Is Your White Guilt Useless?
As a white woman, a feeling I am quite familiar with is guilt. Specifically, of course, “White Guilt.” Comedians have long been making jokes about the phenomenon as just something white folks all experience. Anti-racists have long been deeming it useless, too — even harmful.
But what is white guilt, really? And is it completely useless? This is what I have learned from my own experiences of white guilt.
What Is White Guilt and Where Is It Really Coming From?
One way in which I understand my white guilt is that it is often a means for me to excuse myself from the movement. Of course, I never intentionally deploy this! I’m sure most white folks don’t knowingly say, “I’m going to use my guilt to avoid the issue.”
But often unconsciously, white folks can use their guilt as an excuse not to address their role in upholding white supremacy. For centuries, white folks have had it affirmed that their feelings matter more than that of their Black counterpart, or people of colour in general. So when we talk about “white guilt,” we are talking about the long-held belief that if we are suffering a little, this is worth far more than the marginalised groups who are suffering a lot.
How Can White Guilt Be Useful?
First and foremost, it’s useful if you do the above: assess critically and honestly where it’s coming from, in yourself and in other white folks. But there are more ways in which white guilt can be useful, as long as we understand its limits. The limit lies here: if you’re beating yourself up to the point of inaction, it’s not useful. If your white guilt is making you too sad to bother, or too defeatist to believe you can enact change, then you are essentially excusing yourself from the movement. You’re claiming that the process is simply too painful to endure, and so your Black friends will simply have to wait. This has also been problematically referred to as “allyship fatigue”.
If you’re prioritising your pain over the far greater pain of Black folks historically and currently, then your white guilt is not useful. It’s a narcissistic self-flagellation. And it serves absolutely no purpose other than to immobilise you at a time when supportive voices are sorely needed.
Here are some ways in which white guilt is useful, as well as the limits to that utility. It’s a line white folks must walk carefully.
1. It’s natural — unless you’re an uncaring person.
It’s pretty normal to feel guilty. Put simply, finding out that you’ve upheld racist biases for a long time is painful. It’s not nice to find out you’ve been hurting other people. I’m glad that you and I are compassionate and that we care that we have hurt others. It can be useful to feel this guilt because it can drive you to want to be much kinder in the future.
The limit: Don’t use the fact that you feel guilty as evidence that you’re a kind and caring person. It doesn’t make you “one of the good ones” — that simply doesn’t exist. Part of being a white anti-racist and a good ally is fully embracing that you are not exempt. You uphold and benefit from white supremacy every day.
2. It can radicalise you.
For some people, guilt is what mobilised them to finally take up arms against an injustice. For example, many vegans and vegetarians claim that seeing footage of animals being harmed on farms and in slaughterhouses is what drove them to reassess their role in upholding animal exploitation. It was the push they needed to do better.
The limit: The limit here is obvious — guilt left un-mobilised is just guilt. It has to be followed up and accompanied by action. Keeping your guilt inside yourself serves only to make you feel bad and helps no one around you.
3. So you should.
Put frankly, we should feel guilty for our wrongdoings. With the centuries of oppression faced by our Black friends, the least we white people can do is feel bad for hurting others.
The limit: This is not to say that your guilt is wanted or required. As a working-class person, I find it frustrating when my rich friends say they feel guilty for how privileged they are. Yes, I figure that with everything poverty has done to me, they can probably handle some guilt, and probably should feel bad for not sharing or even noticing their wealth before now. But I also don’t require their guilt. I require their money, to be honest. The same goes here. While you probably should feel guilty for the actions of yourself and your ancestors, don’t go telling Black folks that you feel guilty and expecting them to feel merely vindicated or vengefully pleased. Use your guilt to donate to the movement, to sign petitions and to share information. Telling people you’ve felt guilty won’t earn you any brownie points. Feeling bad is the least white folks can do: the bare minimum.
4. A physical reminder to do better.
For me, guilt often manifests as a physical sensation. It’s visceral. A tingling in my neck, a churning in my stomach, an unpleasant sensation in my chest, even shortness of breath. In a society that prefers sociopathic ignorance to critical engagement and potential uprising, it can be easy to unplug from the news cycle and forget how imminent the movement is, for Black folks and for everyone. Physical sensations are far more difficult to ignore than thoughts in the back of one’s mind. So in my experience, I am grateful for that churning in my stomach which tells me that who I am at my core, beyond the conditioning of white supremacy, is a human being who cares for others — and needs to do better. Far better.
The limit: Again, the temptation here can be to wallow in self-pity for how physically uncomfortable it is to unpack your racist biases and actions. Again, I recommend Saad’s workbook which encourages the reader to engage fully in activities and prompts that guide this unpacking. At times while I worked through this workbook, I experienced acne breakouts, sleepless nights and generally miserable feelings. Unpacking your wrongdoings isn’t nice. But listen to your gut when it tells you you’re feeling guilty. It’s reminding you for a reason.
Anti-racism is not a self-improvement project. That is to say, it’s not about merely being a better person — its about real change, and how that change can help others. Ensure you use your guilt, by taking your ego and self-image completely out of the equation.
Be An Active Ally.
If you’re honest with yourself and find that you haven’t engaged with the movement since George Floyd’s murder, here are some easy steps to take to get (re)started. Instead of getting overwhelmed and checking out, pick one and just do it. You’ll find you’ve built some momentum, and mobilised your guilt to do and be better.