During Black History Month, Americans are often confronted with things in our history that make us uncomfortable. Knowing that our ancestors were slaveowners or that our government committed endless atrocities against Black people can lead to a lot of introspection.
Have you ever thought, “I should not be made to feel guilty for the actions of my forefathers?”
Well, I agree. You should not. No one should.
It’s an increasingly surfacing topic. Discussions and debates around it are cropping up on social media. There are even books about it from known white supremacists as well as conservative Black authors.
My general sentiment is this — no one should be made to feel guilty for the actions of others, white or not white. And while I’m no spokesperson for all Black people, I can tell you that that’s the last thing I personally want you to feel. So I’d like very much for you to consider deleting “white guilt” from your actual and your emotional vocabulary, permanently.
Do it right now.
Is it gone?
Great! Now that that’s taken care of, we can get to what’s really important — something that has the potential to instill some good in the world, and also in you.
I’m talking, of course, about white responsibility.
“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “What’s the difference?”
I’m glad you’re asking.
For the sake of argument, let’s ignore for a moment that the “white guilt” reaction, as a phenomenon and as a claim, is often used as an effective device to center white feelings. A device that, intentionally or not, deflects from the core issue of whether or not racial justice is worth striving for at all.
Let’s ignore all that for now and talk first about plain old, garden variety guilt.
What does it mean to be guilty? Guilt implies conviction. Guilt points fingers. Guilt blames and sometimes it shames. The focus of guilt is punishment, and the disposition of the punished.
Now, “white guilt” in particular carries with it the implication that white people, as a whole and/or as individuals, deserve to be punished for the sins committed during the more insidious portions of American history. I’m sure you know which portions I mean. The ones some often pretend not to recall out of convenience, or pretend don’t still carry effects that permeate events and attitudes in the here and now.
Guilt is past-focused.
Responsibility on the other hand uplifts. It calls to action. It connotes a sense of empowerment.
Responsibility is future-focused.
White responsibility says “While I may not have caused this, I can play a part in having it end, especially because my involvement might carry more weight due to how I present in a society that places a relatively high value on whiteness. And speaking of society, doing this just might make it better for everyone including me.”
The focus of white responsibility is on the task at hand.
So no, I don’t wish to make you or anyone feel white-guilty. Yes, I do want to instill in you (and pretty much everyone else) a sense of white responsibility.
See the difference?
When you open yourself to seeing your part in our shared responsibility to right injustice around us, you also may be open to seeing things heretofore unseen. Where you may benefit from a past you had no hand in causing, for example, whether you realize it or not. How many of the promises of Reconstruction still remain unrealized a century and a half later. That many current systems in place are parallel to those same unjust institutions, just rebranded.
Why waste energy punishing yourself (or refraining from punishing yourself) for chattel slavery, when you could assume responsibility for learning how it has been refactored into the modern prison industrial complex? Don’t feel guilty about Jim Crow, instead see what you can do about correcting voter disenfranchisement efforts and gerrymandering that will disproportionately target BIPOC individuals. Don’t feel bad about segregation measures long ago that permitted only whites to begin accumulating generational wealth through home ownership, feel compelled to end modern redlining. While you are at it, it wouldn’t hurt to donate to the many ongoing mutual aid efforts to help people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Is that guilt feeling cropping up again? No, no, no, we’ve been over this. Please ignore it. Remind yourself of our shared responsibility to make this a better world. Now remind your friend, co-worker, candidates, relatives.
I’m not saying any of this so that I have a scapegoat, someone to point a finger at, or so that I can feel better. I’m doing it so that you can help me actually make it better. You can’t disconnect yourself from your history any more than I can from mine. But while neither you nor I were culpable for history, we can be responsible for the future.
Ultimately it’s up to you. You can choose to look at yesterday, and work to try to absolve yourself of blame for it today. Or you can look at today and work to see the positive impact that you can have on tomorrow.
Another version of this piece was posted at buckscountyrising.com.
Kevin E. Leven is co-leader of the Bucks County Anti-Racism Coalition, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity organization dedicated to educating, informing, and taking action on matters of racial justice. bucksarc.org