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White Guilt

Posted on May 28, 2005 in Compassion Liberals & Progressives Social Justice

square054.gifThere’s a good discussion about “white liberal guilt” happening at Bitch Ph.d. The comments are excellent as well. I’ve thrown in my two cents. The good doctor says:

The problem with feeling guilty is that one wants, naturally, reassurance (guilt is so terribly uncomfortable), which can end up taking different forms: defensiveness and denial mostly. “My decision to do X has nothing to do with racism, because I’m not racist” or “people are way too sensitive about racial slurs, c’mon, get over it already” or “well, most of the people I know aren’t racist (in the actively, consciously bigoted sense), so the problems you’re pointing to probably have nothing to do with racism.” And so on.

I take a different tack. I see white liberal guilt as a poor motivator and an ultimately self-defeating behavior. In my travels, I have often observed the generosity of poor people. You might, for example, witness a fisherman have a lucky day and catch several fine fish. On his way home, he might spy someone less fortunate and give him one of the fish. Why does he do this? Because he thinks he is going to hell or because other people will call him a bad person? I don’t think so. I suggest that he does it because the giving grants him a sense of belongingness in humanity through the vehicle of caring for other human beings. And upon that belongingness — now that his other needs such as safety, shelter, and food are satisfied — rests his self esteem. Like many people he may stop halfway up in his climb of Maslow’s pyramid, but how much better the view than that from the base.

In white liberal guilt, the idea is to feel bad because one enjoys better privileges than one should have. The good doctor (I just can’t use the B word to refer to any woman!) nicely demonstrates how the attitude can lead to masking of inappropriate feelings. I would like to add that it encourages the person to undertake self-flagellation in the name of “goodness”.

Beating yourself for not being good enough makes any person ache. Reactionaries have used this misguided emotion to win converts sometimes but, more often, to prevent people from joining us liberals. “If you become a liberal, you’ll have to feel guilty for just being alive.” Who will adopt a more moral lifestyle if it requires a crown of thorns and nails through each of the extremities?

Being a liberal was never about that. It was and is about struggling to ensure that others have the same rights and the same dignity as you do. This is why we struggle against human rights abuses, for equal justice under the law, against racism and sexual discrimination, for the rights of the mentally ill, etc. etc. What liberals offer is a rich and deep emotion: compassion. Contrast that to the dark paranoia and selfishness of American conservatives. The first liberates. The second necessitates constant defensiveness.

The Right wRong would love it if we leftists felt the same kind of pain. From that place of torment, they go on and on about “white liberal guilt” as if it were a certainty. This white liberal gave up feeling guilt and started looking at everyone he met as a fellow human being, also suffering in this world. From his perspective, though he will grant that there is a considerable range when it comes to the severity of pain, whatever pain each person feels is important to that person. Some pain is unavoidable: a meteor falls on you. No one can blame you for saying ouch. But other pain is the result of hesitation or fear. I have had only glimpses into the minds of conservatives. What I have seen suggests that they want to be seen as good and virtuous without the work and without spending any money. Tell them that it takes more than declaring “I accept Jesus”, tell them that they must give up their hate and you will see them ramp into the kind of thinking which BPh.d describes so well.

White liberal guilt? White conservative guilt is much more common and they go to greater lengths to hide it and deny its consequences.

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