White Guilt

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.

Tags: Barack Obama, White Guilt (all tags)




To alleviate my crushing guilt.

by shef 2008-05-27 12:36AM | 0 recs
Re: Tips

Thoughtful diary, but there is an aspect of guilt that results in anger and over reaction. I don't know what the psychological mechanism is called, but I've noticed a lot of writers here suddenly say: "Are you calling me a racist?" when my comment had nothing to do with that.

I've noticed this a lot in the US, especially with democrats in their 40s or over. Perhaps the culture wars were so bad, the residue of the political violence of the 60s so traumatic, that the overlay of political correctness, guilt, and shame of being called a racist results in an inordinate HATRED of Obama, as if he was somehow deliberately emotionally blackmailing them into supporting him.

I personally don't get this, being a Londoner, having fought and marched in Anti-Racist demos in the late 70s, with a mixed race younger brother and a Kenyan sister in law. It's not that I'm color blind, I just don't feel guilty about it. And I notice that among my kids who go to a very diverse High School. My daughter's friends in particular seem to come from every continent in the world (perhaps girls are less gang tribal) and she'll willingly call out racism when she sees it - including if it's from black girls directed at whites.

So maybe the previous generation are more burdened with this overreactive white guilt, combined with a simmering but censored feeling of resentment. Don't know. But I can feel it around MYDD sometimes

by duende 2008-05-27 12:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Tips

I suppose, for me, being rather not a child of the culture wars, I can't fully appreciate what it is that makes the reaction to White Guilt so strong, and, as such, your point about the political violence of the 60s is both very interesting and well taken.

by shef 2008-05-27 12:56AM | 0 recs
Dramatic Differences In Qualifications Male Guilt?

So, by your logic, the fact that we have never had a woman president, even though 52% of the electorate is female can be used in lieu of important differences in qualification levels, to justify voting for Hillary Clinton by virtue of the appaling lack of female Presidents alone?

Women got the vote in 1919, its now 2008, 90 years later. Women are literally more than half of the electorate. Many of them are quite qualified, with the appropriate level of experience. All humans have mothers, who are obviously capable or OUR 'race' would be extinct. So What Gives!?

by architek 2008-05-27 02:25AM | 0 recs
Actually, I don't think quotas make sense..

I am voting for Hillary because she will give millions of poor people who have never had health INSURANCE before, QUALITY healthcare.

Barack Obama trades away quality for cost, and in doing so, he will probably raise the cost and lower the quality of healthcare (by giving companies a green light to exclude where the previously only had a gray area)

Currently, many people are paying FAR more than Hillary's 5-10% of income and receiving care that excludes many illnesses from coverage and which people lose when they have a blip in their coverage. This enslaves people to jobs they dont like, and leaves the unemployed and poor without any coverage at all. Hillary will make insurance free for those with no income. Thats revolutionary. Obama might as well be a fixer for the healthcare industry, as far as I can tell. he's their dream come true.

by architek 2008-05-27 02:30AM | 0 recs
Re: Actually, I don't think quotas make sense..

Your points about healthcare are well taken, but a bit off thread.

However your sig line, Architek, refers to exactly what the diary is about, and what I was referring to in my comment.

What do you think about the issue of white guilt?

by duende 2008-05-27 02:57AM | 0 recs
let me be clear

I did not ever say in the above post that being black somehow improves ones qualifications.

I did, however, say that it means I'm more excited about Obama's candidacy.

Just as I said that I would be more excited by a Clinton candidacy.

You're throwing up a strawman.

by shef 2008-05-27 01:38PM | 0 recs
very strong post

I've voted in Presidential elections since 1976 and I have never felt so strongly for any candidate - in time, money and energy.  Barack Obama has inspired me to become an activist and obviously I am not the only one.  I often ask myself what it is about Obama and his candidacy that has done this.

There are many reasons (including notably, being the best anti-Bush candidate) but there is is no doubt that breaking this barrier in the context of the history of the United States is one of the key reasons.  Electing Obama is not going to erase the past or make up for it but it will make a statement to the world and ourselves of where we are in 2008.   Maybe this could be called a collective guilt but I prefer to think of it as patriotism.  

