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.