by shef, Tue May 27, 2008 at 12:29:47 AM EDT
Crossposted at Ich Bin Ein Oberliner.
Tracy Jordan, a character on 30 Rock, played by Tracy Morgan, convinces Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) that he can't read in order to get time off from the show. Tina Fey's character, outraged, says (and I'm paraphrasing) White Guilt should be used for good, like over-tipping or voting for Barack Obama. Fey makes this point, of course, in jest, but it highlights a certain kind of attack that's been made on Senator Obama, his candidacy, and his supporters.
This charge is that he plays on white people's guilt, and his supporters support him because they are feel guilty, not because he deserves to be president. This scurrilous reasoning reared its ugly head in the abominable comments of Geraldine Ferraro, and one's head would have to be in the sand not to see it elsewhere; it's an undercurrent to the attacks on any number of policies designed to benefit minorities.
Over at Slate Ron Rosenbaum writes"In Praise of Liberal Guilt". He makes an argument that defies much of conventional wisdom. Guilt, after all, is a bad thing, these days. White guilt has become just another attribute of the foppish, effeminized, elite liberal; it has no place in Serious and Respectable discourse. Rosenbaum, however, argues otherwise. And I agree with him.
A couple of first points. I need to be very specific in what I mean by white guilt. Guilt is not shame. This isn't mere semantics; there's an important distinction. I feel guilty over the centuries-long oppression and institutionalized racism and bigotry practiced by my country, to my benefit. I am not ashamed of who I am because of it. This is to say, I am not ashamed to be white. Shame is a stopping point. Or, rather, its the beginning of a spiral that leads to nothing but self-loathing. Guilt can be a stopping point, but, often, as Rosenbaum points out, it "can often spur us to deal with the enduring consequences of the injustices of the past and force us not to pretend there are none."
One could argue, I suppose, that Conservatives (and, Ferraro aside, most of these attacks come from Conservatives), when they say "White Guilt", really mean "White Shame". As such, the argument would continue, Conservatives aren't blasting "guilt"; they're blasting "shame", which, as I've made clear, isn't a good thing.
But this argument fails. Conservatives, when they make this argument, make it in order to downplay the reality of the situation today. They make the argument, for example, I didn't own slaves; why should I feel guilty, in order to say, I don't owe these people anything. This dismissal, this "demonization of guilt" (to quote Rosenbaum), is done so they they might claim ignorance and absolve their inaction.
After all, it requires a sort of studied ignorance to suppose that the blight of racism has left this country. Rosenbaum writes:
Not one of us is a slave owner today, segregation is no longer enshrined in law, and there are fewer overt racists than before, but if we want to praise America's virtues, we have to concede--and feel guilty about--America's sins, else we praise a false god, a golden calf, a whited sepulcher, a Potemkin village of virtue.
Guilt is the natural--and correct--emotion to feel when as a white person--hell as an American--one is confronted by America's original sin. For I, and all my white brethren, are the recipients, the beneficiaries of hegemonic system. My privilege--America's privilege--has been paid for through the blood and oppression of other peoples. This doesn't mean I ought to go flogging myself all the time (shame). It does mean that I ought to be aware and work to change the system as it is now. It means I ought to try to solve the problems that still haunt those on whose backs this country was made great.
When I call myself an American, I don't get to cherry-pick which parts of America's identity I bring along. For slavery is as much a part of America as The Emancipation Proclamation. Japanese Internment as much as the Bill of Rights. Guantanamo Bay as much as The Berlin Airlifts. So, by calling myself American, I give myself to a country that both enables some of the best opportunities for social change and justice in the world and requires deep guilt.
Rosenbaum points out that Conservatives are just as implicit--if not more so (their movement, historically)--in the egregious sins of America, yet they are the ones who reject guilt, and, thus reject awareness of America's sometimes dark past. The modern conservative incarnation has embraced the narrative of American Exceptionalism--America is always right. And, in so doing, have absolved themselves of guilt. In doing so, they have washed away any chance of seeing America for what it is. Great. Imperfect.
Back to Barack. I am proud that Democrats today have two potential nominees (one very potential nominee... whatever). One is a woman. One is black. This, in and of itself is inspiring beyond words. And, as Rosenbaum writes:
Why delegitimize sincere excitement that his nomination and potential election would represent a historic civil rights landmark: making an abstract right a reality at last.
Ignoring guilt is only cause for more of the same. Perhaps, Conservatives glorify America, not solely out of patriotism (however warped it may be), but out of a desire to easily absolve themselves of the guilt that liberals must recognize. Guilt isn't a comfortable thing, after all. It's the easy way out, sticking one's head in the sand. Ezra Klein writes:
People don't like to feel guilt, particularly over actions they didn't directly commit. But rather than simply deny culpability, conservatives have managed to recast feeling guilt as a character flaw, as political weakness, as soft-headed emotionalism.
So, I'll take pride in my White Guilt, and keep both eyes open. I'll take pride in my guilt and help my party and my liberal brethren fight for a better America. I'll let someone else be America's apologist.