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.