the problem is whether this sympathy actually translates into a better, more humane society for anybody. Is there a direct connection between how badly whites feel for the sins of their forefathers and how well contemporary Blacks, Natives, or Asians fare now? Are disadvantage or poverty – or indeed, bigotry – alleviated by formal demonstrations of regret that they exist? Most troubling, does white guilt merely maintain whites’ autonomy at the expense of non-whites, by ensuring social responsibility and agency stay with the same class of people who’ve owned them for five hundred years?
It’s the latter consideration that’s especially worrisome in 2022. Properly enacted, white guilt may only be an insidious type of privilege – an exclusive language reserved for smart and striving bourgeoisie who know to parrot the appropriate platitudes about race and equality when they apply to good universities and good jobs, whereas for actual Black and Native people the same messages are just diverting them away from a comprehensive grounding in literacy, numeracy, and civics, leaving them even less prepared to meet the color-blind standards they will sooner or later confront in their professional and personal lives. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has wondered:
Wouldn’t it come as a relief, in some way, if it turned out that the whole “exhausting ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Red Queen Race of full-time meritocratic achievement”…was nothing more than a manifestation of the very white supremacy that you, as a good liberal, are obliged to dismantle and oppose?…And wouldn’t it be especially appealing if – and here I’m afraid I’m going to be very cynical – in the course of relaxing the demands of whiteness you could, just coincidentally, make your own family’s position a little bit more secure?…If you induce inner-city charter schools to disavow their previous stress on hard work and discipline and meritocratic ambition, because those are racist, too – well, then their minority graduates might become less competitive with your own kids in the college-admissions race as well.
It’s this sneaky, perhaps unconscious undercurrent within white guilt that poses the greatest danger to us all. Not because whites have nothing to atone for. Not because there isn’t a real legacy of discrimination and tragedy still affecting millions, at least to some lingering degree. Not because we should forget our own history. But because for all its outward altruism, it’s very easy for white guilt to become just the latest symbol, and the latest weapon, of white power.
The TV series White Lotus deals with some of the issues you raise here. A wealthy white family is staying at an exclusive Hawaii resort and frequently clash over white identity issues. Their college aged daughter reads Fanon and Marcuse and is always calling out her moderate parents for their ignorance of historical injustices. Yet when confronted on whether she’s open to giving away all the family’s wealth to social justice causes to absolve her (performative?) white guilt . .. you can guess her response.
These are complicated issues. I have no idea if “limousine liberals” are speaking out of both sides of their mouth and only care about their kids getting ahead as Douthat suggests. But I would say that characterizing every liberally inclined white person (who doesn’t live on a trust fund) as riddled with fake guilt and hypocrisy is a bit much. I agree that performative acts of contrition are mere empty rhetoric and weirdly passive aggressive if they don’t lead to any concrete action towards systematic issues facing underrepresented people in the community.
I would argue the choices one makes out of the public eye/social media microscope carry more weight. Challenging an ignorant assumption made by another white person, educating oneself and others on these historical issues, being open to having your own assumptions challenged, and thinking of oneself as “liberal” means little if your actions aren’t consistent with your spoken ideals, in my uncynical view, do add up to something for the common good.
Hi Eric, thanks for reading. You are quite right that white people’s support of minorities shouldn’t automatically be perceived as phony; after all, many committed whites participated in civil rights marches in the 1950s and 60s, and many are still materially contributing to social justice causes today. What I’ve noticed, however, is the extent to which this kind of advocacy on the part of white people has itself become a career or academic advantage, whether or not any collateral benefits trickle down to non-white people. The Aboriginal land acknowledgements I often hear in Canada are a good example: they’re a paternalistic gesture implying that minority success or failure is (still) determined by a powerful majority’s generosity or lack thereof, but the majority nevertheless enjoys the moral reward. Best, gc