I think that Obama knows all this and his frequent evocation of "a more perfect union" is a bullseye.  

by mboehm 2008-05-27 01:21AM | 0 recs
Re: White Guilt

Guilt bears the fruit of humility.

by routerdude 2008-05-27 01:25AM | 0 recs
Nice diary

I disagree with the idea that all living white people should assume "guilt" for actions predating their births, but appreciate the thought and honesty that went into your statement.

The problem with "white guilt" is that from an African American perspective, it comes across as patronizing.  I've done a lot of civil rights work in the past and (obviously I can't speak for the entire AA community) AA's are generally not very keen on prostrate whites who treat them with kid gloves because they are "so sorry for what our ancestors did to your ancestors."  They don't want to hear crap like "Oh I'm not racist, I have a black friend" or "I'm so noble because I'm a high minded egalitarian unlike all those other nasty white people."  Statements like that reek of implicit racism and self-aggrandizing.

Most pertinently, the guilt you proudly share isn't something that should be a determinative factor in choosing a president.  Fighting oppression means cleaning up the mess left by the cascading effects of slavery and its consequent segregationist regimes.  It does not mean voting for an inexperienced AA candidate just to prove one is not racist.  

by BPK80 2008-05-27 02:06AM | 0 recs
Trying to guilt trip black people into voting for

Obama against their own financial interests is EVIL.

by architek 2008-05-27 02:32AM | 0 recs
Guilt isn't a good reason to vote for anyone

Yes.  A lot of prominent AA's with critiques of Barack Obama have been silenced into submission.  I understand there's a mentality that "Unity means you can never speak your mind" but I don't follow it.  

I hate GOP policies.  But I'm angry again at Barack Obama because he fanned the flames with his anti-Hillary anti-Florida/Michigan comment yesterday.  I want to be wholeheartedly invested in a Democratic nominee (like Gore and even Kerry who was less than inspiring).  I've said I would vote for Obama if he wins fairly.  I never thought he would keep pushing the MI/FL issue.  If he wins by a coup against Michigan and Florida, I'll have a lot of thinking to do.  

by BPK80 2008-05-27 03:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Guilt isn't a good reason to vote for anyone
I never thought he would keep pushing the MI/FL issue.  If he wins by a coup against Michigan and Florida, I'll have a lot of thinking to do.  

Now that is weird. "He"????  "pushing the MI/FL issue"???? I'm (almost) speechless. This is a perfect example of how the HRC crowd blames Obama for any of Clinton's failings. Amazing!

by Becky G 2008-05-27 04:38AM | 0 recs
Re: Guilt isn't a good reason to vote for anyone

Obviously, you didn't see his quote in the news yesterday.  

by BPK80 2008-05-27 07:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Nice diary

I'd agree that it can come across as patronizing, but I would say that this isn't a problem inherent in guilt, but in how that guilt expresses itself. Guilt is a feeling, and feelings can't be patronizing--actions are patronizing.

Second of all, I agree that race shouldn't be a determinative factor in choosing a president. However, I don't think there's anything wrong with being more excited about the prospect that we might have a black president.

by shef 2008-05-27 01:41PM | 0 recs
BS about white guilt

I am white, my family came to USA from Europe in 20 century, they have nothing to do with slavery and and nobody from my family was slave owner ever. All this white guilt sounds like big BS to me and my relatives.

by engels 2008-05-27 03:12AM | 0 recs
Re: White Guilt

so what is your point? you decry recognition of white guilt as scurrilous, then go on to exclaim for white guilt as being good, for you anyway.

it is nothing more or less than a sociological reference to note there would have to be some degree of guilt factoring into the vote of a nation the size of, oh say 300+ million or so, so there is that element, noting it is not scurrilous, nor are you for acknowledging the past failures of america to deal with the native indians, the blacks and women, among other problems.

much heat, not much light found here. yes, white guilt exists, so does white racism, these things are as they have been for centuries, please quit trying to invent the wheel.

by blackflag 2008-05-27 03:14AM | 0 recs
good diary

but voting for a president to appease white guilt, or liberal guilt, is not a valid criterion for choice in a president in my opinion. I will vote on issues and substance, not on any perceived guilt or threat of name calling.

"showing the world where we are in 2008" is also not a reason to vote for Obama.  When the world looks at this guy, they will know that Americans once again elected a naive person with no experience, with a gigantic ego, and someone who just wants the power without doing the work.  Tell me how that will raise America's standing in the world, just because we elected a man with a different skin color?

by 4justice 2008-05-27 07:53AM | 0 recs


Advertise Blogads