When trying to have a productive conversation about social issues, feminism, and the change that still needs to take place, self-awareness is crucially necessary. As White citizens, we hold a critical position in the fight against injustice. Unfortunately, our resistance to accept responsibility yields to our adapting a problematic role in society. Feeling guilty for our predecessors’ behavior, or for the fact that we benefit from a system that raises us up while pushing others down, is understandable — inevitable, even. The most well-intentioned White People may react defensively when discussing race, because, of course, we didn’t ask for this! It’s not our fault!
This phenomenon, which we can refer to as White Guilt, should be resisted and rejected as much as possible. Guilt is rarely an effective emotion. Those who disagree will argue that guilt can sometimes evoke a strong desire to change, but in reality, action is not stemmed from guilt. Action is a result of a sense of responsibility. A sense of responsibility will inspire change, which is sometimes coupled with guilt, but the two are not synonymous. Guilt will debilitate the person into paralysis or push the person into the defensive. The cognitive psychological theory believes that thoughts evoke the emotion. That is to say, people experience guilt when they believe they’ve caused harm. Our guilt follows directly from the belief that we have caused someone else’s misfortune. Using this theory, guilt is caused by a feeling of responsibility. Accepting the responsibility and using that to move forward is far more useful than guilt propelling us into a sense of self-preservation.
We may not have asked for this society, but we are benefitting from it, so we, as White People, do hold a responsibility to encourage change. For some people, White Guilt is stemmed from a real desire to change the current system. This can be used effectively, as long as we’re able to pinpoint where the sense of responsibility should lie. No one is blaming you, White citizen, for enslaving your fellow Black citizens many generations ago. But, you live in a society built upon slave labor that now benefits you in ways your Black teachers, friends, and yes, even your former president, could never dream of.
White Guilt is especially important to discuss when talking about America’s interaction with other countries. Voluntourism has been on the rise, a phenomenon in which young people travel to far-away lands in order to volunteer for a few weeks. This is often fueled by a genuine desire to help other people, but there is also typically a strong yearning to pad a resume. While no act is 100% selfless, this particular type of volunteering is sorely misguided. Fueled by White Guilt, we develop a savior complex. In order to make up for the sins of our ancestors, we find ourselves in foreign countries, surrounded by foreign children, snapping a photo for our Facebook followers to prove what a difference we’ve made. Voluntourists often pay large sums of money to go through a company based in Europe, so the country they’re volunteering in doesn’t even see the majority of the money forked over to help them in the first place. Voluntourists do not usually stay for long enough to make a real difference, because actual change takes time. The name — voluntourists — stems from the fact that while many of these people may want to help, they also want to see a new country and skip paying tourist prices. After they volunteer with an orphanage or a hospital for two to four weeks, they return home, to their cushy life, armed with a fancy resume and endless stories about how the Black children from Africa changed their life. Meanwhile, the lives of the children or people they helped in the foreign country remain largely unchanged.
In the case of voluntourism, White guilt led to some sort of action, but it was misplaced, a perfect example of how White guilt can be destructive, even when it’s well intentioned. Voluntourism too often is more about subsiding the White person’s guilt, as opposed to making a substantial, tangible, long-term difference. Voluntourism is more about making the White person “feel better” about what they feel guilty about. Ironically, their actions can sometimes make things worse. Voluntourism is a tricky topic. When the White saviors enter other countries gallantly, they introduce themselves as the heroes. As an example, there are some hospital trucks that come through certain countries every few months or so, on a sort of a hospital tour. This is a valiant effort to curb illness and provide extra care to those in need. What can end up happening, however, is that the citizens the hospital truck is trying to help learns to rely on them. Rather than using them as extra help as needed, they don’t bother investing in insurance, or going to the hospital in between visits from the truck. In the months that the truck isn’t there, if something happens, the citizens are worse off than if they hadn’t learned to rely on the truck.
White Guilt can be indicative of more useful feelings of responsibility, if they are directed appropriately. Unfortunately, because we’re human, we don’t always do that. As White People, we do play an important role in the social change moving forward. As the people benefitting from the systematic racial control our world relies on, we need to accept responsibility for that, stand up, and say we don’t want to live this way anymore. We need to accept responsibility that our ancestors did unspeakable things to our fellow citizens, and that even today, horrendous acts are done to those who also did not ask for this system. Just because we don’t ask to be a part of something doesn’t mean we can excluded from the consequences. It’s time to accept that for real change and equality to come about, we need to relinquish the power that has undeservingly been given to us. True strength and true change won’t happen as a result of guilt. It will happen as a result of action, which will happen as a result of acceptance.