Guilt and its origins, in fact its very nature, can be incredibly hard to define. Is it healthy to feel bad about what you or someone else you’re aware of has done? Does it help you to more clearly perceive your own acts or the acts of others and how you might change them? Where does guilt come from and where does it eventually lead? These are just some of the questions which tend to shadow this most illusive, some would even say non-productive of our emotions. And when you throw guilt, be it conscious or unconscious, into the mix of nuanced dynamics regarding race in our society, things can easily become extraordinary difficult.
Of course there is white guilt, one of the most maddening feelings related to race with which most white people must come to grips. Unconscious bias is more easy to comprehend because it can be easily defined even if it is often invisible. Institutional racism is all around us. If one happens to live in the city of Chicago, all one has to do is take a drive through the city, starting at the Gold Coast or Lincoln Park on the north side of town and then move half an hour later into the neighborhood of West Englewood on the south side in order to view the actual parameters of institutional racism. And of course overt racism is obvious and apparent to anyone who cares to really look.
But white guilt is different, perhaps because it both accuses and justifies at one and the same time. It becomes obviously self-accusatory when as a white person in American society, one looks at the obvious advantages one has had in life and then juxtaposes them against the disadvantages many people of color must endure while making their way through the same world; and if one is honest with oneself, one is able to feel the striking unfairness of it. At the same time, white guilt can legitimately lead toward people being involved in certain positive actions which they might take, such as the recent marches and demonstrations in which many young white people participated this past summer in support of Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd.
However, the question that these two distinct consequences of white guilt might provoke is simply one of asking what their actual relationship is to one another. To put a finer point on the question, does the self-accusatory nature inherent in white guilt lead only toward intelligent reactions to it by white people, or is there some deeper, more implicit reality to be considered here? That is, in acting solely out of their guilt concerning racial matters, are a number of white people recognizing only their own whiteness in relation to Blacks in a manner similar to the white people with whom the great twentieth century African-American writer Ralph Ellison dealt in his iconic novel Invisible Man?
Of course, the larger question which all of this begs is simply what is a healthy, true reality of encounter between Whites and Blacks in our society, one that is shorn of any neurotic thought and behavior that might be the product of white guilt? Recently, some black leaders have taken opposition to the idea that our country might one day become a colorblind society, fearful that Blacks may lose a measure of their racial identity in the process. So given this fear, how might self-aware whites meet these same black leaders halfway in putting forth the idea that colorblind doesn’t necessarily mean not acknowledging racial differences. Rather, it means seeing the other person as a true equal.
With this in mind, one has to wonder if white guilt and the actions which result from it aren’t at times counterproductive relative to healthy relations between Blacks and Whites in our society. For in some measure feeling guilty for what has happened to someone else often has the taint of superiority attached to it, one in which the sympathy which one feels for other people who have been treated unfairly often comes from a position of advantage in relation to them. Yet as one begins to shed those guilty feelings, then it seems possible to view that other person not as a victim, but simply as an equal inhabiting a different world; albeit at times a more difficult one.
Lyn Lesch’s latest book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier is being published this December by Rowman & Littlefield.