Setting aside white guilt

In my work around issues of race and whiteness with Quakers, it’s not uncommon to hear white people express an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Learning about whiteness – discovering your nation’s history of colonialism, realising how you’ve benefitted from the  privileges of whiteness , remembering the times you didn’t challenge a racist comment, facing your ignorance and inaction around racial justice – can create a host of difficult feelings that paralyse. These feelings can leave you like a rabbit in headlights, not knowing what to do next. White guilt also has the effect of shifting focus away from black lives, and on to the feelings of white people. We become more concerned with making ourselves feel better than with working for racial justice. Because white guilt stops us in our tracks, and distracts us from black lives, we have to find a way to deal with it.

One way around white guilt is to deny that we have anything to be guilty about. As white people, we can easily think of ourselves as individuals who are disconnected from history. We could say ‘I didn’t enslave anybody, so why should I feel bad?’ or ‘I don’t say racist things. I’m a good person!’ This approach is a backward step. We can’t deny the ways in which the past affects our present. We can’t erase the wrongs of colonialism. We can’t ignore legacy of racism that we’ve inherited. Feeling horror, grief and guilt at racial injustice is better than feeling nothing at all.

Another way to deal with white guilt might be to use it as a springboard for action. The bad feelings that racial injustice creates in us become the fuel for our anti-racist work. This is perhaps a better way of dealing with white guilt than pretending it isn’t there. At least something is getting done! But there’s a big problem with this strategy. The focus is still on the white person’s feelings, the white person’s need to feel morally pure. Anti-racist work becomes a way to assuage guilt, to make the white person feel better about themselves, that they are a ‘good white person’. And ultimately, guilt is not a sustainable fuel. It won’t serve us in the long haul, and racial justice is a lifetime’s work. The white person concerned with their own goodness can never rest and recuperate, because if they stop they’ll cease to be a good person. So they keep going till they burn out.

For myself, dealing with white guilt comes down to where I find my self-worth. I used to think that what made me worthy was being a good person. Not only a good person, but a perfect one! I struggled hard to be as good as possible, and felt very angry with myself when I failed to meet my very high expectations. If my worth is found in how good a person I am, discovering that I am infected with white supremacy, that I unintentionally take part in and benefit from racist systems, challenges my self-worth right to the core.

Thankfully, I have given up on being a good person. Or rather, I no longer attach my self-worth to my good deeds. I’ve killed the ‘perfect me’, because he’ll never exist. I will always get things wrong. I’ll always need to ask other people’s forgiveness, just as I’ll always need to extend forgiveness to other people. I’ve accepted that I’m tied up in this knotty, broken world. I’m knotty and broken too. Instead, my self-worth is founded on God, on being part of God’s good creation that God loves. There’s nothing I can do that will make God love me any more or less. Doing anti-racist work won’t make me a more worthy person. This sense of self-worth allows me to acknowledge the feelings of white guilt, but then to set them aside.

By saying I’m not invested in my own goodness, I don’t mean we shouldn’t do good deeds. I think we should definitely apply all the gifts we have to making the world a better place. But the reason I do so isn’t to make myself more loveable. I do it because I want to help bring God’s promised future of peace and justice into the present.  The fuel for this work isn’t guilt, but God’s overflowing grace. This is the assurance that when we get things wrong (and we always will) we are loved, forgiven and worthy. No matter how deep in the shit of white supremacy we are, with the help of the Spirit we can still do something to claw our way out.

Bernard of Clairvaux said the highest form of love is love of self for God’s sake. Cultivating this love, recognising that our self-worth is grounded in the abundant love of the Spirit, and not our good deeds, is vital to sustainable activism. Through this love we can acknowledge feelings of white guilt, set them aside, and continue with the pressing work of ridding the world of white supremacy.

18 thoughts on “Setting aside white guilt

  1. I agree with you completely. In the United States the best thing everyone could do would be to just learn the whole history of how the nation profited because of slavery. Voting barriers, redlining in housing, job discrimination all continue to today here. Guilt is self indulgent. Action in whatever area one feels most called by God is the only route to take.

  2. I think as far as the ‘good person’ can be achieved, we need to rid ourselves of corruption but not necessarily rid ourselves of mistakes. A mistake is a mis-take, but corruption is about the wrongs done through laziness.

    We also have to be wary of whites manipulating guilt (and can be very practiced at this), and of anti-white behaviour. Whites were enslaved in north Africa for many years, and it was only stopped by a British naval commander and not by any monarchies. That is white against white also. It would be interesting to know how the fear of that affected people and who was involved… being taken away.

    Regarding current racism, just be careful because while it is currently our culture to rid ourselves of racism, it is not the same everywhere and in the UK also. What you do to help society can be turned to your horror when you get responses from some cultures. Understanding it all, yes that is so good.

    1. Thanks for reading Chris and taking the time to comment. I’m not sure I understand all your points, particularly your warning to be careful. I think white British culture is particularly resistant to anti-racist work, and if we engage in anti-racist work we will meet opposition, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

      1. Anti-racism leads to more clarity, and like many wrong things which happen, we just have to keep tackling them.

        Racism happens and I’ve seen the poor standards that result from it, it is another way of favouring or defensiveness. I’ve found racism, sexism and ageism to be a regular attack against myself over many years (I’m male by the way). I think the most helpful way we can be is to look at corruption and the excuses it makes, and map it all out like any maintenance worker needs a problem to be shown. In that we can deal with the wrong initiatives that go on, and have the bravery to be equal.

  3. Hello,

    Through the power and presence of the spirit of Christ in my consciousness and conscience, I am drawn out of the reflective process to guide and inform human relations. Engaging in reflection upon political, religious, and social intellectual constructs like whiteness, racism, or anti-racism diminishes awareness of the presence of Christ in my heart; guiding my interactions and relationships with people. It is the continuous, direct and unmediated experience of Christ’s living presence itself in itself, and the everliving awareness of the increase, decrease, or stasis experience within me, that is my sole and sufficient guide in matters of human relations, without engagement in the process of reflection and identification with the ideations, institutions, and the people who promote and profess the process of reflective thought; which is a usurpation of the prerogative of Christ’s sole rule and government over my relationship and interactions.

    Keith Saylor

    1. Thanks for reading the blog Keith. You’re understanding is very different to mine. I don’t believe in the unmediated presence of Christ. I believe that our experience of God is always mediated in some way, just through us being embodied individuals in a specific time and place. I also don’t believe we are fully able to discern the will of God as individuals. My experience of Christ needs to be tested against others in order to bring me to a better understanding.

      1. Yes, through the immanent, continuous and unmediated presence of Christ in our conscience, there is a different way of relating to people that is not of the nature of reflective thought. Thank you for sharing your honest testimony that you are guided by the reflective process to guide human relations. In Christ’s presence, a different way is discovered to me through direct experience (not an understanding or belief system) of Christ’s immanent presence enthroned upon my consciousness and conscience. It is edifying to know you and I relate to people from a fundamentally different nature. Through the power and presence of Christ, it is discovered to me immanent and ever presence Being itself in itself without reflection.

  4. # Untitled Note

    Mark wrote:

    1. You’re understanding is very different to mine.
    2. I don’t believe in the unmediated presence of Christ.
    3. I believe that our experience of God is always mediated in some way, just through us being embodied individuals in a specific time and place.
    4. I also don’t believe we are fully able to discern the will of God as individuals.
    5. My experience of Christ needs to be tested against others in order to bring me to a better understanding.

    Hello Again mark,

    Your response has stayed with me for these past few days because it clearly demonstrates a fundamental difference in our experience. I absolutely agree we are of a different mind or spirit. Your words discovered to me the depth of our difference.

    I appreciate your acknowledgement that you do not accept or know the direct or unmediated (face to face) presence of Christ in your life.

    Instead, you acknowledge your experience of Christ’s presence is mediated (the process of reflection) “in some way” because we are bodies living in time and space.

    You also share your experience you (individually) are not able to discern or reason to God’s will in full. I assume you are suggesting that corporate reflective discernment is more full than individual reflective discernment.

    In one sense, I agree with you. To the extent that a person relates to Christ’s presence through the process of reflection, it is the extent to which knowledge or experience of the immanent presence of Christ is partial, fragmentary, and imperfect. Your acknowledgement that the process of reflection or mediation is the only way you relate to the presence of Christ is revealing to me and helps me understand you better. Furthermore, your use of the words “our” and “we” in the context of people’s relating to Christ also reveals the importance you place on the process of reflection in your relationship with Christ. The use of those words intimate there is only one way. I do not share your experience of Christ being mediated through the process of reflection.

    The presence of Christ in my consciousness and conscience discovers to me a different way. In this way, I am drawn out of the process of reflection in my relations with others and Christ. The immediate and face to face experience of Christ’s presence teaches me a different way of living in the will of God that is not of the nature of the reflective consciousness. It is not a rational, reflective, or linguistic process.

    In the unrefIected or instant experience of Christ governing my consciousness and conscience, I am aware of the increase, decrease, or stasis of Christ’s direct presence in a given interaction or circumstance. Awareness of this dynamic or fluid experience of Christ’s immanent presence itself in itself is what governs and oversees my relationships and interactions with others. For example, becoming aware of an increase in Christ’s presence in my conscience affirms a given interaction. Likewise, a decrease in awareness of Christ’s presence in a given interaction or circumstance suggests I am moving out of God’s will and presence manifesting the need for an change in behavior.

    To be more specific. In this way, reflections like “do not gossip”, “do not kill”, etc. do not guide and inform my interactions with others. It is the awareness of the increase, decrease, and stasis of the presence of Christ that rules my behavior. Should I not engage in gossip, it is not out of adherence to the reflective principle, it is through the inshining impulse of Christ’s living presence in my conscience.

    Awareness of the immanent, immediate and continuous presence and dynamic motion of the self-evident presence of Christ in my consciousness and conscience to guide human relations is a different faculty than those of reflection, linguistics, intellect, and the five senses to guide relationships and interactions. Direct awareness in the life of Christ within me is in itself a faculty which is complete in itself to rule and govern human relations.

    1. Thanks Keith. Your comments suggest to me that we have a little more in common than I originally thought. Your description of awareness of the increase and decrease of your sense of Christ’s presence feels similar to my experience of discernment, as in the Ignatian practice of attending to consolation and desolation. I think our main difference is that I think our ability to discern the will of God is always provisional and incomplete, never direct but always “through a glass darkly”, and that religious/spiritual feelings can not be my sole guide – I have found Julian of Norwich and John of the cross have helped me in this regard.

  5. Mark wrote,

    “I think our ability to discern the will of God is always provisional and incomplete, never direct but always ‘through a glass darkly’, and that religious/spiritual feelings can not be my sole guide.”

    Yes, the extent to which people engage in and discern through the process of reflection (which includes feelings), is the extent to which relations with people and God is provisional and incomplete. We are in agreement.

    There is a different way of relating to people and God that is not of the nature of reflective thought or feelings. The immanent and immediate presence of the spirit of Christ in my consciousness and conscience discovers to me freedom from the reflective process through direct awareness of the motion (not a feeling) of the increase, decrease, or stasis of the presence of Christ.

    I appreciate, that through your acknowledged adherence to the process of reflection to guide your relationships and interactions, that your experience of God is provisional and incomplete. It is the way of the reflective process.

    Yes, Paul acknowledges ( I Cor. I 3:12) that while people are ruled and guided through the process of reflection (outward forms, prophecy, tongues, knowledge) they see “but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (Reflective or mirrored consciousness). Paul also acknowledges a different way (I Cor. 12:31) wherein we shall see “face to face” and people will know fully (I Cor-13:12). Christ is come again (and is coming again) in our time on this earth. Through the power and presence of Christ enthroned in my conscience and consciousness, I am come into the fullness (face to face experience) of Christ and I am drawn out of the process of reflection (prophecy, knowledge, tongues, the agency, reflections, and the agency of people) to guide human relations. While Paul affirms the reflective process, he also affirms a different way and further affirms the partiality of the reflective process to quide human relations is fading away (I Cor. 13:8); as he also intimates in Hebrews 8:13 in relation to the first covenant which is of the nature of the reflective process.

    Your reflection that the testimony to the sufficiency of the direct, immanent, and self-evident presence of Christ in my conscience does not reflect my experience. The direct experience and awareness of the impulse and motion of Christ’s spirit is not a feeling or thought. It is a face to face experience that is not of the nature of reflective feeling.

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